Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Assertions and superstitions

According to my dashboard dictionary -- imagine such a thing! -- a truism is "a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting." Sounds like most journalism, doesn't it? But I'm not certain that this definition holds water when it comes to publishing truisms. What was obviously true in the past may still be true but no longer obviously so and thus may bear repeating, even at the risk of seeming moldy and uninteresting. The present reality we inhabit, those of us in the book publishing racket, is a roiled-up brew, confused and confusing, a little too interesting for its own good. We lived through a bubble (inflated primarily by the rise of the chain superstores and mass merchants), it burst, we thought the internet would revive us, it hasn't, and now we have to tighten our belts to survive. This at a time when more people are reading and writing text than ever before, albeit mostly in small increments, mostly on electronic screens. Here are some thoughts proffered as truisms:

-- The audience for serious literature is a tiny minority of the general book buying public (if there is such a thing). They are an audience who couldn't care less about the provenance or format of the books they read, engaged as deeply as they are with the content. They are cranky, hard-to-please, and hard to reach. Possessed of exceedingly good bullshit detectors, they despise being marketed to. They are snobs and radical conservatives. To reach this audience you must be belong to it and not expect to make real money. Money comes from somewhere else -- it belongs to a different sphere than literature: don't let it sully what you do. Because this audience is curious and intellectually engaged with the world-at-large, they are unafraid of new technology even while remaining loyal to elegant technologies of the past. They don't mourn the past, but neither do they jettison the good that resides there for the promise of a glittery future. Above all, they despise obsolescence.

-- Most books are ephemeral. They last a season or two, then die. Their importance lies in the fact that they fertilize the soil out of which serious literature grows. They are read to pass the time or to learn something topical. They are neither harmful nor healthful. Their audience is large and finicky -- its members care about format and price, and they take comfort in the familiar genres to which they're drawn. They are loyal to authors, not publishers. Nowadays, books are a small and shrinking part of their lives, in competition with other forms of entertainment and the textual communication that bombards them. You can lead these casual readers to water but it takes a lot of time and money to make them drink.

-- Books are both linguistic feats and physical objects in the world. They operate on the body and the mind together. Therefore it is impossible to separate the act of reading into two levels of physical activity: the taking in of text through the sensory organs and the processing of that text in the brain, apprehension and comprehension. We read much as we walk, without thinking. In a healthy body, muscles seem to move of their own accord. In a healthy mind, cognition is seamless, we have no separate experience of its component actions. My reading is mine, belonging to this mind inside this body. Meaning no two people have exactly the same experience of the same text, though occasionally two people come close.

-- Good publishing is idiosyncratic, has a point-of-view, and is largely unprofitable. Great publishers like James Laughlin made their fortunes elsewhere, or inherited them, and thus were free to publish what they liked. All other publishing is to some extent a cheat, a self-deception, or merely a job. We see New York liberals publishing red meat conservatives, cultured snobs publishing witless potty-mouthed comics, girls from Vassar and Harvard, having written theses on Eliot and Woolf, publishing chick lit, and dyed-in-the-wool atheists publishing born-again christians. It's a sad spectacle, fueled by the insatiable appetites of media corporations and their vulture boards, none of whom understand the first thing about the contrarian nature of book people. Good publishing seeks to contribute to a lasting conversation about how to live. Bad publishing seeks a predictable return on investment.

-- Lively trash, written with brio, can coexist nicely with serious literature on a publisher's list. It is the middle-brow, mediocre work in between that ought to be cut, since it is all too perishable and will disappear quickly anyway. The sheer volume of mediocre work supports the grotesquely large publishing industry we have today: it takes a lot of earnest people to process all those lifeless words. It takes time even to reject a manuscript. Agents and editors, and their assistants, readers and scouts, are like the workers who are trying contain the Gulf oil spill, battling against an almost unstoppable, and ever advancing, stream of words. Therefore it is a good thing that self-publishing is so much easier and cheaper these days. When the armies of wannabe writers can get their dream book printed and bound for a couple of hundred bucks on an Espresso machine, publishers will be freed up to concentrate on works of lasting value and the occasional hugely appealing piece of trash. Sadly this will mean less work for all those word processing workers mentioned above -- unless they move over to the self-publishing business and charge writers for what they do.

-- There is nothing wrong in producing fertilizer, as long as one realizes that is what one is doing. That's why I keep a blog.

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