Redefining Masculinity, One Story at a Time
BULL is a new online literary magazine, and it is dedicated exclusively to publishing Men's Fiction. But what is "Men's Fiction" exactly? "The aim of BULL," the editors say, "is to showcase exemplary stories of men's interest, with hopes of promoting a greater definition of the genre. In any case, BULL is a home for fiction that is smart, bold, brazen, and unabashed, not trite or trashy." Also, the work should entertain.
Interview by Rachel Worrall
Imagine you're on a soapbox and you've got 45 seconds to sell Bull to us. What would you say?
Jarrett Haley: We’re not selling snake-oil here. It’s good reading for those who want it, and those who don’t yet know they want it.
Jared Yates Sexton: If I were put on a soapbox and given the chance to promote BULL, I’d say that we kick a lot of ass and take a lot of names.
Where are you based, by the way?
JH: Currently South Bend, IN.
Tell us a bit about yourself...
JH: Miami-born and Florida-bred. Desert-lover, decent cook. With my wife, proud parent of two young Hoosiers.
JYS: I’m a writer and a professor at Ball State University. I come from a small town in Southern Indiana. Everything else is on the Internet somewhere.
Is Bull short for anything? Where does the name come from?
JH: No, not short for anything. Except, I guess, in the that way it plays on use of the phrase “bull”—meaning a lie, like fiction—which is the short form of “bullshit.” It came from a desire to have a single word title, and a word that’s inherently masculine, and bull being the male in all kinds of species—cows, alligators, camels, dolphins surprisingly. I had moose in mind at the inception. Then the double entendre hit and that was that.
Trying not to sound like a phrase out of a marriage guidance book... What do you offer men that they're not getting elsewhere?
JH: What I personally was not getting before we started was any quality Google results for “men’s fiction” or “fiction for men” etc... . I had a story that scored with Playboy and could not think of anywhere to send it that wasn’t a complete shot in the dark. What I wanted, and what we offer to writers and readers, is a venue with a clear aim to specialize in writing that appeals to men.
If Bull is not a literary magazine (even though it aims to publish good writing, including avant garde writing and I wasn't aware that literary mags professed to do anything other than publish good writing...), then, what is it?
JH: However much the term “literary” may apply to what BULL does, it’s just not a word that I would choose to define us. Because it has baggage, and it’s a potential turn-off for people who may think that “literary” and “literature” and “lit” smacks of homework. This isn’t homework. BULL is a fiction magazine.
JYS: I think this is probably one of the things that distinguishes us from the field - a lot of the time the word literary is short-hand for academic writing for academic audiences. What we do is right there in the title - it’s fiction for thinking men, whether the men are professors, professionals, or a regular guy who happens to like well-written, hard-hitting narratives.
What journals or magazines of writing do you admire?
JH: I like those mags with a real sense of themselves as magazine. New York Tyrant, Annalemma, Hobart off the top of my head and my shelf currently. Having worked as an author with Matt Bell at The Collagist I really respect and identify with his editorial ethic. I admire The Rumpus for being so shipshape. I also remember the days when I used to read Thrasher and the tone it had, there was such a strong sense of belonging as a reader. Not a magazine of writing, but nevertheless I have that kind of tone in mind.
JYS: I’m into Sycamore Review, a few of the pulp magazines out there, and Crazyhorse is always great. Tin House, too. Necessary Fiction and Prime Mincer, that’s a new one. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg though, there’s just unbelievable amounts of good stuff to read out there.
What's your submission process?
JH: They send ‘em, we read ‘em. We’ve recently started seeking ‘em.
JYS: To get more specific, we have a set of readers, an editorial board, they read the stuff, we read the stuff, we find something we like and we pass it up the chain.
Do you give feedback?
JH: Occasionally, yeah. Quite a bit sometimes, yet a lot less than I used to, though. Back in the day I really liked to but there’s so much more to do now as far as development. Plus, it may not even be wanted; it’s hard to tell. If a submitter goes out of their way to really reach out in a cover letter, though, I’m trying to work it out so that it’s reciprocated. It’s hard though; people are so busy.
JYS: I try and give at least a line of feedback with every rejection. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less. I know as a writer that I appreciate the feeling that my story got read, so I try and pass that forward.
Are there any genres (academic essays... writing for children?) that you do not publish?
JH: Is boring a genre? ‘Cause that would be the one we try to avoid. And no poetry, really. The one poem we ran was a fluke; I heard it read, was touched and astounded.
JYS: I think some of the stuff that we look at is so strange and impossible to categorize that it’s pretty safe to say there isn’t a whole lot we wouldn’t consider, as long as we’re entertained and it fits in our particular aesthetic.
Do you have a word limit?
What made you think you could be the editor of a magazine?
JH: I can’t help but find this a funny question. Like how asking someone “What makes you think you can run a 5-minute mile?” would be funny. What else is there but the interest, drive, and determination to accomplish something, and a vision for how it should be accomplished? I had those things, also a strong desire to really do something about all the “men don’t read fiction” sentiment being bandied about in publishing.
JYS: I think, personally, that everyone’s capable of being an editor. Being a good editor, or a successful one, is an entirely different challenge. I think what Jarrett’s got going for him is that he’s unflinching in what he wants. The guy has a vision for this magazine, and he doesn’t give that in for anything.
What skills do you bring to the job of editor?
JH: Willingness to work hard, and work with. To dig in. Conviviality, too.
In the other interviews you've done that I've read, you are very evasive about what exactly you mean by your tagline 'fiction for thinking men'. (You state you believe that writers will tell you what that means via their submissions.) You like to make it very clear that you, as editor, do not decide what is and is not thinking man's fiction. Yet as editor you decide what goes into the magazine, which you claim is full of thinking men's fiction. So, er, if you don't mind my saying, you are an active agent in deciding what is and is not thinking men's fiction. So, can you tell me, what is 'thinking men's fiction'?
JH: What you call evasive I consider being honest. I don’t know. I honestly can’t give you a definition. A definition is what I’m interested in, and what I’m working towards. If I knew already, I would see no point in doing this.
JYS: My two cents is this—what men like to read and what men like to write are constantly changing enterprises. Part of what we’re trying to do is to convey that men, and the idea of masculinity, are not constant ideas that can be pigeon-holed.
In your interview with PANK you state that some of the recurring themes you've come across in your submissions are - pain, reflection, assessment, revelation, worry, bewilderment, regret. With some thrills and vulgarity, sex, violence, and humor thrown in to keep things interesting. What themes are not showing up that you might have expected?
JH: Sometimes I regret saying that last part, given that it lives on the internet forever and while it reflected what we had back then, I think we’ve grown pretty far beyond. I can’t really say what I’m surprised to not see, as I had no real expectations going into it, just pure curiosity. Though one thing I find surprising is the number of boyhood stories we get, about adolescence or coming-of-age, which I tend to steer away from for themes having more to do with adulthood.
JYS: One of the constants I run into, going through the submissions, is the traditional man and woman relationship story in which the woman has done something wrong or isn’t trustworthy and the man drinks or raises hell in order to deal with it. I think the idea that these are “masculine” stories has kind of permeated the general consciousness, but we’re looking for stories that are oftentimes more surprising than that.
I did not realise (even though I had read your website thoroughly) that you accept writing by women (about men's interests). I read the note on your submissions' page that you accept submissions from everyone but I was so convinced that you did not accept submissions from women that the full implications of that note never sank in. You say you love getting submissions from women and would like to encourage them, in which case, it might be good to spell it out. You know state clearly - 'we accept submissions from women'. What do you say?
JH: Honestly, I’m saddened you convinced yourself of that. For all I wish they didn’t, I know viewers will approach BULL with preconceived opinions on what we’re doing, but what manifests from those opinions I think says more about the viewer than it does about us. The intention of that note is to be as broadly welcoming as possible. To single out any one group, I think, just neglects another.
JYS: I think one of the questions I get asked the most about BULL is whether or not we hate women, or why we hate women. It’s patently false and missing the premise of the enterprise. Women write for men too, at least I hope so. I know when I write I don’t sit here and think that the words I’m using or the plots I’m constructing are only going to appeal to men.
A quick glance through the list of writers recommended by readers on your website shows no women listed. Would you like to see that change?
JH: S.E. Hinton is on there. But yeah, I’d like to see more suggestions in general. Though we’re totally reconceiving and developing the whole reader rec feature for our new site.
I could see you doing a 'written by women' for men edition. What's the chance of that?
JH: After my daughter was born I wanted to do just that. I put out the call, got a handful of great stuff, but when the time came it seemed too much like a gimmick; I didn’t want to make a spectacle of featuring women authors in BULL, but rather have that be a regular occurrence.
Perhaps you could tell us here about female authors you personally admire?
JH: I like Grace Paley, Annie Proulx, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Joy Williams, Flannery O’Connor. Say what they will, but I personally admire the following Stephenie Meyer has built, and I liked her books. J.K. Rowling... I mean, the creation of these phenomenon titles is really fascinating to me.
JYS: I learned an absolute ton from Flannery O’Connor. When I kind of lose my way and need to reset I go back to Raymond Carver and her. Also, on a sentence-by-sentence level, I absolutely adore Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein. Their writings, and those of other Modernist women writers, form a lot of my personal theory about experimental prose and sentence construction.
It seems like you've got a very busy upcoming year planned for Bull. Tell us a bit about that...
JH: Busy, busy, yeah. There’s lots of ambitions to mention, but as a few may not pan out I’ll keep quiet. The main thing is we’ll have a print issue, a handsome, perfect-bound, illustrated number. The website will look totally different, and the main goal there is more content, greater frequency, and easier interactivity—more ways for the audience to be an active part of BULL.
Do you write an editorial for the print -or online - edition?
JH: I’ve started. I try to make it more than the usual updates on editorial goings-on. I try to say something. But once everything is assembled and complete, it’s just yet another reason to stare at the computer screen. I’m toying with the idea of video, something casual and fun.
I really like your idea of the prison book review programme. How's that going?
JH: Of all things, I’m most excited about that. I asked Curtis to just write what he thought, no pretensions, no expectations. To have fun with the format—feel free to include what it’s like to read the book in prison, to go off on tangents, etc.... I think he’s just starting to hit his stride. I’d like more publishers, large and small, maybe even other journals to be involved: get more books into the prison system, maybe get a few more reviewers going. The thing that’s hard is a rather strict protocol in sending items of any kind to inmates.
JYS: I’m incredibly proud of that feature. I think Curtis Dawkins has proven himself already to be one of the best reviewers out there today. His thoughts and reflections on the books, and society as a whole, are just fantastic.
Norah Vincent's 'Self Made Man' seemed to conclude with Norah feeling quite sorry for men because 'masculinity' imposes quite a rigid framework in terms of who men are supposed be while at the same time men don't get any of the good stuff that women have access to such as the support network created by sharing confidences. What do you say to that?
JH: I say go Norah. I think there’s some truth to that. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “men don’t get any of the good stuff,” because we’ve got our good stuff. I would say too, though, that with the up-and-coming generation of men this “framework of who men are supposed to be” isn’t as rigid as it has been; conceptions of masculinity are changing, which adds another level of complexity to the whole thing. It’s one reason I think BULL is all the more worthwhile.
JYS: I just want to second that. This whole thing is about the fact that men aren’t always what you expect them to be. That’s the whole ballgame right there.
Why is your blogsite called the 'Parlor' when that was, historically, the posh room in the house in which women received their visitors? Or have I been reading too much Austen again?
JH: I think that’s Ms. Austen’s doing on you. It’s a pretty gender-neutral word for the most part, I think. There’s all kinds of parlors: ice cream, beer, funeral. I went with it for the roots in talk and speak, and the feel of something like a billiard parlor. Its days are numbered, though. We’re moving on to bigger and better things on that end too.
And finally... What do you most want people to know about Bull?
JH: Right now I suppose just that we exist, that we have existed, and that the fireworks are about to start.
JYS: I think, from just a reading of BULL, that people will notice that we’ve got something special brewing. The intent is good, not to mention needed, the direction is spot-on, and the writing itself is tremendous. At the end of the day, I think our stories and content speak for themselves.
Rachel Worrall is a writer and model from the UK. She is crazy about reading and equally crazy about writing. She is currently working on her second novel 'Amen'.