Literature Lives in Print

Note: This article first appeared in the print edition of the Press-Enterprise on December 15, 2013, in the Inlandia Institute’s weekly column.

Last month San Antonio, Texas, opened Bibliotech, America’s first bookless public library, which allows patrons to borrow inexpensive e-readers and download electronic books from home. For us writers and lovers of literature, the mission before us was clear: Lament! My Facebook feed was full of posts forecasting the end of paper books: Would it be five years? Ten? “Technology doubles ever year, Moore’s Law!” the pessimists fretted. The more nostalgic among us simply shared their first encounters with books: the smell of the glue, the weight of the pages, the paper-cuts—all things our children will never have a chance to experience.

As a publisher of print literature, my career is on the line—I should be rending my garments as much as anyone. But I’m not worried. Paper books are here to stay, and every tablet and e-reader that’s sold only makes them a better home for writing that we truly value.

When I hear publishers complain about ebooks, I’m reminded of broadcasters predicting the demise of radio when television was introduced in the late 1940s. Their concerns were understandable: Why would anyone just listen to a program that they could also watch? And it is true that television brought an end to the Golden Age of Radio—but it’s also true the producers were able to adapt.

When an environment changes, creatures survive by learning to fill a new niche. There was no longer a need the serial dramas and quiz shows of the past—television could clearly do that better. But there were other formats that played to radio’s strengths. The high costs of television production meant that radio was more nimble, and it quickly became the superior format for up-to-the-minute news. This led to further development as a medium of discussion, with popular call-in shows that gave their audiences a new and broader soap box, and then the modern shock jocks and NPR story hours in counterpose.

Six decades after the introduction of television, there’s still a radio in every car—and the internet has brought it back into our homes, in a way, with the ubiquitous and often idiosyncratic “podcasts.” I don’t have access to television, but I listen to radio-like streams every day—interviews with authors and lengthy lectures on an array of topics that would have never been broadcast otherwise. What’s more, this content works better as audio, where complicated information can be presented without any excess visual distraction. The mind has room to muse. Podcasts, I think, have become the medium of the day-dreamer—and millions of listeners take advantage of that every week.

As we become increasingly plugged-in to the digital age, I’m sure paper books will find a similar fortune. Books provide something that technology tends to destroy: Let’s call it “sanctuary.” I don’t have to explain how this happens; everyone who has a smartphone knows the bitter-sweet buzz of a new message. Everyone’s read an article online and been distracted by the banner-ad at the side of the screen. This will only get worse. Google Glass. Cortical implants to project the web directly into the mind’s eye. If you think you feel distracted now, just wait ten years.

And in ten years, when you want a break from it all, you’ll pick up an old-fashioned, dog-eared, glue-smelling, paper-scraping book.

The tech companies want you to pick up an e-reader, but the problem is e-readers feel too much like what you’re longing to avoid. E-ink is nice—especially for those with vision problems who need to enlarge the text—but anything that has a screen and is the size of your phone looks like your phone. And you’ve already spent too many hours conditioning your brain to be distractible while using it. When I read an ebook, I can feel a tingling on the left side of my frontal lobe that’s telling me to toggle over to another program and check my email. It’s an itch that I’m wasting attention on by not scratching even when I don’t. My fingers are ready to X-out a pop-up ad. My auditory cortex is primed and waiting for the next beep of a tweet. Even though none of these things will be coming from my e-reader, my brain has been trained to expect them. It’s impossible to lose myself when I’m so self-aware.

Only when I open a real book can I finally relax and become immersed in what I’m reading.

In the future, we will return to paper as a sanctuary, as a place for quiet contemplation and introspection. We won’t bother reading tabloid magazines or informational texts in print—ebooks are better for that; we can give up that ground. But when we want to escape our world, when we want to explore complicated ideas, when we want to feel deeper emotions and come to truer understandings and use our imaginations at full capacity—when we want to experience literature, in other words—we’ll always turn to paper books.

_______

p.s. This article was written almost five years ago. In the time since, Real Books Are Back: ebooks sales are down, print sales are up. You can also see our waning interest in ebooks by looking at the download totals of Rattle‘s ebooks, which are offered free to subscribers. Every issue sees fewer download than the last, despite the fact that print subscriptions are up 105% (more than double!) since 2013.

To Blurb or Not to Blurb

Once a week, on average, I receive a request to blurb someone’s poetry book. For the last five years, I’ve been saying no. For a while it was a hedged no; I’d say that I probably won’t have time, but feel free to send the manuscript, anyway. A few dozen consecutive failures and that evolved into a blanket no. No, sorry. No, sorry. Sorry, but no.

Time, of course, is a major problem—even with the best intentions, and when I know I’ll probably love the book, it’s hard to find the time for extracurriculars when 20,000 poems still need replies (and they always do).

It’s more than that, though. When my own book was in pre-production, I asked seven of my favorite poets for blurbs. It was as awkward as it is for everyone else, but that’s what you do with a new book, and I did it. Almost immediately two of them replied in a way that I never expected: They said that they didn’t have time, but that they trusted me, and/or already knew that they liked my poetry, so if I needed a blurb I could just write one myself, and put their name beneath it. One said that I should send it to them for approval, but the other said I could use whatever I wrote unseen. I told them both I wasn’t comfortable blurbing myself, and used other blurbs instead. I know they were genuinely trying to be kind and not unethical, so I won’t say who they were. But I was more than a little taken aback—one might be a fluke, but two of seven? Every time I read a blurb now, I think of this.

And then there’s the fact that blurbs are ridiculous. I don’t need to describe how they’re ridiculous; everyone who’s read them knows they’re ridiculous. Dan Waber put together a great take-down with his Blurbinator, but there have been many.

They are hard to write, of course; that’s why they’re ridiculous—the balloon is so inflated that anything less than “John Keats reincarnate occupying the emotional space between an orgasm and angioplasty” sounds like faint praise. There’s an art to it, but it isn’t a fun art, nor an art that, I think, does much good.

Needless to say, all of this really interferes with my natural impulse to help books that I enjoy find a wider audience. I’ve been planning on writing more of these microreviews, which are basically just honest blurbs after publication—it’s still hard to find the time, but I want to try.

This morning I was declining my 40th blurb request of the year, and found myself halfway through a sentence saying that, while I can’t blurb the book now, I might be able to microreview it after publication, when the obvious occurred to me—why the hell am I offering to consider blurbing later, but not now, when it will be much more useful to the author now?

Here I am, holding a grudge against blurbs for the simple fact that I hate them because I can’t trust them, when I could instead simply try to make them trustworthy.

So I think I’m going to start treating blurb requests the same as I treat review copies: You can send me your manuscript, and a deadline, but you can’t count on me. If I don’t reply, it will either be because I didn’t find time to read the book, or because I didn’t love the book—but I’m not going to tell you which it was. The fact is, I don’t love many books, but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. And of course I’ll continue to only comment on books that I actually love. And have read.

I shouldn’t have to say that. And I probably don’t; the whole enterprise probably isn’t as bad as it seems. But I vow to stop being so cynical about it from now on.

After Reading Fifty Poems From the Best Literary Magazines

AFTER READING FIFTY POEMS
FROM THE BEST LITERARY MAGAZINES

1.

Either I
have very

good taste
or very

poor taste
or there’s

no such
thing as

taste
at all.

2.

Most poems
are bullshit

pinned with
apocalypse

and pinafore
lit up like

a damn
beer sign

but this poem
says it’s bullshit

which means
it’s less

bullshitty
than at least

fifty poems
so print it

up somewhere
preferably paid

and give me
an award.

I’ll write ten more
for tenure.

Bougainvillea.

3.

In all seriousness
I wouldn’t

like one in fifty
of my own

poems
either.

Oh Contrarian

On Sunday, I sat on a panel of editors talking about “How to Stand Out in a Slush Pile.”  Whenever I do these things, I can’t help feeling like an arrogant iconoclast.  Like the class show-off, asleep with his feet on the desk, because he breezed through another mid-term exam.  That was me in high school and college, though, so maybe that’s just me.

The rest of the panel was a quintessential group of editors — well-meaning, selfless, committed people — but I find myself disagreeing with almost everything they say, right down to the very nature of what a literary magazine should be.  Other editors never say they like chatty cover letters, they never recognize the importance of the internet, they revere the established literary order, rather than approach it skeptically.  There are many exceptions, of course, which is why they’re worth pointing out (praising the decisions of the Poetry Foundation, for example), but the old guard is an old guard, and for the most part, I think they’re wrong.

Rather than talk about the panel, though, I thought I’d turn back to the always-useful CLMP Directory (if you care enough about the business of poetry to be reading this blog, you really should at least flip through a copy at the library sometime).  Scattered throughout the book are interviews with editors, each asking the same dozen or so questions.  Since they didn’t ask to interview me, I’ve never answered them before;  I figure now’s as good a time as any.  Maybe I’ll get in the next issue.  What I’ll do is quote from a typical editor’s answer, and then explain how I’d disagree.

Do you have any cover letter advice?

Definitely: keep it short and to the point… You may include a brief bio note (professional, not cute — or at least in the style of the notes in that particular publication), but more than that may do more harm than good, sometimes revealing more than you intend to…
–Margaret D. Bauer, Editor, North Carolina Literary Review

Editors always say this, and it’s perplexing to me.  If I read 50 cover letters a day, and they’re all short and to the point, using the same form paragraph, I’m not going to read them — so why even include one?  For the most part, despite all the submitters’ hand-wringing and editors’ admonitions, I just don’t pay attention to cover letters whatsoever.  I skim them to see if there are any specific questions, and if they have a personality and the poet is funny or friendly or freaky or smug, I think, “Well isn’t this person funny or friendly or freaky or smug!”  But how does that have anything to do with the poems they sent?

The same thing applies to bios.  Yeah, sometimes people write whole paragraphs about their cats, and that’s sad.  Sometimes people list all 160 of their publication “credits,” and that’s obnoxious — but we publish obnoxious people all the time, why should I care?  I’m not inviting them to my house for dinner or adopting one of their arthritic cats; I’m printing their poem inside a stack of perfect-bound papers.  Most of the people we publish never meet me outside of a letter or two.  I don’t have to like you — and even if I do like you, I trust my sense of objectivity enough that it holds no sway.

To go even further, I don’t understand why it’s assumed one should include a bio in the first place.  If you read Rattle‘s guidelines, you might notice that we don’t really ask for one.  Yet they always come, because it’s standard procedure, because when typical editors tell you that your publication history doesn’t matter, it’s B.S.  There’s always a steady stream of posturing about how only the writing really matters — but if that were true, bios would only be requested after the fact.

What do you look for in a submission?

I would guess most editors would answer this question in much the same, vague way.  We look for work that is exciting, dynamic, and fresh.  We want excellent prose and images that surprise. … Finally, we look for what we’ve come to call the “pop-up factor.”  I finish reading a piece, I pop-up out of my chair, find the first person I can, and say, “Oh my god, you’ve got to read this!”
–Jeanne Lieby, Editor, The Southern Review

She’s right that this is a very difficult question to answer without being vague, but my answer is technically (at least) specific — I want a poem to be memorable.  I want to be walking through my day and spontaneously think of something I read in Rattle five years ago.  That’s no easy task, reading 50,000 poems one year, and having any of them live in your heart to the next.  But that’s the challenge.  And I don’t think the prose has to be sparkling or the images startling to achieve that — transformation can come in any register, from any poet, on any subject, in any style.  And does.

That is a vague answer, though.

How are submissions processed at your magazine?

Even though we reject 95% of what we read, we read eagerly. We are incapable of disrespecting the slush pile (even when we experience a long run of bad material) because we have learned that the slush pile, like the world at large, contains surprises.  Some of our best material came in the mail, unbidden.  Once that happens, you, as an editor, are forever altered; you will always see the possibilities of submissions, no matter how grinding that reading can sometimes be.
–Marc Smirnoff, Editor and Founder, Oxford American

Well, if we only rejected 95% of what we read, each issue would be 2,500 pages long.  And if only “some” of our best material came in the mail, unbidden, we’d be publishing an awful lot of blank pages.  For me, the slush pile doesn’t just contain surprises — the slush pile is the entire enterprise.  I’m trying to build an active community of participating poets, and that means everyone who submits is a part of the community.  There is no VIP entrance straight to the balcony.  Everyone who comes here has to knock, and it’s our job to answer the door every time.

I think this is the fundamental difference between my view and the common view.  Reading submissions is, indeed, like panning for gold (a common metaphor), but to me the stream is more important than the gold itself.  The gold is always there; it’s the water that gives you life.

Do you have a favorite unsolicited submission discovery or anecdote?

This may be contrary to popular belief, but we don’t solicit often.  Because of The Southern Review‘s history and stature (and because we pay our authors), we really don’t have to.  The daily mail contains work from some of this country’s most important writers.  On one day, I received poems from Charles Simic and Mary Oliver. But that should in no way discourage new writers. Our greatest joy is finding writers whose work has not yet reached a wide audience.
–Jeanne Lieby, Editor, The Southern Review

If you take a look at the Winter 2009 issue of The Southern Review, you’ll notice that both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver are there in the table of contents.  I’m sure those poems did come in the mail, unsolicited, as I’m sure does most of the work in the magazine — and let me say, too, that it’s a wonderful production full of fine writing, and one of the magazines I admire.  But there are two kinds of solicitations, I think — when we use that word, we’re usually referring to the active process of asking a poet directly if they have some work to share.  Most often, I assume, there’s the implication that the editor might look at the work and ultimately say no, even though it was requested.  Of course they rarely so no, but they could say no — fine.  In a typical magazine, these kind of solicitations seem to account for about 20% of the work in an issue.  Some entries in the CLMP Directory list that self-reported figure, and 20% seems to be the average.

But in addition to that, I think, is an unspoken Godfatheresque “offer-too-good-to-refuse” solicitation, wherein the editor, upon receiving poems from both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver on the same day, ends up publishing poems by Charles Simic and Mary Oliver.  Every single time.   This is just a hunch, because there’s very little evidence one way or the other — editors don’t talk about poets that they rejected; to do so would be offensive, if not unethical.

I won’t tell you who, either, but I’ve rejected my share of well-known poets, and I can guess from some of their reactions that it doesn’t happen to them often.  Some are gracious and understanding, but many of them get pissed.  They write back telling you how many awards they’ve won, and how worthless your opinion is, and then they never send you new work ever again.  They see you at a conference years later and act like it never happened, because maybe they forgot, or maybe they want to prove to you how little that interaction really meant to them.

Now, I love both Charles Simic and Mary Oliver.  In all honesty, they’re two of my favorite poets.  But when I read their books, I can’t turn off my editor’s cap, and I know that I’d only want to publish maybe 1 in 10 of their poems in Rattle.  Sometimes the poems only work in the context of the book, sometimes they’re on topics or in styles that we’re tired of, and sometimes they’re just not interesting poems.  So if both Simic and Oliver sent us poems on the same day, the odds of them both appearing in our next issue wouldn’t be very high.  (And if you two are reading this, feel free to test me!)

There’s an idea that’s pretty ubiquitous throughout the literary world, that having names like Mary Oliver and Charles Simic on your back cover helps you sell copies.  But I really don’t think people read literary magazines to see big names — I think what sells copies is a consistent and fair editorial process, and poems that are memorable.

If I were answering this question, I do have a favorite anecdote.  Again, I don’t want to reveal the poet’s name, because the story might be embarrassing for him.  But there’s one poet who sent us a submission every month for years, and had been doing so long before I joined the staff at Rattle.  He was always friendly, but eternally persistent.  And then with submission #45 — after showing us almost 200 poems — he sent one that I absolutely loved.  I really wish I could tell you which it is, because I was so happy to publish it, but I won’t even hint. Sorry.

What advice do you have for first time submitters?

For crying out loud, read the magazine you are submitting to. … Guess what?  Editors aren’t interested in pieces that falls outside of their interests and inclinations.  Luckily for freelance writers, editors are predictable beasts.  To find out all about their secret and hidden loves and hates all you need to do is scour their magazines.
–Marc Smirnoff, Founder and Editor, Oxford American

This statement is everywhere, and usually accompanied by a plea for subscriptions.  I do think it’s important to read a magazine’s guidelines, because certain rules do have important administrative implications.  For example, because of our email system, it’s really important that subject lines are unique, so we ask that people include their name, rather than just “Rattle Submission.”  I’m not the Soup Nazi — it just makes it much easier to organize 50 submissions a day.

But I couldn’t care less whether or not you read Rattle first, and the last thing I want you to do is read the magazine and send us poems that sound similar to pieces we’ve already published.  Why the hell would we want t repeat ourselves?

Contrary to Marc’s statement, I’m particularly interested in pieces that fall outside of my own personal tastes.  If you really want to be manipulative, the best way to get into Rattle is to write a cover letter that says, “I’ve read a few issues and didn’t see any of ____ kind of poetry.”  I want the magazine to be eclectic, and the quickest route to a guilt-trip is to point out my own blind spots. Getting past them, and imagining how a poem will effect a reader other than oneself is the biggest challenge for any editor.  I can use all the help I can get.

If literary magazines ever get unstuck from the mud of cultural irrelevance, editors are going to need to change the typical mindset.  Journals aren’t tabloids or glamor magazines or Sports Illustrated, and they never will be.  They’re not objects of consumption; they’re organisms of involvement.  They shouldn’t be disseminated from a mountaintop, but rather grown from the ground.  Poetry isn’t spread; it’s cultivated.  Slush isn’t slush; it’s soil.

Open Letter to the Poetry Foundation

Dear Poetry Foundation and/or Christian Wiman:

Does this count as an open letter, if I never actually send it to you?  I probably won’t, which means you’ll probably never read this — but that’s fine.  If you read this you might reply, and then I’d have to think about replying to your reply.  I’m not the corresponding type; I’m the lazy type.  But I read your editorial on remembering Ruth Lilly in the March issue of your magazine, and I was moved to say something somewhere, so it might as well be here.

What I want to say is this:  I think you’re doing a hell of a job.  You Christian, you Don, Fred, Valerie, Gina, Christina.  John Barr and the board, everyone who works on Poetryfoundation.org.

You’re rich now, so it’s not cool to say this, but I love the Poetry Foundation.  You received an unfathomably large gift 8 years ago, and have done nothing since but work tirelessly putting it to good use.  As a fellow poetry editor, I’m in awe of the outcome — you’ve taken on all the tasks I would have, given the resources, and completed them with a constant sense of elegance and enthusiasm.

Poetry Magazine is tasteful and timely, beautiful in production, and as relevant as a literary journal can be.  Somehow the mood manages to be both austere and inviting, and the discussion at the back of each issue is as interesting as the poetry itself.  I don’t always enjoy the poems you publish — in fact, I probably like less than half — but I’m always left with the sense that you do — that your motives are pure and your selections non-political.  And that’s all you can ask of a literary endeavor.  Tastes are subjective, but tastefulness isn’t, and you’re tasteful.

To top it off, you’ve made the outwardly generous, inwardly smart decision to give it all away online, for free.  In this age of advancing technology, many editors fail to embrace change, and finally render themselves irrelevant.  Your 30,000 subscribers is proof that there will always be a place for poetry as a physical object, and that digital media can enhance the experience at the same time as it expands readership.

Speaking of which, Poetryfoundation.org has become not only the best home for poetry online, but one of the best sites on the internet.  Aesthetically, it somehow manages a rich presentation, without feeling cluttered.  It’s as attractive as it is functional, and makes the most of new media.  The Harriot Blog is a perfect use of the format and the Poetry Tool is an amazing resource.

To sum, the Poetry Foundation has done everything I wish I could do, and has done it better than I could have imagined.  And I’m good.  I don’t settle for second-best, and I don’t find very much to be worthy of praise.  But I’m grateful for the Poetry Foundation, as a reader of poetry, and as an editor of a smaller journal — you provide the perfect, invincible foil for me to struggle against.  Rattle will never catch up to you in circulation or relevance, we can only hope to move closer, so I’ll always have a Sisyphian task to toil on.

So it saddens me to see that you’re still receiving these jealous criticisms, 8 years later.  When you first received the $200 million bequest, the rest of the poetry world was full of quiet — and sometimes vocal — condemnation.  I don’t talk to other editors very often, and still I can think of many occasions where some would complain about the “fairness” of Ruth Lilly’s generosity.  Couldn’t she have done better by giving $200,000 each to a thousand different poetry organizations around the country?  She could have given the money to libraries, so that every community in the U.S. would have one shelf dedicated to contemporary poetry.  Giving that much money to one small group of poets is obscene.

And that’s just what’s said over beer at the AWP.  As Christian Wiman describes in his editorial, the mainstream media — even without the envy — has been no more kind.  “Willy Nilly Lilly” is just one ugly headline.  “The Moneyed Muse” by Dana Goodyear is what stands out for me — the irony of a magazine like The New Yorker, who uses poetry as nothing more than a token badge of high-brow credibility, criticizing a foundation devoted solely to verse was astounding.

Wiman displays much of his own grace in only defending Ruth Lilly, who turned a life of solitude and depression into one of the largest philanthropic gifts in history.  But the Poetry Foundation deserves defending as well.  Ruth Lilly inherited her wealth, and spent the end of her life finding good ways to give it away.  The Poetry Foundation inherited a portion of that, and is now working hard to do the same.

What more could we ask of either of you?

Sincerely,
Tim