Rhizomaticideas.com recently published a great short essay on the problems with literary magazines charging a reading fee. As someone with a serious Marxist chip on my shoulder, (see attached diagram for geo-spatial details) I have a serious issue with this particular form of class-based exclusion. I won’t waste your time restating what was stated so well and directly in the linked article, but I would like to take a moment to go on record about a few aspects of literary publishing.
1. Most reading fees are, indeed, bullshit. There are exceptions.
2. A contest, especially one that includes a journal subscription in exchange for your application fee, is not the same thing as a reading fee.
3. Lit mags that structure their entire submissions model as if it were a contest, a contest where every prize is shitty or nonexistent, suck, and in an ontological and irredeemable expression of suckiness.
4. I will, in spite of my deep-seated irritation at them, continue to pay reading fees, but only when I am submitting to a very high-tier publication that I feel my work is an excellent fit for. But I won’t fucking like it.
T.S. Eliot said of Djuna Barnes’ 1936 novel “Nightwood” that “it is so good a novel that only sensibilities trained on poetry can wholly appreciate it”. There’s a poetic sensibility with regard to densely layered metaphor that made reading this novel a bit of a challenge for me -there’s a bit of Joyce in here, as well as Henry James, both authors that I simultaneously respect and struggle to enjoy reading. And that was my overall response to this book -I struggled, I acknowledged that it was good, I read it closely and deliberately, and I didn’t enjoy the reading experience. This happens sometimes, and it’s no poor reflection on the book. It’s a damn good book, just not my jug of absinthe.
It’s clearly modernist -even capital “M” Modernist- and it’s notable for both it’s collection of nuanced female characters (all males but Dr. Matthew are forgettable, albeit interestingly sketched) and it’s forward depiction of lesbian relationships. I’ve read some critics who describe the prose as “Gothic,” and while I understand what they are saying, it strikes me more as a metaphor-heavy reincarnation of turn-of-the-century Realism. There is plenty of foreboding and atmosphere, but more in the vein of James’ “The Beast in the Jungle” than anything by Poe. The aforementioned Dr. Matthew is a consistent voice of intellectual absurdity, mostly impenetrable and completely unforgettable.
This book really didn’t do it for me on a personal level. At the same time, I’m glad to have had the reading experience. It’s clearly an influential piece of writing, and it’s a remarkably progressive bit of fiction, considering the time -a welcome contradiction of values in an expatriate novel, when one considers the likes of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
Recommendation: Give it a pass, unless you are particularly interesting in historical examples of gay fiction, late-period modernism, or pre-WW2 expatriate writing.