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View Full Version : Are we just a bunch of writers stuck at the Open Mic Night?



greatfish
05-18-2009, 04:43 PM
As I thumb through another periodical, gauging the style of the writers, with hopes to find a home for my own work, an unsettling thought occurs to me. What if I'm the typical reader for this publisher, or for any publisher? Not some voracious reader who picks up a journal for the joy of reading and passes his favorite stories onto his friends, but a writer who's just reading the stories so they can figure out how to get their own work published. It may seem like a trivial distinction at first, I mean a reader is a reader, right? But I can't help but be reminded of my time as a regular performer at the local Open Mic Nights held at every cafe.

At first it's encouraging. You stand up on stage and perform a piece of music or a poem to a real live audience, everyone applauds, and you feel a rush of joy and acceptance as you take your seat. But then you notice one of the audience members takes the stage next, and everyone applauds them as they return to their seat, and then another audience member takes the stage, and another. Soon you begin to realize you're not performing for an audience, you're performing for performers, and they didn't come to listen. They came to play. If you keep at it, you'll see regulars in the audience, but they never become your audience. They always have a guitar in hand or a few lines of verse scribbled on a piece of paper. If you tell one of them about another cafe you're performing at later in the week, they might show up, but again, they don't come to see you, they come as a performer, ready to share with the group.

I feel as a writer, I'm once again being subjected to the Open Mic forum. I buy these periodicals and read the stories so I can get my own work published, but even if I do, the only people who will read my stories are other writers who are hoping to get their own work published. I'm not building a real audience or reputation, except maybe as a guy to follow to see where you can get your own stuff published.

So what does everyone think? Is my comparison unfounded? Or are we just a bunch of performers stuck at an Open Mic Night, forever performing for a crowd that never comes to listen?

William Haskins
05-18-2009, 04:53 PM
i've made this point about the incestuousness of poetry, in particular.

it creates a situation where often the only merits considered are the comparative qualities of the piece to a reader's own work. it also seeps into critiques, as comments are far more often rooted in "how i would have written this" than in how a (non-writer) reader might receive it.

Bubastes
05-18-2009, 04:54 PM
I often feel this way when I'm reading lit journals, so I'm interested in seeing how others respond to this thread.

Perks
05-18-2009, 05:12 PM
I do think it's a valid parallel and in some ways dispiriting, but it's also helping me realize that my motivation for writing suits me. It may never feed my family, because I'm not tailoring what I write to fit a market. I'm writing what I want, to the best of my ability, then seeing what I can do with it. (Do not ask me how that's working out so far. You'll likely only make me cry.)

To make money, I may have to do some other work. Right now, if I can earn the respect of a few writers whom I admire, it's enough to keep me trying.

Now that said, I do get The Missouri Review as a reader, because it's good. I did submit something (and was rejected) but I'd already bought a subscription because I'd looked at a few of the archived editions online.

susangpyp
05-18-2009, 05:38 PM
I think most great performers started at Open Mic night. I remember seeing Jerry Seinfeld in a NY comedy club long before he was well known.

Is Jerry necessarily better than other comedians? Not really but he (or Larry David) tapped into success with the television show. There is a large number of stand-up comics who have found fame and fortune through television and films (Roseanne, Ray Romano, Kevin James, Denis Leary, Dane Cook) and there always have been (George Burns, Jack Benny) but that doesn't mean that they didn't start out at Open Mic night honing their craft.

The thing that comedians do that writers tend NOT to do is support each other. If you look at comedian's shows and films, they ALL put their friends in them. So if you are a stand-up comedian, it's easy to tee up on someone else's fame. (Rob Schneider was on MTV's Cribs and calls his house, "The house that Sandler built.")

Most of the standups know each other from toiling in clubs and Open Mic nights. You will hear Bill Maher talk about listening to Richard Belzer in the "old days." Comics tend to not forget those who came up before them. They know what a lonely and difficult existence it can be. Writers should know it just as well. It's not the same as writing, unlike standup comedy, is a singular pursuit but that's why Open Mic is even MORE important for us.

I think it's important to not just applaud but critique and not just praise but recommend. I think we can all help each other and Open Mic won't just be talking to the wall....I think participation and really listening to each other is very important and then if I hear of an opportunity I can let you know and visa versa...

Or maybe I'm dreaming...

Red-Green
05-18-2009, 05:40 PM
What if the voracious reader is the same person as the aspiring writer? I subscribe to four lit magazines a year, and have done for nearly two decades. Usually a different four, although sometimes I linger a few years with a magazine I particularly like. I'm doing this for three reasons: to support small literary magazines, because I love to read, and to find markets for my own writing.

Music is the same: the people who want to become professional musicians, they also love listening to other musicians.

I don't think there's anything "incestuous" about it. Seems to me it's the natural order of things. If you find you're only reading the magazines to find a market for your writing, you may have a problem. Are you not even enjoying the stories? Do you get no pleasure from the reading?

People who want to become professional winemakers, they drink wine. Sure, to check out the competition, but also because they like wine.

AliceWrites
05-18-2009, 05:54 PM
What an interesting thread.

A couple of years ago I tried writing short stories, and began buying all the short story magazines in the name of research. I then realised that I didn't actually like reading the stories in these magazines, and had a very similar thought to greatfish. I like the analogy to the comedians who are there to perform their own sets.

However, subsequent posters have put this type of thought into perspective.

The short story market is not for everyone, but I know of several people who are convinced that to be taken seriously as a novel writer, or at least being in a better position to have their novel read, they should have a couple of published shorts on their CV.

I really like the idea of having a stage where we can hone our craft.

:)

NeuroFizz
05-18-2009, 06:11 PM
We can read (listen at the open mic) as readers or we can read (listen) as writers. There is nothing wrong with doing the latter if the goal is to improve our personal grasp of the craft, as constant improvement is a worthy (necessary) goal. As for the contention that most people in our audiences (at the mic and in literary journals) are reading/listening to our work as writers, maybe that's a half-full/half-empty thing. I'll bet there are readers of the journals who do so for the enjoyment rather than the stylistic breakdown and analysis. Likewise, some of the people in the audience at the open mic session, even some of those who perform, are probably there for enjoyment of the offerings. But it goes well beyond that.

I read in two different ways. As a writer, I tend to notice the quality of the prose and of the story, and find myself making mental notes on technique and critique. But if a story is good enought to pull me in, my reader-reader side (rather than writer-reader side) takes over and I jump, head-first, into the story. In that case, the quality of the prose can be good, average, or even below average, but I won't notice it in the same way I do as a writer-reader. I can look back later at the quality of the prose and form an opinion, but that is subsequent to enjoying the ride. It's not exactly the same with poetry, but it's similar.

So, why go and listen at the open mics? Why read literary journals? Why read and crit here at AW? Maybe some stories/poems will just pull us in to where we listen/read as reader-readers. And by evaluating what's written in those journals, or what is said into the mic, what is written here at AW, maybe we can find what it is that pulls us into that zone of reader-reading/listening. After all, that's our challenge, isn't it? To be able to pull all readers into the reader-reader zone? Some of this is storytelling and some of it is craft. So, through evaluation of what works and what doesn't work, we can strive to improve in those aspects that help pull readers into that desired zone. If we take that as our challenge when we decide to stand up to the mic, or when we decide to publish in a literary journal, or even when we decide to post here, we are also taking the half-full view because we are trying to turn all of the writer-readers into reader-readers. And when we listen to the others at the mic, or read the journal, we should look for those presentations that move us, because moving a writer-reader to become a reader-reader is sure to move a regular reader toward our holy grail--full enjoyment of our words, our creativity.

Phaeal
05-18-2009, 06:14 PM
I, too, have gotten a sense that the principal audiences for lit mags are poets and SS/creative nonfic writers. The MFA crowd. Note that Poets & Writers has as many ads for journals and small presses as Vogue has for perfumes. No, actually it has more ads! You can only squeeze so many reeking sample pull-outs in a mag, even one as thick as Vogue. ;)

Do any nonwriters read the lit mags? Good question. But I guess this isn't the forum in which to hear from them.

The next question is: Does it matter? Not a bit, so long as the writer readers are really enjoying their reading. If they're doing it only by way of research, that's sad.

My other sense is that the genre mags, survivors of the good old pulps, actually have nonwriter readers. But that doesn't mean that genre writers don't choke them down as research.

The old lit mag editor chestnut may be right: If you don't like the material in my journel, it's not the journal for you to submit to.

JamieFord
05-18-2009, 06:26 PM
Let's face it, the market for short fiction these days is almost theoretical. Most pubs that feature short fiction are supported by grants, not readers. Don't get me wrong, I love short fiction, but it's become a venue of "performance writing"--basically writers writing for other writers.

Stephen King wrote about it a while back (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/books/review/King2-t.html) in the NYT. This quote pretty much says it all, "Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers."

Phaeal
05-18-2009, 09:49 PM
Good article by King. I'm with him.

Polenth
05-18-2009, 10:48 PM
The magazines I read regularly aren't on my list because I hope they'll publish me. I read them as a reader.

I read genre and flash fiction markets though, which have a different feel to the average mainstream literary magazine. I do find the literary magazines often feel very clever, but not very alive. The poetry ones especially.

NeuroFizz
05-18-2009, 11:06 PM
I'm with King as well, but it can and does at least partially boil down to the literary versus genre divide (whether real, imagined, or exaggerated). It's nothing new--there will always be spears chucked back and forth between the "academic" and "non-academic" writers with the usual blade engravings of "ivory tower" and "intellectual trailer park" respectively. There will always journals aimed at writers whose main goal will be self-placement of suede elbow patches on tweed jackets and pipes between teeth. The bottom line, I suppose, is we all have to do our homework before selecting which publications we read, just as we do when we decide where to publish. And hopefully that will help us (personally) with the "open mic" syndrome. Reading widely, even across the divide, isn't necessarily a waste of time since it's just as important to see how not to write (for our personal style) as it is to see how to write.

Tanya Egan Gibson
05-19-2009, 03:00 AM
Let's face it, the market for short fiction these days is almost theoretical. Most pubs that feature short fiction are supported by grants, not readers. Don't get me wrong, I love short fiction, but it's become a venue of "performance writing"--basically writers writing for other writers.

Stephen King wrote about it a while back (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/30/books/review/King2-t.html) in the NYT. This quote pretty much says it all, "Last year, I read scores of stories that felt ... not quite dead on the page, I won’t go that far, but airless, somehow, and self-referring. These stories felt show-offy rather than entertaining, self-important rather than interesting, guarded and self-conscious rather than gloriously open, and worst of all, written for editors and teachers rather than for readers."


I'm all for "glorious open[ness]," but for me King's quotation above is overreaching. I subscribe to 7 or 8 literary journals, and while I do find some of the writing "show-offy" or weird for weird's sake, I also discover some of most breathtaking (as opposed to "airless") stories there.

Polenth
05-19-2009, 04:07 AM
I'm all for "glorious open[ness]," but for me King's quotation above is overreaching. I subscribe to 7 or 8 literary journals, and while I do find some of the writing "show-offy" or weird for weird's sake, I also discover some of most breathtaking (as opposed to "airless") stories there.

King isn't saying that every story in every literary journal is like that. He goes on to say:

"And yet. I read plenty of great stories this year. There isn't a single one in this book [Best American Short Stories] that didn't delight me, that didn't make me want to crow, "Oh, man, you gotta read this!""

Matera the Mad
05-19-2009, 04:10 AM
I was a voracious reader before I became a writer. That was prob cause and effect. Anyway, I sought beta readers among non-writers because of the prevalence of Hypercritosis Syndrome and other minor mental disorders, temporary and otherwise, common to writers ;)

Manix
05-19-2009, 04:36 AM
I sought beta readers among non-writers because of the prevalence of Hypercritosis Syndrome and other minor mental disorders, temporary and otherwise, common to writers ;)

Is depression a byproduct of writing or of breathing?

Ken
05-19-2009, 04:54 AM
... breathing is a byproduct of depression ;-)

ichMael
05-22-2009, 05:37 AM
Art for artists' sake? Regarding the original post, you can always walk in, do your bit on stage, and walk out. That's pretty much what I do with my writing. I don't peruse the journals. Do they handle my type of writing? A query will tell me that. I just look for keywords regarding genre and rarely read the recommended samples. Either they want it or they don't.

rugcat
05-22-2009, 06:54 AM
The thing that comedians do that writers tend NOT to do is support each other. If you look at comedian's shows and films, they ALL put their friends in them.I think the OP's comparison to open mike night is quite perceptive, though performing and writing aren't quite the same.

But I do think writers support each other. I try to make as many author readings as I can at Borderlands, our local SF/F indie here in San Francisco. Every writer I've met there has been gracious and friendly, and were the same before I was published as well.

And if you look at SF/F anthology collections, almost all the writers in them know each other and are friends. It's incestuous in a way, but not really. There are far more good writers than there are slots available in an anthology, so why not include good writers you have a relationship with?

And as far as open mikes go, some are just what the OP describes -- performers in front of other performers. But some of them are very good, and attract a following of people interested in new talent and the variety of acts.