Why Do We Read?

The missus and I met with two other couples yesterday afternoon for a neighborly chitchat. It didn't take long for the conversation to drift toward end-of-life issues. Not that any of us suspect the end is in sight; it's just that another, older neighbor does feel so, and he seems bent on drawing as many of his neighbors as he can into that obsession.

So with the funerals planned, the kids taken care of, the talk turned to religion. It's the liberal's game when this topic comes up in our neighborhood; we're educated far beyond our capacity to make use of it, and thus we compensate by posturing as wise as Solomon. None of us knows what's on the other side of our seventy or eighty years, but we're sure we're ready for it. And in the course of this conversational drift, we – because we're oh, so wise and liberated in our thinking – we poo-poo various specific scriptural passages and alternately defend these thousands-of-years-old insights into life very nearly to the death.

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And I kept wondering: do we try to live as millennia-old desert dwellers, rolling out parchment hen-tracked with tribal hieroglyphics? Or do we surrender to the vastly different reality of the twenty-first century, perhaps aware of what's been bequeathed to us by these ancient nomads, and nod our heads at the occasional similarities to these old papyri in our modern literature? Or do we read as an alternative to Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory? 

Certainly we need diversion. But if that's all there is to books – Harlequins or noir mysteries, or cowboy dust-ups – why do so many read something we casually call literature? Is literature simply exotic language couched in complex structures and woven about some vague sense of story? Or is there something there beyond the pale? Are we reaching in a secular way for the same sense of order and understanding that the primitives of our past reached for in their way? 

I have my suspicions. But I hate to think literature, books, reading – this is nothing more than fashion.

Bluestone Bests Most

Of the occasional litmags I receive, The Bluestone Review proves to be the most unusual – and the most interesting.

But an aside: I had been asked by writing friend Addie Davis to submit something to them, and not knowing much about the magazine, I submitted three pieces of poetry I'd written a couple of years ago, and three prose sketches that subsequently resulted in short stories. They accepted two poetry pieces. 

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The Bluestone Review is published once a year and bills itself as "a community arts collective published by Bluefield College." And this West Virginia publication lives up to that billing. The writing throughout (including, I suppose, my poetry) is of the decent, journeyman sort, but its subject matter is what's most intriguing. 

Time after time, I find in this the 17th edition of The Bluestone Review subjects ranging from family life to the Afghan war and back to introspective topics. But invariably these works transform to statements about the natural world. The implication here is that the human experience – despite our technology and our metaphysical tendency to divorce ourselves from nature – seems always to return to native earth.

This sort of editorial posture makes of Bluestone what litmags were meant to be, I think, instead of showpieces for academic literary technique and style and dumping grounds for the "in" academic writers.

Kudos to editors Marland Funk and Jackie Puglisi and faculty advisor Rob Merritt for bringing the world of litmags back to earth.

The Atlantic Just Doesn’t Get It

In the May 2011 issue of The Atlantic, James Bennet tells us of a writer who depicted the state of published short stories thusly:

"…not quite dead on the page,I won't go that far, but airless…show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers."

Some disgruntled writer wannabe? Nope. Stephen King. Bennet wrote this in order to claim that the mag staff had heard this, and had published a pair of stories in this issue to show their dedication to good short fiction. 

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Much as I've tried, I've never been a fan of The Atlantic's fiction selections. Oh, there have been a few, uproariously entertaining and/or provocative, but for the most part, their selections fit King's description of the modern short story to a "T."

I won't go into detail regarding the two stories in the May issue – go to the library and read 'em. One's not bad. The other? Well…

This Just In….

Sometimes things work out in favor of your arguments. The May/Jun 2011 issue of Poets & Writers magazine ran an article on the demographics of literary contests, and I couldn't be more pleased to discover that I wasn't barking up the wrong tree in my last post. 

Many who read this post may subscribe to P&W, but I'll knock down a few of the most salient points. 

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The article contained an interview/discussion with several poets. Among their comments:

  • MFA students often screen stories for the primary judge(s).
  • Sometimes judges select stories by persons they know.
  • Contest fees go to prizes and advertising, with little left over.
  • Judges take minor fees.

Then there are the pie charts given:

  • Female winners outnumber male winners by a ratio of about 3:2
  • 2/3 of contest winners are poets, fiction 1/5
  • Almost 90% of winners are MFA, MA, or PhD grads.
  • Winners by territory are about evenly divided across the U.S.
  • About 80% of winners are white (non-Hispanic) 

Clearly, these data indicate the literary playing field loaded toward academia and the sub-genre MFA-style writing, or by those with academic training.

Not that that indicates malfeasance. I'm just saying….

Contesting Contests

One approach to resume-building for writers is writing contests. On the surface of it, entering contests sounds like a way to elbow your way to the top of your genre. It often is, but you have to be careful in what you enter. I recently received the results of a fiction contest I entered, and I'll use it as a case in point.

But first let me say I don't intend this as a rant against either MFA programs and graduates, nor against contests – I've won a couple myself. And I've come to understand that, even in those I've won, the laurels are more a shakeout of vagaries than a careful assessment of talent. Which is not to say that you don't have to have good writing skills and a compelling story to win contests – you do.

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So with these caveats out of the way, let me get down to it: 

This contest had 98 entrants – an unusually large number and, paradoxically, large numbers of entrants can be a playing field-leveler. Not so in this case.

The winner, runner up, and the next couple of those mentioned in the top ten considered were MFA grads or creative writing instructors in college. Now, I've said enough about my problems with MFA programs, but they do teach the basics. However, they tend to homogenize talent in ways that don't lead to literary innovation. In general, then, writing spun out of academic settings seems to be a genre in itself – heavy on technique, which tends to minimize the  - and I hate to use this word – metaphysical, or deeper aspect of story that makes for literature.

As well, the judge was an academic. This loads the contest sharply toward MFA grads and writers who lurk in academia. And so it is with most other contests.

So my advice to those considering entering contests: look at who will be judging. Then look into this writer's (or educator's) background, what he/she writes or teaches. If you find a contest to be judged by someone whose background and/or writing sensibilities are compatible with yours, then enter.  

There's a built-in bias in contests that's not based on the entrants' names or backgrounds, but in their style of writing. It's not worth it to bemoan the fact of such biases. Instead, take advantage of it where you can. Winning contests, despite their warts, are considered credentials of great esteem, and agents and editors do notice who wins them.