3 interviews + 4 new essays

Four essays and three interviews I've completed recently, for those who don't obsessively follow all my tweets

1. For the Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote about the challenges of offering support to students who have much bigger problems than teachers can actually solve.

2. For Buzzfeed, I wrote about the Philadelphia Eagles taking on Donald Trump, and how they've done a fine job of not playing into his hands by getting into a stupid cable news shouting war. 

3. I contributed to Essay Daily's cool "What Happened on July 21?" project, in which writers try to document their days on 6/21/18. My piece got a little darker than I expected it to.

4. Lyz Lenz interviewed me at The Rumpus about How to Be Safe. We talked about writing from a female POV, Twitter's influence on the novel, and pre-apocalyptic books. 

5. Bradley Babendir interviewed me about How to Be Safe for The Millions. We talked about research, finding a compelling voice, propaganda, lightning, and more. 

6. The blog Advice to Writers asked me a few broader questions about what I'm reading, how I'm writing, and what advice I would give to younger writers. 

7. For The Millions, I wrote a piece called "Who Will Buy Your Book?" which quite a few people seemed to like a lot, and which seemed to really annoy a bunch of others. 

News + more news + how I learned to teach

A roundup of links and news and so on below:

  1. In the past couple weeks, How to Be Safe has gotten starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, and Library Journal. A sample from Booklist: "Combining a deep character study, prescient satire, and an unfortunately all-too-timely evisceration of U.S. gun culture, McAllister’s well-voiced and remarkably observed page-turner is in almost all ways an anti-thriller—itself a comment on the current, terrifying mundanity of similar events."
     
  2. In The Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote some of the nicest things anyone has ever written about my work. A sample: "Like nothing else I’ve read, 'How to Be Safe' contains within its slim length the rubbed-raw anxieties, the slips of madness, the gallows humor and the inconsolable sorrow of this national pathology that we have nursed to monstrous dimensions."
     
  3. If this sounds like the sort of thing you would like to read, you can pre-order the book from pretty much anywhere.
     
  4. How to Be Safe is also on the LibraryReads top 10 list for April. Librarians, as always, are our favorite. 
     
  5. I've been adding a lot of events for HTBS. Right now, they're mostly in the Philly area, but I'm continuing to update that page, so please check back occasionally to see if I'll be in your neighborhood. 
     
  6. The Millions published another short essay of mine, this time about how I learned to become a better creative writing teacher by breaking away from a default syllabus and giving students more freedom. There's also some discussion of the worst day of class I ever endured. 
     
  7. I think that's it.

What to do with my body

This morning, as I tried to process the news about the shooting in Las Vegas, I wrote a very short essay called "What To Do With My Body In the Event I Die in a Mass Shooting." I had intended to maybe not share it at all, or just post it on this site, but the good people at The Rumpus liked it and published it this afternoon. 

You can read it here. It starts like this:

 

Take that body and don’t even clean the blood off the skin, don’t wash it out of my clothes. Don’t change my facial expression or adjust my posture. Don’t do anything to hide the reality of my death. Let people see me exactly how I was in my last moments, my face twisted in horror and confusion, my body curled unnaturally as if hunching my back could ever protect me from the bullets (nothing can protect you). I want them to see my mouth agape, my eyes feeling betrayed but also weary, because in those final moments, I know I would be shocked but not surprised (you can’t be surprised by something that happens every day; nobody is surprised to see the sun rise in the morning).

Book Extras: A Re-imagined Life

Note: In Fall 2016, I wrote a short essay about the origins of The Young Widower's Handbook for The Algonquin Reader. For those who weren't able to get their hands on a copy, I've reproduced the essay below. 

A RE-IMAGINED LIFE

First you start drinking, then you start talking about death. It’s a natural progression.

At least it is for my wife and me.

We’d been dating for two years when my father died of esophageal cancer. A year later, her mother died of ovarian cancer, the byproduct of a hereditary predisposition that she passed on to my wife. We were in college then. Time suddenly seemed very limited. The future seemed like a place other people got to visit, but not us. I moved to Iowa City for grad school and she stayed at home with her dying grandfather.

After two difficult years of maintaining a long-distance relationship, I was in both a personal and professional crisis: I’d wasted my time in grad school, drinking every day and never writing, and I was coming home carrying no completed work and about thirty extra pounds. I had applied for a temp job and had no marketable skills. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to marry her. I proposed after my graduation, and then we drove home together, our first real road trip. I called my brother from the parking lot of a Bob’s Big Boy to tell him I was getting married. We got lost in western Pennsylvania and drove until midnight looking for a place to sleep. I don’t remember much else from the drive, except the feeling like I’d passed through something, like I was finally entering the good part of my life.

Four years later, we were in Seattle, celebrating our third anniversary. The year before that, we had gone to Ireland, and before that, we were in San Francisco, and there had been a number of shorter trips in the interim. Since then, we’ve traveled to Italy and a dozen other places. I’m an anxious traveler—about the logistics of flight, about the crowds, about visiting the right places at the right times, about being lost—and I wouldn’t have gone on any of these trips without her. I would have talked about going, but never committed. And, as much as I’ve enjoyed our travel, I realized recently that it’s never so much about going to a specific place as it has been about being with her while we are in that place.

There has been an unspoken urgency to our travel: to see as many places as possible while it is still possible, while we are still physically able, and while we’re still both alive.

By the time of our Seattle trip, we were both in our late twenties; if we were fated to die at the same age as our parents, then we had already crossed the midpoint of our lives.

I know it sounds melodramatic. But the deaths of our parents were foundational for us; they made us acutely aware that at some point one of us will be alone again, and quite possibly that will happen long before we’re ready, if being ready is even a possibility.

When we were in Seattle, the weather was so perfect it was suspicious (had everyone been lying about the rain just to keep visitors away?), and we were sitting outside at a French restaurant that served homemade sausage that tasted better than almost anything I’ve eaten in my life, and we were both feeling very lucky to have a life that allows us moments like this. We were deep in that giddy mid-vacation high where we had convinced ourselves that not only could we move to Seattle, but we should. We ordered the fourth-cheapest bottle of wine to avoid looking like the kind of cheapskates who just pick out the lowest-priced bottle regardless of quality. We started talking about where we would travel for future anniversaries, and then she said something about how I’d better not die on her.

I promised not to be dead—or rather, I promised to try really hard to not be dead—and then I asked her for the same. Soon, we were discussing how I would handle it if she died suddenly. Would I still talk to her family? Would I sell the house and move a thousand miles away? Would I ever date anyone again? Would I even leave the house? Would I completely collapse (this was my prediction)? Would I eventually find some way to rebuild a decent life? Friends are sometimes horrified to hear that we used this occasion, of all occasions, to talk about my hypothetical life as a widower. But it’s not like I was plotting her murder. It’s not like I was looking for an escape hatch. We were a little drunk and we were in love and we were capable of talking like adults about sad things.

At some point, I joked about how I could carry her ashes with me and travel to the places we’d never seen.

“That really sounds like a book,” she said.

It did sound like a book, I agreed. I hoped it wasn’t already a book.

We ordered another bottle of wine.

Over the next hour, The Young Widower’s Handbook came to life. We brainstormed the general shape of the novel together: the backgrounds of the young couple, the cause of the wife’s death, the road trip, and potential stops the widower could make. I scribbled notes on the backs of receipts, and she tapped out text messages to me so we could have the ideas stored somewhere.

When we returned to the hotel, I sat and scrawled two pages of notes in our room; in the morning, I couldn’t read some of them, but many of the notes from that session have survived, in some form, to the final draft of this novel. That morning, I wrote the opening paragraph, which hasn’t changed since that day.

This novel comes from a place of great love and great fear. Before meeting my wife, I was a very sad, very angry young man, and her love and compassion showed me how to be a decent person in the world. We’ve been together for almost fifteen years, and so the person I’ve become is so intimately tied to her and our relationship that I can’t envision who I would be without her. In writing The Young Widower’s Handbook, I envisioned the protagonist, Hunter Cady, in a similar relationship, and wanted to explore his despair as he not only tries to properly honor his dead wife, but has to learn to re-imagine himself in a new life. Starting in Philadelphia, he carves a jagged path across the country, hitching on the final leg with a group of travelers, and ultimately arriving in San Francisco. Nothing on the road trip goes according to plan,  but each interaction with a stranger in a strange city is a chance for him to redefine himself, to try to be the man his wife always believed he could be.

In writing these scenes, I wanted to face my own fears. I wanted Hunter to honor his wife’s memory while trying to overcome his fear of the future. I wanted him to discover a version of himself that he could be proud of—the version that his wife had always seen. And I wanted readers to feel exactly what I felt that night in Seattle, on our anniversary, when my wife and I were celebrating the best days of our lives.

Two new essays

Another quick post just to note that I had two new essays published last week. 

First, this piece at The Review Review, in which I offer advice to writers on how to conduct themselves at readings when promoting their books. Here's a sample:

A lot of these tips, I admit, come down to issues of personality. Your job is to just try to act normal for a couple hours. This is difficult for some people; if you’re an asshole, you can’t fix it, but you can at least try to hide it for a while. Some days, selling even a single book seems impossible. You need to do everything you can to improve the odds.


Next, Miracle Monocle, the literary magazine from the University of Louisville, released their latest issue, which includes my travel essay, "The Least Authentic of All Experiences." It's a little longer than the travel essays I wrote on this site last summer, and it's about Italy, romance, authenticity, vanity, and a lot of other stuff. A sample of this one:

On this trip, we will see so many priceless artifacts that I will get tired of seeing them. Before this vacation, a friend described seeing the Pietà as one of the most moving experiences of his life, witnessing such a profound testament of love and beauty. I look at it for a long time and agree it is well-made, and then I look longer, wondering why I haven’t been moved in the same away. I take a picture and walk to the next sculpture. When we get to the Sistine Chapel, the woman in front of me falls to her knees in tears, and my first thought is: okay, we get it. You’re moved. And my second thought is a deep well of regret for being so cynical I would assume this emotional reaction is contrived. I want very much to be the sort of person who sees amazing art and falls to his knees in wonder, but this doesn’t seem like something you will yourself toward.

 

 

Quick updates

1. Last week, the literary journal JMWW published my short essay, "See You in a While." It's about drinking beer on my deck with my dog and trying to appreciate good things. It'll take you less than 5 minutes to read. 

2. Today, the lit website The Millions published a piece I wrote about how podcasts can build communities and change the way we discuss books. As I say in the essay, "Literary podcasts are like being part of a book club without the social pressure or the bad wine." I say more stuff besides that too. Read it here.

3. Booklist reviewed my book and said, "McAllister’s debut novel is at turns funny and touching, particularly in the vignettes sandwiched between the narrative, which delve into Hunter’s thoughts and feelings about his marriage and his wife. Expect comparisons to Jonathan Tropper and Nick Hornby." So that's a good thing.

4. I've been adding lots of events over the past week. Starting 1/21, I'll be making the rounds, with a bunch of stuff in Philly and South Jersey, but also events in VT, GA, Boston, DC, and hopefully some more places soon. See the full listing here, and check back for future updates.

Indisputable Evidence and the Existential Ref

This is a repost of something I wrote for the 2015 Eagles Almanac, in which I explored the increasing over-complication of NFL  rules. A few lines are already dated (see that last paragraph, for example), but with each passing week, I’m more confused than ever. Most games, most weeks, seem to be decided by the inconsistent application of incoherent rules, and it only seems to be getting worse. 

The images are from my short-lived Existential Ref blog on Tumblr.

*          *          *

Do you know what a catch is?

This is a sincere question. Can you define, in clear terms, what constitutes a catch in the NFL? Can you be sure this definition will still be precise and true by the middle of next season?

The NFL’s simultaneously overzealous and underprepared officials have caused me to doubt the most basic of sporting actions. I think I know what a fumble is. I can correctly identify intentional grounding about sixty percent of the time. I’ve read the explanation of the tuck rule enough times that I could repeat it to you, but I don’t understand it. Roughing the passer and pass interference penalties are called with all the predictability and logic of tornadoes—there are circumstances more likely to produce them, but you never really know when or where they’ll strike.

On Sunday afternoon, a world-class athlete makes a superhuman catch in mid-air between two defenders and rather than cheering, we collectively sink deeper into our chairs and wait a few days until an unseen board of reviewers adjudicates the catch-worthiness of that play. Maybe sometime Wednesday afternoon, we quietly pump our fists in memory of that catch we think we saw.

Did the player catch that ball? It looks like he did. It’s in his hands. It was in his hands when he fell to the ground. It was in his hands when he stood up. But maybe it wasn’t a catch because the player failed to defy the basic laws of physics by preventing the ball from shifting after it touched his hands. Maybe he blinked too many times while falling to the turf. Maybe he failed to fill out the proper paperwork before the game announcing his intention to enact a football catch.

Incomplete pass.

Or not. Maybe it was complete. Maybe it looks like it was complete and there’s not quite enough indisputable evidence for the on-field CSI unit to determine exactly what happened. Who among us, after all, can see into the soul of the ball? If the ball itself does not consider itself to have been caught, can it be said to have been caught at all? And anyway, why should we take it for granted that the object we’re seeing is even a ball? It is an article of faith that the ball is actually a ball, but short of an on-camera dissection by a disinterested third party, we can’t know its exact nature. Furthermore, without the benefit of some kind of cosmic instant replay system, there’s very little indisputable evidence that proves we even exist.

And also: what the fuck happens if the guy catches it but then he fumbles?

When confusion mounts, the rules are clarified through the addition of a few more clauses. Mid-week, the league issues a press release telling everyone either, Don’t worry, we checked and we got it right, or, worse, Actually we screwed that up. We offer no apology and no recompense.

 

I’ve watched thousands of hours of football in my life, and I spent a depressing amount of time in my unpopular childhood studying the NFL rulebook. If anyone should be equipped to answer NFL rules questions, it is me. But every week there is at least one play on which the ruling is utterly inexplicable. Later in the same game, there may even be an identical play which elicits the opposite ruling from the same officials.

Determining whether someone caught a ball should be one of the simplest decisions in the world, but it’s examined with such intensity and complexity, it’s like the officials are theologians tasked with determining God’s gender. The NFL and its media partners will say things about football moves. They will offer third-rate physics lessons and they’ll keep speaking until you’re drowning in the jargon. But you know and I know: it’s a simple question. A child could answer it.

I’m not talking only about catches, although that seems like the ruling that causes the most confusion for the most fans. The catch issue is just a symptom of the larger problem, which is that NFL rules are so needlessly complex and seemingly arbitrarily applied that one longs for the simplicity of the tax code.

I thought Dez Bryant caught that ball against the Packers last season. I’ve read the legal arguments against it, but that doesn’t mean I accept them. As an Eagles fan, seeing the Cowboys lose in such an unjust way was a pure delight. But as someone who desires something resembling logical consistency in the way the league is run, it was the most egregious example of the thing I hate most about the NFL: it doesn’t matter what extraordinary athletic feats the players perform unless those plays can survive the scrutiny of an inscrutable legal process. Instant replay calls into doubt our most fundamental understanding of sports. It teaches us to pause before celebrating, stripping some joy out of the game and then filling that void with Miller Lite commercials.

The NFL benefits from the Byzantine rules structures because, from commissioner down to the officials, they’ve established a precedent that they can apply nearly any penalty they want in any situation and find a way to defend it, and at least some fans will back their decisions. People complain, but nobody stops watching. The blowback from sports radio callers and ESPN debaters does no actual damage to the league and it ensures they’re the top sports story for days. In the meantime they’ve tried to make their terrible rules a feature in games via endless replays and parsing of rulebook language by shouting men in ill-fitting suits. The very worst things that have ever aired on my TV are the interminable replay reviews during which Phil Simms or Jon Gruden try to remember the rules and spew nonsense guesses to fill air time until some result is announced and then we either cheer or boo according to the whims of the official. Under the soundtrack of inane announcer blather, people in sports bars nationwide play along, leaning in like they’re in the crime lab studying blood samples under the microscope. We become participants in the farce.

These breaks frequently end with announcers saying things like, “Wow, I really don’t see how they made that decision.” Then they call in a retired official who offers a wishy-washy, garbled explanation of the rule, often concluding, “hey, it could’ve gone either way.” Although the replay system is presented as an objective measure of rightness, limited camera angles and ambiguous rules often lead to games being decided by the subjective judgment of one part-time employee staring into a tiny video screen. This does not happen because football is so difficult to understand. It happens because the rules don’t make any sense, and they don’t make any sense on purpose.

The NFL makes frequent reference to its commitment to transparency, but the league is as committed to transparency as a brick wall. Sometimes they part the curtains just a bit, and they release a stream of legalese that pretends to clarify but is intended to obfuscate. They receiver your questions and then in response they bury you in words. They pummel you into fatigue.

The Roger Goodell era has been defined by a long string of seemingly arbitrary punishments handed out to players, coaches, and organizations without precedent or a clear rationale. Goodell has spent a decade fumbling through the public discussion of complex issues as he scrambles desperately to appease the next loudest voice. Nobody, especially the man in charge, seems capable of explaining the rules governing the decisions the league makes.

In 2015, the NFL opened a period of free agency called “the legal tampering period,” a phrase so obtuse it dealt a subconcussive blow to the language itself. A few days into this period, they “launched an investigation” into tampering activities that occurred during the period that the league itself had created to foster these activities. An offense occurs and then investigations are launched and committees are formed. Committees are tasked with solving the problem, but they will not solve it because this is not what committees do. They complicate problems and reframe problems, but they are the enemy of simplicity.

The best, most recent, example of this approach is the absurdly long Wells Report, which took 243 pages to come to the conclusion that it was “more probable than not” that some wrongdoing may have occurred and that Tom Brady was aware of it and this probable wrongdoing had some effect on some games. This report was a battering ram of transparency. It was designed to maintain the appearance of having said something while saying nothing at all.

While the report was being compiled, Roger Goodell said, “Whether a competitive advantage was gained is secondary, in my mind, to whether that rule was violated.” There has never been a better definition of the NFL’s legalistic bureaucracy. Bureaucracy, above all else, has an interest in sustaining itself. It is incapable of questioning itself or understanding its flaws. It exists because it exists and it continues to exist because it must necessarily continue.

With every added layer of complexity, the NFL is able to present a relatively simple sport as if it’s advanced calculus. It reaffirms the notions of genius coaches and athletic savants. It tells you that the head coach’s 20-hour work days were totally necessary, rather than a weird affectation of sociopathic hard-workiness that equates sleep deprivation with productivity. It presents a façade of extreme, sciency precision that distracts from the fact that most years the champion is decided largely by luck.

A scene from the future: on 3rd & 10, Darren Sproles makes a catch in the backfield and evades two Cowboys defenders on his way to skittering for nine yards, but it looks like he drops the ball at the end of the play. As this is happening, a sixty-year-old man scrambles to keep up and from five yards away, he flings a little blue bean bag at the spot where Sproles may have dropped the ball. In the ensuing pile, men commit war crimes against one another and eventually Sean Lee runs away with the ball. Whistles blow. Hats are thrown. The officials stand in a circle and talk a while before signaling that it was not a fumble. Sproles celebrates like a man who has just been acquitted of a felony on a technicality. Jason Garrett tosses a red flag onto the field. There is more talking. In the booth, the announcers make wild guesses. They say it’s a great challenge by Garrett, because even if he’s wrong, “you have to take that chance,” implicitly noting that the outcome of the review is arbitrary. The replay runs on a loop until you’ve seen it enough times that you remember it more clearly than your mother’s face. It looks like he probably lost the ball just before his knee hit the ground, but it’s hard to tell even after two dozen replays. Because the officials initially said it wasn’t a fumble, they are therefore barred from now calling it a fumble unless King Solomon himself rises from his grave and announces that the ball has been fumbled. The officials determine that it probably was a fumble but because their first guess was wrong and the camera angles don’t show a panoramic view of the entire world and the DNA evidence won’t be back from the lab until next week, then it can’t be ruled a fumble. Garrett is now criticized for having wasted a timeout. Chip Kelly pumps his fist in celebration of impenetrable legalese. Now, two elderly men on the sideline holding a pair of sticks attached by a chain are called onto the field to determine whether Sproles picked up a first down before his non-fumble. They stretch the chains out and the official bends down with a magnifying glass and tries to determine how many angels can dance on the link of a chain. He stands and presents the evidence. Holding his hands apart like an amateur carpenter measuring boards by eye, he indicates: it’s, like, this much. About. Kelly holds his own hands slightly closer together, almost in prayer, indicating: nah. More like this much. Fans sitting a thousand feet away boo angrily because they’re sure the ball was actually slightly closer to the stick on the end of the chain.

As an entertainment product, this is terrible. As an exercise in logic, it is infuriating. As a way to determine the fates of the careers of elite athletes, it is insane. But it is all buttressed by a bloated rulebook that requires more interpretive work than the Bill of Rights.

Any number of variables well outside the control of the people on the field could change everything about that play. Random luck and guessing is the difference between the Cowboys forcing a game-changing turnover and the Eagles either punting or going for it on fourth and short. Everyone knows luck is a factor in football—if Byron Maxwell pulls his hamstring at the wrong time, he can get beat for a deep touchdown that costs the team a game and maybe more—but if fans come to believe that luck is the primary factor in determining the outcome of games, then it all becomes as pointless as feeding your life savings into a slot machine. The NFL, more than any other American sports league, is invested in presenting the ideal of the most righteous and hardest working winning in battle. They need merit and virtue to be tied to the win. But so often, games, seasons, and careers are dictated by an untimely defensive penalty, a disputed catch, a cold front freezing up a great offense, a batted ball falling into the hands of an out-of-position lineman, a heedless desire for indisputable evidence

The 2015 Eagles are led by one of the league’s Anointed Genius Coaches. Many Eagles fans have embraced the notion that they have The Smartest Guy In The Room leading their favorite team. He is unconventional and brash and unafraid of taking chances. He has great conviction in his own intelligence, and the charisma to earn the fealty of many fans. This is a time of great faith in the leader. The Eagles will be able to overcome their personnel weaknesses because he will outsmart the other coaches and he will put those players in the right position and his scheme will be the true star and if something goes wrong he will have the wisdom to correct it, Amen. He may indeed be smarter than the average coach, but the unpleasant truth is that the biggest factor in determining the fate of the Eagles may be the whim of an impenetrable, inexplicable set of rules whose primary function is to enforce randomness while pretending that it does not exist.

News from 2014

This barely qualifies as an update, but in October 2014, I wrote an essay called "Halloween Glossary, D-H" for Waccamaw, and I've always been pretty happy with how it turned out. In my ongoing quest to make this essay an October staple on par with the Great Pumpkin and Bobby "Boris" Pickett's entire oeuvre, I thought I'd share it again today. 

It includes one of my favorite dumb jokes I've ever made, and it starts like this:

 

DEATH
Halloween is a celebration of death, of dead things and things that kill—vampires and werewolves and zombies—but also a time of literal death, first the leaves and the grass and the millions of mosquitoes and the creatures that feed on the mosquitoes, then the end of the hopes one always pins to summer, the plans to get organized, to spend a romantic weekend in Cape Cod, to finally finish that novel manuscript, to get that scuba diving certification, to go on a safari and watch a lioness as she stalks an antelope. Also the time of year when my dog died, when I took two elderly Welsh Corgis to the local groomer in preparation for a pumpkin carving party and then returned from the groomer with two elderly Welsh Corgis, but Otis, the tri-color, the one with the little patches of brown fur like eyebrows, which invited us to attribute all sorts of human characteristics—empathy and understanding and high-level cognitive skills—was quietly suffering from a ruptured spleen. I didn’t know the spleen was ruptured then, and I ignored his abnormal behavior when he wobbled across the room wheezing and flumped in front of me with the force of a sandbag dropped from the ceiling; I patted him on the head and then left to drink beer with my friends in the city. While I was out, my wife returned home from work and called to tell me Otis wasn’t standing and could barely breathe. My wife—a nurse, normally calm and rational and never panicked (see alsoPANIC ROOM PROCEDURES)—was sobbing and I knew that the dog was dying, had been dying in front of me, that his flumping was a cry for help, that the other dog was at home watching him die and was incapable of understanding why she would never see Otis again, and so, four beers deep, I drove to meet them at the animal hospital, speeding at ninety, ninety-five, checking my phone at the same time for directions, and knowing I was endangering others’ lives, hoping only to arrive in time to see the dog one last time and to be with my wife who had grown up with this dog and who had made many unbreakable associations between the dog and her own long-deceased mother, and I remember thinking: I hope if I get pulled over, the cop is a dog-lover. I remember thinking: I hope he understands.

 

What are you even doing? On literary journals and respect

Update 9/12, 9:44: I've made a variety of minor edits since originally posting, mostly to fix some typos, add a few links, and clarify some word choices. 

Earlier today, I tweeted this short string about literary journal submissions:

I want to take a few minutes to expand on these, because I think there are some important considerations for literary journals here, and also because I think writers, especially novice writers, need to make some important choices in deciding who to work with. 

The submission fee debate has more or less been resolved; despite the resistance of some writers and journals, submission fees are becoming the norm. The justifications for submission fees typically fall into five categories: 

  1. It costs money to send submissions through snail mail anyway, so $3 is no different 
  2. The journal needs some way to cover its costs, and nobody donates or buys literary journals anymore
  3. The nominal fee deters "carpet-bomb" submissions 
  4. The journal pays writers, so fees subsidize the published writers
  5. It's a volunteer staff and editing can be grueling and thankless

Setting aside my objections to most of these points (well, except point #2, which I would suggest is indicative of a much larger problem, i.e., if you're completely unable to keep the press afloat without submission fees, then perhaps that means your press has no particular reason to exist), let's just acknowledge here that lots of smart people have debated the topic endlessly, usually respectfully, and writers have to individually determine where they draw their own line in paying fees.

Some, like friend and fellow Barrelhouse editor Dave Housley, refuse to pay fees under any circumstances.

Anecdotally, it seems Dave is in the minority. As more journals move toward paid submissions, writers are left with an increasingly limited pool of venues to submit their work, so more people are begrudgingly agreeing to pay fees.

I'm mostly in this camp. I decided a few years ago that I would never submit to a journal that charged fees but didn't pay writers. I still don't love it, and I especially don't love the idea that the relatively small roster of widely-published writers has their work subsidized by the paid fees of rejected writers, but at least the money is flowing outward toward writers. Any arrangement in which the money goes to a vague "administrative fee" or is used as the primary revenue stream for a magazine seems, at best, like a poorly considered system, and, at worst, like a scam.

But, okay, I wasn't going to get into that debate again. The point is: every writer makes his or her own choices. Some people aren't bothered at all, everyone has had their say, and here we are. I'm not a fan of submission fees, but I understand they're here to stay. I like when journals open brief fee-free periods for people who just cannot afford to spend six hundred dollars a year on submissions. I like anything a journal does that prioritizes showing basic decency and respect to writers. 

What made me particularly angry this morning, as I searched through about a hundred calls for submissions, was seeing how many journals fit all four criteria I mentioned in my first tweet: 

  1. Submission fee (usually $3, but sometimes $5, and in a few instances, $10 or more)
  2. No pay for writers
  3. Online only
  4. No promise of even a response

On their own, each of the first three traits is justifiable, depending on context. It's hard for literary journals to pay. After eight years of being almost entirely self-funded (aside from a few generous donations), Barrelhouse was finally able to pay $50 per author, but that's still criminally low, and we keep trying new approaches to generate more revenue that we can pay out to authors. Every poet, essayist, and fiction writer hates that part of the system, but also understands that if the money isn't there, the money just isn't there. "Exposure" can only keep you satisfied for so long, but again, every writer is free to make that choice. 

Online only is, in fact, not a problem at all. A lot of writers I know, including me, have begun prioritizing online publication because more people read it, the turnaround is faster, and many online venues are really well-designed and run by great editors. It's only a problem in this context, because if a journal is charging fees and not paying writers, then they are either explicitly or implicitly saying they need that money to cover costs. But if the only thing you do is pay for web hosting, a Submittable account, and maybe a Squarespace account, then your annual fees are no higher than $550-600. That cost is covered by the first 200 submissions (which will come in about 3 weeks), and then what? What, exactly, am I paying for?  The time of the editor, who, of his own volition, decided to start a website and call it Sick Hermit Crab Quarterly or whatever?

If you run an online journal and you don't pay writers, and you still cannot figure out a way to pay the very low cost of entry, then you need to reconsider whether your journal should exist. 

Despite the self-evident badness of point #4 above, it's become increasingly common. Often, it's phrased like this: "We cannot guarantee you a response. If you haven't heard back in four months, assume we've moved on." Every editor I've ever met has been a writer first. How could you be an editor and have so little respect for the time, and work, of a writer that you can't deign to make the time to send out a form email? I could reject 100 Barrelhouse submissions right now in less than the time it took me to write this paragraph. Form emails aren't great, but they're the least you could do if you're trying to operate a journal in some way that approximates respect for writers. I assume one reason journals adopt this policy is because they're overwhelmed and often forget to reply-- it happens to Barrelhouse with embarrassing frequency-- but that doesn't mean you should never respond to anyone. When you mess up, you send an apologetic email, explaining yourself. Maybe another justification is conflict-avoidance. When you reject people, they get sad, and sometimes they get mad, and sometimes they threaten you. 

And it sucks. It sucks to let writers down, to think about the daunting numbers game of submissions in the first place. It sucks to have to tell somebody No. But if you're not even willing to do that, what are you doing?

Accepting submissions is a pretty passive system already. You open a link and say, "Give me some stories" and hundreds of people flood your submission queue without you having to do anything. Then you can pick a handful of things and post them on your website and call it a journal. These things can turn out to be quite good. But often, the editor has had very little to do with the process beyond unlocking the door and telling people to show up. So when a journal shirks the basic responsibility of even responding to people, then what are they doing besides running a blog with exclusive access and a cover charge? 

The other Barrelhouse editors and I have been pretty adamant on all of these points (and have even been accused of "hostile hubris" for being so vocal about them), but I can't think of a more fundamentally important thing in the literary world than respecting the writers who are producing the work. The combination of practices that set me off amounts  to overt disrespect of the writers, and even open hostility toward them. 

I'm fortunate that I have the privilege of not needing to submit constantly. I have a good job. I have some good publications. I'm working on a few projects. I'm someone who can be selective and who can also afford the occasional submission fee with no problem at all. But if I were twenty-three and trying to figure out publishing, and I was met with nothing but journals that wanted to charge me money so they could pay their web fees, and also they couldn't even be bothered to respond to me, I don't know what I would do. I would submit anyway, I guess, and feel like shit about it. 

 

 

New Story Published

My story, "Eight Scenes from the Life of a Professional Raven" is up at Hobart today. It's the third in a series of stories I've been writing about sports mascots who are actually oversized sentient animals, rather than guys in suits. The first two are about a pig and a gorilla, respectively. Today's story starts like this:

The sky every morning tells its own story, and today when I wake before sunrise, I look up and see it is going to be a bad day. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a sense you get. You live long enough and you can read the clouds, and you can hear distant flocks migrating, and you can see the weather before anyone else.
There’s going to be a storm, and it is going to rip through this city like god’s own scythe during harvest.

Read the rest.

UPDATE: 

The story was named Longform's fiction pick of the week. This is the second time a story of mine was has been singled out by Longform.