I’m a model agnostic of the Copenhagen Interpretation when it comes to most things. But when people I care about have passed, both in my life and merely those few public figures who influence me, there is one pleasant model in which I choose to indulge.
I choose to believe in a great nothing from which we come and to which we return. It stands outside of manifest creation; it is timeless and formless; a pool of pure potential from which our souls emanate and to which our souls return after our journey to Earth. These formalities of actually happening we call our lives.
Like the hero’s journey, the divine bit of us must manifest in a body, go out into the dark unknown of life, learn our lessons, capture the great boon, and return these gifts back to the nothing from which we came.
When those I love must leave, I prefer to think of them as having returned home. And all of their warmth and love and intelligence and all the good they represented to me in this life, all of that has been reunited with the greatness that spawns the world.
So when people like Oliver Sacks pass on, I get to believe that his genius is hereon written into the fabric of the universe, that everything that comes will have the DNA of his soul woven through it.
It’s only a single model of the universe and the place of our lives in it, but it’s a comforting one that allows me to see everyone who has been lost to continue living.
I’m finding myself irrationally angry about this second season of True Detective. (I’m sure there’s a True Defective or Trule(ly Bad) Detective pun lurking around here.) I absolutely adored the first season. Lovecraftian craziness plus esoteric philosophy, plus Cary Fukunaga’s beautiful cinematography? Yes, please!
But, as Velcoro might say, “This season can buttchug a hoarde of termites.”
I defended the first-season accusations of sexism because there seemed to be this overarching critique of masculinity and the possession/ownership of female bodies throughout the show. Sure, the female characters were wives or prostitutes, but there were conversations about how men try to control female bodies, and critiques of the men trying to control them. It was subtle and clever and poignant.
I thought I’d found a kindred spirit in Nic Pizzolatto.
But this season? Absolute failure. All the women are only defined by their men, be it whores or mothers. Even Bezzerides was introduced to us through sex (an unspoken kink so weird she freaked out her partner) and ends up a mother in the end. In between, she inhabited every bad detective/masculinity stereotype: hard-drinking, gambling, emotionally-unavailable. It was such poor character development that I wouldn’t be surprised that her character was male until two days before they began filming. And worse, in the first episode, her dad tells us that her entire personality is a reactionary construction against him. She’s literally not even herself. She’s anti-dad, laden with masculine clchés and then after she traumabonds, she gets turned into a mom.
A friend shared my thoughts and was insulted that she didn’t “get” how “feminist” this season was. If this season had been set in 1950, sure, it’s feminist because we let the women out of the domestic sphere. But in 2015? Every woman shouldn’t be defined by their desire (or lack there of) for sex or ability to make babies, which is ultimately what Pizzolatto did to his season two female characters. His female characters were essentially prostitutes or moms with nagging-wife syndrome.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the quality of a show drop off so drastically in a single season. Pizzolatto managed to shoehorn every detective cliché in this season while keeping to the douchy stereotypes of poor writing. The plot was ridiculous and convoluted. They killed the gay guy while the two straight guys sent their women-folk off to safety while they died their pointless man-deaths. Human beings behaved in ways no human beings behave. It was a nightmare with brief moments of interest. I hope to see a supercut of this season. Could probably edit this monstrosity of saddest bars in the world with overly long how-sad-am-I-alcoholism closeups and helicopter tracking shots down to a solid two hours and even that couldn’t save this show from some of the dialog Vince Vaughn must have lost a bet to have to read.
I don’t even know what to say. I feel like I had a really fantastic first date dinner with Nic Pizzolatto and when we got back to his place, he bragged about how he stiffed the waitress on the tip. Everything from the first season I thought was a clever examination of masculinity and sexism was a lie? A fluke? Was Pizzolatto just @GuyInYourMFA all along?
Shit, Nic, give me a call. I will help you with this. Step one: no one says “filth.” Step two: women are more than the potential uses of their genitals. Step three: Profit.
Sure, I’ll watch season three, if Pizzolatto gets one, but it will be like my approach to most of season two: patiently waiting for it to subvert my expectations, but ultimately, watching only out of some misplaced sense of loyalty. That, and plain trainwreck rubbernecking.
This is the close-but-no-cigar, always-a-bridesmaid-never-a-bride post.
I’ve gotten really nice personal rejections from places like ZYZZYVA and I just received a tiered rejection from The New Yorker, which I was overjoyed about when one considers that they don’t even respond to something like 70-80% of their slushpile submissions. I’ve been a semi-finalist for three major contests. Slowly, my publication and accolade list is less and less resembling the wastelands outside Night Vale.
Of course, this is balanced against the dozens of nearly wordless form rejections. But nevermind those. They’re not the ones that throw me off my game.
It’s the almosts. It’s the 300+ day rejections that made it through three reads and onto the final editor’s desk. It’s those yellow envelopes and emails that come with a hint of cigar smoke and no cigar.
I know it shouldn’t matter, that those should be the ones that make me think, YES, I’ve got this, and push harder. But they’re not. They’re the ones that make me think that maybe I’m not actually good enough at all.
I think of it as smart kid syndrome. You can coast for a really long time with minimal work by just being smart. Writing is the first thing that I’ve really applied myself to long after it stopped being easy, long after I had to put in actual work to be good. And for that effort to feel wasted, to still not be good enough, that’s the hammer.
The best description of writer’s block I’ve ever heard came from Dan Harmon who said all it is is the gap between how good you are and how good you want to be and the only way to bridge that gap is to prove yourself right. You’re a shit writer and you’ll never be amazing. Prove it. Write shitty. Because writing shitty is the only way you get to where you want to be.
And I have to remind myself of that every time one of those close calls come rolling in. Because they’re the reminder of that gap, of how much more work I need to put in to build that bridge. Because no one’s wandering around handing out cigars. You have to make those fuckers by hand out in the hot sun.
In a discussion about “selling out” versus “remaining true” in art, I questioned the very idea of selling out. I don’t know what that means. Not really.
Implied in those words is the idea that by monetizing your art, you’re somehow polluting it, diluting it, lessening it somehow.
But this is capitalism! We live in this system. We may not like the game, but as the old joke goes, it’s the only game in town.
So I half-jokingly suggested that there’s no secret society harboring “true” yet commercially unsuccessful works of art. There’s no Knights Templar or Freemasons of writing unpolluted by the poison of marketing.
But what if there is? And what does that writing look like? What is the difference between what people want versus what they’ll pay for?
Is truth any less truthy if it also makes a buck and allows its author to buy food and shelter and smart phones? Is the Venn diagram of true art and commercial art to separate circles or is there an overlap?
I can already see people gearing up their arguments, something about how this is why genre writers make more money than literary writers and so forth. About who the gatekeepers are, who decides what’s good art and what’s commercially viable art. About the Literati and the Illiterati.
These are dumb questions. These are procrastination questions.
My second year of my MFA is over (in case you weren’t able to pick that up from context clues in the title of this post.) There’s one more semester left, another writing workshop, a form & technique class focusing on putting together a story collection through the lens of recent successful collections, like Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk and Claire Vaye Watkins’ Battleborn, among others, as well as teaching another section of freshman composition.
This summer will be spent, between feminist science fiction conventions (Wiscon!) and Quaker-Marxist weddings, putting together my thesis, that collection of short stories that’s supposed to prove I learned something here, or that, at the least, I was productive at putting words on a page. It’s actually pretty close to done already—125 pages of the required 150, so my main goal is to get everything in order and write another two stories.
One, I already know and have started. The other, I know what story I want to write. The question is, can I figure it out, make it compelling, and not feel contrived—it needs to do a lot of things, first and foremost, fulfill all that was promised by the opening story and echo and illuminate everything that was built in the subsequent stories. Tall order for a story of whose shape I only have the fuzziest shadow.
And so I look forward to a new semester in the fall in a new office, teaching a new batch of freaked-out freshmen, in a new apartment somewhere around seacoast New Hampshire with a whole new host of weird issues to contend with. It’s almost as if two years isn’t really long enough for an MFA, but simultaneously, I can’t wait to be done. Some chapters are short, some are not?
Ultimately, it’s that odd combination of end-of-a-good-book sad and end-of-a-good-book excitement, and I’m trying to savor the end of said good book, but I’m already starting to think about what book to read next.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Treatment of Zelda and the Appropriation of Her Writing
To say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a complicated relationship with women is an understatement. Scott was fond of saying that he “married the heroine of [his] stories!” By this admission, Scott welds his personal life to his fiction, blurring the line that the biographical fallacy intends to separate. The Fitzgeralds actively encouraged the conflation between Scott’s heroines and Zelda herself and openly used their biographies as advertising. By conflating his life with his texts, Scott opens his biography to similar levels of attention that his texts receive from critics. Therefore, one can attend Scott’s treatment of Zelda in a similar manner that one would attend his treatment of a particular female character in his fiction, pressing for insights into Fitzgerald’s changing attitude toward gender roles.
Scott was praised for his well-written female characters, and is credited with inventing the flapper, that “virtual emblem of American modernity.” Scott claimed that he wrote such good female characters because his mind was half female. However, those insights and those characters were almost exclusively based upon his wife, Zelda, and often come directly from Zelda.Later, as his marriage declined, Scott regretted the flapper, claiming that “if [he] had anything to do with creating . . . the contemporary American girl [he] certainly made a botch of the job.” (Anderson, 143). When we consider his later ambivalence toward the flapper, as embodied by Zelda, what views of women and his wife remain? A clue can be found in Chapter xii of Book I of Tender is the Night, where Scott described what the three main female characters in the novel had in common—that “they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man” (53). That he wrote this during the decline of his marriage, during a time when Zelda was challenging Scott with a novel of her own, is particularly poignant. In that scene, our narrator is explaining what makes these three women ‘good’ in opposition to most American women, a description of how a woman should ideally express herself.
This could be easily chalked up to storytelling and character, that this statement was merely the description of of these three women and should not be read as indicative of Fitzgerald’s views of women’s place in the world. However, when coupled with the level of autobiography that Scott embedded in his writing, his treatment of his wife, and his appropriation of her own writing, those two sentences from Tender is the Night take on a much weightier significance. What can we say about the nature of authorship and originality in a case where so much of the material has been co-opted from another person? At what point does the shared experience of two people pass into co-authorship, or further, into plagiarism? If we read these two sentences as Fitzgerald’s view of how a good woman expresses herself in a man’s world—through her husband instead of in opposition to it—can we then be surprised about Scott’s appropriation of Zelda’s experiences and her creative works? Apparently not, since Scott was also fond of saying “It’s a man’s world; a smart woman’ll always follow a man’s lead.” (Tavernier-Courbin, 24). As his disillusionment with the flapper and his wife increases, Scott falls back on a more misogynistic paradigm in his treatment of women and his wife.
That Fitzgerald used much of Zelda’s writing, passing it off as his own, has been well-documented. Zelda herself—in an interview in the New York Tribune at the release of Scott’s The Beautiful and Damned—said that, “Mr. Fitzgerald . . . seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” She then went on to describe portions of The Beautiful and Damned as being from “an old diary of [hers] which mysteriously disappeared shortly after [her] marriage and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound . . . vaguely familiar” (Petry, 20). Additionally, Fitzgerald rewrote much of This Side of Paradise after meeting Zelda, reshaping the character of Rosalind after her, even quoting Zelda verbatim for much of Rosalind’s dialogue (Auerbach). This was not an uncommon habit of Fitzgerald’s.
Lawton Campbell, a friend of the Fitzgerald’s recounts that “[Scott] would hang on her words and applaud her actions, often repeating them for future reference, often writing them down as they came from the fountainhead. I have seen Scott jot down Zelda’s remarks on odd pieces of paper or on the back of envelopes and stuff them in his pockets. At times, his pockets were fairly bulging with her bon-mots and bits of spontaneous observations” (Talley). Much of Daisy’s dialog in The Great Gatsby has also been attributed to Zelda as well, particularly the line, “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Keats).
Perhaps the most gross example of Scott’s appropriation is the case of Zelda’s semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz. While Scott was struggling for years with Tender is the Night, Zelda wrote Save me the Waltz in six weeks, then sent it directly to Scott’s editor Maxwell Perkins.
When Perkins showed Scott the novel, all hell broke loose. On March 14, 1932, he wrote to Zelda’s psychiatrist, Dr. Squires, in a fury of resentment which dumbfounded the clinic’s doctors. They found it necessary to apologize to Scott for having let Zelda send her manuscript to Scribner’s without first securing Scott’s approval. Scott was outraged to be submitted to the same sort of psychological and literary dissection which he had performed on Zelda in his first three novels. Moreover, as he himself said, she had used material that he had “bought” by keeping her.
Scott absolutely forbade publication until it had been revised to his satisfaction. In another letter to Dr. Squires, he wrote that he could not assent to “see her build this dubitable career of hers with morsels of living matter chipped out of [his]mind, [his] belly, [his] nervous system and [his] loins.” Of course, he had built his own career on such morsels. In May 1933, he spelled it out to Zelda during a session with her psychologist: “Everything we have done is . . . [mine]. I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.” When asked by Zelda what she should do to please him, he answered: “I want you to stop writing fiction.” (Tavernier-Courbin, 27).
Sociologist Heather Laine Talley, in an essay concerning gaslighting and so-called “crazy” women, further described how “Scott offered to edit the manuscript and promptly pilfered passages for his novel Tender Is the Night.” He also removed unflattering passages and “ironically, though he was then supposedly helping to edit it for Zelda’s sake, he . . . let it go to press unpruned of tangled metaphors and misspellings, of grammatical and typographical errors which obviously weaken it” (Tavernier-Courbin, 24). For further examples, Kendall Taylor’s biography of the couple, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom, contains an exhaustive study of Scott’s plagiarism of Zelda’s writing and ultimately declared that “in effect Zelda was Scott’s co-author.”
Scott did not only co-opt Zelda’s words, but also argued that he and Zelda’s shared experiences were solely his. Regarding Zelda’s affair with a French aviator Edouard Jozan, Scott realized that “watching his wife’s behavior toward her French lover, he could depict Daisy’s affair with Gatsby with greater veracity” and encouraged the affair until it “became a serious matter when Zelda informed her husband that she’d fallen in love and wished for a divorce” (Keats). In response to this, Scott put Zelda on house-arrest until her will broke in a suicide attempt after a month (Tavernier-Courbin, 28).
Again, the more notable example regards the previously mentioned Tender Is the Night and Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz, that contentious novel which “galled” Scott and “presented him as a pale figure, and in a rather humiliating light” (Long, 40). However, it is not just that time and those aspects of their marriage that Scott appropriated. In a parallel of Dick Diver’s affair with Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night, Scott carried on an affair with Lois Moran, a 17-year-old silent film actress. Zelda’s reaction to this affair is further paralleled in Tender Is the Night’s mysterious bathroom scene—once, when Scott went out with Lois, “Zelda filled a bathtub with her own clothing designs and set them on fire.” (Talley). In Chapter v of Book I of Tender is the Night, Scott states that “If her person was property, she could exercise whatever advantage was inherent in its ownership.” In these cases, Scott behaved as if Zelda were indeed property, though he was the one who exercised the advantage of his ownership.
Despite everything Zelda contributed to Scott’s career and the success of his writing, he blamed Zelda for the perceived failure of his career. In a letter to Oscar Forel, the head psychiatrist where Zelda was being treated at the time, Scott blamed her for instigating his drinking habit and eventual alcoholism, then went on to criticize Zelda’s requests that he stop drinking as “childish stubbornness and ingratitude” (Letters, 197). In his letters to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Scott casts Zelda as a spendthrift whose hospitalizations are to blame for Scott’s constant need for money and failure to meet deadlines. This echos Franz Gregorovius’ warnings to Dick Diver that marrying Nicole would be like “half [his] life being a doctor and nurse all together” (140). Carrying this further, the narrator of Tender Is the Night describes Dick’s downfall partially because “his work became confused with Nicole’s problems,” that “it seemed to belittle his work,” and because of this, “Dick could no longer play what he wanted to play on the piano.” (171). It would be more accurate to say that Scott quite enjoyed playing Zelda’s song when it was fresh, and jazzy, when, “in his earliest writings [he] enthusiastically portrayed [Zelda] as the embodiment of . . . a new era of romantic individualism, rebellion, and liberation” (Sanderson, 143). But later, he was ill-equipped and unenthused to play Zelda’s new, melancholy tune. In his letters to Zelda while she was in treatment, he routinely downplayed her symptoms, stating that her “feelings of gloom” hadn’t the “slightest legitimacy.” (Letters, 257). Additionally, in Tender Is the Night, it is speculated that “Nicole is less sick than anyone thinks—she only cherishes her illness as an instrument of power.” (239). Again, her illness is belittled and used as an excuse for Dick’s loss of vitality. However, the clearest and most blatant blame is leveled when Dick says to Nicole, “You ruined me . . . then we’re both ruined.” (273). Dick’s failed career parallels Scott’s own—Dick “writes pop-psychology for the lay audience rather than serious scientific studies for experts” mirroring Scott’s frequent complaints in his letters (Sanderson, 158). Rather than novels “for experts,” Scott often claimed he only wrote “hack-work” (short stories and for the cinema—the lay audience) for the money, money that he resented earning, feeling that he was “exploited,” wondering why he continued to pay the bills for a domestic life with Zelda he described as a “despicable menage” (Letters, 188).
Most Fitzgerald critics are apt to dismiss Zelda’s part, ignoring the level of her involvement in Scott’s writing. There is much surface discussion of her role as muse, but little mention of her literary achievement. In an article regarding Save Me the Waltz and Zelda’s literary talent, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, quotes preeminent Fitzgerald expert Matthew J. Bruccoli who said that “Save Me the Waltz is worth reading because anything that illuminates the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald is worth reading . . . The blunt fact is that Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s work is interesting today mainly because she was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.” Tavernier-Courbin echoes Scott’s own description of those three women from Tender Is the Night when shepoints out that “Such an attitude . . . is sharply illustrative of what Zelda was trying to fight in her marriage, that which might be seen as the very raison d’être of her novel: the fact that she was merely expected to be, to use Scott’s own words, ‘a complementary intelligence,’ a wife concerned exclusively with the interests of her husband” (23). In a review, James H. Meredith dismissed two biographies of the Fitzgeralds, arguing that it is “inappropriate . . . for literary critics to take sides in their marriage” and declares them “wrong-headed” for trying to parse this complicated subject (212). In an article directly addressing the claims of plagiarism, Jonathon Keats declared that “it makes no difference,” claiming that although what Scott did was technically plagiarism, arguments in favor of Zelda’s contributions are the equivalent of asking “the Mona Lisa be reattributed to the young wife of Francesco del Giocondo who sat, with that famous smile, as its model.” These arguments continue the status quo of erasing Zelda’s authorship and denying the proper attribution from where the jewels of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing were mined.
In a time period where women who bucked the status quo were routinely locked up in sanitariums, it should be unsurprising that Scott Fitzgerald acted in such a way. He routinely carried on affairs, denied them, gaslit his wife, and then plundered her creativity for his own work. And yet Scott is regarded as “a major male author [with] a particular insight into female psychology.” Even Zelda posthumously praised him in 1941, admitting that he “seized the essence of a girl . . . in that troubled epoch between world wars.” (Sanderson, 144). Even here, Zelda is sure to clarify a time frame for her husband’s insight into female psychology. Scott remains insightful about his flapper heroine and that new zeitgeist of the contemporary young woman, but as that woman aged, we can see Scott fall back into older, more misogynistic paradigms regarding the role of women in the world. When his insight into women began to fail him (if it could be said to have existed in the first place, outside of Zelda), he continued to mine his wife for that insight, often against her will. Zelda was not happy to exist in a man’s world and she attempted to preserve her individuality not through men but by opposition to them.
Auerbach, Nina. “Vampire to Victim.” Rev. of Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise by Sally Cline. London Review of Books 19 June 2003. Web.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night. New York: Scribner Paperback Fiction, 1995. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Matthew J. Bruccoli, and Judith Baughman. A Life in Letters. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
Keats, Jonathon. “For the Love of Literature.” Salon.com, 25 Aug. 2001. Web.
Long, Robert Emmet. “After the Ball.” Rev. of Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald.The North American Review July 1967: 40. Web.
Meredith, James H. “Marriage Tales.” Rev. of Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: A Marriage by Kendall Taylor and Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by Jackson R. Bryer; Cathy W. Barks. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review 2002: 212-19. Web.
Petry, Alice Hall. Fitzgerald’s Craft of Short Fiction: The Collected Stories, 1920-1935. Ann Arbor: UMI Research, 1989. Web.
Sanderson, Rena. “Women in Fitzgerald’s Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to F. Scott Fitzgerald. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 2002. 143-63. Print.
Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. “Art as Woman’s Response and Search: Zelda Fitzgerald’s “Save Me the Waltz”” The Southern Literary Journal 11.2 (Spring 1979): 22-42. Web.
Talley, Heather Laine. “Zelda Wasn’t ‘Crazy’: How What You Don’t Know About Fitzgerald Tells Us Something About ‘Crazy’ Women, Then and Now.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 20 May 2013. Web.
Taylor, Kendall. Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald : A Marriage. New York: Ballantine, 2001. Print.
I helped staff the Barnstorm table at this year’s AWP conference in Minneapolis this past week. It was my first professional conference.
I think the main takeaway isn’t what anyone told me it would be. Yes, I “networked,” whatever the fuck that means. Yes, I discovered the sweet spot in the rhetorical triangle between sleep, booze, and panels. Yes, I attended panels about publishing and rejection and craft. And sure, I learned some things, but nothing revolutionary, nothing that left me with this surge of creative inspiration propelling me home in a whirlwind of story ideas and renewed dedication to my craft.
No, it was just being in a place with a lot of people who love the things I love that did that. It wasn’t anything anyone said or anything I saw. It was just this unspoken vibe of community. I imagine this is what families feel when they get together or class reunions or Sunday church-goers. This sense of shared experience, this collectivism, for lack of a better word. We spend so much time, or at least I do, in this very solitary pursuit, writing at strange hours alone, fielding submissions and rejections through impersonal guidelines and cryptic dismissals, and it’s easy to forget that there’s a whole world of people out there doing the same things, loving the same things, trying to connect us all together.
Not that I’m also not discouraged as well, spending four days surrounded by 12000 people who are also trying to do what I do, who hunger for triumph and success as much as I do.
Trust me, there were a lot of Highlander—there can be only one—jokes bandied about. Luckily none of the writers brought swords.
You didn’t think a post about AWP was going to be all hugs and snuggles, did you?
The cycle of submission and rejection continues. Which I’ve acclimated to, for the most part. The rejection never gets easier, but some rejections are easier than others.
For instance, I got a really nice and encouraging rejection from ZYZZYVA which absolutely made my day. Cloud 9. (A phrase which incidentally comes from the 1895 International Cloud-Atlas in which, of the ten cloud types, cloud No. 9, cumulonimbus, was the biggest, puffiest, most comfortable-looking.)
On the other hand, there are other rejections which make me want to blow raspberries of confetti from my mouth and throw up my hands in mock-surrender.
I had a story rejected from a journal for being eighteen words over their guidelines which, sure, I understand, even if that seems incredibly anal. But they also have a one submission every six months rule, which meant I couldn’t even resubmit it eighteen words shorter.
Another rejection came 196 days after submission where they said they’d recently made the decision to limit all prose submissions to 1000 words. That decision was made over three months ago. So for the first 100 days there was a chance, but for the almost next 100, was basically eh, no hurry.
And I get it. New writers must seem like zombie hordes to lit journals. Hundreds to thousands of drooling, groaning, gross corpses slobbering at your door and all you want is to let in the few remaining, good, living humans into your fortified compound.
On the bright side, with a single publication, my acceptance rate is “higher than the average for users who have submitted to the same markets.” Which means that either I’m doing better or am just luckier than most of these writers or the people getting published in these markets don’t use Duotrope to track their submissions. My bet is on the latter.
So ends my dispatch from the trenches. I’ve got twenty submissions out, seven stories in contests, and a nice clean suit and a confident strut so no one can mistake me for a zombie craving the brains of slush pile readers and fiction editors.
A few days ago K.T. Bradford wrote a piece for xojane challenging her readers to not read white, straight, cis male authors for a year, following a similar thread of such challenges to expand the diversity of voices in our reading lives.
But I keep seeing people making the argument that the demographics of the writers shouldn’t matter, that we should merely judge the writing by the merits of the writing itself, that we’re “obsessing about authors” and how it’s “pretty juvenile” to make “arbitrary assumptions about authorship.”
At first glance, I can see merit in this sort of divorce of the author from the text. It makes sense, right. Of course you can judge a book without its cover, without its context. After all, literary criticism has been doing that for years, the whole “death of the author” movement.
“The school of literary criticism that emphasizes the text alone as something that can be assess as a thing itself independent of the identities of either the author or the readers emerged as a specific movement largely among White Male Americans, largely from the South. It was a self-conscious effort to make the qualities of literature typically found in [mostly] white [mostly] Southern [mostly] male authors into the “objective” standard against which something like the “quality of the text” can be judged.
There are problems that arise with not seeing works of literature as products of the cultures that create them. But there’s the additional problem that claims that there are objective standards to judge the quality of literature can only work if one sees their own culture as a universal standard.”
It’s the literary wing of the invisible knapsack of privilege in which the first privilege is to be able to be unaware or ignorant of your privilege. In the case of using the death of the author in this way, it’s deliberately turning a blind eye.
And personally, I’m more concerned that if someone is reading primarily texts from one tiny spectrum of human experience, in this case, white male straight cis, we’re missing out on a huge swath of what its like to live on this planet, millions of different approaches toward the questions that literature concerns itself with. And primarily, most people are reading—and the publishing industry is primarily concerned with—that one tiny spectrum of human experience.
I continue to think of it in terms of empathy. Study after study has shown that reading literature increases empathy in its readers. When we live lives through other people’s words, we see them as individuals, which makes othering, that very important step in dehumanizing our fellow people, all the more difficult.
Because othering is what leads to discrimination, war, and that whole host of human ugliness that shames us as a species. Think of what John Hersey’s New Yorker article about Hiroshima did to humanize the victims and contextualize what it meant use such a weapon, or how the media bringing the up-close-and-personal ugliness of wartime Vietnam into our living rooms brought that war to an earlier close, or how Daryl Davis is converting KKK members merely by talking to them.
Because it’s this power of narrative that drives empathy—to get downright cliché about it—it’s the other man’s shoes thing. And all Bradford is saying is that we’ve all, consciously or not, been walking around primarily in one pair of shoes for a really really long time, and maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t hurt to wear a different pair for a while, to try another path. Just try it.
It won’t hurt anyone if some people choose to concentrate on perspectives they may not usually read, voices not often trumpeted by the status quo publishing industry. And I’m saying this as a straight, white cis male author early in his career who needs as many people as possible to read his work. I should be the first at the regressive picket line arguing about how authorship demographics shouldn’t matter. But I’m not, because it hurts no one. There are plenty of voices, plenty of readers. And such challenges may just help some people who prior to this, only read from a narrow spectrum of the human experience, which frankly, isn’t healthy for us, as individuals or as a species.
My first story, “Punchline Number Nine” is now up in the latest issue of decomP magazinE. Read it. Or listen to an oddly, extra-bassy me read it to you. It takes eighteen minutes. It took hours and hours to write and revise. Think of the time compression. Think of how dense an experience it is that you’re digesting. Reading a story is, by this analogy, one of the richest experiences. Like the difference between a thousand calories of kale versus a thousand calories of cake. Same calories, but cake is the dense story of the two. Have some cake. You deserve it.