Tin House Being Stupid

I never really understood Tin House. For one, the editors are pressed on telling us that they are entirely unique and that all other literary magazines are boring ("free of the stale substance found in many contemporary journals"). They say they are the spot for "compelling and authentic narratives of our time" yet I have never found myself eager to go off (that is, rush) to get an issue of Tin House; I personally find their selection like that of any bigger lit mag and nothing especially special.

What makes me dislike them more, however, was last week's controversy when they announced that all unsolicited manuscripts--for books and the magazine--must be accompanied by a receipt from a bookstore. They call it, the Buy A Book, Save A Bookstore project.

From their website:

"Between September 1 and December 30, 2010, Tin House magazine will require writers submitting unsolicited manuscripts to the magazine to include a receipt for a book purchased from a bookstore. Writers who are not able to produce a receipt for a book are encouraged to explain why in 100 words or fewer. Tin House will consider the purchase of e-books as a substitute only if the writer explains why he or she cannot go to his or her neighborhood bookstore or why he or she prefers digital reads. Writers are invited to videotape, film, paint, photograph, animate, twitter, or memorialize in any way (that is logical and/or decipherable) the process of stepping into a bookstore and buying a book to send along for our possible amusement and/or use on our web site."

It's a McSweenyan approach to things. McSweeneyan meaning publishing quirkiness. While serious and ironically comical (at the end), it is at the same time very demeaning.  It reminds me of teachers telling you to write on the board about that time you lied about being late to class--when you said you were out there smoking weed, what the truth really was that you missed the bus and you're parents couldn't get you to school so you walked.

Of course, it's kind of their way of trying to get people into bookstores, not just Amazon. It is called "Save A Bookstore." And while their purpose is noble(-ish), it's just very plain stupid. If you think about it, most writers (at least the ones worth reading) are also readers. Tin House, by requesting this addition to their guidelines, are doing nothing more than annoying writers who just want to take a day off to mail ten copies of that one story because now they have to go through their wallets or their reusable bags and find that reciept, all the while thinking that some lit mag out there think that they're so stupid that they don't read regularly.

Reactions over the web have been the same. Just a selection from GalleyCat:

Writer Jim Hanas, author of the forthcoming short story collection, an ebook, Why They Cried: "Just when you thought lit magazines had run out of ways to condescend to their would-be contributors."

Publisher and co-founder of Dzanc Books, Steve Gillis: " Were the editors of Tin House all high and sitting around wondering who could come up with the worst idea?"

It's a bad idea because it's not going to save the bookstore. Having people already going to a bookstore prove that they're going to a bookstore does nothing to create a wider consumer base. I see nothing in their Buy A Book... project that addresses, for example, "an overall decline of 10 percentage points in literary readers" as observed in a National Endowment for the Arts study from 2004--that now famous study, entitled Reading At Risk.

To save bookstores--and literacy in general--we have to do more than tell already avid readers to read more. The question is: How do we get more people reading?

(This little bit can be kinda of boring because I'm originally a sociologist and all sociologists are demographers and statisticians at heart, so bear with me)

We can look at the stats to see who is reading.

According to the study:

  • "Women read more literature than men do"
  • "Literary readers are much more likely to be involved in cultural, sports and volunteer activities than are non-readers."
  • "Only 14 percent of adults with a grade school education read literature in 2002. By contrast, more than five times as many respondents with a graduate school education - 74 percent - read literary works."

So what we see here is a feminization and an educational and class stratification of reading. Those who are not reading are men; those who are not reading people who are working.

The question is how do we get men to read? How do we get working people to read?

Of course the answer will have multiple facets. It will call for the masuclinization of reading (but I like the eradication of gender all together better). It will call for ways to get working people to pick up a book.

But while the study does show that kids are reading less, there is hope by ways of vampires and wizards, the keywords being Stephenie Meyer and J.K. Rowling. These two writers are literay phenomenons. Go to bookstores and libraries and you'll find readers from all walks of life (ok mostly female and teen-age). Rowling and Meyers are not poets or stylists, but the fact that they can get young readers excited about reading is something to look into. While it is all dependent on marketing and the marketing is always targeted towards girls, it is a starting point. Of course, we have to look into why these are selling, what can predict the future of teen lit and what will appeal to this cohort (again, sociology-talk, don't mind me) in the future...But again, it opens many possiblities and an arena for discussion.

Another possible solution I like is from Steve Gillis of Dzanc, who made a competition of sorts with Tin House:

"Dzanc Books announced their own policy Monday, addressed to readers in general: during the month of July, the Ann Arbor, Mich. nonprofit press will donate a new book to a school or library of the consumer’s choice for every proof of purchase of a book at an independent bookstore provided to the press by that person. “The book bought should be a work of literary fiction though it does not have to be a book published by Dzanc Books or any of our imprints,” Steve Gillis, Dzanc Books’s publisher, wrote in a prepared statement."

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