Magazine Databases: Magazine Debasers?

This evening, I got an email asking me if I wanted to add NOÖ Journal into a new literary magazine database called litmags.org. Here is some text from that email:

Dear Editor:

I’m a student working on my MFA in creative writing, and my final project for one of my classes was to construct a website through which readers and writers can more easily find literary magazines that suit their tastes and styles. This is an invitation to have your magazine listed in the site’s database.

Okay, sure. Sounds good. Like competition for Duotrope. Cool. But here’s what I wonder: do these databases really aid some earnest reader’s desire to find a new favorite magazine all about snowshoe poetry? Because sometimes it seems like they just facilitate the ability to find “markets” that “suit” a submitting writer’s “aesthetic.” Which seems–with all due respect to the people who maintain and program these databases, people who work awesomely hard on their projects–like a depressing and bullshit way to go about reading and writing.

Some right-away caveats: I’ve used Duotrope. I’ve given money to Duotrope. I update NOÖ’s Duotrope profile consistently. According to Duotrope, I’ve accepted the work of people who use their submissions tracking system and who might have, presumably, found out about the magazine only through the database.  About fifteen minutes after I got litmags.org’s email, I’d hammered and delivered a bunkbed for NOÖ to their dorms. As technology, these databases are tremendously useful, and I think it’s nothing short of noble that the people who do them do them for free and work so hard. Also, it’s vital for the cultural legitimacy of literary magazines to have archives that record and describe the existence of mags currently in operation.

But I’m weirded out, I think, by the latent ideologies behind such efforts. To wit, more text from the email, which was signed “Max (I prefer to remain)”:

This project was born out of my own frustration and the frustration I’d heard from fellow MFAers over the sheer quantity of literary magazines and how difficult it is to find new ones that appeal to our own sensibilities. Duotrope is helpful, but specific searches often still deliver hundreds of results. I recognize that there is only so much a person can understand about a magazine without actually reading it, but I thought that I could do better. Litmags.org uses a points system to attempt to separate magazines from one another and deliver more meaningful search results. Magazines are given a limited number of points to assign to various tags (i.e. short story, flash fiction, science-fiction, free-verse poetry). The more points a magazine assigns to a certain tag, the higher it will show up when someone searches for that term.

The points system seems cool in a “my elf casts breakdance +78 on your orc” way, but I have no idea what it’s got to do with literary magazines. To shift mediums for a second, who calculates how much % Pop Grunge a band is then looks for bands in the same % range? Your brother tells you about the Pixies, or your friend with the long hair does. Stats don’t. Right? People share culture they’re excited about. That’s how it works. All my favorite lit mags I found by reading about them on messageboards, hearing someone talk about them (online or in fleshspace), and/or clicking around on the links page of a magazine I already liked, a links page curated by someone whose sensibilities I already sort of “trusted” — in all cases, a person by person thing.

Granted, I know about radio programs that hock new music based on you inputting favorite songs then some algorithm measuring Melody, Rhythm, and Hair Gel quotients in those songs to spin you stuff you “didn’t know you liked.” But even those programs make a big deal of how they get smarter based on people giving thumbs-up and thumbs-down to their mechanized suggestions. And even then, it’s not the robots I’m squinting at.

Rather, it’s lines and lines of thought like this: “… the sheer quantity of literary magazines and how difficult it is to find new ones that appeal to our own sensibilities.” Difficult how? Difficult like there are so many, and you’re aware there are so many because the Information Age constantly reminds you just how much there is to know and thus to miss? And it nags, that idea of “stuff you may love” just lurking, humming away undiscovered just to your left, maybe. That infinite sandwich menu.

And by sensibilities, you mean you know what you like but you are afraid that no one else likes what you like, that your tastes are intellectually malformed, callow and secret little habits that you toss into the corner when somebody walks into the room, but you’re always on the lookout for somebody who says “Hey, I’ve got a sock like that in my corner too.” That’s what you mean, right?

Or do you mean it’s difficult to find places that will publish your work because rejection is annoying and stacks of “pub credits” are sure tickets to _____: Fellowships? Babes? Tenure? A more ephemeral kind of “cred cred?” A book? Another book? Ching? Cha ching?

This is what I think at my most cynical: databases like this assume a hierarchical model of cultural respectability, where some magazines are “better credits” than others and where publication is a game of Zelda gold coins, with the most and best coins convincing the boss patrons–the folks with the power, with the staplers and the silkworms and the blank dust jackets–to validate your artistic efforts with a hardcover trophy that signals your properly handled ascension into literary respectability, so your book can be tucked onto shelves and sell less copies than Leaves of Grass reprints–you know, that weird little hunk of poems Walt Whitman self-published.

Okay: what’s wrong with that? I like Zelda. To think of publishing as a game even softens the cynicism a smidge. But the problem with this model is that it’s just not, I believe, how readers and writers function right now on a raw social level, somewhere beneath the abstractions of the Market (if there’s any such place).

Writers: When you’re a “creative” person and you hang out with other creative types whose work you like, you get excited and want to tell people about your friends. You also feel jealous and want to work harder, make your own work just as good. You publicize each other in whatever form as a natural offshoot of your collective confidence, because you like your own shit a lot but you feel like a dick trying to give your poet friend a bunch of your own poems to read, when you know hers are maybe even better. So you decide to make up for it by giving a bunch of her poems to some other friend. And pretty soon you’re all trying to out-do each other in that department too. Then the people around you are amused by all this audacity and tell other people about you and your friends, except they make you all sound even more important than you are because they want to sound good talking about you. If you all keep doing what you’re doing, making noise, it soon becomes outrageous, this insistence and “not giving up.” Eventually the culture world at large stops for a second trying to mine history for a new forgotten artist who lived with bluebirds in a Denny’s parking lot and only produced one sublime canvas of freeze-dried syrup packets, and instead they notice y’alls’ art of the now. Pretty soon, you’ve got people contacting you and saying “what a relief, this is the shit I’ve been waiting for.” They show your their own shit. Some of them are really good and make you work harder, and some of them are just really nice and make you feel like you have someone to work for. Between them and your original friends, you have a lot of people to impress. So you continue to work toward success and happiness, or more like success and crippling anxiety but success, yes, sure. You forget, maybe, to pet the chicken on Level 5. 543/25 points.

Readers: How did you find out about Bukowski? Faulkner? Pynchon? Baudelaire? Frank Stanford? Lorrie Moore? Richard Brautigan? The Smiths? Werner Herzog? Wait, you tell me. Don’t I mean who did you find out from? Don’t I mean you should tell me about the day your mother thought The Crying of Lot 49 was a title up your alley or the year that kid who sold shitty Mexican pot out of his briefcase wouldn’t shut up about the Buk?

Yeah, I guess that’s what I mean.

Q: How did Raymond Carver get his stories published in Esquire? A: He and Gordon Lish met in Menlo Park, CA, where Ray was editing textbooks and Gordon was directing linguistic studies at Behavioral Research Laboratories. They became friends, and Gordon admired Ray’s writing so much he even wrote a little bit of it himself. Q: How much did the New York School poets worry about getting famous A: Not much; they were trying too hard to amuse themselves and their painter friends.

Yes, there are tons of literary magazines. How do you know which is the best? How do you get published in the best? By realizing that in this case the “best” is not a “gold medal,” I think. The best is the magazine you are most excited about, duh, and it seems to me you can’t find that out via some points system. Markets are for tortilla chips. If you want market advice, don’t sell your tortilla chips to a sushi restaurant. If you want to find readers, find readers. We don’t read literature for the same reasons we buy things. People won’t mind buying ugly, unapproved stuff from you if they like your words. It’s true. It’s stunning. Sometimes the real Market sees what’s happening and tries to catch up, which is the staggering inevitability of the Market, also known as Moldy Peaches CD Sales After Juno, but whatever: it’s kind of cute when your Uncle $$$ tries to get hip, and it’s not like he’s going to change.

So okay, what about us writers, Mikey Punkface Utopio, how do we find these readers? Well. Let’s say your friend tells you about some dude his teacher told him about. So you check this dude out. You don’t like his shit. But you read some funny anecdote about how he drove this old writer around, and this old dude smoked cigarettes with one hand and held his oxygen mask with the other. So you check out the old dude’s work, and you find an essay he wrote about Southern Gothic fiction in some magazine. You read a few stories in the fiction section of that magazine. One of them you really dig. You Google this author’s name. She has a blog. On the blog, you find a link to online litmags. You check out one with a cool name, read a few pieces. You really like the pieces: they make you feel like writing. And the site looks nice but not overly so. Some of the bios make the authors seem cool, people you’d want to eat omlettes with. But you don’t recognize any of the names, not really, and the magazine doesn’t seem to be a member of the CLMP or anything. Do you submit there? Or do you go onto a database and read stats sheets and compile rankings systems based on how many times a magazine has appeared in the Puschart Anthology and try to find a “better market?”

Well?

Forgive me for the unoriginality of this closing analogy, but this game doesn’t really doesn’t seem all that different than picking friends in grade school. Either you like people or you calculate the relative popularity of various lunch tables. Most of us insecure little spitshops do the latter. Except now we’re all grown up and we know better. Now we know that we want to hang out with the people who get us. And that no formulaic standard of authority is going to decide who gets us better than ourselves, and we know that nobody’s going to care about us in any satisfying way unless we care about them too, unless we like them beyond just using them.

We know that. Right?