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Art or Business, Part 3: My Conscience Bothers Me, And I Hope It Always Will

Why the sudden interest in whether your and my writing is art or business?

A few weeks ago, an established writer sent a long, and well-thought-out Facebook post[1] explaining why he would never submit to Tahoma Literary Review, because we charge submission fees for fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Although it was one of only a handful of negative comments we’ve received since our January opening, it has remained on my conscience, mostly because of the implication that we are placing the burden of TLR’s success on the backs of poor writers.

The dozens of positive comments we’re received, and the 600 submissions that came in during our first reading period would seem to indicate otherwise, but the idea still nags at me. Have we created a little gated community of writing, where only the affluent can afford to dwell?

My response is as complex as the society in which we live.

If you will permit me to stipulate that Kelly’s, Yi Shun’s and my knowledge and experience qualify us to produce a literary journal (and those qualities are no prerequisite, btw), I will explain.

Literary citizenship is a powerful motivator for each of us. It was a key tenet of the curriculum at our NILA MFA program, and something we believe in independently. Part of that philosophy, to us, includes the idea that published work is worth something—something more than a nice note from an editor and a contributor copy in the mail (unless it’s an online journal, and then the writer doesn’t even get that permanent record of her work).

I pay a guy to cut my grass. I pay people to haul my garbage. I pay a five-buck toll to drive over the bridge near my house. These things, in our society, have value. I write a story that contributes to the intellectual and emotional discussions taking place in our society, and do I get paid? Not if it’s published in ninety-plus percent of the lit journals out there.

Some people say that art should be pursued for its sake alone, not for its monetary rewards. I agree with that. But as I noted last week, it’s awfully hard to do that when the basis for everything else in our society is monetary. Some compromise is necessary.

There is so much I’d like to say here about what TLR is doing to provide value to ALL submitters, whether chosen for publication or not, but blogs need to be kept fairly brief. So let me say that when we decided to start TLR (and we worked on the idea for months before announcing it), we considered a few factors. First, published writers deserve fair compensation for their work. Second, our aim was to publish a professional-quality publication—which means establishing a professional organization, which means business licensing, organizational fees, government fees, marketing and advertising costs and more. It ain’t cheap. We’ve already spent thousands of our own money in this regard. Our critic correctly points out that these costs are usually borne by wealthy patrons or university budgets. But what if we aren’t one of those? Does that mean we can’t publish, or that we must become one of the hundreds of amateur publications that exist for an issue or two and then fold once the publishers realize the work involved and that they are spending too many hours with no compensation?

A key to our decision to charge fees was the fact that the literary journal world’s audience does not support it financially. Sure a few university alums buy a copy. A few friends buy copies of the indie journals. But unlike other genres, in which a subscriber base provides sufficient revenue, the lit world is mostly supported by the writers themselves. (Hence the fact that most lit journals now hold “contests” to raise operating cash, in which they charge $15 to $30+ to submit. And how this is more equitable to writers than our model is beyond me.)

So with all that in mind, we conceived of the concept of a professional, transparent, collaborative model of literary journal. One in which writers understand the realities of writing, and are willing to share the cost of supporting it, whether their work is published in it or not. As editors, we plan to take one-third of the funds raised to compensate ourselves for the work we put into it, although that won’t happen for a while. Ultimately, we will seek grant funding and sales of the journal to raise compensation and lower submission fees.

Without sounding too corporate, let me add we’re committed to using the success of the journal to fostering increased awareness of literary reading and writing, writing programs and literature in general. TLR is a starting point for that.

I’ll close with this:

Is art that mystical, solitary obsession that cares not for the praise and wealth its success might bring? Yes.

Is art an eternally unhappy marriage with the money-grubbing world of business? Yes, that too.

TLR is all about trying to make some sense of this awkward, illogical relationship, to connect creativity to reality. And yes, my conscience bothers me about whether we’re doing it right. I hope it continues to do so, since that’s the only way I’ll stay true to what I believe in.


[1] Since it wasn’t on a public web page I can’t provide a link, otherwise I would do so. For that reason I also won’t give the writer’s name. That’s somewhat moot anyway, since the point of this blog post is not so much to rebut the criticisms, but to discuss what it made me think about.

Morning News

03/31/14: My story, "Plunge," is live at Stoneslide Corrective. They're a cool new journal and book publisher. I used a pseudonym for this one, for future marketing considerations, as they say.

02/28/14: I'll be moderating a panel titled "Stoking the Fire," about finding the writing life that's best for you, at the annual AWP conference on Feb. 28.

10/03/13: Here come da judge! I've been named final judge for the Adult Fiction category of the Detroit Working Writers 2014 conference. I'm excited, because judging the Poetry category will be US Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey! Just being mentioned in the same sentence with her is an honor.

9/24/13: Woodward Press co-publisher Dora Badger and I will present a discussion on Self Publishing Options at the annual Rochester Writers Conference on Saturday, October 5 at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan. Registration is still open for the event, so if you're in the area please join us.

8/1/13: The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has accepted my panel proposal for the 2014 annual conference in Seattle. "Stoking the Fire: Maintaining the Passion for Writing When Success Eludes" will feature co-presenters Kobbie Alamo, Teri Carter and Q. Lindsey Barrett.

2/8/13: Kestrel, the literary journal of Fairmont State University in West Virginia, wrote today to accept my short story, "Nixon in State." Too bad it was already accepted by Lumina (see below). I did tell them, of course, but sometimes those notes get misplaced. Still, it's nice to know the story was appreciated. The fact that it would have been Nixon's 100th birthday on Jan. 9 may have influenced these selections, but I certainly didn't write the story because of that.

1/18/13: My short story, "Nixon in State," has been accepted by Lumina, the literary magazine of the graduate writing program of Sarah Lawrence College located in Bronxville, NY.

12/19/12: A holiday present from BULL (Men's Fiction). They just emailed to say they'd like to publish my story "The Decline of the Swan." I'll post a link when it's available.

10/30/12: Two acceptances in one day! My short story, "The Killer of the Writer," has been accepted by The Lifted Brow, an excellent lit journal based in the Melbourne area of Australia. Not to brag, but here's what their fiction editor said about it: "I love this story. It's smart without being self-involved, composed without being cold, fresh without being gimmicky. There's a Bolano vibe to it that I really like, because it's such a fantastic synthesis of style and subject matter, but it never felt derivative."

10/30/12: My short story, "Every Man Unto His Family," has been accepted for Palimpsest: A Creative Journal of the Humanities, a nationally-distributed publication of the University of Colorado that includes literary fiction and poetry, film and theater scripts, creative nonfiction, and all modes of visual art.

10/5/12: My short story, "Unexplored Landscapes," has been accepted for the print issue of Prick of the Spindle, a journal published by Aqueous Books.

Tahoma Literary Review Now Open for Submissions

TLR is officially open for submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. To find out more about this new (paying) literary journal, please visit us at Tahoma Literary Review.

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The Face Maker and other stories of obsession is my collection of short stories out now from Woodward Press. Kelly Davio, author of Burn This House, says. "In stories that range effortlessly across time period and place, Joe Ponepinto delivers the kind of masculine character we crave in literary fiction; these characters wrestle with the most essential questions of morality, and they bare-knuckle box with their human frailties." Find it on Amazon in paperback and Kindle. Want a signed copy? Email me at jpon (at) thirdreader (dot) com.

For the editing and tutoring services I offer, please see my companion site at Third Reader.

I am the Book Review Editor for the Los Angeles Review, a literary journal.

For links to some published stories, go to my Publications page.


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