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Observations about publishing upon a recent visit to a bookstore

Tuesday 11/30/21

Recently I was at the Brattle over in Cambridge, and on the way home after the film screening I stopped at the Coop in Harvard Square. Boston stands out for its bookstores, even though many have closed; or I should say that it stands out comparatively to other cities. The Coop is perhaps the "main" bookstore of the Boston and Cambridge bookstores. I hadn't been inside since early 2020, owing to COVID. The last time I'd been there, the store was mostly as it had been since as long as I'd been visiting it, which is to say for more than twenty years. You walked in, and it was wall to wall books on the main floor. There were tables in the center, stocked, of course, with the books of the people of the system, who had the right connections, etc. The biography section was in that first, wide open room, with the registers. And though there was not a title among them that wouldn't bore you off your tits, recent books by Harvard faculty--and recent could be three years ago--were right up against the entrance, the last thing you'd see as you left, now that your back wasn't to them.


In the back of that big front room you'd come to a smaller, homier room, with history books, music books. Going up the stairs you came to a cafe, which was abutted by a large magazine section, the length of a whole wall. One section of this big section was devoted to literary magazines. I'd go and look at who was hooking up whom--and there was never a single piece in garbage publications like New England Review and George Review for which I could not have told you on the spot why it was in there; that is, what the relationship was between the writer and the editor. But in all of the years that I did this, never--literally not a single time--did I have any company in that literary magazine section, despite it being brightly lit, right out there in the open, at the top of the stairs, next to the popular cafe where people would sit for hours. But if I wanted to, I could buy some lit mag I was in, a copy of Rolling Stone that had my work, a copy of JazzTimes with some Miles Davis piece of mine, a copy of ARTnews with a gallery review I'd done. I could go from section to section and find something I'd written. They were well stocked. You could leave the cafe on either side of it--you sort of boomeranged through--and then the fiction was against the walls on both sides overlooking the big space down below. You could go up another set of stairs, and that's where the film books were, plus the bathrooms, and books for SAT prep, and manuals on how to write a boring, pandering essay so that you, too, could get into Harvard.


So it was quite a contrast to walk in recently and see that there were virtually no books in that first room. It's almost all apparel now. Harvard hoodies, sweatpants, scarfs. It's like a clothing store. You would have no idea it's a bookstore at all. Gone, too, are the books from that back front room. There are some books if you look to find them, on a couple tables, and so many of the books on site--not just here but upstairs--have a common theme: they tell white people how guilty they should feel for being born with white skin. That's a constant and a staple. The ones that have sold better--by people better connected to do racial grift--are downstairs on the tables. They shame white people. They tell a white person they suck and to hate themselves. As the author makes what used to be called--and maybe it still is--"bank."


There were also those Best of books, which really serve up the worst that publishing has to offer. Best American Short Stories, that kind of thing. There's an essay volume. They have them for everything, and they come out each year, covering the last year. I flipped through them, knowing exactly what I'd see. Almost every contributor is a person of color or female or both. There are virtually no straight white males in their thirties, forties, and fifties. In the few instances when there were, they were people who'd been around forever--the dinosaurs, who are fed no matter what, despite sucking at writing--and people, again, I could have told you on the spot how they knew that series editor and what their relationship was. I also could have done this with everyone else in the books. It's hard to say that something in publishing is the worst kind of book, because almost all of it is awful, but these books really capture the complete absence of values and integrity and are perfect proof of how this is a sick, deranged subculture of broken freaks who look after each other. If you know what's what, with the names. Like I do. Or, if you read any of it, which is just so bad.


I wondered if there were any books at all, so I started to make my way upstairs. There's an information desk at the bottom of these stairs, and as I was going up, I heard an employee behind the counter holding court, telling a group of customers that the book industry had been hit so hard by COVID. He was quite dramatic. I laughed. Sure, dude, that's what it is--the virus. Couldn't be that holy shit no one wants to read any of this crap and an industry is successfully killing off the very act of reading? And of course that's exactly what it is. Why on earth would you read? Why? Why read any of this garbage?


The thing is, even if you have talent, you're encouraged not to develop it. To write a way that everyone else writes, so that you can fit in with the broken freaks of the subculture. So, if you had ability, you'd have to work against the current. Against what your little friends in your MFA program say, and your writer buddies. You'd have to be an individual. And strong. And confident in yourself. And you'd have to put in thousands and thousands of hours. No one does that. No one has that in them. Easier to go along to get along. But where are you getting? Into the pages of The Iowa Review for fifty bucks? Hooray. Meaningless. Or you can have some book that no one actually likes, and you whore yourself on Twitter for likes and take umpteen different pictures of the cover of your book over two years so that your publisher can retweet the latest one and you can get fifty more likes each time from the same obsequious taint-lickers? (Query: What motivates these lickers? Why lick? What is that achieving?) So you're just a vacuous whore? (NB: Male or female. This is not a gender thing.) Awesome. No wonder you need the antidepressants. It's depressing. But that's the thing. The system doesn't just produce shitty works. It discourages people from writing well. It beats talent out of people. Because some people must be born with some talent. It can't be no one. But to be born with it really doesn't matter if you don't do right by it.


A number of years ago, the Coop stopped carrying literary magazines. Or if they did carry them, they hid them where I could never find them. They still had Harvard Review, who is run by the hilariously bigoted Christina Thompson, a nothing as a writer herself. The one time I went to AWP--when it was in Boston--after sneaking in because I wasn't going to pay $150 or whatever it was to meet these people, I watched Christina Thompson of Harvard Review accept a story from someone who was obviously not a writer, and who had done nothing, because--ready for this?--Christina Thompson liked her fancy, expensive bag. Her purse. Whatever it was called. They had the whole conversation in front of me. I stood there waiting for fifteen minutes, second-in-line style. She didn't know what I looked like. Then, we met, and she asked me--because I'd emailed her some works--what story would help me the most for her to take. She let me pick. But I got more and more successful, and someone like that can only envy and hate me more. (Harvard Review, by the way, doesn't pay. Hilarious.) We'll go through her some more in these pages. I told her I would. I give you fair warning. I give you a chance to do the right thing. Obviously I'm not pretending. If I say I'm not taking it anymore, after years, stop discriminating against me, or I will take it to this blog, I'm telling you the truth. I will light you up. And it's all true. So what are you going to do? You're going to be laughed at, and people will see you for the loser that you are. She took a freaking story because she liked a woman's purse. Christina Thompson. Harvard Review. But hated me. Hates me. Wants me dead. And I'm the bad guy. Subculture of broken freaks. You really can't say it enough.


But the Coop doesn't have any magazines now. They were gone. The fiction was still where it was, against the walls on that second floor, but to find the music books, you had to ascend again, and go into this room that had once been the place where the reference books were. Where you could buy a dictionary or law manual. Sad. No one was there. Still, the connected people were on the tables. For instance, there's this book from FSG, a haven of bigots, by Jessica Hopper, called The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic. Which is, again, hilarious. Because she's useless at writing. There's nothing illuminating here. There's no notable way with language. No insights. It's vagina. She has one. That's the entire reason for this book to exist. Have a vagina, write about rock, have some connections to people who couldn't give a toss if something is actually good, hey, call it the first female rock critic collection! Take the exact same shitty words, have them be by a forty-eight-year-old straight white guy, and hell no FSG isn't putting this out, and it ain't on that damn table that no one will see unless they climb to the top of the bookstore that looks like a clothing outlet. Go get 'em, publishing!