Saturday, November 17, 2007

James Tata: Part 10 of 10: The Publishing Situation

Excerpt from the last post in this series HERE

.. but let me make an introductory note, to put this first.

I put 8 years into writing my first novel (working title, The Magic Slate). I'm still trying to sell it. Where agent or publisher have responded, it's been consistently of the, this-is-a-fine-beautifully-written-and-engaging-work, unfortunately-we-don't- think-there's-a market-for-this-kind-of-thing-But-good-luck-anyway! sort of thing. I had one agent who told me to let her know when I published it--so she could be sure to buy a copy.

What is one to think?

I'm neither discouraged nor optimistic. Yes, I want to publish my books. But the effort is the obligation I feel I owe them, not what drives me to write. What interests me in this experience is what it illustrates about publishing today. Until I set up my blog, I felt isolated, as though this were a problem peculiar to myself. But I've come to see that there are readers and writers, reviewers and critics who seem to represent a similar, semi-disenfranchised community.

This has been a revelation. A nascent movement with a common medium but as yet no common name. Read the LitKicks hardback/paper back exchange... on the surface, there's the business as usual rhetoric, as though it were primarily a marketing problem. How convenient. If you have to reduce the problem to marketing terms, the real subject, the real difference , the naked reality is covered over with fig leafs in the shape of dollar bills.

Making money and the market come first is escapist, an excuse to avoid confronting the issues: we don't have to think--it's merely a matter of understanding the automatic process, of following the rules--as though they were equivalent of the Laws of Physics.

Or like Pinker... it's genetic. Science is not bound to making the world look the way we want it too--it's the obligation of scientific thought to upset our expectations--Good Fred, he wrote a book on this--thinking dangerous thoughts or some such! But writers and artists are there to provide genetically programmed comfort. What business do we have concerning ourselves with "reality" beyond semblance?

There is an ideological bias here that needs to be confronted, torn open, exposed for all its poverty... exposed in its role in supporting the insupportable status quo of Empire.

I would like to see a lot more open discussion on the literary blogs, more confrontation, more argument. We have editorial power to control the spam, the polarized rhetoric. Let's make more of engagement, explore and expand the dialogical potential of blogs on literature and arts.

post rant: here's Tata

In spite of its genteel self-image, publishing is a business. Though writers fight for meager institutional patronage to buy themselves time to write, book publishing itself, unlike the performing arts, is unsubsidized. (University presses may be subsidized, but they are a part of the same reputation-gilding apparatus as campus-affiliated "literary" magazines.) This is actually an advantageous condition, as commercial rough and tumble is an inoculant against the snobbery of an art treated by the wealthy as yet another item of their conspicuous consumption. Blaming mainstream writers and the journalistic book press for the comparative homogeneity of what the publishing houses produce is not only wrongheaded but in the long run self-defeating. It is often mentioned with chagrin that, due to the writing programs, there are more writers than ever, as if a multitude of sophisticated writers and readers were a bane rather than a blessing. Instead, imagine how many of those obscure writers might be producing work of high quality that does not fit into the mode of conventional realism and the narrow milieu that the publishing houses--and the complacent portion of the readership--believe is the only way that American writers can write. As that cadre of obscure writers continues to become as ethnically eclectic as America itself, the stories and novels and poems they produce will rival any national literature for variety, whether it is narrative, linguistic, experiential, political, social, or any other literary element imaginable. There are more subjects to write about in 21st century America than comic books, cruise ships, high school hijinks, and the victimhood detailed in too many "personal memoirs."

Discursive narratives of foreign origin, film or literary, are allowed greater leeway by American publishing houses, film distributors, critics, and audiences than are discursive narratives by American writers and filmmakers. Not for a minute do I believe that American artists do not produce challenging formalist narratives, only that such work is not afforded the same enthusiasm given similar work by artists working abroad. That these various American audiences are ready to engage with challenging work, provided it is foreign, appears to reside in an identification of "difficulty" with the exoticism of other cultures rather than as a characteristic of narrative art, regardless of its origin. It's as if American audiences think American culture is straightforward enough to warrant only linear narratives, as if complicated, contradictory lives are only lived by people in unfamiliar cultures. This is a perverse state of affairs, one that has radically narrowed our collective idea of contemporary American fiction in both subject matter and style. The vitality of our national literature demands that serious readers, writers, and critics put the New York publishing houses under the same fire for complacency that audiences and artists subject the Hollywood studios and the recording industry to.


  1. Dear Jacob, woke up this morning thinking of many and stimulating things you've been writing about. Part of my wake up call this morning, thus.

    Surely we are sharing some/many very similar and intriguing concerns.

    I thank the "Blogs"/blogging for bringing your good writing into my world.

    Will be reading your blog more and more.

    Will maybe turn on my comments component, too. Maybe. (Well, I should, I guess... "Should," hmmm..."

  2. An edited and expanded version of the previous comment:

    Should" is one of those words, isn't it?

    It's all about where the "should" is coming from... and that voice can be elusive.

    I think of a production of Hamlet by the Arden Theater Company here in Philly when they were still in the tiny theater-in-the-semi-round behind St. Stephen's. The ghost scene. The stage was simply a platform raised about two feet above floor level. The theater went dark. Hamlet alone in a soft spot on stage. Every line from the ghost came from a different side of the platform--as the actor playing the ghost circled around. Hamlet would turn toward the voice, only to hear it come from behind--even the voice sounded different (was there more than one actor?)

    It was very effective. Chilling.

    Like figuring out where the "should" is coming from.

    Which is exactly what's going on in that scene, come to think of it!

    I'm happy you're finding my blog of interest... twenty years ago, when I discovered the old BBS connections--pre-internet as we have it now, I naively believed it would be possible to find the kind of creative community we imagine when we think of... say, Poets of the New York School and the action painters in NY in the 40's, or Paris in the 20's, or...

    Foolish dream.

    But in these past few months I've begun to see at least part of that might be possible--since I set up JRBD. Blogs almost do it.

    The discussion forums (Salon, Readerville, The Atlantic) failed because they depended too much on commonality of interest--that is, in common subjects. It was never merely an interest in art or poetry that defined (wrong word...defined) those moments, nor shared vision--but rather each of those involved seeing something before them that didn't yet exist, something different for each... an intrusion of the indefinable Real--what was shared, was what no one of them possessed, what could not be possessed, but only courted, each in his own way.

    I see in the way we find and add links something more selective. I'm aware of doing that myself. While I want to be open, inclusive--I don't want to be so inclusive that the pattern of what I favor is obscured. I have something in mind... or just beyond what I'm able to hold in mind. I can't put a label on it. "Experimental" invites as many misses as "Mainstream." And some of what makes it into the mainstream is exactly what I'm looking for. I've chosen the majority of the blogs I've linked because, together, they seem to point in directions that feel promising... fellow seekers, if you will, but seekers who know damn well what they're looking for even if they won't be able to name or describe it till they find it.

    Mayhew is almost a caricature of the type! And I don't mean that negatively. It's that dissonant combination of openness and rigor--holding the tension!. Yes--that's what it's all about--holding the tension. He's amazing--such sharply formulated opinions and yet... he doesn't know what he's going to like till he sees it! So that what he likes, you can trust comes, not from abstractions imposed on what he reads, but from what he discovers from his reading, in the reading. To me, that frees me to both listen deeply to his opinions, and at the same time, never feel obliged to be beholden to them--or to believe he would respect anyone who did.

    We cannot be genuinely open if we don't lay our beliefs on the table--stake our intellectual lives on the line. Blakean warfare. But oh, the triumph is not in winning--but in discovering a whole new beginning! To have everything you ever thought or believed overthrown. Never happens to those who have nothing at stake, nothing to lose.

    No risk, no gain.