Monday, April 20, 2009

Pulitizer Prize goes to Elizabeth Strout

Another kick ass short story writer takes the Pulitzer Prize, Strout is the author of the collection: Olive Kitteridge, described as a novel in stories.

From the LA Times:
Elizabeth Strout has won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, it was announced today, for her book "Olive Kitteridge." Set in rural Maine, the book is woven from short stories in which Kitteridge, a strong-willed seventh-grade teacher, appears.
Read the rest of their article here.

Suggestions for Narrative Magazine

I've been having some great conversations offline with some friends, colleagues and fellow writers lately about Narrative Magazine. Here are some suggestions I've come up with for Narrative:

1. Narrative should promise X amount of space in every issue to those who submit fees. Is it once a week a new writer will be published or is it once a month? Tell your readers up front. Couple this with an open breakdown of where your money goes to from submission fees. There's a contradiction between what you say the guidelines lay out and the staff members who say they work for free. Narrative could make these changes to their business tomorrow.

I might add that since they are a 501 (c) (3) their 990 forms are public record and show what their take and expenses are every year. With a little digging someone could publish these figures, maybe we will.

2. Narrative should give something--anything--to those who submit, extra access to their website, discounts on future submissions, partner with another business like P&W and get discounts there. Narrative does not appear to have a positive exchange with their customer's hard earned dollars. This would positively effect Narrative's bottom line dramatically. And something like this could easily be done in a few months.

3. A reading fee should include a statement of feedback when a rejection is sent; this feedback would affirm that the piece has actually been read. This may require hiring more staff but heck they can afford it and if they can't afford it--I know a few dozen readers who would work for the experience.

These suggestions are in order of what can be done immediately and what may take a bit more time. I welcome your own comments, suggestions or criticisms as well.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

E. L. Doctorow "The Writer in the Family" ~ & conversations with Margaret Dawe at Wichita State

One of the benefits of going to an MFA program is meeting writers. Margaret Dawe, the Chair of the English Dept. at Wichita State and author of the critically acclaimed novel Nissequott, will always be one of the most influential teachers I've had. Her workshop and a class I took with her on plot (in which we memorized all cryptic lines in Aristotle's Poetics) left indelible marks, and when she called my thesis (which was later published as Ash Dogs) "wonderful," well, you've just got to take one of her classes to understand this means a lot.

In a conversation with her (me from China, using email), she recommended I check out the following Doctorow story since one of the things I learned about being a writer from Margaret has to do with the role a writer plays in a family, a role that is not always pleasant.

E. L. Doctorow's story "The Writer in the Family" appears as the first story in ''Lives of the Poets: Six Stories and a Novella" and is one of the most moving stories anyone can read.

It follows a youth named Jonathan, whose father Jack has died, but whose paternal side of the family, in particular Jonathan's Aunt Frances, lies to Jonathan's paternal grandmother that Jack, failed salesman, has moved to Arizona.

In truth, Jack, Jonathan the narrator's father, has died.

“Years ago his life had fallen into a pattern of business failures and missed opportunities. The great debate between his family on the one side, and my mother Ruth on the other, was this: who was responsible for the fact that he had not lived up to anyone’s expectations?”

Aunt Frances, to appease the whims of Jonathan's grandmother, asks Jonathan to write letters--in the name of his dead father. Jonathan does.

Though published twenty years ago, here is one of the best stories anyone who loves fiction, and who is wondering about the writer's role in a family, can read.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Update on: Nepotism Defined

I recently received an email from Reese Kwon, author of Superhero. As a refresher her bio is above. She is a gracious and kind person.

She has made me aware that she was hired by Narrative Magazine after her story was published. In her words:

Some time last year, I submitted a story to Narrative; it was accepted; a few months after that, the editors asked me if I'd like to come on board to help them as an assistant editor, and I said, sure.

So, there you have it, she was hired after her story was accepted. In my response to Kwon I said that I understood but that Narrative should consider clarifying the issue on their website. She then went on to state:

Like most literary magazines--maybe like yours, too--they depend on having some free labor to function, and they tend to ask people whose writing they like if they're interested in contributing in other ways to the magazine.

And we do depend on staff to help work on the journal. The big difference with us--during contests--is that everyone who reads a story works the submission fee behind the story. The staff members put between two and three hours on each submission, providing a page-by-page analysis of the story's strengths and weaknesses. Each staff member makes 83% of every dollar that comes into Our Stories. During the other 6 months of the year, yes, the staff volunteer their time but are only asked to read 5 stories a month and provide some short feedback to every author, usually a paragraph or two. At every other contest in the country your submission fee does not guarantee your work will be read thoroughly, the best you can hope for is a subscription to the journal.

I want to make another correction though. In my previous post I stated that Narrative Magazine used to charge a reading fee for all submission. That is not the case. For 2 weeks in April and 2 weeks in August Narrative does not charge a submission fee, for the other 48 weeks out of the year they still charge you $20 to read your story. They still charge a reading fee and you still do not receive anything for your fee.

So I am escalating this with Narrative. What does your reading fee go to, if Renee Kwon does not get paid for working on your staff? Is she not an administrator that their guidelines are referring to? In their words from their Submission Guidelines:

However, for unsolicited submissions, we do charge a nominal fee, which helps cover the basic administrative costs related to receiving, reading, and responding to submissions. Also, a portion of the reading fee helps fund our annual Narrative Prize. .... You may read the magazine for free. If you enjoy reading it and wish to submit, we hope you will feel that the reading fee, which is lower than most literary magazine subscription fees, is more than justified by the quality of the work the magazine offers.

Kwon closes her letter to me by saying:

So you're right that I help them out; the chronology of events, however, was reversed.

It is our policy that we do not hire anyone who we have published. That's just us.

I want to apologize publicly to Ms. Kwon for insinuating that she was published because of a personal connection to Narrative Magazine. However, I urge Narrative to change her bio to accurately reflect the chronology of the events and to drop their dubious reading fee.

Short Story Praise in the New York Times

A. O. Scott has a great piece in the New York Times today. Check it out. It's worth five minutes of your day. A. O. Scott is a fantastic writer, he's especially known for his movie reviews which are always entertaining and insightful.

Here's the link.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Nepotism Defined:

I'm in the process of reading short stories for the Million Writers Award. I stumbled upon the following story which was published last year. For those of you who are not familiar with Narrative Magazine they're something of a heavy weight in the world of short stories. Their prize money is huge. They publish HUGE names and are rolling in the dough. They are also, well, jerks in my opinion. For a long time they only accepted submissions with a twenty dollar reading fee. What did you get for that reading fee? Not a damn thing. They would simply write you back months later and say that they rejected your story. They were part of the reason I decided to found Our Stories.

Anyway, back to my mini-rant. So I'm judging all these amazing stories and I get to this one: Superhero by Reese Kwon. Now, mind you I have NOT read the story and I'm sure there's talent there. Again, remember this is not about Kwon, this is about Narrative, and I just want to be clear on this. So, buried in the bio of the author is the following:

Kwon is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine, and "Superhero" is her first published short story.
Are you kidding me? Not only is it wrong to publish a staff member in your journal because the ethical implications of not reading manuscripts blind and possibility that your personal relationship would interfere with your judgment but the fact that there was no previous publishing credits before this seems a red herring. I think that's what really pushes me over the edge here, I mean--sure--you guys run a big company with tons of money, engaging the community and you take money from struggling writers and don't give a damn about their submissions and you publish an unpublished staff member? Come on.