Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace
Following a recent controversy in the small-press publishing community, I reached out to Mark Wallace and asked if we might have a broad discussion on the issues and hand towards potentially avoiding an ugly repeat. I knew Mark and I did not totally agree, which is why I reached out to him. We also looped in Susan M. Schultz, editor and publisher of Tinfish since 1995. -- Carol Mirakove
Susan M. Schultz: Thanks for asking me to speak to the issue. I blogged about the particular controversy when it first hit the airwaves, here: http://tinfisheditor.blogspot.com/2011/09/on-blazevox-and-other-publishing.html. I read blog and facebook posts by Johannes Gorensson, Craig Santos Perez, Amy King, Reb Livingston, Matvei Yankelevich, Shanna Compton, and probably others, as well as many of the threads written about the controversy. But of course there's much more to it than whether or not one press asks its authors for contributions toward the publication of their books.
CM: Absolutely, but a point of clarification was not whether or not a press asks authors for contributions but how and when.
How do we distinguish critical discussion from destructive attacks? Name-calling seems to always reflect far more poorly on the insulter than the target. Why does this happen in our community? How can we criticize practices constructively, without personal wars being waged?
SMS: I've worked in an English department for over 20 years now, and if I knew the answer to that question, I'd be a lot happier there. We could create a forum to discuss these issues and put out a list of rules and regulations, beginning from “no name calling” and continuing with “keep it civil,” but I don't know that that works either. Such discussions happen rather organically (good to remember that many poisons are also organic). Part of the problem is that, name-calling aside, we all take our own and others' practices very personally, indeed.
CM: You make excellent points -- we certainly don't want to regulate speech. But, it seems to me that we take some others' practices very seriously, notably others we know, and other others' practices and positions are met with hostility.
SMS: Even apart from overtly personal attacks, every conversation about contests, prizes, subscriptions, funding drives, how many books we publish in a year, and so on, is implicitly personal. One of the uncomfortable values of this discussion is getting out in the open just how vested we are in some practices, and how hostile we are to others. I'd rather see us moralize less and encourage each other more. Or make the rhetorical point that we do not like certain practices, but do not condemn others for using them. Tinfish does not have contests, for example, because I find them an odd mix of revenue enhancement and the promise of cultural capital, but I know full well why many presses run them. Cash flow.
Mark Wallace: Distinguishing critical discussion from destructive attacks seems easy enough. The focus should remain on the ideas in question, not the personalities or behavior of the people expressing the ideas. It’s a matter of tone too. Hostility or dismissiveness, even when focused on an idea, quickly moves into the personal, since the more one’s tone highlights emotion, the more people become emotional in response to it.
Still, to say that it’s easy enough, in general, to distinguish between the two, doesn’t change the fact that in practice, there are many murky situations in which the boundaries get blurry, especially since, as Susan says, people take their ideas seriously. We can’t help but have an emotional relation to them.
The Enlightenment, of course, invented most of our contemporary ideas about the value of dispassionate, rational discussion. But the very belief in it brought in whole new waves of irrationality, not just in all the ways that people continued not to behave rationally, but also in the ways that many notions of Enlightenment rationality were nothing more than new ways of being irrational.
I’ve always appreciated what Dostoevsky said relative to the Enlightenment (if you’ll excuse but also note the way it’s gendered): “Men are so necessarily mad that imagining them sane must be another form of madness.”
I’m not sure much can be done to change the nature of public discussion. People come from so many backgrounds and ways of understanding words that standards for discussion vary from context to context. Professional and intellectual and literary discourses do have defined social standards, no matter how fuzzily followed, but it shouldn’t be surprising that not everyone has absorbed or respects them.
Public language has always involved murderous hostility. Right now, we’re in a moment when the unfounded hostile accusation has tremendous power in U.S. politics and culture, as just one for instance (I don’t say “more power than ever” because I don’t think that’s true). Hostile lies and accusations, if there’s enough power behind them, can force individuals and groups to spend most of their time defending themselves regarding things they didn’t even do, and explaining and even confessing the things they actually do. In fact, this current discussion of publisher’s financial practices is happening mainly because of the power of such accusations.
I don’t believe, by the way, that there’s any such thing as “our community” of writers. Sure, those of us who have been writers for a long time are likely to have some (many, in my case) trusted, respected, and loved comrades, but even the small world of experimental/alternative etc etc etc poetry and poetics features a constantly changing list of active participants. Look at the names of who is publishing in any literary magazine that you like now as compared to 20, 10, or even 5 years ago, and you’ll see how fast the participants change. None of us know more than a portion of those people, and it’s an open question about how well we get along even with those we do know. Certainly our feelings of community towards and with others are real, but I don’t think that there’s any stable entity there that belongs to any of us. Community is established through ongoing interaction and is always fragile. It can’t be relied on too much.
That said, I do think individuals and groups can and do influence the nature of public conversation in limited contexts. I’ve long been interested in fostering friendly but open intellectual discussion among the people around me, and I think I do it well, and I’m hardly the only one who does it. Still, hostile or irrelevant commentary can’t be avoided entirely even in the best conditions.
CM: Mark, you foster open discussion exceptionally well, which is one of the reasons I approached you about having a discussion amidst a very heated debate.
You reveal that the two of us have defined community differently, and while multiple definitions are “correct,” you explain that community is established through ongoing interaction where I imply earlier that it is defined by a common interest, in this case an interest in small-press poetry.
However community is defined, my concern with the hostility of late is this: the way we treat individuals in our microcosms, especially in the microcosms we choose (e.g., small-press poetry), informs the way we act in the world at large. If we aspire to a global respect and peace then we have a golden opportunity to hone those practices amongst our friends, and friends of friends, and strangers who share interests in things about which we are most ardent.
SMS (interrupting): I'd suggest that we stop trying to define what community is, and simply act as if we are members of a community. Enact community rather than sit back and try to figure out who's in and who's out.
MW: With apologies for being contrary and insistent, Susan, I don’t quite agree with that approach. I think we often need to act as if the people we’re dealing with in the world of poetry are strangers—which, much of the time, they are, at least to some degree. I think we need more awareness of the fact that other people, even if they’re poets, don’t share our values or assumptions. Precisely one of the reasons that this issue became controversial recently was that a lot of people discovered that they didn’t understand each other, which came to them as a surprise because they had assumed a lot of mutual agreement. Many people involved assumed that they knew what a poetry press was… except, as it turned out, they didn’t share the same assumptions at all.
Our responses to people in the world of poetry would probably change if we went in with the recognition that community can’t be taken for granted or assumed. Like any relationship, it has to be worked out. Speaking just for myself maybe, even with my close friends I’ve often become most frustrated when I assume, in advance and unintentionally, that because they’re my friends, we agree about things and understand each other. As it turns out, we often don’t.
I would have no problem with calling such interactions instances of community, I suppose, if we described “community” as a group of individuals interacting because of a shared interest even when they might not have much otherwise in common.
(End of Part One)