Saturday, December 30, 2006

Writey Awards for 2006

Another year has come to an end and instead of taking one of the dozen of surveys submitted to me on asking me to note whether I have kissed in the rain or met a celebrity this year, I decided to take stock of my year in writing. If you're thinking about writing maybe this will give you a little insight into what you can expect. If you are a writer, then this inventory might be too common to illicit sympathy. Regardless, here is what all those envelopes sent to strangers have gotten me this year.

2006 was my first year in writing after earning my M.F.A. from Spalding University. The previous two and a half years were a wonderful time, during which I was allowed to speak the common language of literature with incredibly helpful and warm faculty and friends. With the degree in hand, I started out 2006 determined to make my diploma more significant than just a piece of paper in a drawer. Here is a brief count of the numbers for this year.

Number of submissions (novel, short stories, etc.): 74

Number of rejections: 43

Number of acceptances: 1

Number of submissions awaiting response: 30

Number of publications that lost my submission: 1 (as far as I know)

While this might look grim to some, it should actually be encouraging. 2006 wasn't that bad a year all things considered. I had two things come out in print, and I have three more pending publication. Also the large number of submissions awaiting response is due to the fact that most every publication takes three months or longer to respond to submissions. Add to that the holidays (basically forget anything being accomplished in from late October to early January) and this year could still turn out great. It might sound like a silly hope, but as a writer you depend of silly hopes because sometimes they come true.

Since I covered the large number of submissions from this year awaiting response, I might as well go through some of the other numbers since numbers have no emotional value and therefore are the arch-enemies of writers. Below are my Writey Awards for 2006.

Best Comments From a Rejection Letter (non-form):

"...the resulting narrative is at once fresh, sardonic, disturbing, and emotionally powerful."
-Zoetrope: All-Story

"...I admire the giddy nature of your writing.."
- Zoetrope: All-Story

" (the story) was among the top ten finalists.."
-Alligator Juniper

* Please understand that I actually agree with these rejections, and they helped me revise my work. I include these because they are "nice rejections." Next to be accepted, a hand-written note wishing you the best and encouraging you to re-submit is as good as it gets.

Worst form rejection slip:

Any form rejection designed to be the size of a playing card to save paper. Several journals use these.

Best form rejection slip:

Santa Monica Review
(It has this great, "Look, we know how it feels..." opening.)

Best Comment from an acceptance letter:
"Wonderful story! Very real, and gritty.." Heartlands

*Other publications that have accepted my work and/or printed it this year received the work before 2006 and therefore were not eligible for a Writey.

Most confusing and/or frustrating moment of 2006:

Two stories named finalists in contest with well-known judge, and set to be published in August. Not sent galleys until October, and told they would be published in November. Issue still not out, and my last email to the publisher (in December) has not been returned.

Honorable mention: Story submitted to publisher in December of 2005. Emailed publisher after six months to find out status. Not told that the story was lost until October after two months of correspondence with secretary.

Best Moment of 2006:

Walking into a bookstore, opening a glossy newly printed book, and being able to see something I wrote inside it.

The Writeys Awards for 2006 above do not include the whole meandering process of trying to get my novel published, as that would be a whole essay in itself. To give you an idea of what it has entailed so far though, my novel has been rejected by nineteen different publishers and literary agents. The publishers have for the most part not read the book, and suggested I get an agent. The literary agent have for the most part ignored my query letter (one actually sent the envelope back unopened.) My novel has been with a publisher for five months now, and I haven't heard anything which is generally a good sign. I hope for the best, and keep the envelopes in the mail.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Electronic Afterlife of Art

The internet is a huge city whose machinery moves so fast there is no time to consider urban renewal. Graffitti, written by unknown hoodlums, remains on the sides of passing trains year after year. Posters for bands that have long since disbanded stay nailed to utility poles. Chalk drawings on the sidewalk do not fade over time. Every rambling piece of art and expression continue to exist, and wait for rebirth.

A few months ago I was contacted by an Israeli publisher regarding a story I had published online years before. The story involved The Salvation Army, genital piercing, and teenage girls. I could not image what an international audience would think if they ever read it, but when the contracts arrived from Tel Aviv, I signed them. Then I forgot about the whole affair, considering it a bizarre event that would never be repeated. I was wrong.

Today I was contacted by an Indian publisher who wanted permission to republish a personal essay I published online about attending my first NASCAR race in Bristol, TN. What an Indian publisher would want with my exploration of largely southern race car culture is beyond me, but once again I granted the rights to publish my work in a country I will never see.

These request have left me a little puzzled. But when I considered them I came to a few conclusions.

First, I relized that culture is culture. My befuddlement at what an Indian publisher could want with an essay about race car culture in America must in some way be equal to that of a Hindu priest wondering what National Geographic could possibly see interesting in a temple dedicated to rats. The temple afterall is a part of his every day life, and most Americans belong to a different religion than his own.

Secondly, I realized that the internet allows art to have an afterlife. Words float in the electric ether waiting to be considered and reborn in new forms, but this blessing is not the sole territory of literature. Music is downloaded, shared, and posted. Art is pasted onto new pages, incorporated into other works, and photoshopped by strangers worldwide. Art is reincarnated every day in small and large ways, and its audience is sometimes the most unlikely thanks to the angels of search engines and scrolling screens. Once it is created and born into the electronic realm of being, it remains.

Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney's Book of Lists

This week, for the first time, I was able to walk into a bookstore and find something I wrote for sale. While it wasn't a book, or even a story, it was a great quiet moment. While what I wrote was something that might better belong on the back of a cocktail napkin, or in an forwarded email, it was nice to see my work in print. It was also one of those moments in life where failure, either my own inability to count and/or that of the copyeditor's, mixes with success. My list (Seven Band Names That Would Be Impossible to Book) appears in the anthology Mountain Man Dance Moves: The McSweeney's Book of List, although the list as printed includes only six names. Buy a copy. It's my greatest success and misstep to date.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Are Fake Memoirs the New Fiction?

By now, weeks after the story of James Frey's Million Little Pieces has broken, the public is aware that the work which was awarded a coveted Oprah's Book Club selection spot is riddled with gross exaggerations and out right lies. The book which was marketed as a memoir of addiction and recovery has been shown to be more of a work of fiction sold as memoir, but in the end, does it matter? Memoirs aren't gospel after all, they are an author's rememberance of a period in his life, and in the bottom line world of publishing sales matter more than integrity. Nonfiction outsells fiction, so the question must be asked if the fake memoir is an attempt to straddle this demarcation of genre and perhaps produce a tradition which is more attractive to the shrinking readership of America. Is loving a lie enough?

James Frey is certainly not alone if you consider his work pioneering instead of immoral. Many other authors have been taken to task for what they have presented as fact. Augusten Burroughs memoirs such as Running With Scissors have been attacked as self-serving, unfair, and false. J.T. LeRoy, whose works including Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, was once heralded as a wunderkind of immense social and artistic importance, only to be revealed as an imaginary author whose works were in fact written not by an ex-street kid prostitute saved by therapy but by a woman. However neither of these authors have suffered for their inaccuracies or imagined personas. While Augusten Burroughs new memoir contains a disclaimer, a film version of Running With Scissors is set for wide theatrical release. The same is true of the make-believe LeRoy whose memoir The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was made into a film by director Asia Argento. The stories remain accepted despite their questionable origins and no authors have been run out of publishing on a rail.

But why would anyone feel cheated in the first place? Why does it matter if a good story told as fact is nothing more than fable. The answer comes from the very nature of writing.

In any genre one writes in, it is understood that the author has made an unspoken contract with the reader. In a work of fiction, the first few chapters of a book serve to inform the reader as to how he or she should read the manuscript. The reader learns whether the narrator can be trusted, if the work is supposed to be accepted as hard fact or allegory, whether the laws of time and place exist or are thrown to the wind. In a work of nonfiction that feeling-out process doesn't exist as the work by definition is accepted as truth. The same is true of memoir, only with memoir there is another agreement the reader makes with the author. He or she not only agrees to accept what is written as truth, but in a small way, conceeds to sympathize. The anger many readers felt towards Frey, the sense that they had been cheated, comes not only from his violating the term that his book is fact but also from the dull-pain that their sympathy was undeserved. This is one of the reasons the negative response has been so profound. Both a televised tongue-lashing from Oprah Winfrey and litigation from readers have followed. People don't like to feel that they have been made fools of, or do they? Burroughs and LeRoy will continue to publish as there is no publicity wave moving against them. Thankfully for their sake, their books were never Oprah Book Club selections.

But is the fake memoir the new fiction, a marketable crossbreed of fiction and non-fiction which can freely take elements of both in crafting a story? Are the sales of non-fiction proof that the public is ready to make concessions? If so this genre would allow new freedom. First it would allow the reader to suspend a little belief but not all, keeping an air of control that must be submitted when reading fiction. Secondly, it would allow the author the freedom of an essayist to craft a story on the skeleton of truth while at the same time exaggerating and creating randomly for affect.

At first glance it is attractive, but the arguement for this new wave of writing falls apart on closer inspection. There are purist readers on both sides. Readers of fiction want to understand that there is a wall between the art and the artist. Readers of non-fiction don't enjoy being lied to or having their emotions toyed with. And in the end all fiction is cobbled together from real life experiences and attitudes, whether they are the authors or not, and non-fiction owes it success to the willingness of its readership to accept and empathize with what it presents as fact.

While the reading public might love the lie, they hate the liar.