Once again the names have been excised to protect the innocent.
The dozens of pitches for books to review I receive each week generally fall into two categories: those from independent presses I know and respect, and others from PR firms hired to flog the musings of self-proclaimed experts and celebrities (in other words, 21st century vanity publications).
So last week, when I received one from a publisher I didn’t recognize, I nearly condemned it to my own version of the slush pile (a writer’s revenge for the many, many rejections he has received). But sometimes, I feel guilty about dismissing a pitch with no more than a glance. These folks were new. I’d give them a chance.
The book in question was an anthology of short stories by students in MFA programs—the ten best, I was assured. Visions of scam contests danced in my head. Oh, those poor students, ponying up twenty-five bucks each so that some sleazy publisher could make this month’s rent and put out a few hand-stapled copies of their masterpieces.
The old journalist in me took over, and I contacted the publisher. What do you charge? Where does the money go? What do the students get?
But the publicist, instead of ignoring my queries as so many do, took the time to provide sincere answers: This year we had nearly 1000 submissions. There is no fee to submit. The final judge is a New York Times Bestselling author.
Well, then. Send me a copy. I’m all about recognizing talented students. Crisis solved, students praised, and I’ve done my literary good deed for the week.
Except for one thing: I hated the book.
It’s not that the students can’t write. The stories are fine examples of the type of MFA-taught prose that dominates the chummy little world of literary journals.* And that was the problem for me. Each story selected for this anthology was a dreamy reverie filled with longing, and characters obsessed with family, or self, or floating in water—navel gazing often so overwritten that some sentences were almost painful to read. I felt, when I’d finished, that I’d been swimming in molasses.
Technically, there’s nothing truly wrong with this type of writing. However, from the perspective of the changes and innovations in current fiction and literary criticism, there is everything wrong with it. I won’t get into details here, but this book embodies nearly every fault found in entrenched, establishment fiction that critics like David Shields and Roland Barthes would care to mention.
Much has been written in recent months about how book reviewers can’t be trusted to give an honest opinion; how they sugar coat their critiques to please writer friends who might critique their work, and publishers who may someday offer them a deal. I have thought about these things as I prepare my review, and pitted my desire to write honestly against the guilt of potentially hurting the reputations of writers who are just starting out. I do not know any of them, and do not know how much their MFA programs have contributed to their writing styles. And they are still students—shouldn’t I cut them a large slice of slack? I have no wish to do them harm, but in my opinion, this anthology illustrates many of the weaknesses I believe exist in established fiction, MFA or not, and I have an obligation to inform readers. After all, people will spend money to buy this book.
Most of the blame for these stories must lay with the publisher’s first readers, editors and the judge. Who can say what else was in the 1000 entries they received? Who knows what was passed over in favor of these pieces? Ultimately, it is their literary sensibilities in conflict with mine.
I’m still working on the review, trying to find the balance among all the factors involved. I will post a link when it’s up, for those who are curious about the outcome.
*And I have an MFA, so I ought to know.