Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Lit Biz, 1

This is how it's supposed to work:

Major in English lit; grad school for your MFA in creative writing where you learn much about craft and make valuable connections. (Note those connections for later.)

Your thesis will usually be a collection of stories and you will be encouraged to send them out individually to literary journals--what used to be called the "little magazines" because once upon a time many "big" magazines published short stories. A few still do.

The fresh MFA recipient thus graduates with a dollop of hope--first, from the literary agents out there trolling the journals for "new, compelling voices"; second, from the network of industry contacts accumulated by his or her professors. The professors recommend their students to agents and editors, thus vaulting the student over the mass of poor wretches clamoring at the gates.

(I believe I'm detecting a trace of bitterness in my tone. Let's squash that right now.)

Because I had my shot at that process years ago when I was in the UH Creative Writing Program. No less than Don Barthelme gave me an agent to contact using his name. Did I do it? No. I already had an agent. Did I keep the name for future use? I'm sure I must have, but I've never been able to find where I squirreled it away. Almost like I willed myself to lose it, right? Exploring the possible reasons for that would take several novels, most likely.

Anyway, I had an agent for several years. She loved my novel manuscript and sent it out to editors. (Yes, novel. We were told in those days that there was no market for short stories. This was at the beginning of the boom in writing programs whose graduates have created the very market the programs currently exist to supply.)

My agent at the time--a former editor of Hale's at Doubleday--sent out the manuscript, DINNER PARTNERS, to 23 editors at last count, and every one passed on it, with kind and sometimes even enthusiastic comments about wanting to see the next manuscript. It's easy to see why they passed, too, since I hadn't figured out how to bring the varied elements of a novel together.

In fact, I hadn't learned anything about how to construct a short story, either. Focused obsessively on the health of individual trees--sentences in this case--I had missed the architect’s plan for the forest. I had absorbed practically nothing about the craft of narrative structure.

Teaching craft has evolved wonderfully since then, of course, with all those MFA grads out there teaching their competition to surpass them. The stories in the magazines today seem marvels of competent writing. It almost gives one hope for the printed page and for thoughtful communication in general.

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