Saturday, December 29, 2007


Okay, break's over. Christmas is fun, but man, am I always glad to see it recede in the rearview.

I have never been much of a rebel. When I was a kid, the worst thing I ever did was probably getting kicked out of Perkins, or perhaps throwing pancakes off the roof of a parking garage. I didn't smoke or drink, got good grades, kept my shirt tucked in, and was generally an uptight little SOB.

I do, however, possess a very strong antiauthoritarian bent, which I've always tried to channel into writing and music. It wasn't authority itself I disliked, really--as long as it let me do what I wanted, I was fine with it. Indeed, for most of my life, I was quite friendly with the gatekeepers, probably because they always seemed happy to let me in. When I got started writing and publishing, I had no gripes with the system--it seemed like a good one to me. I was 25 at the time, and got taken out to lunch a lot, and asked by editors and publishers what I was working on, and in general I felt totally extra super special.

I didn't realize, of course, that this is how every first novelist is treated, before she's had a chance to establish that she isn't going to be writing any blockbuster bestsellers; and the non-arrival of The Big Novel effects an increasing distaste, and eventually disgust, and pretty soon you can't get anyone to return your phone calls, and e-mails become "lost," and nobody's terribly interested in taking you out to lunch anymore, and in general would prefer that you just stayed as far away from midtown Manhattan as possible for the rest of your life. This happens even to literary writers whom any sane person would consider successful--and the buyouts and consolidations of the past ten years have only intensified the process.

And so, having myself endured this literary rite of passage (not to mention an overheated economy on the verge of collapse, and eight years of Bush-fueled paranoia and cowardice), I have come around to realizing that yes, in fact, the gatekeepers are full of shit.

Brave man, huh--parties with the Man until the Man dumps him. It's pathetic, I know. But it has resulted in a belated appreciation for rebellion, which this week has taken the form of my grooving on Wall and Piece, a newish book by Banksy, the British graffiti artist. (This book, BTW, was a Christmas present for Rhian, but like most gift books for spouses, it was really for the giver.) I found out about him belatedly, when he started doing those "vandalized" versions of old paintings (most notably Monet's Bridge At Giverny with abandoned grocery carts half-sunk in the water) and stealthily hanging them in museums. He's also the rat-stencil guy, and the bobbies-kissing guy, and the guy who did the bitterly ironic paintings on the West Bank barrier wall. He's an iconoclast (who, like all good iconoclasts, has become an icon) and a joker, and am I alone in thinking that literature needs a guy like him? A guerilla writer? A stealth novelist? A memoir vandal?

It's a hell of a lot harder for writers to rebel than it is for visual artists and musicians--our product, the book, has historically required a fairly massive infrastructure to produce, not to mention a lot of time. There is not really a literary equivalent of busking, or tagging. But technology has changed. You can start your own publishing house (and maybe we should). You can sell your own downloads (and maybe we will--if people ever show the desire for such a thing). You can stage events, or start a blog (and apparently we have).

But still--it's not the same as the Beatles on the roof of Apple, or Banksy's Tesco soup can at MOMA. What do you think--you're a writer, and you want to stick it to the Man. How do you do it?


Mr. Saflo said...

Literarily (???) speaking, who is The Man? The big publishers, the critics, the readers, the idea of coherent language? I think B.S. Johnson might be a fit. If I remember the article I read God knows how long ago correctly, he considered traditional storytelling primitive and wrote incomprehensible novels, one of which was unbound paper in a box.

rmellis said...

I think it's less the infrastructure that prevents guerilla literature, so much as the nature of literature itself. You can see art against your will -- you can see grafitti from your Lexus on the way to your hair appointment and it can piss you off. Unless you have earplugs, you can't help but hear the wild man singing his protest songs on the sidewalk as you scurry to your bond trading job.

But you're gonna walk right past the 900 page narrative in the carboard box.

Reading is only done by the converted.

rmellis said...

I spelled everything wrong in that last comment, didn't I.

Mr. Saflo said...

I suppose some day in the future a rogue satellite will be doohickeyed to forcibly beam tragressive literature into the heads of the unwilling. Take that, The Establishment.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, mind control satellites are totally indie!

Mr. Saflo said...

You forgot to point out my violent misspelling of "transgressive."

-5 pts

Max said...

You feel a "terrible drear hanging over" the fiction issue of The New Yorker. You think that "the gatekeepers are full of shit."
We agree.
But if you want to know how really, really cold it is out there, you should be a Nobody with no MFA, no connections, living in Nowhereville, USA.
The gatekeepers (editors) don't, as they claim, search through the slush pile, looking for that gem by an unknown. Muriel Spark put it well (in an autobiographical novel): authors without Names (credentials) are "sending their manuscripts to sea in a sieve."
Quality is not an issue.

Anonymous said...

Ah, Max, you sound awfully familiar.

I am not going to go down that MFA road with you, but it's certainly true that socially unconnected writers are going to have a harder time publishing anything in prominent places. In this case, the only solution is brute persistence, just blanketing the earth with your writing until you happen upon somebody who likes it.

But quality IS an issue. And there are gatekeepers who ARE going through slush piles everywhere, looking for something that is actually good. Not at the New Yorker, I'm sure--but submitting cold to the New Yorker isn't something you do to actually get published; it's something you do to get those little cream-colored rejection slips for your door. I never published anything in the slicks until I had a literary agent, and I only managed to get a literary agent because I wrote a novel. That's not fair, but that's how it worked for me. (Although, in fact, George Saunders actually DID get discovered in the New Yorker slush pile.)

But the slicks aren't the arbiters of quality--they're the arbiters of mass highbrow appeal, which only occasionally overlaps with actual quality (ie., Saunders, Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami). It's small hip mags you should be submitting to--run by people who don't give a rat's ass who you know, people who are publishing magazines because they like doing it. Or you should start your own and refuse to accept agented fiction. And if it's actually good, the gatekeepers will come sniffing around, and you will accidentally become one yourself, as has happened with all those Brooklynites. As a former small-magazine slush pile sifter, though, I can tell you that it gets old really, really fast.

Because excellence is rare. If you are excellent, and tireless, people will recognize it. That's what I like about Banksy--he came into fame by being really good and absolutely unrelenting...and by mocking the institutions that presumably held the power to make him famous. He puts his ass on the line--and over the edge of a bridge, and in the path of snipers--for his work, and the world is rewarding him for it. He did NOT achieve fame by whining about how hard it was being a nobody.

Personally, I do not aspire to that kind of stunning purity. I am not capable of it, being too fond of other people's approval. And Max, if the New Yorker called you up tomorrow begging for a short story, you would be all over that like a bad stank, and so would I.

I would be content to be a just a little more like Banksy. There's my New Year's resolution.

rmellis said...

Everyone who has an MFA was once a "nobody" without one.

I was an elementary school teacher with enough money saved up to quit and move to Montana and buy my very first computer. I had just moved there, was living in a crummy one-room apartment, when I "sold" (gave) my first story to a mag called "Wind." The happiest moment of my life, up till then!!

Nobody starts at the *New Yorker,* fer cripes sake.

JRL -- wasn't your first story at Kinesis?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, Kinesis...then the Alaska Quarterly Review...Mississippi Review I think...and some poems in various no-pay places. And a dreadful novel excerpt in the Missoula free weekly! Remember the blurry photo of me buying milk at Buttrey's?

max said...

You once advised me: "Resentment is the death of art. Let it go, Max."
Seems that when you write that "the gatekeepers are full of shit" you're showing more resentment than I displayed in my comment.
But you can criticize, while I "whine." I was waiting for that word to appear in your response. Though I don't know where the "stunning purity" reference came from. I certainly never claimed purity. Nor would I submit anything to the New Yorker.
My reviews of the stories in the 2005 Best American were, in your opinion, "a bunch of opinions--many of them virulent, pretentious, poorly argued,and insecure."
And your opinions? -- well thought out, fair-minded and expressed beautifully?
Interesting, isn't it, the oppositional tone between us?
Thanks for the advice on getting published, but I know the score. Anyway, I've given up writing. I've returned to what I was for most of my life: just a reader. (And it sure isn't the stuff that's being written today that I devote my precious time to; it's Soseki or Oe or Tanizaki that I read, not Murakami.)
Though I am now assuming the role of gadfly. Definition: "One that acts as a provocative stimulus; a goad." They are also irritating as hell.

rmellis said...

Ha ha ha ha!


Anonymous said...

Good luck with that, friend!

Bennett said...

Why are y'all bullying Max. I mean the cattily sarcastic 'Ha ha ha!' and 'Good luck, FRIEND!'

I don't know who he is, but I guess there's supposed to be some kind of Obi-Wan/DV tension between JRL and him? Is that why you're bullying him?

Also who is he and where can I read some of his virulent, pretentious, poorly argued, and insecure work?

5 Red Pandas said...

"It's small hip mags you should be submitting to."

I'm curious to know which little mags you'd suggest people submit to if they don't have an MFA. I've done research on this on my own, but hearing other's suggestions is always helpful.

I'm one of those people for whom the MFA route just isn't feasible, but I've been helping a friend prepare her pieces for MFA applications, so I do see the value in it for people.

I think the ire people have about MFA programs as they relate to the gatekeepers is that a few of the gatekeepers have gone on record saying that an MFA is a sign of commitment to them, and they are more likely to take the writing seriously if the person has an MFA. That's definitely going to rub non-MFA holders the wrong way. It sounds awfully elitist at the very least.

At the same time, if you can't get the MFA, or don't want it, then you can't let it stop you from writing. A friend of mine and I started our own workshop for our writing and we've helped one another tremendously. Neither of us have MFAs but we both have the drive and perseverance to keep writing. I think it helps that we both have humility and can take criticism and can recognize where our writing can be improved. If you have all of that, you don't need an MFA. You just need to keep trying.
(Then again I might become embittered if nothing good happens to me in a few years!)

When I get down on myself for not being "officially" published, I just write some really short stories and publish them myself in my zine. It makes me feel better.

Max said...

Bennett -- I don't know you, but you can bet people will believe that I do. Or that I AM you.
You asked: "who is he and where can I read some of his virulent, pretentious, poorly argued, and insecure work?"
I am Paul Burga.
The virulent, etc. reviews can be found by typing the following into your Google search: featured book review literary fiction today a look at best
I trust J. Robert will allow this to go out. (By the way, I gave his story a good review.)

rmellis said...

Red Pandas -- I'm going to post a little about this tonight, but anyway: I'd be surprised if there are any mag editors who really give two flips about whether the writer of a submitted story has an MFA or not. Do people even mention that in their cover letters? How embarrassing.

The preponderance of MFA-holders in the backs of those magazines has more to do, I suspect, with the fact that editors like to publish their friends colleagues and friends of friends. They don't get much out of the slush pile, for various reasons.

Anonymous said...

I totally used to mention it in my cover letter. Oh god, what wankitude. "Enclosed please find my spare, haunting story about a suicide at a clown college. I have an MFA."

Ah, youth!!

rmellis said...

I know that people mention their MFA in their bios as a nod to their school -- either to show gratitude for getting in or as a way of Strenghtening the Brand.

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