A Bad Problem to Have

I tend to be a little skeptical when a celebrity not known as a literary author comes out with a book or appears in a literary magazine. For the poetry of Jewel and T-Boz, or of Jack Palance (who gave a reading from his poems at my college years ago) I had very low expectations. These were clearly vanity publications. So when I recently saw that B.J. Novak, known primarily for his work on The Office, was this month’s author in one story and that in fact he had a collection of short stories coming out of which “A Good Problem to Have” was a member, I worried a little. Was one story — almost certainly my favorite of all the magazines I’ve subscribed to in the last decade — selling out by putting a non-literary celebrity’s name on their cover?

Anecdotally, there’s a little detail that lends some credence to the idea: Consider the end matter for the issue:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 39 December 30, 2013. ONE MORE THING by B.J. Novak. Copyright 2014 by B.J. Novak. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC.

Now compare that with the prior month’s copyright notice:

One Story, Volume 10 Number 38 December 2, 2013. Copyright 2013 Jen Fawkes. POSTMASTER: Send address changes to One Story, 232 Third Street, #A108, Brooklyn, NY 11215.

I thumbed through a handful of a dozen or so issues from the past year or so and found that almost without fail, the end matter read much more like the latter, with credit given to the author rather than a publishing house. This gels with the way that magazine publication often (not always) works. An author has a story accepted for publication at a magazine and only later assembles a group of stories into a collection for publication in book form, so that when the magazine publishes the story, the copyright notice lists the author rather than the publisher or a book title. So a copyright notice that lists a major publishing house and a book title is something of an anomaly in my recent experience with one story. This becomes important, so hang onto the fact for a moment.

Among the last dozen or so issues, there is one other exception to one story‘s usual copyright notice. In issue number 183, a story by the well known Elizabeth Gilbert is cited as an excerpt from her book The Signature of All Things. Gilbert announces her publication in one story here, and interestingly, she’s friends with the publishers and is listed in the magazine’s end matter as a sponsor. I’m not suggesting timely impropriety here; she’s listed as a sponsor going back well before her publication. Still, in two recent cases, we have celebrity status figures (vs. just well-known writers) headlining one story just as they have new books coming out. It smells just a little bit of large press sponsorship to me. Is it possible that Knopf and Viking have given one story money to shill for the well known authors of forthcoming books?

If so, I honestly have mixed feelings. It takes money to run magazines, and it’s clear from the donation and subscription solicitations I keep getting from one story that they’re not exactly rolling in dough. So on the one hand, who’s to blame the magazine if a Knopf or a Viking comes along with a fistful of cash in exchange for publication of the authors of reasonably good stories?

But on the other hand, what happens if the story quality suffers and the magazine begins to lose credibility as a source for good literature? I thought Gilbert’s story was pretty good. I knew Gilbert only because I had heard of the movie adaptation of her Eat, Pray, Love, and my expectations weren’t very high. I was pleasantly surprised by her story. When I saw Novak’s name on the cover of the magazine, my knee-jerk reaction was to roll my eyes. Surely this guy was a hack, and with a new book coming out, gracious me, was it possible that my favorite little magazine was selling out? But Novak’s not just a comedian. He studied at Harvard and had writing and producer credits on a very funny, popular television program. He is not without talent. I was skeptical but open-minded.

And boy was I pleased when I started reading his story! It centered on a very clever sort of creation story behind the old math problem about two trains traveling toward one another at different speeds. It was funny and had some heart. It was well written and had the promise to be a really fantastic story. And then it ended abruptly with a feeble callback to a statement made earlier in the story and with all its goodness left unrealized on the table.

A story as good as what I’m accustomed to reading in one story would have pretty well put aside my worries about what was beginning to seem like an occasional bit of quid pro quo with publishers who might be in a position to help a little magazine out (and again, who could blame the long-suffering magazine?). But I don’t think Novak’s story should have made the cut. Or, it had plenty of potential but needed a lot of editing before making the cut.

Of course, there’s the problem. Think back to my description of the way magazine and book publication often work. Vetting by magazines happens first, and the books that stories ultimately make it into acknowledge the magazines for their initial publication of the work. Magazine editors have the opportunity to work with an author to polish a story and bring it up to snuff, and in fact, I’ve read accounts from one story authors describing how useful that process has been to the improvement of their work. I imagine this is a big part of why the stories in one story tend to be so consistently good.

But if a story is already ready for press in book form and the book publisher offers it to a magazine, it seems likely that the magazine will have a reduced privilege to make editorial suggestions. Of course, I don’t know anything at all about the life cycle of Novak’s story, but it’s hard for me not to think that because the piece made its unfortunately abortive way into a book and was then offered to the magazine, one story pretty much had to take it as it was, and as a result, the magazine this month featured an inferior story.

This all makes me feel pretty sad. For one thing, I think that with better editing and a jaunt through the usual publication meat grinder, Novak’s story might have been a great deal better. It could have been a wonderful piece, in his hands or the hands of another who’d thought it up and done it full justice. So there is a horrible waste at hand here. Skirting the standard editorial process here diminished his achievement. I also feel like Novak’s fame more than his ability may have played a role in his sudden publication of a book of unvetted stories. He reportedly got a seven-figure deal for the book this story will appear in and a second book. As far as I know, otherwise unproven authors aren’t generally entitled to such deals, so it’s hard to figure the deal arose from much beyond his reputation as a comedic actor and writer — which is fine but which doesn’t mean he’s entitled to a literary stage for ultimately sub-par work. And of course I mourn one story‘s involvement for two reasons. First, I hate that a quality magazine has to (if I have things right) make deals with publishers to peddle the work of celebrity authors with forthcoming books (as if taking money from amazon.com, which has done much to kill small presses, wasn’t indignity enough). And second, I’m sad that for the first time since I’ve been a subscriber (admittedly only a year or two), the magazine has published a prose story that I really thought wasn’t worthy of the magazine (and, worse, that it might have been).

I suppose I’ve offered qualifications enough, but just to be clear, I have no insight into what deals one story may have made with any publishing houses. I may be wearing a tin-foil hat, and everything herein that’s not verifiable should be considered utter speculation, the ravings of a crank. I actually really hope I’ve got a lot wrong, that somebody will tell me what I’m misunderstanding about Novak’s story that makes it great.

If there is something a little opportunistic going on here, it’s left me very much on the fence with regard to Novak. I sort of want to read his book, but I also really sort of don’t now. Maybe I’ll choose to believe that one story has had its cake and eaten it too here, benefiting from a sort of payola while sending a coded message to its discriminating readers, by publishing a sub-par story, that the cited collection was not worth reading and the acceptance of the work one purely of financial necessity rather than a lapse in editorial judgment or a full-on sellout.