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Stephanie Merry of The Washington Post

Friday 6/26/20

As anyone who who knows my writing is aware, whether they read my formal material or this blog or both, that work is always clean. I've been writing professionally since I was in college. In these intervening years, I've published 2500 pieces. I am a demonstrable expert--the demonstrable expert--on art, film, music, literature, sports. Beatles. Where else do you want to go? What else do you want to add in? In recent years, I have also moved to op-eds. I sound like no one else does on radio and podcasts. There is the fiction, which, like the nonfiction, appears in the best places, despite me being blacklisted by an entire industry. And never has there been such a range of fiction. I would posit that it's almost impossible to believe that it could all come from one person, save if you were to try to delineate what it all has in common--and that is the connectivity with the human experience and condition that is not going to be discernible to this degree elsewhere. And then you'd still have to know something about me and my work and output to accept that it was all by the same person.


There is no agent, there will not be, as everyone knows, a single review of my books whenever a book comes out. Not right now. Not until I get past these people. Why is that? Because there is no more discriminatory system in our country than publishing. If you are smarter than these people, if you achieve constantly, if you have expertise, they will hate you. If you are a genius, they will hate you more. There are some good people here, and you try to find them, but you're panning for gold in the River Styx. Most people at every level of this industry only support people like themselves, from the system, who went to the right school, know little, and are ceaselessly hooked up. The more you are the things I am, the more hate, envy, discrimination there will be, until you see what you see here, the totality of what real discrimination is. They also hate hard work and productivity, because they are capable of so little on their own.


One sees only clarity in this blog, which was launched two years ago, and is now the length of ten full books. When I compose something and give it to an editor, that piece usually runs as I turned it in, save for copy editing. I make an editor's job easier. It's something I'm known for. Yesterday, even in this hell-space, I sold five pieces. What were they on? Bob Dylan, a nineteenth century painting, the bassist Jimmy Blanton, moving/relocating, and Joy Division. They totaled 20,000 words, for $1000. Can you imagine how difficult that is? Earlier this week I wrote a feature for someone, and that editor reached back to say they'd not seen anything like it, it was that good. I shared an excerpt of that piece on here, as I wrote it in real time (the Twilight Zone piece). I'm writing another feature today. Over the weekend I have a Charlie Parker cover story to write. There will be a piece on Ella Fitzgerald out later today.


Every week, as is documented in these pages, I have what would be a career for someone else, even as the most hated person in this evil industry. My week is your career. Tape a podcast, talk on the radio. Be the absolute best at those things. Write the fiction. Three full short stories this week. A fourth, longer story, called "Green Glass Door," as strong as anything I've ever done, is deep in its journey to completion. Yesterday I looked for the first time at the cover mock-up of If You [ ] : Fantasy, Fabula, Fuckery, Hope with Dzanc, another book that will not get a single review because of the bigotry. A novel is about to come out. I am finishing the Sam Cooke 33 1/3 book, so three books, at various stages, going at once, hot on the clock, and then the film book to follow. I've written 200 short stories in the time since this journal launched. When you add that with the blog and the nonfiction, you have someone who has written the equivalent of thirty books in two years. And that doesn't even count the novel I wrote in that time.


And yet, most of the writing I do takes the form of letters that goes to bigots and/or people who are incompetent, who only look out for the system people, who invent grudges with a fervor as if to make up for their inability to invent anything else in this life, or certainly anything of value. In 2018, I pitched Stephanie Merry, the books review editor at The Washington Post. The pitch pertained to Louisa May Alcott, and she assigned the piece. There is gaudiness in my track record, and I have found that with that gaudiness can come an expectation that you're going to write like the system people who get into those venues, the people I think are the worst writers we have. I wrote it at the same level I write everything, and I saw the edit, and I thought that here was a very simple mind. You were going to be dealing with someone who favored cliches over originality, who wanted no real insight, but I needed the money. It wasn't much--$375 for an 800 word review (so the per-word rate was decent, at least) that was going to get chopped down.


In my career--and you can look at a bunch of these kinds of things in the various categories on the site--I've written hundreds of this sort of thing. Something like that Beatles piece recently in The Daily Beast, which everyone loved and was a lot longer--was around 2000 words--and prompted someone to write me and say I should write the liners for a reissue of the album, was something I turned in, there was no back-and-forth, and in it went. People loved it, anyone can see the quality of the writing. That's my norm when I'm dealing with competence. I give you the goods. So a short book review? Please. I've done that forever. I could literally do that in my sleep, as readers of this journal know that I have learned to write in my sleep. I always give you my best--if my entire future depended upon the quality of a single short story, and if that story was the best I could make it I'd finally be clear of this hell, finally have my chance, I'd try no harder, perform no better, with that story than I would the 600-word piece I would also write that day for $150. And anyone who reads my work, who has a mind and not an agenda, knows that. You think people like Kimball and Pratt don't write me when they see what they see about the consistency of all of it? I'm sure that's changed how they look at certain human possibilities in this world. Another artist is going to have works that stand out from the rest. I take it to the same place every time, I go all the way to the apogee-point with every last thing I write. And that is going to be a big part of this story, because it has never been done before. I never think, "eh, mail this one in, get your check, it doesn't matter." I don't have that in me.


I went on to write other things for Merry in 2019. A piece on John Keats for Valentine's Day, a piece on worthy Fourth of July reads, a piece on Melville's poetry for his 200th birthday. I wrote that piece on the cliches that now comprise our argot. Buried on the Beaches was coming out, and I asked Merry if someone there might review it. I had written for The Washington Post for years. But the thing is, I knew there was no way she would commission a review of a book by me. A person like this will only look after the people of the system. Stephanie Merry is going to play along with this system, keep it well lubed. When I asked about my book--and we're talking a book of both pure art and pure entertainment--she said, "I'll see what I can do."


She was going to do nothing. That was just something she said to me. I mentioned the book a couple other times. Not a word from her. I didn't badger her. I didn't importune her. There is the temptation to say that I would be someone to do that, as I am a person of passion who produces words voluminously, is obviously driven--I'm something more than driven--and has ambitions; not just for myself, to live a life I want to live, and, frankly, deserve, but for the world at large, because I believe I can impact it in ways to the good that will be unique. But until you take it there, which often means, you take it to the point that I put you up on here, on this blog, people generally can shit on me for a long time. I have taken things, taken forms of treatment, that are disgusting and humiliating and beneath a cockroach, let alone a human being, let alone this one, things that would cause you to snap, and snap quickly. I take it. To a point. I give you every last bit of rope when, frequently, we're talking real abuse here.


You can work for these places for years, you can have work that is infinitely better than what they'll review, but if you are not a system person, if you are not among the Laura van den Bergs of the world, they're not going to give you a single word's worth of coverage. You can have fiction in Harper's, like I did, and someone could be hard-pressed to even name a single venue you have not been in. Try it with me. It's hard, isn't it? And I got into every single last one of those venues on my own, and in ways that hardly anyone ever gets into them. Harper's, meanwhile, won't deign to write me back right now, with this stack of masterpieces--"Fitty," "The Roll of Words," "Crossing Deer." Why? Because I'm not one of the people of the people who are in charge there now since James Marcus got fired. James Marcus would evaluate a work. What a concept, right? Actually looking at a work and evaluating it. Was "Find the Edges" better than "Rain Dried"? No way. But it's very rarely about the work. And that place you worked for, and you might have worked there for a long time, can have new people come in who wouldn't spit on you while they instead hook up the usual suspects of the system, or the people in charge can decide to invent a grudge out of nothing, and then just hate you forever, and hate you more each time you achieve something. They'll hate you when that thing you offered them, a "Fitty" or "The Roll of Words," which is the best I can do, is picked up elsewhere, even though they were never going to reply to you.


I resumed doing what I normally do, because I always need money. I can't afford not to have clean prose, every time. As I begged a publisher yesterday for more time, I tried to explain that in each instance I think I'll make a push on the book, I have to stop to write 17,000 words for people for like two grand. Which is a horrible, horrible rate. I have to write probably 25,000 words in pitches, to find the person who is going to care about quality, who is not just hooking up their buddies, or who has not been told by someone else to hate me. These people have no individuality, they are parts of cliques, and if one person in the clique says to hate someone else, the others go along with it. Nikil Saval at n+1 hated me. Lied to me for years. Complete power trip by this guy. So, after years of his lies, I said, in essence, "Damn, man, you are going to do me like this, never live up to your word, but you're going to put in something like 'Piss Trump' by Mark Doten?" We've spoken in these pages about that comically awful piece of writing. Doten is a system person who checks the right boxes, and is all about the quid pro quo (ask Adam Wilson). And Saval loses it. Banned! Because I said something critical of something he ran, after years--again, years--of being lied to.


They are that fragile. You have to tongue them constantly. And even if you do, if you are not the same kind of person, it won't matter, it won't get your work a shot. They're only hooking up the Mark Dotens. Saval leaves (he's running for political office now in Philadelphia), he tells the people who are still there to keep hating me in his absence. And they do. I offer them "Six Feet Away," a work perfect for this world right now. I see them pull up this work, sixty, seventy times. But they are not going to respond. I say this to them. I say to them what I just said here, in a follow-up. Politely. Rounding some of the more pointed remarks. It's all true. I say it to three editors there--Mark Krotov (who was told by Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House to hate me), Charles Petersen, Sarah Resnick--on one email. And these people don't have the decency, the courage, the professionalism, to say word one. Because that's the kind of person you're dealing with. I read about what people in the world right now think is so wrong, so unjust, so unfair, but if they knew how the publishing system works, they would have a completely different understanding of those concepts. I read about people who believe they know discrimination and inequity, and I think, "that's quaint." People have no idea.


So then I write the stuff. And it's awesome. And it's varied. The subjects, the tones, the voices. And out it comes. And I then get hated more, because of what I have achieved, how productive I have been. (And I'm also an athletic-looking white guy from Boston, who is self-made, and all of that is bad, too.) And I get my little bit of money--when I am paid and not robbed, as by the likes of John Freeman and Jonny Diamond (they'll get their own entry soon; it's detailed and lengthy, and I make sure I get everything right), who stole $200 from me at LitHub--and I try not to kill myself, I try not to drink--came close yesterday to breaking my streak--and I try not to give in to this evil, so I can get where I am trying to get, and give the world what I have to give it. I sat at this desk for twelve straight hours yesterday doing that. I have no joy, no friends, no leisure, every single thing I do every single day is devoted to this. Nothing else. And I have gotten better at what I do, better than anyone has been at anything else. And it's not close. And you know what? I've proven it. The work proves it.


Merry stopped assigning anything. Stopped responding. I know when something is up. I know when the rot has set in. I understand not assigning a few ideas in a row. But you reach a point when it's not the idea, the fit of the idea, the timing of the idea. It's not something you've done. It's the other person. You are shackled to their incompetency. You are shackled to their caprices. They own you in this relationship. Merit is not going to come into it. When she would respond--which was like once every five months--it would be to say--with one of her exclamation point sentences, because she's someone who writes in exclamation points--that she had assigned that book to, say, the sports editor. She wouldn't have responded otherwise. She had the easy out. So for a year, I kept trying. I asked her about commissioning a review of Meatheads Say the Realest Things, the funniest book that you are going to find in American letters, a conversation-firer, a book unlike any other, a book to touch off so much in this age, a book to explode, and in her mind, I didn't even merit enough respect or professional respect to have that be acknowledged, that I asked, that I so much as floated the possibility. She ignored that email. Ignored the follow-up. Classy, yes? Professional, right?


I knew this woman, at some point, became someone who didn't like me. I still got on bent knee, because of that money, and I smiled, and pitched, and she ignored me again and again. Finally, yesterday, I said something, saying I hoped I hadn't caused offense, I had enjoyed working with her. Was this true? No. I didn't enjoy all of the wasted hours sending emails I worked hard on to this person whose intellect I thought little of. And whose character I thought little of. But I deal with a lot worse. Far worse. And I deal with it. These people--people worse than Merry--behave in ways that would be national news if people knew about it. You would struggle to be able to accept how publishing actually works. Those same people will hop on social media and bang the drum for various causes, lecture you, virtue signal, shill for each other, put up their proper Facebook filters, but you will find no larger collection of tainted hearts, closed minds, full-on fools, and an insistence on perpetuating a system of keeping certain people out and making damn sure this is not a meritocracy. It is their plantation. They are, in effect, anti-reading, and they have killed off the act of reading. It is entirely about power and the clique. Power within the clique. And all of it's meaningless. All writing now, or almost all of it, is completely meaningless. It's just people trying to sit at this lunch table.


She must have been waiting for this moment, because she tells me that my pieces require a great deal of work and time to get into an orderly fashion so that people can see them. She says this to me. In the grand hierarchy of absurd comments, where does this one rate? Was Johnny Bench a bad catcher? Proust hadn't a thing for long sentences? Van Gogh couldn't figure out impasto? But my ideas are good, she added, condescendingly. I am an ideas man who can't write. It's a shame I can't write--because otherwise, she'd assign a lot of those ideas.


I pointed out to her what I do, where I do it, the reaction to what I do. She responds with more condescending remarks about how they must like my ideas, too bad I am not good at the writing. Remarkable, isn't it? I made the mistake of reading some of Merry's own writing after this, like a review of Paddington 2, knowing going in what I was probably going to see. And see it I did. Utter vapidity. Four-word sentences, with one of the words being a "very" and the other three comprising a cliche. I could never write anything so jejune. There's no point to it. It's the kind of writing you'd see in Parade magazine. But there it is, give this person this job, and this person gets to talk to me this way, and treat me that way. I can say this here, because Stephanie Merry was going to make sure that no book of mine was reviewed on her watch--unless I get so big she has no choice, and then she'll probably order up a hatchet review--and I wasted a year of my life writing this person in good faith, and she treated me like total garbage, when anyone with eyeballs can see what I do and the level I do it at. And this is one of the "better" people you're dealing with.


For that year, I did nothing but smile and try. I swallowed all of the negative feelings, put aside the fact, the truth, that we were talking 800-word book reviews here, and I was being treated like I didn't merit the occasional assignment of one. Which was beneath me anyway. But I needed money. My books should have been covered there, this author should have been featured, interviewed, and here I was, begging, as I'm being shat on, for a piddling little review assignment. And this person didn't have the decency or the professionalism to do anything but stoke their grudge and look on, knowing I'd keep trying. Until that moment she could make a proclamation that we can all laugh at, which is as laughable as laughable gets. Fleming struggles with getting the words in presentable form. Have a look at the bloody website. Of all the things to say in this world and be revealed for a fool, this is the ultimate go-to of go-to's. But maybe if I roped in some cliches and sprinkled in a generous helping of "very"'s, I'd be getting my $375? I'm sorry. I am not able to suck at writing. I just don't have that in me. Whereas, a Stephanie Merry has mastered the form. And the person version of it. Or should I say, And the person version of it!


Bad people, man. You're dealing with seriously bad people. As for me, I'm not killable. I am getting stronger, and I am going to get past these people. You can't really do anything to me at this point, because it has been done, it is, as they say, what it is. What are you going to do? Not give me coverage? You weren't going to anyway. What are you going to do, tell your crony to hate me? You already did. I am going to reach my people, the people of this world. If you're smart, you'll hitch the sled to this wagon, we will ride, and I will make you a lot of money when I am past this blockade. It would not be possible to do more to me, to discriminate against me more than I have and am discriminated against. And I am still here, I am getting better. As I have said before, I am not going to lose to these people. If you want to go up on the blog, that's your choice, because everything I say here is true. Maybe just do the right thing, and then we move forward. But if you think I'm going to sit back and take this, you couldn't have picked a less willing victim.


Now I'm going to make some art. And eventually I'm going to get out of hell, which is what this is, and I will have written my way out of it.