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Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Non-Reading Writer and The Review Review (Our Website of the Week)

A recent New York Times article about self-publishing began with this sentence: "The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them." It's a frightening thought, one which agents, editors and publishers alike must spend much of their time thinking about. As Managing Editor of HFR and a teacher of fiction writing here at ASU, here are a few things that I spend time thinking about/shuddering over:

1) At AWP, if you put out two piles of information on your bookfair table, one labeled "Submission Information" and one labeled "Subscription Information," the former pile will disappear five times as fast (okay, I'm guesstimating) as the latter.

2) If HFR got half as many subcriptions each year as we do submissions, I'm sure I would poop my pants.

3) For - I'd say - 25% of the submissions we receive, it's immediately obvious that the submitter has neither bothered to ever read HFR nor even checked our website for submission guidelines.

4) When I ask my class of intermediate level fiction writers about who they read or who their favorite writers are, half of people they name are dead. The other half are Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk.

5) When I ask twenty students how many people have heard of "literary journals," the average number of hands that go up is two.

When giving advice to beginning writers about submitting their work to journals, I always suggest they get their hands on copies of the journals they want to submit to. This is for your own good, I tell them. It will save you heartache and postage. Still they look at me skeptically. I am a money-hungry literary journal editor, fishing for subscriptions. I always figure appealing to their egos and pocketbooks is an effective way of getting them to read. But here's what I think is a more important incentive: if beginning writers expect to have anywhere to publish their work (and anyone to read it) they better start reading themselves. They better start subscribing. They better start blogging about, talking about, and getting excited about the world of small press and literary journal publishing (including online journals). Now. Which is why I make students in my classes choose a literary journal to study, read and advocate for throughout the semester. By the end of the class, a few of the students have become subscribers. At the very least, the rest of them know that their are living writers creating work, and an active and vibrant world of print and online journals that support and celebrate "emerging" writers.

This morning I got an email from Becky Tuch at The Review Review, a website that reviews literary journals. She pointed me to this really wonderful (in their "overwhelming positive" category) review of our recent grotesque issue. The website posts in-depth reviews of literary journals, publishing tips, and allows both editors and writers to speak what's on their minds. Lots of great stuff to read through. Most interesting to me, though, was the "About" page, where Becky explains how she came up with the idea for the website. She starts off by saying, "Recently, I'd become disenchanted with literary magazines," and goes on to explain that while she was actively pursuing getting published in literary journals, she wasn't actually reading them.
Not only did I not subscribe to any, I hardly cared what was in them. There were even the magazines in which I'd had stories appear, magazines in which I'd won contests. Even those I didn't read.

I was not the only writer like this. What I found when I talked to my peers was that everyone wanted to be published in these magazines, but no one knew who published what, who edited which magazines, which ones were printed from universities and which were independent, or at the very least which magazines they liked and which they didn't.
Becky's realization led her to take action in the form of The Review Review, so there's a pretty happy epilogue here, but I worry about the number of writers out there who don't take an interest in the work of other writers, who don't bother to read and support literary journals, even as they expect these journals to support them through publication.

On a literary journal blog like this, I would hope this kind of rant would be preaching to the choir, but I'm not sure it is. I'm interested to hear what submitters have to say about subscribing - those who can empathize with Becky, those who feel very differently. How do literary journals hope to generate an excited and lively readership if even their contributors can't be bothered to read them?


Isaac said...

Part of the problem is a problem of scale, of course: since I have to try to submit to dozens of journals, and I can only afford a few subscriptions, there are bound to be places I submit to without seeing (or buying) a physical copy of the journal first.

But that doesn't excuse the people who submit a steady stream without ever reading any literary journals...

John Tynan said...

For the metro Phoenix writer on a budget (and what writer isn't), you can browse from upwards of 200 current literary journals at ASU's Piper Center for Creative Writing... for free! Get comfortable with the latest edition of Tin House (or HFR :) in a relaxed, living room setting at The Center. And if you pick up a journal that isn't for you. There's another one on the shelf.

evanjamesroskos said...

When I ask my class of intermediate level fiction writers about who they read or who their favorite writers are, half of people they name are dead. The other half are Stephen King and Chuck Palahniuk.

i think if you asked this class of writers that were not in school, you might find a different response. I think people who like to read become English majors and then find out that "contemporary lit" classes are rarely offered. and when you have to read tons of dead authors, when do you have time to read living ones? I know writers in MFA programs in the same position -- too little time to read and write. and what they do read is for class. And while I don't think people should skip some of the dead authors, I do think reading contemporary lit prepares them for the market interests in ways that reading only Flannery O'Connor cannot.

Cory said...

Concerning the lack of readers of contemporary writers of literary merit --

I believe part of this problem lies with the lack of education students receive regarding this area of American literature. Higher level high school classes generally touch on contemporary writers, but these students are very few in number, which you mention.

If more teachers engaged their students in conversations about contemporary writers of merit and perhaps how they can go about finding out about such writers on their own, this problem would soon go away.

Cory said...

Concerning the problem of the lack of literary journal readership --

This problem is very similar to that of the problem I recently mentioned -- there is a lack of education in the area. Students generally don't know much about the literary journal world at all for various reasons, one among them is that they usually become overwhelmed and intimidated by the scale of the amount of publications exist. They ask themselves "Which is the best one? How do I find out which is the best? Why this one instead of that one?"

If teachers engrossed writing students in the world of literature -- something I expect they should be doing -- instead of teaching them about dead writers and writing methods ONLY, the problem might lessen.

Transletics said...

People only have a certain amount of money to spend on the creative endeavor. I literally have a budget--most of which is eaten up by contest fees and AWP since I've got a manuscript to unload. But I ask for subscriptions as gifts--I have two right now, and a couple I'd like to get since I went to AWP. If they were easier to add to Amazon's wishlist (family can be pretty lazy when it comes to following links) I'd probably get more. For those of you NOT in Phoenix, I've listed a bunch of cheap back issues on my blog for people interested in starting a subscription but not ready to commit to a whole year.