Saturday, September 20, 2008

Scholarly and literary journal experiment part 2(a): Eighteenth-Century Studies

Although there is much more to do with the Experiment Part 1(a-whatever), I hereby declare that this is both a scholarly and a literary journal adventure, and therefore the upcoming scholarly journal will be Eighteenth-Century Studies, to which I have subscribed for a long time. Again, you are invited to participate in this and let me know the results of yours as well. I opened the blog to comments in the last few days (it had previously been closely moderated, but no longer), so feel free to post, participate, etc. in this weird thing.

David Gewanter hosts a cool reading series

Poet and professor David Gewanter is the host of the "Georgetown Writers Series" that he bills as readings and conversation, Wednesdays at noon. It will feature some of our (many!) novelists, poets, scriptwriters, directors, and essayists. Here's his lineup for the fall semester:

September 17 Norma Tilden, Creative Nonfiction: “The Wreck and Not the Story”
September 24 Carolyn Forché, Poems: “The Lateness of the World”
October 1 Maureen Corrigan, Writing memory: “Praise the Lord, Pass the Ammo”
October 8 James O’Donnell, Writing The Ruin of the Roman Empire
October 22 Derek Goldman, From text to stage: Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi
October 29 Dennis Williams, Fiction: King Alfred Rides Again
November 5 Scott Heath, [be nameless]: poetry in performance
November 19 Jennifer Fink, Experiment & Error: Exits & Entrances to the Novel
Special date:
Monday, Nov 24 John Glavin, “Film-Making and Writers”

Scholarly and Literary Journal Experiment Part I(a): Virginia Quarterly Review

The Virginia Quarterly Review, or VQR (no italics), is the premier literary journal of the University of Virginia, where I had an amazing time in graduate school what is becoming quite a few years ago now. It is thick, shiny and beautifully printed, a reality that smacks of financial support beyond subscriptions and prayers. The editor in chief is Ted Genoways, an accomplished poet with many laurels, including awards for his helming of the quarterly.

Its cover stories tend to be heavy, serious and political, but once you go inside it is surprisingly accessible. Here is its editorial philosophy as stated on its electronic submission page (I LOVE their requirement of online, electronic submissions, yesh!)

Editorial Philosophy

VQR strives to publish the freshest, most accomplished writers of our time. We are partial to work that is conscious of language without being self-conscious, that pulls readers in with drama and emotional risk, rather than holding them at arm's length with gimmickry and tricks. In short, we seek writing that uses intensely focused language to affect the way that readers see the world. A well-crafted poem, story, or essay is, at its heart, a statement of refusal to accept conventional wisdom and instead study the world for oneself. We seek that writing which illuminates what we, as a culture, may learn from such close inspection.

To me that says "Write originally and like yourself, not like a safe, imitative MFA program product." That may not be what is meant, but I completely hear and agree with the whole "work that is conscious of language without being self-conscious" thing. Dunno if that's what I'll be able to accomplish (I can type nonsense that's as tepid as the next monkey's), but hey, it's a start. There are a lot of other wacky submission rules such as only one per six months (whatever) and them having a reading period that lasts only from September to May (double whatever), but I have always ignored such things. I send what I want when I want, and if it is roundfiled, well, peace be upon you. My experience is that solid submissions are always welcome.

A careful reading of the author biographies in the Summer 2008 issue is illumating, and intimidating. Natasha Trethewey won the Pulitzer Prize for a collection of poetry. Two of J. Malcom Garcia's contributions to VQR were named notable essays by The Best American Travel Writing. James Kirchick is an assistant editor at The New Republic. Gregory Orr, whom I knew of as a professor in the writing program at the University of Virginia, has had fellowships from NEA and Guggenheim. There are more. I'm quite intimidated, and I mean that unsarcastically. Why the heck am I starting a public experiment like this one with VQR?

To get to know the journal better I'll read some back issues (the ones I should have read when they arrived), absorb every meaningful article I can find about VQR and Genoways, and also do some research about upcoming issues. More in a (b) post.

The scholarly and literary journal experiment and challenge

I'm a fan of the idea of both scholarly and literary journals, but like so many other people I think about them more than I actually buy and read them. I've had recent subscriptions to The Virginia Quarterly Review, Eighteenth-Century Studies, The Oxford American, Studies in Bibliography, Lapham's Quarterly (more of a history review), and more, but when the physical thing actually arrives in the office it tends to sit around, less-than-read (which is to say "not read"). Would that these journals were more like The New Yorker, with all those lovely middlebrow comics to keep the pages turning. But somehow I get the sense the journals would say that's Not Funny. There is something serious about scholarly and literary journals.

To support them, though, I propose a new challenge. Submitting and financially contributing to them. The rules will be simple, and invite anyone reading this blog to join with me in doing it, and I'll happily post your results as well as mine:

(1) Get to know some scholarly and literary journals. This involves taking a little tour and learning about them. I'll start with one I already subscribe to (VQR) and then branch out. I'll blog about each one.

(2) Read said journals more closely than usual for a while to get a feel for how they function and what their rationale is beyond the stated thing. Get a sense of who's the company and why.

(3) Submit to 'em. For me this does NOT involve entering writing contests (transparent fundraisers in which somebody "wins" and the rest "lose," and bad for the arts generally, contests are cruel), but it does involve sending a check with each of my submissions. Of course none requires money with submissions, but I want to support journal publishing, so I'll add $10 as a voluntary reading contribution. This is on top of actually subscribing to the journal, which I do whenever possible.

(4) Blog about it. I'll write about the weirdness of submitting in this way, and the excitement of it, and what it feels like to get various kinds of responses from editors.

The scholarly publishing tends to be self explanatory. For the literary work, I'll use the helpful guidance of Newpages.com and Poets & Writers magazine (another one to which I subscribe) to choose places to send work. If you edit a journal and you would like to get on my dance card, please drop a note. If you're an author/reader and you'd like to participate in the submission game, that's great too. Tell me your experience, and some of you will get the chance to blog here about it.

James Michener now has a stamp...

... and he joins these authors, poets and playwrights.

AUTHORS

Louisa May Alcott (1940)
Horatio Alger (1982)
James Baldwin (2004)
Stephen Vincent Benét (1998)
Pearl Buck (1983)
James Fenimore Cooper (1940)
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1940)
William Faulkner (1987)
Edna Ferber (2002)
Theodor Geisel, Dr. Seuss (1999)
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1983)
Ernest Hemingway (1989)
Langston Hughes (2002)
Zora Neale Hurston (2003)
Washington Irving (1940)
James Weldon Johnson (1988)
Sinclair Lewis (1985)
Jack London (1986)
Herman Melville (1984)
Margaret Mitchell (1986)
Dorothy Parker (1992)
Edgar Allan Poe (1949)
Katherine Anne Porter (2006)
Emily Post (1998)
Ayn Rand (1999)
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (2008)
William Saroyan (1991)
John Steinbeck (1979)
Ida Tarbell (2002)
Henry David Thoreau (1967)
James Thurber (1994)
Mark Twain (1940)
Noah Webster (1958)
Edith Wharton (1980)
Thomas Wolfe (2000)

POETS

Dante Alighieri (1965)
Emily Dickinson (1971)
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1975)
T. S. Eliot (1986)
Robert Frost (1974)
Robinson Jeffers (1973)
Sidney Lanier (1972)
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1940)
James Russell Lowell (1940)
Edgar Lee Masters (1970)
Edna St. Vincent Millay (1981)
Marianne Moore (1990)
Ogden Nash (2002)
James Whitcomb Riley (1940)
Carl Sandburg (1978)
Robert Penn Warren (2005)
Walt Whitman (1940)
John Greenleaf Whittier (1940)

PLAYWRIGHTS

George M. Cohan (1978)
Moss Hart (2004)
Eugene O'Neill (1973)
William Shakespeare (1964)
Thornton Wilder (1997)
Tennessee Williams (1995)
Meredith Willson (1999)

Friday, September 19, 2008

A neat little article about writing and teaching

Author David Gessner has an article in the Times Magazine this week about why he teaches as well as writes. He thought he'd always be a Cape Codder, but now he writes from UNC-Wilmington, one of the loveliest campuses in the United States, located in one of our most under-rated coastal cities (and the residents would probably like to keep it that way!). Wilmington has crashing waves, historic ships, a thriving downtown arts scene, a wonderful public radio station, and it even sports the occasional palm tree. I was the producer for a play there a decade ago at Thalian Hall, and I had the pleasure of working with our actors on NPR member station WHQR.

Bonus: here's a funny video of Gessner skiing the beach in Wilmington, linked from his website. He has interesting thoughts at the end about enjoying where you are:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

élūcidātus or /ɪˈlusɪˌdeɪt/ or [i-loo-si-deyt]

I've been using the word "elucidate" too much. Instead of cheating by going back and editing it out, I'll simply cop to it. Hey, it's better than The New York Times with "limns," or that ever-present word in book reviews of novels, "luminous."

I hear your anger, and it makes the sound of a cliché

A handful of my trade book authors (I call all of the more than 300 authors who consult with me from time to time "mine"... make of that what you will) are angry -- furious with Big Publishing for not yet having the vision to accept them, and hurt by a process of submitting to agents that they often describe as "heartbreaking." They have come to me in frustration, in therapy, in tears.

Part of me sympathizes, but another part wants to know why such stress? Why not start with smaller bits and build up interest until a book is all but inevitable as an outgrowth of those more modest "gets"? When I suggest to these authors that they gain some creative yes-es, such as publication in regional newspapers or on regional public radio, or acceptance from various literary journals, their anger can sometimes rise higher. "Little" wasn't the goal! New York Publishing or bust!


Okay, okay, I hear that (I say to them in my mind), but what I hear louder is the cliché of that.

Many glorious careers start small. Others who soar in the literary firmament and who have multiple books deliberately return to their roots in order to keep it real, hone their craft, etc. The truly great are never too big to work regionally, to publish intimately. Remember the poet Jane Kenyon? She was a brilliant woman who could publish her work anywhere, but she chose (among other things) to consistently write essays for her local New England newspaper because she wanted her neighbors to read her work, and she knew that for the most part they did not read poetry or subscribe to The New Yorker or Ploughshares or whatever.

Can someone really beat you to your own book?

Being "scooped" in the publishing world is perhaps a universal anxiety. I certainly feel it when I'm writing, and other authors report it to me as well. One of my favorite colleagues said it best in an e-mail this morning: "What [concerns] me is that maybe someone else, with less expertise, might publish a book about [this] . . . sorry for my vanity."

Someone else writing "your" book is an interesting concern, and certainly one I respect (the worry feels so real!) (it gets me right in the chest), but it is also almost never a problem. From a publisher's perspective, finding other books on a particular topic can help justify publishing a book -- it means the subject is viable in book-length form. Many publishers worry about making a book out of what should really be an article, and suffering the resulting low sales that result from producing a book that no one really wants or needs. From an author's perspective, no one else can write your book. Even if a book on your topic should appear while you're writing, that simply gives you one more interesting obstacle to push against, and (we hope) argue with. If you're lucky, it will be a book with which you disagree so thoroughly that you can have a wonderful time taking it to task. Both you and your "opponent" author will benefit from the exposure.

Firsts are overrated in publishing. What counts more is bests. Do a terrific job, and you'll be the one everyone turns to and quotes. Yes, readers can tell the difference, and just because someone beats you to the finish line doesn't mean that anyone will necessarily think they wrote the best book. My shelf is dotted with quickie treatments of the author I'm writing about. They're good books, but there is a lot they missed, and the precise one I'm writing has never been done. I don't fret a moment that it will be done, because only I can write my book, and only you can write yours.

Aren't any of my observations original?

After blogging yesterday about the trust fund titans who founded many of the great publishing houses, I found that New York magazine had beaten me to it, albeit differently. Scooped!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Articles about publishing's doom

I just read an interesting article by Boris Kachka in the online version of New York magazine about the demise of corporate-run publishing. People wring their hands about what may happen to publishing, but in the long view what will happen is what has always happened -- people who want books (or book-length collections of words) will get them. Smart readers who don't have all the time in the world to wade through dreck hunting diamonds will prefer books that have been vetted by intelligent gatekeepers.

Because of this, I certainly believe editors will always have jobs, but they may not remain in the New-York-focused edifices that were built in large part by trust-funded intellectuals in the 20th century. Don't believe me about the trust fund part? Bennett Cerf of Random House was independently wealthy through his mother's status as the heiress to a corporate fortune. Although I can't speculate on Michael Korda's wealth when he started out in publishing, as a child the former Simon and Schuster editor-in-chief went to the Institut Le Rosey in Switzerland, one of the most exclusive in the world (someone footed the bill). Roger Straus, co-founder and chairman of Farrar, Straus & Giroux (my former publisher, heaven bless its box-lined halls), was the son of a Guggenheim. By comparison Alfred A. Knopf was more of a working-class fellow, but only just; his parents were extraordinarily successful by the standards of the day, and he was a law student before switching fields.

Publishing was an exquisite profession for gentlemen of means with fine minds who didn't wish to idle away their lives. And one reason (of many) why publishing salaries remain low to this day is that a good number of the people who went into publishing also didn't need the money. A 93-year-old friend of mine worked for legendary Broadway agent Audrey Wood in the 1940s, brainstorming manuscripts with authors such as Tennessee Williams, Carson McCullers, William Inge, and Moss Hart. When I asked how she lived on the Upper East Side on a play reader's salary, she smiled and said "Oh but darling, my father sent me a small allowance. Everybody had one." Her father happened to be an Oscar-nominated cinematographer who had worked in Hollywood since the days when the MGM lion was a bony, beloved zoo castoff in a cage on the lot, and the movie sets were in tents outdoors. He had secured her job in publishing with one coast-to-coast phone call. Although working-class by Hollywood standards, he had one of the most generous contracts in the business, and this "small allowance" meant enough money for this young writer to live in style, including the purchase of a fashionable wardrobe, rent for the right address, and mad money for a lot of club-hopping. "We spent our evenings at Elmo,* the Stork Club or Twenty-One, and we went to the opening nights of each other's shows. Nobody paid to get in anywhere, and in publishing the books were always free." Sometimes she even offered to forego her modest pay -- "I think literary judgments are purer when one doesn't worry about how much one is making."

Yes, those particular and doubtless glorious publishing days may be waning, but so what? Some other lovely and nostalgic-in-the-future model will take their place, and I'm confident that it will be a durable one for a new era. Why? Because selective readers have both the means and the power to make it happen. It may not center itself in New York City (and hallelujah, saith some in this nation, especially those of us who consider Small Town America full of fine and green places to set up shop), and it may not be housed in a handful of specific, iconic buildings, but authors will write, editors will gatekeep, and words will find their carefully selected way to readers who have always cared, and who always will.


*El Morocco, not the Sesame Street character

Should you start with the introduction?

When I work with an author on the whole manuscript (versus just the nonfiction book proposal or scholarly prospectus) it involves that individual sending me sections of the book as they are written. I'm surprised how many authors start with the introduction. This may be helpful as a throat-clearing exercise, but for the most part, introductions work best when they are crafted last. Ditto first chapters, that can sometimes serve as gateways into the rest of the book. After all, an introduction should reflect a full understanding of what the book is and what it accomplishes -- yet few writers truly grasp this when they start writing. Most of the writers I've worked with (myself included) have to go through the journey of crafting the manuscript and paring/editing it down to size before we realize what sort of horse we've carved.

Or perhaps it's a bit like cupcakes. You make the little thing first, and then ice it. (Okay, I'm reaching here, but it's only 9:10 a.m. and I already want a snack.)

*Image swiped from howtoeatacupcake.net.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Try these unbreakable rules of structure and content, as consistently elucidated by all editors everywhere

When it comes to structure and content, I've heard a number of authors fret over "getting it right," that interesting notion that there is a right way and a wrong way to decide upon the form and content of a book, and they are much concerned about discerning the right way. One woman asked me "When you set up chapters, do you have to do x?" as though there's a rule for this, and that I could quote it for her. A man recently asked me to help him know "what editors expect" when it comes to scope and content, as though there is some sort of quantifiable concensus among editors on anything, ever.

Books are in one sense physical utensils, and their apparatuses have developed over time in response to readers' collective needs. Chapters are simply a further organizational tool -- a way to make sense of a long train of words in readable units. Books, sections, chapters, headings, etc. exist to serve us, not we them. Content and scope are responses to format... you can't go on forever in one book; you have to stop somewhere. By asking what the material requires in order for it to be best comprehended by busy, distracted readers with many other choices, we'll get a lot closer to helpful answers than by worrying about what's "right," or what an imaginary group of conferring and agreeing editors might have decided in their Uniform Code of Scholarly Desirability.

These imaginary publisher expectations contribute greatly to authorial anxiety, and existing examples in book history can act as calming guides. Books that have pleased you personally and also prevailed in a crowded marketplace can yield satisfying and stress-reducing structural templates. I'm not saying you should copy them, but that such models frequently offer workable inspiration. And what a joy it is to sit in the cafe of a big bookstore with a stack of potential literary models, mapping them on paper and fruitfully whiling away a glorious afternoon.