The problem with going to graduate school for a degree in writing, literature, or anything along those lines is that you get a taste for really well-written literature. You read works by exceptional artists you may or may not have heard of and you read works written by students aspiring to that level of quality.
How is it, then, that this experience doesn’t translate to most literary magazines published by or universities? What is it that the contemporary literary scene has against coherent storytelling? Who decided that “incoherent” was a prerequisite for “artistic?” When did this happen!?!
Okay, here’s the backstory: I submitted an essay to a contest and, as part of my entry fee, received a subscription to the literary journal. Needless to say, my entry wasn’t selected. Rejection pretty much rolls off my back, so it didn’t bother me. It didn’t really affect me one way or the other. Until I received the first issue of the magazine.
I read story after story, poem after poem. I read about halfway through the journal before I couldn’t tolerate reading any more. I came away feeling gratified that my piece didn’t appear in the publication, because every single piece I read was disjointed and incoherent, like fragments from a larger work that were strung together with little regard for meaning. Only one of the stories actually had a conclusion, but the “middle” of that story was essentially dream ja vu.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been utterly disappointed by a literary magazine. In fact, I stopped buying literary magazines precisely because I was disappointed more often than I was pleased. But this is the first magazine I’ve ever read that left me utterly convinced that a crack addiction must be a prerequisite to publication.
My point, however, isn’t to tear down the magazine. If that was my intention, then I’d actually name the magazine instead of calling it “the magazine.” The point is something else entirely. As you may be aware, literary magazines are finding it harder and harder to retain an audience. Incoherence disguised as art is one of the reasons why, but it’s not the only reason.
Popularity for its own sake may be profitable, but many artists have enough self-respect to write something they’re passionate about and to write it as well as they can. Many beginners, however, are still trying to figure things out. I’ve read works that emulate these literary magazines because, despite their own lack of enjoyment in these works, they assume this is what a story should be. Yet, they wonder why they can’t create an audience for themselves.
Art, in writing, is the ability to string words into sentences (occasional fragments are allowed) that compile into a story well told. Clever delivery is definitely a plus, but if you focus on delivery at the exclusion of story, then you’ve missed the point. People don’t read to see how clever you are, they read to get at the story. If you want to be read, coherence matters.