Thursday, October 15, 2009

Has Reading Become Passe?

Dad: What are you doin' today, son?
Son: Ehh....being bored.
Dad: Why don't you try reading a book?
Son: Pop, I said I was bored, not desperate.
B.C. comic strip, dated 8/13/09

I was trying to think of a way to tie in the above comic strip with a decent post about reading without having it turn into a major rant about the publishing industry. My first attempt started relatively decent enough, but by the third paragraph it had pretty much dive bombed into a temper tantrum about the publishing industry and the overall IQ of the general public.

So back to the drawing board I went. I was basically shooting blanks for about a week and a half, when I happened to notice one dull morning prior to going to work, a copy of a literary journal called Crazy Horse siting on my dining room table.

Bingo! Inspiration struck with the ferocity of a baseball bat (or for my non-American readers, a cricket bat) to the head. I'm gonna attempt to tie in the following topics: reading and the lack thereof, and literary journals.

If it works, it'll be a great post that will get you to say, "that was a very interesting observational post." If it doesn't, you'll get to witness first hand on how my exacting standards caused me to experience a paradigm shift.

If you ask the average person what they read (if anything), chances are that you'll get answers like: magazines, tabloids, newspapers, and the occasional pop culture book. If you ask the average person if they've read anything heavier, they'll probably say something like: "I read the latest {insert the latest hot author} and it was pretty heavy."

If you press and ask, "Do you read the latest from Glimmer Train?", more often than not you can hear the sounds of crickets emitting from the person's mouth. Which to me is about as normal as an answer that I'm gonna get.

When I was first starting out on this adventure called 'writing', the first thing I did was pick up a book called "The Novel & Short Story Writer's Market." One of the first pieces of advice that they give to aspiring writers is that they should enter writing contests.

Now back in 2006, I was a supremely over-confident writer of really crappy stories (seriously, my stuff was gar-bage), so what I did was enter all of my crappy stories into as many writing contests sponsored by literary journals that I could find (New Letters, Glimmer Train, Boulevard, Black Warriors and Crazy Horse, just to name a few). One particular bonus of the entry fee for a lot of these contests was that you got a few one year subscription to the journal.

To be honest with everyone, until I started writing not a single one of these fine journals was so much as a dust speck on my reading glasses. Why? Basically, I was probably like about 85% of the reading public and had no idea about what kind of story mags/journals were out there.

By early 2007, I had about eight subscriptions going. I really tried my best to read them from cover to cover, but eventually I gave up. Why? Because I felt, right or wrong, that most of the stuff that people were writing and having published was 1} way too literary for my tastes, and 2} felt like they were all formulaic. To me, it seemed like the people being published all had M.F.A.'s (that's Masters of Fine Arts for all you normal folk like myself who don't do educational alphabet soup on any kind of basis) and writing the same way (sort of like method acting).

If it sounds like I'm knocking these writers, I'm not. It's just that in my humble opinion, writing serious literary short fiction for a specialized readership and not trying to gain new admirers, really is an exercise in futility. To me, it seems that a writer, no matter what genre or type of fiction/non-fiction, should always be trying to expand his/her audience as much as possible.

Now, most of these literary journals that I had subscriptions to (and still do unfortunately), had some impressive pedigrees attached to them. Almost every single writer that I read had the following things in common: 1} M.F.A.'s; 2} They taught; 3} They won a slew of prestigious academic oriented writing contests. At least one journal turned out to be a semi-personal vehicle for the publisher. This is all well and good, but the average person is probably not going to be impressed with those kind of credentials. They want to be able to read stories that 1} provide a good escape and 2} will somehow in a small way, stick with them. They don't want to read stories that would require some analytical thinking on their part.

This begs the question: Are they any writers that can have feet in both worlds, the high end literary and the normal general purpose?

Note: I wrote this simply as an observational post on the state of reading today. No disrespect was intended, directly or indirectly, to anyone who is an actual answer to the above the question.


  1. Hey G. Good blog post and true, too. I feel frustrated at the demise of reading.

    Just to let you know I've been banned again. I'm not even gonna fight about it this time. People are hurling insults all over, bashing your kids and there's obscenities flying everywhere, and I keep getting banned. They can go to Hell. I'll give it awhile and then come back to chat with friends. Ciao for now...


  2. "the average person is probably not going to be impressed with those kind of credentials. They want to be able to read stories that 1} provide a good escape and 2} will somehow in a small way, stick with them. They don't want to read stories that would require some analytical thinking on their part."
    Yup, yup, yup. And, there probably are a few, rare few that can plant their feet in both worlds but I wouldn't have a clue who they are.
    I have no interest in reading anything that is just a chance for someone to impress me with how brilliant they are, or explain, to death a theory that I understood, the first time they told me.
    I'll read most anything but I'll toss a book aside if I am being talked down to, the writing is stiff or strange or the topic, characters or even the print on the page doesn't hold any interest for me. My time is valuable. Give me a good story line, characters that have some depth to them and a decent writing style and I'll probaly finish the book. :)Bea

  3. I must confess that I do not have time to read the really literary stuff lately - except if it is for my book group and then I do. But I don't like cranked out formulaic stuff either. Usually something in between. Right now I am Pat Conroy's new book, "South of Broad."

  4. Truth: Drop me an e-mail, I need to talk to you about something.

    Bea: It is a shame really. The magazines (both paper and online) that I read are few and very far between. Matter of fact, I mostly read Beat to a Pulp, because the stories are good and they leave good lasting impression.

    As for books, I'm reading mostly non-fiction, with just a sprinkling here and there of fiction. I find it's easier for the most part to wrap myself around a good non-fiction book. Fiction is a bit tougher for me to wrap myself around, because there are so few writers that I'm impressed with to begin with.

    Lynn: As a rule, I don't do the really heavy literary books. While I'm sure that they're good to certain extent, for the most part, they're not for me.

    As for the literary journals, I'm sad to report that I haven't read any since last year. I still flip through the ones that I'm currently letting the subscriptions to expire, but for the most part, the stories are a bit too heavy for me to wrap myself around.

  5. I'm a book fiend and would love to have more time to read. I read four books in my week of vacation. I would have squeezed in more if reading on road trips didn't give me a headache.

  6. R.K.: good to hear.

    It's funny, but most of the people I run into nowadays in the real world, don't read that much in the way of regular books, just books on cooking and/or dieting.

    I've toned down my book fiendeness (is that even a word?) as off late. Don't really have that much time to do it as of late, but when I did have the time, I read anything and everything.

  7. I've always been an avid reader and the source doesn't matter to me as much as the substance. Many of the literary mags and journals are very pricey and quite often their formats aren't the most enjoyable. Most of my friends are readers, too, and we all agree to disagree because good writing to some is trash to others. It's all so subjective. In the end, we all know what we like and we love recommending books to each other and seeing what someone else thinks and having great discussions about what worked and what didn't work. It's a rare book that we all agree is fabulous...and I think the last one was in the 80's - lol!

  8. I have had a few pieces published in online literary journals, though my work was nonfiction (music essays) rather than fiction. I tend to submit to keep busy when I'm in a waiting lull with other projects.

  9. Talon: I would have to agree with you about being somewhat pricey, but it sounds about par for the course. Most literary journals come out quarterly, thus the need for the price range of $12-$15. But if you spread it out over the course of the year, then it sounds about right (subscription costs say $36-$48, spread out over a year, that would be about $3-$4 per issue as a monthly)

    Joanne: That's a good way to keep occupied when dealing with down time.

    I actually enjoy reading essays, and in fact, they were one of the few things that I really liked about literary journals.

  10. Is Dan Brown considered literary stuff or low end?

  11. Bear: I'm not sure. I've never read any of his stuff, nor do I intend to.

    I do know that the publishing community is acting like he's the second coming of the savior that is gonna save them, because no one wants to give a bad review or say anything negative about his latest "masterpiece".

  12. I worry that the younger generation will bypass reading in favor of quick "reads" like texting. I always joke with my sons that they want to avoid work at all costs. To them, reading may look like work. Scary thought for a reader like me.

  13. Septembermom: I would have to agree about the younger generation not reading like we do.

    About the only other person in my household who reads books is my (8 soon to be 9) daughter.

    Although my wife took up reading the sports section this summer because she started following...yech...the Red Sox.

  14. I'm generally horrible at keeping up with subscription reading. I used to do reader's digest, Sci-Fi mag (Asimov), n a bunch of mags-
    Lit journals tho, yes do seem too follow the genre rules, which these days is old-fashioned!
    Everyone's reading the net...

    I'm reading my fourth of Micheal Reeves work of a "Star Wars Prequel series" fiction book, "MedStar II, Jedi Healer." I'm about ready for a Bacta tank or some synthflesh anytime now...

  15. Snaggle: Early on with these subscriptions, I was able to keep up with them, simply because they were quarterly to begin with (even managed to extend them once or twice). Eventually though, it got to the point where they were starting to intefer with my writing and what not. Always felt whenever I was reading them, I needed to be writing instead.

    So, the only real subscription I maintain (simply because I don't watch television) is a newsletter about wrestling.

  16. I agree with Bea... as to writing having to... " 1} provide a good escape and 2} will somehow in a small way, stick with them.'" Well put, G. Very well put.

    I would not say Stephen king is a literary writer but he's go those 2 points going for him.

    I think our kid enjoys reading and hope she will stick with it. Moreover, I hope people will keep writing. And good stuff!

    Me? Blogs, blogs and more blogs! I love the reality show of it all.

  17. I agree with your assessment of Stephen King. There are very few writers out there who can do that.

    My daughter enjoys reading immensely. I hope that it will continue when she grows older.

    As for me, I'll always be reading. Someday, when they find me cold and stiff, there will probably be a book that they'll have to pry from my cold dead fingers.

  18. I have read almost all of Steve King- minus the new ones. Dark Tower Series was a fave- the "Roland" cowboy guy, stuck in my head. I have a book collection.

    Woops, meant to spell name "Micheal Reaves" correctly...

  19. I've read only one book by Stephen King and that was "The Dead Zone".

    I actually like the monthly column he writes for Entertainment Weekly. It's always thought provoking and on the money.


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