Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Pointless griping as a coping mechanism for lack of fish

One of the trade-offs to living in cultural purgatory is the lack of a decent local newsstand. When Wal-Mart serves as your community's primary source of the printed word, well, it can't get much worse than that. Which is why I jump at the opportunity to perform menial and boring tasks if said tasks get me out of town and in the vicinity of a decent book store magazine rack.

Yesterday found me performing such an out-of-town task, and as luck would have it I was able to briefly stop and browse at a pretty good regional chain book store. I picked up a copy of The Drake, both the Pointing Dog and Retriever Journal and I scored a cheap used copy of Roy Tanami's Angling the World. No Gray's to be had, but I'll pick up a copy next week when I'm in ye olde home town.

But as I was looking over the hunting, fishing and shooting section of the newsstand I have to admit that, as a reader, I was overcome with a palpable sense of despondency and as a writer I was hit with a feeling of outright impending doom.

You see, when I decided to jump from newspapers to full-time freelancing, Iwanted to focus on hunting, fishing, conservation and environmental issues but I had grand and wildly unrealistic visions of being a hook-and-bullet version of  Bill Bryson, Edward Abbey, Paul Theroux, Ian Frazier, Vonnegut, Thompson, etc., sort of a literary mash-up of some of my favorite authors and long-form magazine journalists.

I know, I know,  it was painfully cliched. What writer doesn't have such dreams, right? But even back then most hook-and-bullet mags weren't interested in anything that strayed from formula, so honestly, I don't know what the hell I was thinking. Sports Afield did have that brief and promising Terry McDonnell-led period back in the 90s when the masthead read like a who's-who of literary figures, but then it went all X-games and Men's Journal on us and eventually died a quiet and temporary death. Besides, I was still in college back then and focused mainly on bass fishing and happy hour two-fers at the local dive.

So when I did start freelancing, all those returned self-addressed stamped envelopes (writing is the only endeavor I know of in which you are required to pay for the bearing of your own bad news...) containing the form letter rejections taught me that when you live hand-to-mouth you better be ambidextrous. So I did. I  became a general, hand-to-mouth freelancer: I wrote for regionals, worked as a stringer for newspapers, even spent a number of years as a reporter for People magazine (that experience deserves a blog post of its own...).

Writing has always been a precarious way to make a living. No surprise there. But it's even more so now, because looking at the newsstand  makes you realize the very best outdoor writing to be had  now is found not (with few exceptions) in magazines (which pay) but online, through e-zines, blogs and forums (which, by and large, don't).

Why? Who knows? There was a very good discussion on the Upland Journal forum a few months ago that explored the question of  is the current state of bird-hunting literature and journalism stuffy, formulaic, boring and (for lack of a better term) old man-centric and perhaps could do with a little more Drake-like writing, maybe a This is Fly treatment.

I would argue that not only could bird hunting do with a little more alternative energy, but that all hunting and fishing print mags need to start taking some cues from the gonzo, freethinking elements of the flyfishing publishing world. I want to see a This Is Fly, Fish and Game. I want to see, as Suburban Bushwacker  recently put it perfectly, a "McSweeney's Afield". I want to see a conventional tackle version of The Flyfish Journal.

As a reader, I want to see that attitude of experimentation and creativity and good writing carried over into the general-interest outdoor mags.

Will I ever see it? Probably not, because for whatever reason, most magazine editors, publishers and owners cannot seem to grasp this simple formula: Give the reader a compelling reason to spend five bucks on a magazine, and he/she/it will. Build a magazine on the radical assumption that your readers have a minimum threshold of intelligence, a minimum length of attention span and aren't frightened by the possibility of having to think about what they're reading.

Set a bar, because if you shoot for the least common denominator moron demographic, that's exactly what you'll end up with. And looking over the newsstand yesterday, I saw a lot of lowest common denominator.

Maybe I'm just being a crabby old bastard. Today I was hoping to regale reader(s) with a tale of my first white bass (sandbass to us Okies and other southern types) on the fly rod. But here I sit griping about magazines and watching the cold rain come down...

11 comments:

  1. I dunno about the same old, same old being the status quo forever, Chad. If Dead Tree media types don't take this curious place and time in history to experiment, change and stop publishing retread stories like "Top 10 largemouth lures" or "5 ways to grunt call a buck" then they are going to shrivel up and die die (most of 'em).

    Either adapt, or don't. And I think some of them will suddenly get this great inspiration to go back to what they were doing when the likes of Spiller wrote regular, long essays for popular magazines.

    Or maybe we'll just all end up reading Twitter the live long day.

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  2. Blogging can pay, but you've got to have an awful lot of traffic for it to pay well. And you have to convince your readers to not only click on your ads, but buy things through them so you can make a commission, only you're forbidden by the advertisers' rules to tell readers that.

    What an amazing gig it was to be paid to write for a living. I'm grateful to have a day job to supplement the puny earnings of the freelance life.

    Will the mags rediscover literature? I suspect that depends on what the surveys tell them. My fear is that surveys are the reason they do what they do - that in fact not everyone actually wants to read well-spun tales.

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  3. Just about all business is cyclical in some form or another and I'd imagine the magazine business is too. Publishers left literature behind in pursuit of bigger game, whether pressured to do so by new ownership, new financing, or human nature. It'll come back around for the same reasons.

    As much as I like picking up a magazine and reading it, I'm content to read good stuff on this screen rather than suffer through crap on paper.

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  4. I gotta say, although pretty avant garde, ThisisFly bugs the crap out of me.

    Frankly, (though an avid one myself) fly fishing stuff can afford to test new waters, because their niche is pretty good at weathering recessions.

    Good writing will out, because good writers must write - it is a sickness, I hear. However, sadly, bad writing will also out.

    Perhaps the art-as-winning-the-lottery was just a 20th Century blip, and most artists will have to go back to having day jobs, writers included. It's sad, though.

    As for the paper hook-and-bullet media - I was crushed when they let McManus go. I've not bought since.

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  5. Will compelling, honest, and well-written outdoor writing ever pay, let alone pay well? I'm not convinced it ever will -- because (as we well know) it never has.

    But people will seek out prose somewhere, and that somewhere is here and that column to the right titled, "blogs I follow."

    The writing and photography of these kindred souls is remarkable. But how do you charge for something that people are conditioned to receiving for free?

    That's the same conundrum that every Dead Tree publication in the world is mulling.

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  6. Chad

    Good to hear this being chewed over again.

    I was drinking with another blogger the other day and he pointed out that thisisfly.com is clearly VERY well financed judging by the destinations they report on. Sure there's the 'trout bum' pieces where the author goes on the train and gets down with the locals [the piece set in NYC issues 4 and 5] but there are a lot of pieces where the trip is to some Russian backwater by helicopter - 10k per head minimum.

    Me, I'm betting on 'free' as the new cost for magazines, and postal as the distribution method. what I'm not decided on is wether its on 'cheaper the better' paper with 'any advertiser will do' financing or will it be somewhere slightly down market of an IWC brochure (very few coffee table books are printed to such a high quality) and largely the private preserve of one mega brand?

    See ya soon
    SBW

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  7. I may be too steeped in fogey-writing to ever really warm up to some of the new voices you mentioned. Can't quite get enthusiastic about The Drake or ThisisFly, despite the wonderful photos.

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  8. Man, great comments, all. Guess I need to post pointless blathering more often...

    I'm sort of half-in and half-out of the old fogey writing world myself. I grew up with the older stuff and I still love it (I just bought among others, a Philip Wylie collection, a book by Arnold Gingrich and a couple Corey Ford books. That's about as old as it gets...).

    Great writing is great writing regardless of what epoch it happens to have been produced in, but I guess what I'm saying is I'm seeing - even in publications I like - a sort of endless repetition of the style, structure, cadence and subject of the typical hunting or fishing piece, even the literary ones.

    It's not exactly self-parody, but sometimes it gets a little close...

    And even though I have to admit the writing in pubs like ThisisFly can sometimes be a little unpolished or sophomoric or loud, I like what they represent because it's different enough to be (when the writing is good) compelling.

    There are a ton of long-time hunting and fishing authors out there whose voices are still unique and compelling (Barsness, Bodio, McIntyre, etc, ) but I never seem to see them in print much anymore. They seem to have all been replaced by automatons spitting out copy from the same software program.

    It's not really writing, it's just, I don't know, droning white noise, infused with absolutely nothing resembling originality or daring.

    On the other hand, being different and shocking for its own sake is just as cliched, and I think sometimes the alternative flyfishing publications tend to veer off course in that direction.

    If there were just some way to meld that Corey Ford/Ed Zern wit with that Gene Hill-esque introspection,and then wrap it all up in a punk rock, post-modern sensibility, I'd buy that for a dollar.

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  9. Chad,

    I know what you mean. I've been looking at a few 80's era Gray's Sporting Journals and, for all that there is a good bit of snobbishness and "down at the family brook with grandad's Leonard" sort of writing, there is also a lot of well written stuff from folks like John Hewitt and Ron Rau and Cliff Hauptman and David Simpson that don't fit the regular outdoor writing mold at all. I dropped Fly Rod and Reel because, despite having Geirach on the last page and AK Best writing (a very, very good) fly tying column, their fiction largely sucks and the other articles are almost all things you read fifteen years ago.

    I think some of the "trout bum" type writing you see lacks grounding in the sport. Sure, these guys are new, and trying things out, and ascribing to a different aesthetic; however, we're a long way from tweed, cane, and silk lines. Heck, we're a good ways from the whole "match the hatch extended body crippled dun" trend. Not that people don't practice that, but whole swathes of writing and fly fishing trends have gone by and watching a new cohort reinvent the wheel or define their club just doesn't appeal as much as it might.

    Not to take away from the good writing that's being done, though, and, like you, I'd happily pay for a punk rock Ford/Zern/Hill amalgam.

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  10. Speaking for myself (and I'll answer for Tom McIntyre who is in constant touch) we don't write for magazines BECAUSE THEY WON'T PUBLISH US. (John B still writes, well, for the gun mags because they DO).

    Tom has some other outlets. None of the editors at the current mags, other than rather narrow (especially if you live in my part of New Mexico!) FR&R and the fancy gun mags, even return queries. As for 2nd, if you can't publish much you can't buy fancy guns to write about. And it's not just the sporting press-- after the latest change of ownership at The Atlantic a few years ago they actually told me via letter that they were changing to only "well- known writers", by assignment. My editor had left, and that was that. It is not a good time for "old" non- famous writers-- Harry Middleton was just an early casualty.

    I am lucky to live in a small rural town, have most things (like my 20 year old 4WD and my stepson's education) paid for, and to have a garden, firewood, and lots of game. I would be homeless if I had to live elsewhere.

    I was recently told on pitching a book proposal that I was an old (60) white male who had good reviews and low sales and therefore was in the worst demographic possible to sell a book to a publisher.

    I still write, for whoever pays (am on the masthead of the non- sporting Living Bird and have a piece coming out on Passenger pigeons and their mysteries).

    Anybody want to fund me another trip to Central Asia to finish my book on ancient sighthounds, petroglyphs, and dog origins? I'm not holding my breath!

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  11. I should add that Gray's is an exception-- but you can't make a living of it, nor does it love "odd".

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