Monday, November 06, 2006

In which our heroine attempts to influence the New York publishing industry

One of my favorite getting-to-know-you questions (or even I-already-know-you-but-I-hadn't-thought-to-ask-you-this questions) is: What were your formative reading experiences? I mean, sure, lots of adults don't read, but almost every kid had something that really turned them on. As a young child and preteen, uninterestingly enough, I favored straightforward children's and young adult fiction – Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. I also liked talking animals (the first book I read with chapters was Charlotte's Web), and spunky, misunderstood chicks (Pippi Longstocking comes to mind, though she wasn't really misunderstood). I tried to read A Wrinkle in Time, but decided science fiction was too weird for me. (My friend Laurel, on the other hand, reports that she read nothing but Bradbury when she was a kid.) And, proving that kids are utter morons, I was deeply upset by Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though I almost considered it worth it for its descriptions of food.

As for formative experiences, though, I can't say many things have impacted me as deeply as did Sassy magazine. It's still a kind of dogwhistle: you mention Sassy magazine, and either you get blank stares, or you get chicks in a certain demographic (namely, mine) barking at the goddamn moon. I think Sassy created that demographic, actually. While BUST actually began around the time Sassy ended – reportedly because the editors were jealous that teenagers had a hip, pro-feminist magazine to read and all they had was crappy Cosmo – now the situation is the reverse. And it's never surprising – though it always inspires a strange, not-quite-deja-vu feeling to read about something in BUST that I first heard about in Sassy 12 years ago. After all, former Sassy readers are undoubtedly that magazine's bread and butter. Completely unsurprising, then, when BUST ran a history of the fabled teen-girl rag, about a year ago, and equally unsurprising that that article turned into a book. It's been demonstrated that the junior alterna-chicks of yesteryear are all grown up, making our own money (or trying), and buying magazines and books with that money.

That said, as one of those chicks, I have a problem. A very specific problem. Of the sort that can only be solved by whining to the Internet. A lot.

I used to read Sassy cover to cover when it came in the mail. I investigated every Cute Band Alert, sent away for every Zine of the Month, coveted the clothes, and adored the authors (who never used surnames in their bylines) as imaginary older sisters. I studied the design, reread sentences over and over to figure out exactly what the writers had done to pull the punches they pulled. The writing was so tight, and so jokey; you knew the staffers loved their jobs.

So why the obsession? Well, as my man James Ellroy once wrote, writers in training snort up the craft by enjoyment. It was the beginning of picking tItalichings apart to figure out why they worked for me. That was part of it, but this went deeper than that. No one had told me before that it was OK to be weird, nor acknowledged what I sensed innately at 12, 13, 14 (my age when the magazine folded): that trying to fit in usually just made matters worse. When the writers at Sassy said it was OK to quit trying, I took everything they said from then on as gospel.

Including the fiction. Perhaps especially the fiction.

Lately I've had the weird experience of discovering that people whose zines I used to read when I was in middle school – Al Hoff, Lisa Carver, Brandon Stosuy – all have pro gigs writing for hip publications or websites (like Nerve and Pitchfork). Which not only makes me wish I hadn't quit doing zines at 15, it leads me to wonder about some of the other names I used to see in print a lot. Marjorie Ingall has popped up on Salon a couple of times. Jane Pratt had Jane. Christina Kelly was writing for YM (ouch – but everyone's gotta eat). Then I began to wonder about the authors whose fiction ran in Sassy. Blake Nelson's Girl was excerpted in Sassy and then made into an embarrassingly bad movie with Dominique Swain (appropriate, I guess, considering she made her name making embarrassingly bad movies from awesome books). The real conundrum for me, though, is Rebecca Moore, whose byline ran quite a bit in the old fiction section.

I cannot tell you how many times I have reread “Smokin' Joe,” which ran shortly before Sassy was bought by a rival publisher and run into the ground. I can tell you that my copy of it is at my parents' house 400 miles away, and I can type chunks of it from memory: “I could see Joe out in Hollywood. You want to make a deal? You ready to talk?” It's a disturbing little number about a middle schooler falling in love (and being seduced by) a twenty-something film teacher. There's a passage, wherein the protagonist's mother's boyfriend explains Mercury retrograde, that I think about every time I ride a train.

There was also a series of shorts about middle schoolers in late-70s Greenwich Village which contained lines I still quote to myself to this day: “Boys: One thing wrong about them and you die for ever having liked them. One bad shirt, one off day, one show-offy social studies class with even the teacher thinking this kid is really a loser, pitying him.” Better yet was, “Harry: He is like a chute I could suddenly fall down.” I understood that these were excerpts from a forthcoming novel, Lunch in Brooklyn, and I anticipated it eagerly.

Here's the problem, dear readers: I am still anticipating the goddamn novel. My Internet research reveals that Lunch in Brooklyn was Moore's MFA thesis at Columbia, and went no further. Now, what the hell is that about? Dear dimwits in the publishing world, 1) admit that the above quoted sentences (and the stories that contain them, which I assume you will immediately track down and read) are compelling and brilliant, 2) note that there is a frigging demographic that will buy this book, and an accompanying collection of short stories if you publish it.
That's right. I'm 26 years old, I loathe teenagers and yet I badly want to read about middle schoolers falling in love with each other! I want to read more stories about creepy dudes seducing middle schoolers! I want to read more stories about middle schoolers who refuse to speak to their divorcing parents!
You people have no excuse but to track Ms. Moore down, shake her down for the manuscript, and publish it. I promise I will reserve a copy as soon as I hear that this has happened. (Even though, as my boyfriend informed me when I started screaming at him about this, I can just wander down to the PSU library and request the thesis on Interlibrary Loan from Columbia's library, that is not the point. I'm talking about the greater good here.)