October 28th, 2014

The Literary Crabbucket

There is a literary magazine I love, Five Dials. I devour their issues--each with a different theme, or focused on authors from a certain region of the world, or on a form or style. I tend to grab random friends and read chunks out loud until their eyes glaze over with what I like to think is literary joy.

A few issues ago, they did a trees-themed issue titled Why Willows Weep and Other Tales from the Forest Floor. From that issue, I think these are the most beautiful lines I've ever read in the English language:

The trees have always had some idea of what happens to them when they die. In forests they saw their neighbours toppled by wind or age and rot into earth, and their roots sent up descriptions of peat and coal in vast beds and seams. Later, when humans came along, trees saw the stockades, the carts pulled by horses, the chairs and tables set out in gardens, and quickly put two and two together. Trees growing beside rivers saw themselves in the hulls and masts of boats, and trees in orchards understood that the ladders propped against them had once been trees, and when men approached with axes to fell them, the trees recognized the handles.
(From Why The Ash Has Black Buds by William Fiennes)

On days when I want to write better, I read that paragraph over and over again, hoping it will osmose into my head and my heart and my fingers and homeopathically tinge my own work.

Five Dials puts out all their issues as pdfs, which makes them both free and delightful to print out and carry around (I get carsick if I read off a screen in a vehicle). Yesterday morning they tweeted that their new issue was out. Yay! So I started to type “Another fab issue of @…” and dig through for a good quote to make a quality tweet instead of just a ReTweet, and then I stopped. Because I remembered that I’d submitted to Five Dials last year. I tried to do it right--I read a bunch of issues for tone, chose a piece I thought fit their aesthetic and polished the heck out of it, formatted it nicely, tracked down where to send it (they are a little hard to find).

They responded the same day to my cover letter that said how much I loved the magazine, and asked if I’d be a Reader of the Week. I took a photo of myself reading Five Dials hanging from an aerial silk, and when I showed up on their blog and Twitter I happily spread it all over my social media. But my actual submission? Not a word.

I’m sure they have ninety gazillion submissions and their primary business is putting out a magazine and their staff is small and overworked. We all are. We all have more than we can do in the time we have available. We all make choices every day about how to spend our artist time (right now I'm revising this essay here instead of finishing an edit for money).

Five Dials is on Twitter. And social media is supposedly the godsend of free advertising! Getting the word out! Going viral! They (presumably) hope their readers will engage with them. And most of the time, I’m delighted to. But I've spent a year hoping for:

Not quite for us but try again
This doesn't seem ready what were you thinking please never write anything ever again
Or even
Thanks no thanks
copy-pasted by an intern who is laboring in the keyboard mines in exchange for pizza.

Now they announce their new issue. Hoping (presumably) for diehard fans like me to amplify their signal, to endorse their message (who is anyone kidding? Of course a RT is an endorsement, so read what you post). They want 30 seconds of my time, for a cause I believe(d) in. Thirty seconds, multiplied by a couple of tweets a month, twelve months a year. Plus reading to friends. Plus quoting stories. Plus recycling my printed copies by shoving them into the hands of strangers in airports reading literary fiction. They want me to engage with social media.

Well media costs money, so the key word here is social. And social isn’t “free,” it costs time. The magazine, or the brand, or the celebrity, buys my time with their time. The bigger the institution, the more their time is worth proportionate to my time–compared to Five Dials' literary might, maybe my submission-prep time and my support-the-magazine time and my share-the-tweets time is worth very little, but it’s probably worth a 30-second thanks-no-thanks.

This makes me crabby.

I could just cross it off my spreadsheet and figure I'm just not important enough to get their attention, but I'm not. I'm instead assuming that they're not interested in literary citzenship, they're interested in free advertising. Which is like showing up at a party for five minutes, handing out flyers to your store opening, and bailing before the cake is cut.

I'm still learning Twitter. I'm still figuring out how to be non-obnoxious, how to actually see what I want to see in the stream. But I'm participating as much as I can with passing on work I like, RTing people who have something cool to say. I like being part of the community. And I hope I'm banking some time.

whipchick spent all morning in a mall with Prada, Gucci, Bvlgari, Tory Burch and Alexander McQueen but no place to buy a book.