I actually have two magazines. They don’t exist. Each one is better and more interesting than the other. I am the sole editor, have been from the beginning. There are no copies of either of these magazines. They are famous all over Europe and South America.
Maybe you would like to write something for one of my magazines?
The older of the two, there’s no way you’ve ever heard of it, is called The In-House Newsletter. Some people just call it Book Report. One smart-mouth in Laos calls it What I Did Over My Summer Vacation. No one has ever seen or discussed this magazine in any way. Let me tell you how it works.
Writers are commissioned to read books that the members of our board of trustees have heard of but no one’s ever read. For example: Herman Melville’s gigantically long poem Clarel. Something about a journey to the Holy Land, that’s all we got on that one. Or Rabelais. Giants, body humor, lists. No one on the board even knows anybody who’s read it. The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin. Are they as racist as the reviews said? We don’t know. No one does.
So we commission writers to read works like that. You get a hundred dollars for eight hundred words of fluent caveman. It has to be written in caveman, no fancy stuff. Just tell us what you saw. Was the shit any good? Were there good parts? Is the stuff worth our bothering over?
You’re probably about to read something like that anyway. Tristes tropiques. Everybody wants to know about that. Why would you hoard the knowledge. Eight hundred words takes, like, an hour and a half to write, if you just call it like you see it. Don’t be ashamed, say what you thought, be honest. Your name won’t even be attached to it. The magazine doesn’t even exist.
Henry James’s The Tragic Muse (1890)—yup, not one person has ever read it. You could probably get away with just quoting a choice paragraph with almost no commentary at all. Let Henry James write most of your eight hundred words for you!
THE people of France have made it no secret that those of England, as a general thing, are, to their perception, an inexpressive and speechless race, perpendicular and unsociable, unaddicted to enriching any bareness of contact with verbal or other embroidery. This view might have derived encouragement, a few years ago, in Paris, from the manner in which four persons sat together in silence, one fine day about noon, in the garden, as it is called, of the Palais de l’Industrie—the central court of the great glazed bazaar where, among plants and parterres, graveled walks and thin fountains, are ranged the figures and groups, the monuments and busts, which form, in the annual exhibition of the Salon, the department of statuary. The spirit of observation is naturally high at the Salon, quickened by a thousand artful or artless appeals, but no particular tension of the visual sense would have been required to embrace the character of the four persons in question. As a solicitation of the eye on definite grounds, they too constituted a successful plastic fact; and even the most superficial observer would have perceived them to be striking products of an insular neighborhood, representative of that tweed-and-waterproof class with which, on the recurrent occasions when the English turn out for a holiday—Christmas and Easter, Whitsuntide and autumn—Paris besprinkles itself at a night’s notice. They had about them the indefinable professional look of the British traveller abroad; that air of preparation for exposure, material and moral, which is so oddly combined with the serene revelation of security and persistence, and which excites, according to individual susceptibility, the ire or the admiration of foreign communities. They were the more unmistakable as they illustrated very favorably the energetic race to which they had the honor to belong. The fresh, diffused light of the Salon made them clear and important; they were finished productions, in their way, and ranged there motionless, on their green bench, they were almost as much on exhibition as if they had been hung on the line.
[That’s 344 words right there.]
Remember, all you’re trying to do is be for others the literary friend you wish you had yourself. That is: somebody who does the legwork and comes back with a convincing case that X either does or does not belong in your queue.
Magazine number two is less obviously useful but more exciting. It’s called In Search of [Whoever]’s Sense of Humor. The idea is exceedingly elegant. Again, the commission is for eight hundred words in caveman, but the assignment is you must read the complete writings of an author who either had absolutely no sense of humor or (at any rate) never revealed it in his or her works. Your job is to locate and describe, with great precision, that person’s sense of humor, such as it is. You must quote passages. You must not call passages humorous that contain no levity, unless the case is truly desperate. If the closest thing to humor you find is withering mockery-irony, then go ahead and cite that.
There are hundreds of authors whose sense of humor cries out to be isolated and scientifically classified. Virginia Woolf. D. H. Lawrence. Marcus Aurelius. Wordsworth. H.D. Saint Augustine. Frederick Douglass.
Anthony Madrid lives in Chicago. His second book is Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.