Full interview from
Alexis E Santi being interviewed by Cara Hoffman
for the So Much Pretty Blog
Cara Hoffman's novel, So Much Pretty, Simon and Schuster is being released March 15th, 2011 in retail locations everywhere. Find more about Cara and her work here at her website here: www.carahoffman.com.
Alexis E Santí is the editor in chief at Our Stories and founder. Our Stories is a unique literary journal as they review every short story that is received during their contest or free submission periods. He has been published as a writer and essayist in numerous locations and his work has been translated into Spanish and Romanian. He has been the editor of four print anthologies of the Best of Our Stories and recipient of numerous fellowships and accolades. You can find more about him at www.alexissanti.com
CH -- As a small press publisher what do you think about the Vida study that's revealed the sexist publishing practices of magazines?
AS -- You know, this sort of flew across my radar a few weeks back when this was all going down and I really didn’t pay it much mind. And, I should say, I can only respond as to the part of the study that I actually know something about which is the literary and the magazines referred to: The Paris Review, The New Yorker and the Tin House and such. I didn’t pay it that much mind not because it didn’t mean anything to me, hell no, or that as a male that I’d not realized the unspoken privilege of being in this gender, as it has ingrained in me that I should take my power for granted or something. Uhh. No again. I’m a humanist and that title includes being a male feminist. The issue to me, of perhaps much more circumstance, is that this isn’t just a simple male/female issue. To look at this from a binary perspective would be a mistake, people. As a Cuban man with a funny name, I am distinctly aware that when my manuscripts are passed around literary journals (and I don’t submit to the big boys and expect my work to get anywhere but more on that later) there the possibility (however small) that embedded in the subconscious of the person that is reading my name on the top of the page that they may have an instinctual moment of interpretation and foreshadowing of what is to follow in prose after scanning my name.
The writer in me struggles with this and feels harmed by the nature of preconceptions in what is expected of our included and excluded group identities. My name is the first piece of prose in my manuscript, to deny that is to deny who I am and everything I have ever written. The editor in me despises all biases that pre-exist and believes, as he believes in a God, that a manuscript must be taken at its value without interest in the writer, who they are, what they represent and why wrote it.
Yet, to me, this is all bigger than that and what is truly brilliant about the study is not simply the shocking and disgusting numbers of inequity but the subtext at play that needs exploring. Some of the articles I read responding to the study, I don’t know they seemed, well funny. They were SHOCKED! Simply, shocked and appalled to find that there was a bias! Come on, Slate? Who are we kidding? The articles make it sound as if this is an editor’s decision alone or that this goes to the root of sexism. I think yes and no and here’s why: It goes to the root of what is wrong with the process of selecting and supporting new material from fresh writers inside of a mass media culture that is ever-increasingly reluctant to take any chances as they do not know how they will “sell”.
The idea that the literary marketplace is flat and that your dreams are easily attainable is a myth. The work of writers breaking into the business of print writing is bifurcated to the nth degree and the study pointed out that: the gig is up.
The gig that I am referring to is the fact that the system of our literary marketplace is badly bent towards supporting those already have the connections to get into their pages. Note that I said bent, I didn’t say that the system is broken. If it is bent, it’s my hope it can be bent back. And if it is bent that means it’s still functional though it could damn well be fixed or its gonna break.
There are readers for literary journals and there are editors. The readers are the grunts working to read everything possible, for some journals thousands and thousands of manuscripts. They’ve got too many manuscripts on their hands, they’re overworked and understaffed. Every once in a while they find a gem and pass it on. That’s all they can do, send it up the chain of command. Now the editors, there is always a bug in their ear, an agent who wants their writer to get into their pages. They cultivate relationships with writers (surprised?) and they ask for stories. They do read and read extensively as manuscripts are circulated through every chain. We all know this and we know it well.
But to get into the New Yorker it takes more than a reader, you need the editor or you need at least a few successful novels so that they know who you are and to do that you’ve got to be damn good and you’re going to need an agent. They’re in the business of selling mags and the numbers are damn hard. We live in a time where the writing community is getting bigger and bigger with every generation of MFA grads (whose numbers keep increasing) and the population of literary fathers and mothers are writing more and more by living longer and longer, then you’ve got this economic force that is ever-present as the decline of revenue from advertising, blah blah blah. There is a silver lining though: the online literary magazines their talented staffs are producing some amazing work and that is allowing an unfiltered mass of talent into the world. Thank goodness we got that going for us.
Full disclosure: we at Our Stories published Cara’s short story story “Waking” in the spring of 2007.
Now logically, to that end we must question: are there dozens of female writers, agented female writers that are not getting their manuscript into the hands of editors? Sure there are because the system of exclusion that works here is set up to perpetuate what came before, not challenge itself to do something new. In the same way that Latinos, Asians and African Americans have been asked to write to their identities—women have been told to write to there own identities. Publishing is a reflection of the inequities of society, as it is what the culture of the world tells about itself—history is not only written by the victors, it is written by those deemed as reflecting the power structure. So on this point, to me, the story of JT LeRoy and how Laura Albert wrote as a man and fooled the industry is much more instructive than James Frey and how he fooled himself into thinking he was a writer. Whether it’s the editor never culling fresh writing without connections or it is they’re not taking the call of particular agents I wish I knew. In the end, it’s the entire system that I find alienating not just a single aspect of it.
Now I haven’t touched on the rest of the study, namely the lack of book reviews of female writers and without going too far back into it—I’d just say again that in this system as we’ve laid it out as such: where connections trumps everything and many industry types are scared of the unknown that the cycle perpetuates itself. Now, the hope in my opinion as to what you are witnessing today, is the reconfiguring of an entire institution and believe you me, publishing will be radically different during the rise of this generation and I damn well can’t wait.
CH-- What are the stats for men and women being published in OS?
AS-- First, a word about Our Stories. Our Stories is a literary journal (www.ourstories.us) that publishes short stories, interviews with authors and essays where I go on like I have already blabbing about something. I created the journal because as a grad student at Mason, I believed that the literary journal system was flawed. I still do, obviously. It made little sense to me that after I got out of my creative writing workshop, I’d walk down the hall to work with one of our journals. While there I’d be handed a stack of 30 manuscripts and a bunch of little tare sheet that all said, “Thank you for submitting to us, we regret we could not take this manuscript.” It seemed diametrically opposed to the process of the creative writing workshop itself; where you always give feedback. What happens as a reader is that when you need to cook through manuscripts you’re always looking for flaws and only flaws with your tare sheet ready. So when the mistake is found, well, that’s it. That’s your shot. They slip you a tare sheet and put your story in the recycling bin. Now what I mentioned before, about that stuff about the subconscious mind, well here’s where perhaps the whole readers and editors aren’t taking women writers may have traction. That the unconscious mind has set about to elide a percentage of stories that do rise to the point of becoming reviewed because they believe the name doesn’t match the prose. Is it possible? Why not? But friends, they’re then ignoring a whole lot of us.
What I want to know at what percentage to do big name journals take unsolicited manuscripts. 2%, 5% can we hope for 10%? I’m going to suggest something radical—what if in one year these magazines whose revenues are dropping every year—what if they decided to take 95% of unsolicited manuscripts? What if they told you what you did wrong. What if they really worked at cultivating new artists? What would happen?
At Our Stories we believe that every short story should be reviewed and that the writer should receive something in return for their work and their submission fee. Otherwise, I personally believe the literary journal is running an intellectual ponzi scheme taking a bunch of money, giving a chunk to a “winner” and the rest to their bank account. We give customized reviews of every page of a manuscript and try to show the writer that someone saw what they were working on. We send back a marked up manuscript with the hope that they’ll revise it. It is my hope that me and my amazing staff do not let our unconscious rule us as the last thing we’re interested in is gender, especially when we relish in giving feedback on entire manuscripts, not simply give a yes or no.
To get to your question though: At Our Stories for the past five years we published 45 men and 38 women as of this last contest period, I just sent out my acceptances not an hour ago and my hope is that’s our number. That’s 54% male to 46% female, though it has been a long time since I studied math, someone check. We’re not 50-50 or tipped in the other way (I was sort of hoping we would’ve) but we’re a lot closer than most. As far as interviews, we’re not doing as well. I’ve published ten interviews with men: Richard Bausch, Paul Cody, George Saunders, TC Boyle, Junot Diaz, Steve Almond, Matthew Sharpe, Adam Haslett, Alan Cheuse and Stuart Dybek. For women, to date only four: Ana Menendez, Stacey Richter, Karen E Bender and Dorothy Allison. This is something that I constantly on my mind, evening out this inequity and querying authors out there to interview.
CH -- Do more men submit than women?
AS-- That’s a really good question but unfortunately, short of counting every name in my system and guessing whether they’re male or female, I can’t answer that. This points to a pretty big problem in the literary world our: data. Or, as was beaten into my head doing my MSW at Washington University; data means research. Research means sciences. Which usually means for poets that there’s a pastiche poem calling them. No, seriously bad joke. However, without research it’s an uphill battle fighting for funds as we can only measure success in qualitative methods. We need to find a way to measure the success and the impact that our art has on our culture. Call me a heretic, I double dog dare you.
The literary community is notoriously poor at such endeavors and I don’t know of any MFAers out there that get down with crunching numbers—yet there should be. The Vida report–if it is anything–is an example of something that is sorely lacking: research and the data makes a frightening case.
Let me take this a step farther though, to prove my point about writing and data. There was this book written a little while back called “When Elephants Teach” by D.G Myers. The book was kind of a big deal when it was published. He said the following that rocked a lot of people:
“Estimates peg the professional success rate for graduates in creative writing at about one percent (as compared with 90 percent for graduates in medical school),... (Myers, 1996, pg. 2).
That's what he wrote. The guy is no slouch, he must be right, no? Professor at Texas A&M with a PhD from Northwestern. And his book was (and still sorta is) the book on MFA programs in the United States and the professional writer being in the classroom.
There are two startling things about that quote. The first thing that jumps out you is he seems to be saying that success is measured only with being published. You know this because as he goes on to say:
"A glance…to literary magazines or anthologies…confirms the widely
shared impression that for an entire generation of American writers a
tour of duty in a graduate writers’ workshop followed by a life of teaching
creative writing has been the stand in training and common experience of
its time." (Myers, 2996, pg. 2)
When I did research on this a few years ago for a paper I wrote on the subject I contacted the man himself because something didn't add up. When pressed on where he got his data, he responded:
“John Barth (in the reference preceding), if I remember. The figures are nothing but thumb-rules. Someone, perhaps you, needs to be a careful study of the programs' "success rate." And I should say that "success" is defined as getting a university job teaching CW.” (D.G. Myers, personal communication, October 31st 2008.)
So first off, he stated later in a conversation with me that the success of being a writer is to be in the classroom. Why he gets to define success for all writers is beyond me. Here’s the second troubling part of Myers’ passage, and I had to go and spend all of $3.99 to figure it out by going into the New York Times achieves: there’s no source behind any of the data, what he lists as data doesn’t exist.
So, I did research, I’ve looked at the specific quote he is referring to by John I’ve pulled the archives of the NYTimes. Take a look yourself at what that Myers cites for his research here. The bottom line is the 1% quote is 100% fiction, no pun intended and no thumb rule about it. It’s just a shock stat that has been passed around.
However, it has been taken as fact. I’ve read it in various prestigious journals where there are academics that have dittoed this stat, raising it above their heads as gospel. When I contacted them they feigned ignorance and suggested that I should “undertake a study” as well. The fact that intellectuals have repeated this quotation, without so much as verifying it makes me pretty bummed out. I have sat on the research for a year and those I contacted have not redacted or cited their error or thanked me for pointing it out.
What does it tell you thought? To do a MFA, might just not be so bad after all. I mean, I heard it often when I was in graduate school. A sort of foreboding conclusion that I was wasting my time with getting an MFA and that I was doomed. 1% DOOMED! 1% never going to make it?!
This fascination exists, with the continued desire to denigrate the MFA as of late in other articles, because there exists a cult of scholars, employed at universities (with PhD’s mind you) that use shoddy arguments and poor academic work to make half baked statements as to why PhDs and PhDs alone should be teaching at the university level.
Anyhoot, nuff about that, right? We’re talking gender data.
There are two companies who designed competing submission managers that could track such data for literary journals: Submission Manager, designed by Devin Emke, of One Story past and CLMP contract and Michael FitzGerald of the SubMishMash company. Both of them are gems of human beings who with some urging would, I’m sure take a lead on this. Devin could and should add male/female fields in these systems so we can drill down and have a more robust conversation. I am less familiar with SubMishMash but our system Submission Manager has no field of the sort.
CH -- Say something smart about gender. You took women's studies no?
AS -- I am a humanist and that title includes being a male feminist. I believe that there is no hierarchy of oppression. The only way to change this system is by changing ourselves and breaking this cycle.
Thanks for the opportunity.
 In The Elephants Teach Myers quotes John Barth stating, “Together they’ve probably turned out 75,000 official ‘writers’.” John Barth says. (4) endnote. This corresponding endnote reads: New York Times (January 8th, 1984). The article referenced is “Fertile Time for Creative Writing: More College Courses Every Year” (Chruchman , 1984) of the aforementioned date, by Deborah Chruchman, quoting Barth states: “There are 237 writing program like this around the country,” he said, doing quick quantum hops to produce the writer’s version of math anxiety. “Together they’ve probably turned out 75,000 official ‘writers.’” In the article there is no mention of the 1% quote that he seems to be attributing to Barth. The other references in endnote 4 is the Digest of Education Statistics,1991 table 233, p. 243 is accurate to show 592 Bachelor’s, 511 Master’s Degrees and 4 Ph.Ds). The final bit of endnote 4 states: For the number of creative writing programs see D. W. Fenza and Beth Jarock, eds., AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, 6th ed. (Paradise, Calif.: Dust Books, 1992). All three citations have no mention of 1% success rate of graduates of the MFA.