Salvatore Pane

Tag: MFA Programs

Jennifer E. Smith on International MFA Programs

It had quite a bit of influence; I don’t know if I would have ever written this book if it hadn’t been for my time over there.  I had a couple of friends studying in London at the same time, and I visited them often, just wandering around the city, which became a huge inspiration for the later parts of Statistical Probability.  Over the past few months, I’ve had a lot of readers email to ask whether I’m from the US or the UK, because they genuinely couldn’t tell while reading, and that’s a huge compliment.  With the dialogue, in particular, you want it to feel authentic, so I was especially conscious of this with Oliver.  I did have a Scottish friend read an early draft, and she caught me out on a few things (saying “yard” instead of “garden” and “store” instead of “shop”), but my time over there definitely helped with that and everything else.

–Jennifer E. Smith in Braddock Avenue Books

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An Alternate 1985: The Neverending Quest for More Time

I now realize how much of a gift my time in grad school was. I had so much time to write, so much time to read. And I’d like to think I made the most out of my three years, but who can be sure, right? By the final year, I was writing every single day and had managed that feat on and off for much of the first two years, but that certainly isn’t the case now.

So many of us writers are led to academia after graduation, but holy fuck is it a time drain. I’m teaching a 3/3 load and, Christ, am I grateful for that opportunity, but that coupled with a kind of hyper mega doom cold has drained my writing time down to nil. I’m pretty much healthy now and have been writing maybe 4 or 5 days a week which depresses me greatly. I’ve had to go back to what I did my first year of grad school and come up with a writing schedule. During the end of my time in the Pitt MFA program, I simply made the time, would wake up at 8 or 9 and write for 3 hours. Now that I teach at 9am, I no longer have that luxury.

Another problem with the writing every day rule: I’m no longer working on a novel. I found it easiest to write every day when I had a consistent world and voice to return to. It was so easy for me to fall into the voice I used for The Collected Works of the Digital Narcissist, because it was so close to my own natural writing voice. Within a few weeks of writing I fully understood that world, and what a comfort it was to inhabit it for a few hours every day for well over a year. The act of writing itself was a joy. It almost always is, but I felt a special kind of happiness working on that project.

With short stories, I just don’t have that level of comfort. You’re always coming up with new worlds, new characters, new voices. It’s such a drain. And I wish that I had the time to start a new novel now, but I really do believe you have to sit between these bigger projects and give yourself some time to replenish the well. I moved right from a very awful novel–the aforementioned ABORTION if you’ve read this blog for any length of time–into Digital Narcissist, because it took me 300 pages to find one interesting character and plot in that first book. I amputated that and started again. Otherwise, I would have probably waited.

I talk about this with my students a lot in workshop. As writers, some of us are sprinters and some of us are marathon runners. I don’t think my style or sensibilities are necessarily suited towards writing the short story in any long term sense. Have you ever felt this way? Have you ever been writing a short story or novel and found yourself wishing you were writing the other form?

Do You Trust Someone With Crappy Taste in Music/Movies/Etc When It Comes to Writing?

This is literally my top 25 list on iTunes. BEHOLD!

I have shitty taste in music. You have no idea how long it’s taken me to admit that to myself. In high school, I spent hours reading reviews on Pitchfork and putting band names into Amazon to see who else their search engines would recommend. I listened to Weezer, Saves the Day, Ozma, Texas is the Reason, the Pixies, the Ataris, and all kinds of bands (good and awful) that nobody gave a shit about in Scranton, Pennsylvania (or at the very least, my shockingly unhip Catholic school). If my plan was to get laid based on my extensive knowledge about the recording history of Weezer’s 1996 magnum opus Pinkerton, it backfired miserably.

In college, I tried to keep up with what was popular with the cool kids. I listened to Bloc Party, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian, but what I discovered pretty quickly is that I don’t really like concerts that much. Whenever I go to one, I get bored and start hoping for the whole thing to be over. None of them can ever match the way I felt seeing Weezer in Wilkes-Barre at 16, and I think that’s kind of my problem. Musically, I’m completely stunted. I listen to most of the same garbage I liked in high school peppered with a handful of bands I saw in college and a whole mess of Kanye West. That’s about it. I’ve given up on knowing what’s hot, and most of my friends think it’s hilarious (not to mention sad) when I unironically listen to Offspring’s Smash.

My point: can you trust someone to have good taste concerning literature when you don’t respect their other entertainment choices? For example, if you were exchanging stories with someone who told you their favorite movie was Bad Boys II, would you be able to take their criticism on your short story seriously even if it was totally sound? I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since Inception came out. Almost everybody I know in Pittsburgh claims to dislike it, but I found it pretty enjoyable (look at me defend it in this Rumpus comments section!). The same thing happened when I pulled out Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey after a Mad Men watching party. I claimed the movie was outright David Lynchian during the sequence where Bill and Ted play board games with the Grim Reaper in hell (only moments before they ask aliens in heaven to build them good robot versions of themselves to fight evil robots versions of themselves at a battle of the bands), and the entire MFA community stared at me like I was a drunken moron.

If some of my favorite “films” include Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, Santa Slays and Camp Nowhere, can you really trust my thoughts of A Gate at the Stairs? If I enjoy reading comic books where a crazed statue of Abraham Lincoln ravaging downtown DC can only be stopped by a statue version of John Wilkes Booth, can you still listen to my advice on your story? If I have 57 Kanye West songs on my iPod, can you ever take me seriously again? Or is literature so far removed from these other mediums that they’re not even comparable, just like how not knowing about feng shui doesn’t imply that you can’t be a wine critic?

THEY DON'T EVEN MEET THE ANTAGONIST UNTIL THE FINAL SCENE!

Writing Comics and Other Alternative Careers for Literary Writers

Most people know I’m a fan of Scott Snyder. I’ve blogged about two of his comic book series, the oft-praised American Vampire co-written by Stephen King and the less appreciated Iron Man: Noir for Marvel. But I’ve also written about his short story collection, the excellent Voodoo Heart published by the good folks at Dial Press. The reason I became aware of Scott and his work is Cathy Day. During one of her classes maybe a year ago, we got to talking about career aspirations, and somehow we got on the subject of how one day I’d like to support myself financially (and also, artistically) through mainstream superhero work while also focusing on my literary fiction endeavors, namely short stories and novels. She put me in touch with Scott via Facebook and after a brief conversation, I sought out his story collection. A few months later, American Vampire came out which I liked almost as much as Voodoo Heart.

The reason I bring this up is because we’re close to San Diego Comic-Con which means a lot of the big comic-related news is going to come out now as to not be overshadowed by all the movie buzz. One of the biggest stories to break today? Scott Snyder signed an exclusive contract with DC Comics and will write a year-long run on Detective Comics (one of the oldest and most prestigious Batman books on the racks).  What does this mean? Scott gets a salary and is no longer a freelance writer for DC. Scott can’t write for Marvel. Scott gets health benefits (I think).

What else does this mean? It means Scott might not have to teach college. I don’t know any more than what’s in the above interview, but from what I’ve researched independently over the years, it would seem that contracted comic book writers easily make more than adjunct teachers. So many writers are pushed into teaching writing workshops after getting the MFA, and for many (potentially myself), it’s really what they love. But what few people within MFA programs talk about are the alternative careers. And by alternative, I don’t just mean desk jobs. I mean jobs that fulfill creatively in the same way teaching writing does (I’m not saying desk jobs are inherently uncreative). Obviously, Scott Snyder believes that writing comics is one of these alternatives, a job that allows writers to be compensated for doing what they love. Obviously^2, I agree with him. But what I’m curious about are other responses. Do alternatives to teaching exist for working writers in the 21st century? And if so, what are they? If not, why the hell not?

Flashback Monday II: The Single Worst Personal Statement in the History of MFA Applications

It’s an absolute miracle I got in anywhere. Abandon all hope.

Sal Pane

Personal Statement Final Draft

10/26/06

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

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Personal Statement Final Draft

I’ve spent the last four years studying at the Writers Institute at Susquehanna University with practicing fiction writers Tom Bailey and Gary Fincke. This has not only given me the chance to take over ten workshop classes steeped in constructive criticism but also an opportunity to learn craft, be a part of a writing community, and, most importantly, discover my process. I write every day, no excuses, for a minimum of two hours or more.

I’ve become completely obsessed with writing and reading, both of which happily possess hours of my time each and every day. Any good writer must be an insatiable reader. So I try and read broadly and delve into fiction camps that aren’t necessarily my own, spending as much time poring over my Richard Yates and Raymond Carver as I do brushing up on writers like Anton Chekhov or Franz Kafka. I also think that the act of writing fiction is a way of life and an end unto itself. I don’t need to be rewarded professionally because the writing itself is the reward. My career goals are ambitious in that I want to take two more years to hone my craft and better my writing. I’m very eager at taking every opportunity to learn and become a better writer.

Aside from the actual process of writing, I’d contribute to the program at the University of Pittsburgh because I’m such a veteran of workshops. I’ll be able to jump right in and give constructive criticism aiming at helping fellow students, not hindering them. And I’ll certainly be able to take any negative comments that will inevitably crop up during my stay. I’ve found that criticism is much more helpful for my own writing than simple praise. Beyond that, I’ve also served as an editor for multiple on campus literary journals, including working as the editor-in-chief of Susquehanna University’s creative nonfiction magazine, Essay. If I was accepted into your program I’d very much like to continue working on literary journals or creative outlets in any capacity possible. That’s one of the most alluring features of the program for me, the community of writers I’d be entering into with not only the faculty, but with other students as dedicated to writing and literature as I am.

Much of my work centers on my hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania. It’s an urban area with a rich history of decades of debt and failure after a promising start as a mining city. It’s even the first American town to have a functioning electrical trolley system, hence it’s nickname, The Electric City. I’d like an opportunity to devote even more time to exploring this subject of decaying cityscapes and the hard working people they produce. Right now I’m working on a novel set in Scranton, and a short story collection centered on various characters living in the town. In grad school, I hope to continue these projects and expand my horizons, thus giving me even more obsessions to write about. My tentative goal is to have a novel at least halfway finished by the time I complete the program, along with a finalized short story collection

I want to thank you for looking over my application. More than anything I want a chance to continue focusing on writing under the aide of a mentor and literary community, spending the next few years working dutifully on short stories and novels each and everyday. The ability to weave a continuous dream through fiction, a tangible world pregnant with feeling, is the greatest artistic accomplishment I could ever possibly achieve. Entering the community of writers at the MFA level is the next step in my evolution as a writer.

Tom Bailey and the Perfect Writing Pedagogy: In Which I Discuss Abortions, Rilo Kiley and Jar Jar Binks

I attended my first workshop eight years ago (eight years! how did this happen?). We sat around a conference table in the basement of an academic building, the type from a trillion frat movies, all brick with ivy growing up and down the sides. And in came this man wearing denim, cowboy boots, and sporting the type of facial hair that could frighten Tom Selleck. The guy sat down, didn’t say a word of introduction, and opened up an anthology he edited (on the cover is a picture of him scowling alongside portraits of JCO, Hemingway, Dubus and others). He cleared his throat, said, “In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits,” and read us the entirety of John Updike’s A&P.

Needless to say, my friends and I all lived in worship of this man, novelist Tom Bailey, a southern good old boy who openly told us, “I’m not interested in experimentation. My reading list’s mostly dead white men.” And we all hurried home after that first class and poured our hearts out into Microsoft Word, producing lackluster, predictable stories about break ups, losing your virginity, the death of a grandparent, or whatever other bullshit teenagers come up with (my story was about how much the Catholic Church blows and how awesome Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is; so in some respects, my unfortunate themes haven’t changed much over the years).

But then a funny thing happened over the course of that first semester: people started talking shit about Bailey behind his back. I couldn’t understand. We read the man’s stories, and it was obvious he had chops. But more importantly he had swagger. He was a living illustration of what we all wanted to become, a real life writer we could imitate. If he did it, so could we. Right?

(Check out this creepy video where Tom Bailey cries and a younger, more vulnerable Sal gives a reading in a Rilo Kiley t-shirt and awkward sports jacket.)

I didn’t figure out why all my friends got so sick of Bailey all of the sudden until I was about to go up for workshop. I printed out my masterpiece about the anointing of the May Queen and a twelve-year-old obsessed with Playstation and left it in Tom’s mailbox. A day or two later I went to talk with him about it. His office was lined with books, most of which I had never heard of (up until that point, I’d only read comic books, sci-fi, and the respective catalogs of J.D Salinger and Chuck Palahniuk).

Tom told me that he really liked one specific line (it took me awhile to track it down, but it’s “The nuns were supposed to pick the purest girl in the school, but they didn’t want any trouble, so they decided to pick a name out of a hat.”). I nodded, took notes in my little notebook and asked him about the rest of the story. He said he didn’t like it and thought I should cut it (all 22 pages) and start again with that line. He handed me a book by Breece D’J Pancake (a writer who blew his brains out in graduate school; great encouragement, Tom) and told me to get cracking.

I’m bringing this up because (years later) now that I’ve finished grad school and eight continuous years of workshops, I’m trying to figure out what kind of criticism I got the most out of. I remember how so many of my fellow students in Bailey’s class were completely shut down by his tell it like it is method which is designed to teach you the value in cutting your work and never being attached to anything you write. And that skill’s proven absolutely invaluable to me (especially in ’08 when I threw away a completed novel I now refer to as The Abortion). But some writers are absolutely crushed by this level of criticism.

This is a CGI representation of what my first attempt at a novel was like.

Justin Taylor recently posted a critique he received from an undergrad poetry teacher. To me, it seemed perfectly in line with something a writer might say to an undergrad. But in the comments section, people were split on whether the commentary was actually helpful or just cliche-ridden and destructive. I have to admit, this kind of reaction always surprises me.  Are writers so thin skinned that honest criticism is too much for them to deal with? And if so, is this really what they want to be doing with their lives? Submitting to hundreds of journals only to get a handful of acceptances? Because, let’s be honest, any criticism in the real world is inevitably a trillion times harsher than what people receive in workshop.

There’s something to be said for the, “This is good; keep going” route of writing pedagogy. But I think it’s more appropriate when workshopping novels than short stories. If someone writes a flawed short story, isn’t it the duty of instructors and fellow workshop students to make the author aware of said flaws and point out potential solutions? On the flip side, I’ve seen writers a third of the way into a promising novel put up a first chapter and become completely debilitated by the laundry list of suggestions.

After sixteen workshops, I’ve gone through a lot of feedback. And what I remember most are the harsh critiques, the honest critiques. Those made me a better writer. What I never remember is the false flattery, the praise, and all the unearned bullshit writers sometimes feel compelled to give apprentices. Case in point, a few years back when I was really wrestling with The Abortion (the aforementioned novel, not a reincarnated Chuck Palahniuk creation), Cathy Day took me aside and gently (maybe not in so many words) told me I should put it away for awhile. At the time, I wasn’t ready to hear this and sulked for a few days, but the key here (just like in the Bailey example where he plucked out a new first line from the wreckage) was that Cathy gave me something to build on. I was spending a lot of time back then creating Facebook photo albums with long, elaborate captions that went on for entire paragraphs. And Cathy told me how much she liked that voice and how little she saw of it in my novel writing. Why not write in that voice?

Well why not? So I aborted The Abortion and began writing something completely different, all the while imagining myself captioning pictures on Facebook. Is that an absolutely bizarre method? Yes. But it worked for me, and Cathy helped me find that. She didn’t worry about my feelings. Just like Tom and a gazillion other amazing mentors I’ve had, they were honest. They weren’t afraid to tell me something I wrote was terrible.

An Online Panel on Literary Journals (Part 3 of 4): Those Writerly Calluses

Check out the first two installments of our discussion on lit mag publishing here and here. We continue today with thoughts from one Adam Reger. He earned an MFA in fiction from Pitt in 2008 and has published stories in the New Orleans Review, Pear Noir!, and Juked. He lives in Pittsburgh.

From Adam:

“I would second everything Robert mentioned. I also worked on Hot Metal Bridge, and found the experience instructive not just in the ‘I can’t believe someone sent this in’ sense Robert mentions, but as a chance to see how many good stories got rejected for nebulous reasons having everything to do with the readers’ tastes at that particular time—it was an opportunity, basically, to see how arbitrary the process can be. Applying that insight to my own submission process has helped me develop those writerly calluses one needs to be rejected over and over again. Every rejection slip says that it’s not personal, and that many good stories get rejected, but you never quite believe it until you see things from the other side.

And on Robert’s point about subscribing to lit mags, I’d also suggest buying sample copies (which are usually cheap, in the $5-$10 range). For both, the point is not so much supporting the magazine (though it helps that way) as getting to know what they publish. I’m just reiterating classic advice here, but it pays to know the market; many years ago I read in Writer’s Market a fiction listing wherein the editor said that most of the stories he rejected ‘were inapt, rather than inept,’ a line that’s stayed with me. To be honest, a couple of my publications have come about via shot-in-the-dark submissions to magazines I hadn’t read, but in all cases going about it that way took a needlessly long time and was pretty much a matter of getting lucky.

One thing I’d (sort of) disagree with Robert about is submitting to lesser-quality journals. I wouldn’t submit to the kind of places he mentions, either, but I want to warn against taking this mindset too far. My overall theory on this goes as follows: insofar as I’m going to keep writing short stories, and presumably they will be better than the ones I wrote last month, I’d do well to have some publication credits to list in my cover letter so that these (hypothetical) better stories get a more favorable reading when I send them to Tin House and Harper’s. (To refer to the Hot Metal Bridge experience again, editors are absolutely influenced by the previous publications listed in a writer’s cover letter (although, in support of Robert’s point, listing a long string of journals with ridiculous titles that no one’s ever heard of won’t necessarily help your cause).)

This is not to say that you shouldn’t send your best stories to the best literary magazines, and in general give every story a good chance to be published somewhere you’d be excited to see your work. But if your best stories keep getting form rejections, and you’ve already gone down the ladder quite a ways, in my opinion you should be open to submitting those pieces just about anywhere and moving on. (If this advice seems really abhorrent to you, though, consider acknowledging that these pieces are not quite working and going back to the drawing board. I’ve done this before and, while it can be pretty damn humbling, the redrafted pieces were far better than what I started with.) You want to avoid the kinds of questionable publications Robert talks about, but my own feeling is that when your book of stories comes out, the place where the fifth story in the collection was published will be of minor interest to anyone. The way to inch closer to publishing that book of stories, meanwhile, is getting those pieces published rather than their collecting dust on your hard drive.

Finally, this is a little beyond the scope of the question being considered here, but I would recommend reading and thinking about this post, by Blake Butler (as recommended by Cathy Day, a Pitt professor]. The internet has made it incredibly easy to reach out to writers whose work you like, and with sites like Facebook it’s not at all difficult to stay connected with those people in a kind of support network. Doing so can help in practical terms: a couple lit mags have friended me (after rejecting my stuff kindly) and having them on my news feed has alerted me to some interesting contests, calls for submission, etc. But in terms of karma or whatever, supporting others’ work is also a good thing to do.”

An Online Panel on Literary Journals (Part 2 of 4): In Thee Candled Operahouse with Blood for Flames (Penance ex genesis)

Last week, I began an online discussion about literary journals. We continue this week with commentary from Robert Yune, a writer living in Pittsburgh. Some of his past jobs include factory worker, construction worker, landscaper, online banking representative, behavioral health interviewer, and teaching assistant.

In 2008, he earned an MFA from the University of Pittsburgh and received a full tuition minority scholarship to the advanced fiction workshop at the New York State Summer Writers Institute. In 2009, he received one of nine fiction writing fellowships through the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and published a story in Green Mountains Review.

He is currently seeking representation for his first novel, Eighty Days of Sunlight.

From Robert:

“Recently, I’ve been using a combination of Newpages and Duotrope to find literary journals. I’m careful about who I send to. It’s surprising how many seem professional until you click on the ‘about us’ or ‘staff’ page. I take my writing seriously and don’t want my work published on a website whose ‘about us’ page contains the phrases ‘fun-kay scribblings,’ ‘bLeEding SOuL’ or ‘Send us your best cat haikus!!!!!!!!!’ I have nothing against journals whose staff pages pictures are all dancing monkeys, but they’re just not for me.

Beyond personal preference, some literary agents read literary journals and contact writers. This is another reason I submit to professional journals–I’m not sure how many agents read Cat Haiku Literary Journal. But now that I think about it, writing a cat haiku actually sounds like fun.

I work in bursts and tend to send out dozens of stories over the course of one or two days. For me, it takes a certain mindset to send work out: SASE, manila envelope, email or submission manager, put _____ in the subject line, do/do not put your name on all ms. pages, attach international reply coupons for foreign journals, etc. For me, it’s simply faster to get into a submission mindset, send out stories, and return to a writing state of mind.

I’ve noticed that many literary magazines have specific submission guidelines, for example, ‘Put your name and the word “Fic Submission” in the subject line of your email submission’ or ‘Please use claspless manila envelopes.’ While these guidelines surely have practical reasons (‘Fic Submission’ subject lines make it easier to identify submissions, clasped envelopes jam mail slots), they’re also the fastest way for editors to determine how competent a writer is. From an artist’s perspective, everything about the submission process should generate the reader’s goodwill, from the cover letter to the manuscript’s layout. Taking care to follow specific directions is probably one of the most overlooked parts of the process.

I imagine many of you are MFA candidates. My best advice is to volunteer to work for a literary journal. I worked as a reader for Hot Metal Bridge and the experience was invaluable. I quickly learned countless things not to do when submitting. As someone with a deep love and respect for the craft of fiction, imagine how I felt when I received a story with a title like ‘In Thee Candled Operahouse with Blood for Flames (Penance ex genesis)’ by vampyrepoet32@comcast net. Imagine how I felt when I received a story whose title was misspelled, and not on purpose. Also, it’s really useful (and healthy, somehow, for a writer) to understand the debates and timelines behind the editorial process.

I should also mention that we, as writers, need to support literary magazines. Even subscribing to just one literary magazine a year (which costs like $20) makes a difference. A lot of colleges are looking to make budget cuts, and many are scrutinizing their MFA program-sponsored litmags. It’s easier to justify cutting a litmag with 300 subscriptions than one with 5,000.

On a very primitive level, the primary reason to purchase subscriptions is simple self-interest. If a literary magazine (especially one you got published in) runs out of money and closes, the value of your publication dwindles into nothingness. The opposite is true: the more subscriptions (and money, and resources) a litmag has, the better your publication looks. I realize how obvious and ugly this argument is, and I apologize for making it. But in terms of simple numbers, a mid-sized litmag might have 15 staff members reading 20,000 submissions a year and only 2,000 subscriptions–this kind of budgetary imbalance is simply not sustainable.

I’ve worked as a volunteer reader for a litmag and spent months searching through literally thousands of submissions to find that that one astonishing, beautiful, or devastating story. And I did my best to argue for that story during editorial meetings, I did my best to promote that story by recommending it to friends, family, and students after we published it. Literary magazines do a lot of boring, grinding, behind-the-scenes work to support writers.

I’ve always believed that good writing will find a home. Sometimes, it just takes longer than expected. I hope this helps.”

An Online Panel on Literary Journals (Part 1 of 3): Huh? What? Stop.

I just returned home from Denver and AWP late last night. I’m still collecting my thoughts and trying to wrap my mind around the event, and I’m not sure if I’ll make a proper post. In case I do, I don’t want to spoil the good material now. In case I don’t, highlights include: drinking with Kirk Nessett and his dog, meeting Justin Taylor and Roxane Gay, meeting two separate people who actually referenced entries on this blog, an awesome poetry reading in honor of Black Warrior Review, and great readings and panels all around.

Aside from that, this post will have nothing to do with AWP. Instead, I’m going to do my own online panel. So if you missed the shenanigans in Denver, dear readers, worry not. For awhile now, I’ve wanted to say something about literary journals. Not THE STATE OF THE LITERARY JOURNAL (I’ve already done that), but how one goes about submitting, choosing where to submit, publishing, and all the other difficulties that come with lit mags. Obviously, with only three journal pubs under my belt, I am no expert. So I’ve enlisted the help of two University of Pittsburgh MFA alumnus, Robert Yune and Adam Reger. Between the three of us, we’ve  published in different enough places (and have different enough methods) to be of use to the general reader/aspiring writer. Robert will be guest blogging the next entry later in the week, and Adam will follow after that. But for now, you’re stuck with this guy (I promise, this won’t take long).

I used to be the Fiction Editor of Hot Metal Bridge, and it was always very apparent to me when a submitter had never read our journal in their life. Our publishing tastes were quite eclectic at HMB, and we had no problem running flash fiction from an emerging writer about an obscure Tick henchman alongside a novel excerpt from the wonderful Dan Chaon. That being said, we still wanted fiction. Sometimes I received poetry. Sometimes I received scripts. The point is to read the journal you’re submitting to. And that doesn’t just mean figuring out what genres are allowed. HMB always published a wide variety of genres but not all journals are like that. You wouldn’t send the same piece to Ploughshares that you’d send to Electric Literature. One specializes in realistic fiction, and one clearly does not. Get a taste for what the journal you’re submitting to publishes. Do that and you’re already a leg up.

Ok. Ok. I hear you. Everybody knows that. Fine, assholes. What about Duotrope? I’ve been using Duotrope for about four years (I began submitting to the Colorado Review when I should have been submitting to Nowhere), and it’s a fantastic resource for any writer serious about submitting. It tracks all your submissions so you never get confused about when or where you’ve sent stuff out. That’s the part most people know. But what it’s even better for is finding journals. It has entries for every journal you can think of along with acceptance/rejection rates from the Duotrope community. Also, there’s fantastic statistics for ever journal. For example, under Weave, it says that people who submitted there also sent to Caketrain and PANK among others. It also says that people who successfully published in Weave, also published in Night Train and The Collagist. This is invaluable for many reasons.

First off, this gives you a good idea of what other journals to look at. Let’s say you love Flatmancrooked but don’t know where else to submit. Cruise on over to their Duotrope listing and see where else people who’ve submitted there have sent to. Then pick up some of those magazines. Similarly, these listings give you an idea about your current foothold in the literary world. If you can’t get into One Story no matter how many times you’ve tried, why not pick a journal a successful writer published in before they landed One Story? This, my friends, is called coming down the totem pole.

Speaking of totem poles, I know Robert and Adam are going to discuss their methods, so let me get mine out of the way. When I complete a story, I sit on it for awhile, maybe a month, then submit to 8-10 journals. These are usually reaches, but I’ll send some to places I think I have a solid chance with (but to be brutally honest, in the world of lit journals, they’re all reaches).  If the story is rejected 10 times, I give it 10 more chances. After 20 rejections, it’s retired. I’m going to go full disclosure with my stats now, so brace yourself. Right this second, I have 30 submissions floating out there somewhere in the ether. The earliest was sent July 16, 2009; I sent the latest yesterday morning. You have to be a machine when it comes to submitting. You have to be relentless. And you cannot take rejection personally. Alongside those 30 “pending responses” are 3 acceptances and a staggering 147 rejections. That means my acceptance ratio is 2.5%.

2.5%!!!!

Is there anything more depressing than 2.5%? Yes. Yes there is. Every time I sign onto Duotrope I’m greeted with this message: “Congratulations! Your overall acceptance ratio is higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.”

HOLY SHIT! That means I’m winning. That means getting rejected 97.5% of the time is seen as some type of victory to Duotrope. These are the odds we’re up against, and it’s crucial you’re absolutely honest with yourself before you begin this process. Is your work ready for publication? Does it meet the quality of your desired publications? But most importantly, can you handle the rejection? Because like death and taxes, that’s one thing certain for every writer: rejection, a shit ton of it, 97.5% to be exact.

The Most Unfortunately Titled Article Ever Published or Why America Hates English Professors

A few days ago I read an entry on the LA Times blog Jacket Copy written by former Pitt MFAer Carolyn Kellogg. The article links back to a feature published in The American Book Review conspicuously titled “Top 40 Bad Books”. Normally, I wouldn’t read such a list because there’s so much great literature out there, so many wonderful opportunities. Why dwell on the negative? But the writers Carolyn name-checked from the article were enough to pique my interest (and rage): Cormac McCarthy? F. Scott Fitzgerald?! RICHARD YATES ??!! Umm….. huh? The introduction (there’s no author credited) gives us this:

Richard Ford once said that it takes as much effort to produce a bad book as a good book. And as disheartening as that sounds, what Ford’s assertion might raise, and what most everyone who has attempted the task of a book-length work already knows, is the notion that effort alone does not ensure a book’s success, and that there are probably more ways for a good book to be overlooked than a bad book to never make it into print…

That said, what constitutes a bad book? Is it an overrated “good” book? Can an otherwise good author produce a “bad” book? Is the badness in style, in execution? Or is it in theme or outlook? Or is the notion of a “bad” book even comprehensible in the age of postmodernism, poststructialism, and cultural studies?

Calling the question of “bad books” to the fore elicited—as might be expected—an overwhelming response. The forty responses below were selected to demonstrate the sheer variety of responses to what at face value seems a simple question. But as with most literary matters, nothing is as simple as it appears—not even the question of what constitutes a bad book… (American Book Review)

Ok, let’s just ignore the fact that they used the dreaded “theme” while discussing literature. I didn’t realize this was AP English. Anyway, what’s on the list? The Great Gatsby. Revolutionary Road. All the Pretty Horses. The Ian Fleming James Bond novels. Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence. Dreiser, Melville and Colson Whitehead also make appearances. On initial glance, I wanted to yell and scream and rant. The list is made up of 40 entries written by College English Professors (in all Caps of course). A few of the entires are obsessed with attacking well-renowned writers and tearing down their legacies (the Yates and Fitzgerald entries are especially, and needlessly, unkind), but there are many examples here of professors (and a writer or two) doing good work. Some don’t even name a single book. For example, take a look at what Dagoberto Gilb has to say on the subject of bad books:

Like bad girlfriends (and boyfriends, too), there are so many categories of bad books that it’d be gruesome and pathetic to categorize the various species of that sorryness. Setting aside the intrinsically aggravating that the very coquetish author is actually stupid, or the editor who chose the manuscript is too dumb or lame or dazzled, or that the system which perpetuates both of them is as flawed as a university paying for a Glenn Beck lecture series, and omitting the writers who are really salespeople, as are their duped or complicit publishers hyping their so pretty product as though…. Wait a minute, that may be what I think is a major bad book or line of them even. (Gilb) (His ellipses, not mine)

One professor wonders about the usefulness of bad books and cites Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Another, Gerald Graff, talks about the practicality of bad books in pedagogical practice. Graff writes, “It has always seemed strange to me that bad books aren’t a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum. How do we expect students to learn to tell the difference between good and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for comparison? Don’t you need badness in order to know goodness?” Another interesting tangent is brought up by Carol Guess who says:

Notice (2004) was published posthumously. Its narrative voice was so unique that no press would touch it until Lewis committed suicide at forty. Her suicide allowed the book’s publication; now she was dead, and sufficiently chastened for examining experiences that mainstream culture attempts to suppress. Before she killed herself, Lewis wrote one more novel, The Second Suspect (1998). This book was published and reviewed during her lifetime. It was bought, and it was read. The Second Suspect is a terrible book. But it’s not just a bad book; it’s so much more. It’s a bad book riffing off the author’s masterpiece. The Second Suspect is a rewriting of Notice, but minus everything that makes Notice literary. The Second Suspect takes plot, characters, and themes from Notice and reduces them to formulaic drivel. (Guess)

It’s obvious that Guess isn’t arguing that The Second Suspect is one of the worst books ever written, just as it’s painfully clear that some of these professors have axes to grind (look at the lambasting poor Cormac McCarthy takes!) and are using the American Book Review as a platform to air their theoretical grievances. So although the article in its entiretry is far less inflamatory than expected, what I can not stand for is its title. “Top 40 Bad Books” is a horrible title when the article in question doesn’t even have a list, when some of its contributors don’t even put forth a single book. I’m hoping that this is some type of marketing ploy, that the Editors at ABR chose this title knowing it would be controversial and would garner more attention (case in point, its mention on this blog). But an article like this written by a legion of college professors does much more harm than it does good. It purpotrates a stereotype that America loves to hate, that of the stodgy old English professor who despises everything.

For an example of what I’m talking about, check out The New Republic’s review of a recent memoir, The Professor and Other Writings, by Terry Castle. Ross Posnock, the reviewer, starts his critique with the following:

The public expression of contempt for professors is one of our cherished national pastimes and is that rare thing—bipartisan… Recently on its front page the New York Times invoked “the classic image of a humanities professor … tweed jacket, pipe, nerdy, longwinded, secular—and liberal” in a story on a sociological study of the power of typecasting. And in the annals of egghead bashing, the perennial butt of the foolproof punch line has long been the English professor. For decades Hollywood has dined out on this stereotype—Dennis Quaid’s bloated, bleary, and insufferable literature professor in Smart People is only a recent entry in a long parade of fatuity—but the Times has also loyally done its part. Their reports on the MLA convention are always good for a laugh, with their generous sampling of silly and sex-addled paper titles (who can forget “Wandering Genitalia in Late Medieval German Literature and Culture”?) that the Times cited a few years ago as proof that “eggheads are still nerds” with too much “sex on their minds (and time on their hands).” Whether the accusation is justified or not is less the point than the casualness of the contempt, the easy assumption of a license to scorn. Almost no group is more safely maligned and mocked. (Posnock)

I love the New Republic (especially their dryly titled lit blog The Book), but when they think you’re stodgy you know there’s a serious PR problem. Articles like “Top 40 Bad Books” reinforce the stereotype that English professors are cranky old dipshits seething in their Ivy Towers casting their hate outwards at everything. They are not lovers of literature; they are destroyers. Fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction are the manure from which they produce their cornucopia of brilliance. While Carol Guess and Gerald Graff and Dagoberto Gilb attempt to subvert this assumption, there are just as many examples within the ABR article that prove it. Since there are no bios included within the text of the article (only the names of institutions), one has to wonder if these hater professors teach Literature exclusively or if they dabble in their school’s Comp or Creative Writing departments.

The reason why I ask about what department these professors come from is because of an article by William M. Chace in the American Scholar. This was passed around in secret between friends of mine because the views expressed within are relatively controversial in a University environment. Entitled “The Decline of the English Department”, Chace’s article explores how and why enrollment numbers in English departments across the country have plummeted since the 1960’s coinciding with the ascendancy of critical theory as the main text of the humanities classroom. His findings are what you expect. He blames things on cultural studies and theorists with pseudo-political, pseudo-philosophical agendas (thus satisfying neither the politician or philosopher) and the shift away from the so-called Great Books. This stereotype of an English professor is in line with the bogeymen presented in the ABR article: Learned Men coming down the mount to explain to us philistines why The Great Gatsby is one of the top 40 worst books ever written.

But not all is doom and gloom. What Chase ignores is the rise of undergraduate Creative Writing programs and MFAs. Their enrollments have skyrocketed since the 1960’s with MFA programs pumping out 5,000 graduates a year. Similarly, Comp programs have also evolved thanks to the work of dedicated scholars like Mike Rose and Richard Rodriguez. While regular humanities classes become more and more specialized and in some cases jettison works of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction altogether, creative writing and comp classrooms have put the focus back on student work and the so-called great books. So, to cap off this long, rambling rant, we need more professors like Guess and Graff and Gilb willing to ruminate over tough subjects, but also willing to celebrate the beautiful act that is the reception and creation of literature. And what we need less of are professors making lists of the worst books ever written and explaining why exactly the work of Richard Yates is so offensively terrible.