[ToC]

 

REVIEW

Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, & Kevin Prufer, eds., Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, Milkweed Editions, 2016

[Review Guidelines]

NW: For the summer institute we used to hold here at NAU, we invited a children's book author, Jennifer Ziegler, as our primary workshop leader. She was incredibly organized. She had handouts and a slide show. She showed us her outlines where she would scribble from chapter heading to summary to fleshing out characters to pulling together plot points—from an outline her story bloomed. If the workshop students didn't go home to write a YA novel after that workshop, well, they had totally missed out because she inspired. What I remember taking home primarily was the way she said she balanced her chapters, alternating between hope and despair, hope and despair.
     Literary Publishing in the 21st Century alternates between hope and despair, perhaps not quite chapter by chapter but overall, the emotional balance of the book is even. The sky is falling but not that fast, or, rather, the sky has always been falling so, if the past is any indication, the sky will continue to fall but editors will still edit and publishers will still publish.
      For a chunk of the book, I felt, upon first reading, that there was more despair than hope. University presses shouldn't publish fiction because they can't compete. Amazon gobbles publishers like Pacman gobbles pellets. The cost of printing a lit magazine is prohibitive and the likelihood of getting published by any of the few remaining big presses is somewhere between zero to none. There was a lot of despair for the lost-past, I think, about this wildly changing industry. But then, in the second half of the book, I felt a much greater sense of hope. Daniel Slager's hopefulness for Milkweed Books' future, The Southern Review's ability to weather 80 years of publishing storms, and Richard Nash's final essay about where publishing might go, that the great digital future looks to the future and indicates that while the present does not look like the past, that is not necessarily a bad thing. What did you think, Lawrence?

LL: You're right. The balance is there, and not only for the charade of brightsiding the reader's perception of the culture, but also because this anthology takes care to include perspectives that are admirably wide-ranging. Literary Publishing in the 21st Century does a remarkable job of miking the crannies of our literary world, not just the predictable nodes that have been challenged since the turn of the century. I will admit to my initial skepticism (as one should when reading books about books): What sane publisher would waste resources on publishing a swan song for the industry of which it is a part when it could just liquidate the backlist? So I kind of expected there would be overtures to hope (not least of which emanates from Daniel Slager, Milkweed publisher and CEO, himself). But what we have here is an honest and crucial endeavor to celebrate and occasionally triage the "publishing ecosystem."
     Before reading this book, I might have thought "publishing ecosystem" sounded trite, but when Jeff Bezos aggrandizes his company (Amazon) to the status of cheetah and impudently refers to vulnerable publishers as "sickly gazelles," one must acknowledge just how germane the notion of a publishing ecosystem is. In his essay, Steve Wasserman indicts runaway capitalism, invokes the Justice Department to investigate Amazon's violation of antitrust laws, and calls the corporatization of literary publishing what it is: "a parasite that hollows out its host" (57). Fighting words if you're Amazon, rallying words if you're anyone else. Take it from theoretical biologist David Gilljam: "If the predator is efficient at killing its prey, such a change can lead to negative effects in the long term, for the entire food web, even if in the short term it benefits the predator's survival." Of course, the allegory goes: the gazelle must be able to outrun the fastest cheetah while the cheetah only has to outrun the slowest gazelle. While reading the Wasserman essay, a friend sent me this text: "I just got $113.21 worth of shit on Amazon for $38.27 boom." I couldn't tell if it was benign coincidence, or further testament to how bloated, how ubiquitous this Pacmanazon has become.
     I really appreciated the Richard Nash essay, though, for checking our hysteria. He reminds us, among other things, that Amazon is merely a "behemoth du jour" (253). And that the industry has withstood many such behemoths. Literary Publishing is nearly book-ended with Sven Birkerts and Richard Nash insisting that we historicize literature as a way to understand it presently, and yet they come to mostly divergent conclusions. Birkerts documents the velocity of change. He claims "change itself is changing," and he resolves that literature is definitely endangered, already in the penumbra of the asteroid—whether that asteroid is Amazon, technology, or even neurobiology (e.g., "what-the-Internet-is-doing-to-our-brains") (3). Nash, on the other hand, refuses to see the book as "counter-technology" as Birkerts does. Nash decries this kind of "print fetishism" because he holds the conviction that the book is not counter-technology because it is "the apotheosis of technology—just like the wheel or the chair," both of which (I might add) are currently in stock on Amazon as well (253).
     Do you think this book can offer the antidote for the sickly gazelle, Nicole? Is that what it's for? And this being a book review and all, what do you think of Jessa Crispin's coda manifesto in which she asserts the onus is on critics (us in this case) to do more than look at the book, but also the system it comes out of. Are we doing that yet? Or are we "failing at our jobs" (65)?

NW: First I'd like to continue to love on Richard Nash. He may be my new hero. Check out what he says about abundance:

Abundance it turns out, is a much bigger problem to solve than scarcity, or as Clay Shirky frames it: 'Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.' We learned to handle the first phase of abundance in books: we invented copyright, we built a viable business to manufacture and distribute them, we invented the author, so to simplify choice. We don't need to read all words, just the words of these ten important authors. This was humanity's first stab at artificial scarcity, artful enough that we forgot it was a contrivance. (263-4)

Nash goes on to quote Kurt Vonnegut at length, about how, in the olden days, people who were sort of good at dancing, storytelling, and singing could in small communities be rewarded. But as technologies grow, the middle-good artist loses out to the slightly better artists. We need fewer of them. This is where the publishing industry comes in: as gatekeepers. Nash sees the advent of new technologies, specifically PageMaker (oh, how I miss PageMaker!) and PDFs, as evidence that the means of production has changed. We don't need the gatekeepers to bring us texts. The texts come and come and come. There is an overabundance of texts! In terms of the gazelle analogy, the publishers in the book industry in the 19th and 20th century acted as game wardens. The sickly gazelle is not only the small publisher, it's the middle-genius, whose middle-grade acts no one can afford to keep in the well-manicured forest.
     One of the primary tensions in this book is the problem of scarcity and abundance. As Chris Parris-Lamb, in an interview with Jonathan Lee, says, "I'm all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you've written it doesn't make it worth reading" (182). He makes a fair point that the job of the publishing industry isn't to publish writers but to "bring readers books that are worthy of their time and attention" (189). The job of the big publishing house is to limit the number of books so the reader does not have to read a bunch of merely typed shit. But it is also the job of the big publishing house to save itself from the idea that "merely typed shit" is actually pretty interesting to a swath of readers that the publishing industry hasn't discovered yet. To return to your question and Jessa Crispin's call to action, the system of book making is changing as fast as change itself. The system itself is changing. In this collection, we have, I think, two kinds of essays: those that look to the past to show how it was once done and those who look to the future. Nash's essay acts as the bridge to say: the system has always been changeable. It has been a relatively short time in human history that we've had books or gatekeepers on genius. Crispin is, I think, saying, we need to rethink what we mean by genius and who that allows. The forest needs to get wilder.
     There are essays here that want us to rethink the whole system: Erin Belieu, in an interview with one of the collection's editors, Kevin Prufer, in reference to gatekeepers, argues that "It doesn't occur to them to genuinely question what exactly constitutes their construct of 'the best.' It is clear that these editors and publishers often want stories, essays and poems that are written from the subject position with which they already identify" (107). For example, Mandorla editor Gabriel Bernal Granados writes: "In the cultural climate of Mexico, often conservative, these younger poets found expressive affinities in a journal whose conception of poetry is based on mobility and change, where literature can unleash a series of transformations that affect a society's behavior. I think [Mandorla] provided such a place" (98). Megan M. Garr, editor of the online journal Versal, argues, "To publish Versal, I have to accept that the literary magazine straddles two economic forces: one being capitalism, the other a dissatisfied barter between work and recognition, time and mastheads. And I have to accept that changing this, the lit-mag economy, is a long game, but also that change is possible" (148).
     It is terrifying, for authors as well as big-house editors and the agents that sell to them, that the system is changing but maybe we're upending a system that did not serve all readers and did not serve all genres and did not serve all ethnicities, classes, and genders. Perhaps now that the system is more wild, that there are too many texts is a good thing. Perhaps we are back to the idea of the middle-genius author who entertains only his small village. Maybe, to his village he is a big genius. Maybe, to the whole world, he is a big genius, if you see how he understands and reflects his small village.
     Is it enough, Lawrence? The small village? Does this mean that we writers are workers who are in charge of our own means of production? Can we live with that? Can we live on that? Does this collection give us any hope that we discover these villages, swaths of readers, and bring our middle-genius and typing to them? Is there a way that we can flip this vertical system horizontal? Is this socialism? Will it work?

LL: These questions also make me think of the conversation-cum-essay among the three editors of Mandorla, the "multi-lingual journal of poetry, poetics, and translation" (78). In the essay, "Poetry in Translation: Hemispheric Perspectives," we learn that the word mandorla denotes a "space created by two intersecting circles" (79). By proxy, the journal itself "stood for the possibility of alternative, overlapping, more porous exchanges between political and imaginative boundaries" (79). There is a certain degree of naïvete and prescience in this mission. It seems Mandorla sought to blur the boundaries between villages, to foster that united ellipse on the Venn diagram in order to frame dialogues within the global village. While I've always been galled by that oxymoron ("global village" smacks of cultural homogeny in the worst way), there is some truth to it: we cling fiercely to our villages against the backdrop of globalization. The village develops slowly while the rest of the world whorls with oppressive velocity. Third-(and-fourth-)wave feminism have highlighted these intersections, and democratizing forces like PageMaker and Kinko's (in the 80's) and dot-com and eBooks (now in the 21st century) are our transcultural amplifiers, and they should be embraced as such.
     The editors of Mandorla, the co-founders of VIDA, and many others are all toiling to redefine authorship in this new century of publishing. This book is a prolegolemnon to the comprehensive reworlding of the industry. The ten important authors are still there, in radical communion with the rest of us. Is it socialism? Not exactly. Because we increasingly own the means of production. Authors have had to become vertically integrated—writers, editors, publishers, publicists, critics, and oftentimes educators of this same gamut. Will it work? In Nash's words: Yes, so long as those who participate in publishing intend to "blow shit up" (278). Boom, Nicole?

NW: As I said the other night when we were talking, we could go on about this for five hundred pages. Horizontal versus vertical publishing encompasses most of the hope and despair of writing. Maybe the real socialism here is what you said the other day: "If I were teaching a class on editing and publishing, I would use this book." That's where the deep socialism lies: in giving our students books of significance that we can talk about for weeks at a time. Then, we take this book and publish horizontally, they publish vertically, they start new presses, new lit mags, they become teachers themselves who then distribute books like this that say, there is a lot of despair because there are so many writers and so many books but there is a lot of hope because there are so many writers and so many books.

[LL & NW]