Paratext

This is the second of a multi-part series on fiction and fiction writing. If you haven’t read the first yet, you should start there.

Ling Ma, the author of Severance, teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Chicago. A quick look at their faculty page shows us that even a well-heeled institution like Chicago isn’t immune from contingency. Five of their thirteen “core faculty” are within the tenure stream, seven are professors of the practice (a polite term for an academic job with a term limit), and one a postdoc. And these thirteen core faculty are surrounded by a larger group of seventeen visiting faculty, to whom the university takes an even more delimited obligation.

Again, it all depends on how you count. By my count, there are thirty people teaching in this program, and five of them are faculty.

Looking at their bios, there’s remarkable diversity in detail, remarkable sameness in structure.

  • MFAs from Virginia, Harvard, Boston University, Cornell, Iowa. PhDs from Berkeley, Yale.
  • Fellowships and residencies with Bread Loaf, Macdowell, Sewanee, Millay
  • Awards: the Rome Prize, the Guggenheim, PEN Emerging Writers
  • Publications in Granta, Threepenny Review, Glimmer Train, Virginia Quarterly Review, Antioch Review, Ploughshares

There’s no walk-ons on this team. The pedigrees are immaculate, groomed through years and years of the right connections, the right programs, the right mentors. This is not to say that they aren’t all wonderful writers, wonderful people. I’m sure they’re lovely. But they came to the team through the scouting reports, through the minor leagues, passed up the line from hand to hand. These are the kinds of credentials it takes now even to be contingent at an elite school.

They didn’t come to their publishers as unknowns, either, as a crumb of ice within the slush. They came through cocktail parties, through conversations on the lawn in Vermont and Tennessee, through conference panels and service on the editorial boards of the little magazines. Their three-paragraph pitch letter didn’t stand on its own—it was supported by volumes of paratext, the things we know about texts before we ever encounter them as texts. Their pitch didn’t come in a batch of fifty, to be cleared through in the hour commute on the train—swipe left, swipe left, swipe left. They came in personalized e-mails, with subject lines like “Nice to meet you at Joan’s…” They came over lunches, the vague, handwaving got-an-idea-for-a-story that gets incubated over a salad and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. They come through publishing chapter after chapter as standalones in literary journals, a habit that becomes its own form (the medium, as we know, being the message), the novel reduced to a twitchy series of short stories.

All of this is, as I’ve said about faculty life, a form of sponsorship, of standing members vouching for the newcomer to the rest of the community. If you don’t have a sponsor, you don’t get to join the lodge. Or, to use a Chicago story, Abner Mikva (future judge) walked into a Democratic Party ward office in 1948 and asked the ward chairman, Tim O’Sullivan, if he could volunteer for the Adlai Stevenson campaign. “Who sent you?” O’Sullivan said. “Nobody sent me,” Mikva replied. O’Sullivan jammed his cigar back into his mouth and said, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”

The response to “Who sent you?” is a form of paratext, a larger knowledge within which we read the specific story. If the answer is the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, or The Sewanee Review, we’re predisposed to read the story generously. If the answer is the submissions-form portal on the agency website, we’re predisposed to think poorly of it.

And again, this is not to imply that those who’ve come up through the system aren’t deserving, in authorial or faculty life. It merely implies that there are an awful lot of people whose work is deserving, many of whom will not be properly introduced.

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