Thursday, November 3, 2011

Part Three: Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace

Literary Communities and the Ethics of Publishing: A Conversation with Carol Mirakove, Susan Schultz, and Mark Wallace

Part Three

Click here for Part One or Part Two

HTML Giant posited that a certain small press was turning into a vanity project. I'd like to talk about what a "vanity press" is and is not, and how we value and de-value editorial models. Thoughts: Lots of literary heroes funded or helped fund their works into print, e.g., Gertrude Stein. Can we talk about the widespread stigma on this? What feeds the notion of 'merit' that one might value in having a manuscript selected by a third party? What do we think of the notion that writing be judged 'purely' on the work itself? 

SMS: A vanity press publishes whatever it gets.  The author pays, and the publisher prints.  This is not what BlazeVox was doing.  I have had a couple authors contribute toward their Tinfish books, once they were accepted for publication—I did not demand it, but I did not refuse their offers.  I have put in some of my resources toward marketing my own books for other presses.  Now that I'm feeling very self-conscious about this, I think that Tinfish's policy of not paying anyone, from author to designer to editor, makes us a cooperative.  Those authors whose books sell well end up helping to fund the books that don't sell well.  I'm comfortable with this, as I am with asking designers to volunteer their time and work.  But I can see the point of view that says designers and authors should be paid, or even that the publisher should take some of the money.  I have a day job; other publishers do not. 

I don't think writing should be judged only for itself.  I publish books that I think are in conversation with each other and with the larger world (whether or not that world reads them) on issues from poetic form, language use, cultural politics, and much else.  I publish books that I think will work in my classroom, books from Hawai`i or with something to offer us here.  I strongly believe that publishers should be making an argument with the work they publish.  That de-emphasizes the single volume, and ups the ante on the catalogue as the art/cultural form.  I blogged about this question here: 

I believe in merit; I believe that when I publish a book of poems, that they are good poems.  But what means at least as much is the way in which that book fits into a conversation or series of conversations.

 MW:  Susan’s description of the historical definition of vanity press seems correct to me. But it’s also interesting who, in our current cultural context, can be accused of being a vanity press. The concept of the “vanity press” (and the way in which the term can be used in an unfounded hostile attack) really becomes, in this context, a press that cannot keep silent about its finances because it is weak enough to have financial needs and so can be coerced into making financial confessions because it needs help. And that’s what we’ve seen recently: a significant number of small presses defending their practice by confessing, while more powerful institutions confess nothing. 

So why should it be small presses confessing when, for instance, not a single MFA program has had to confess that it never teaches its students anything about the financial realities of contemporary publishing? No matter the reason that those programs don’t: the individuals involved in those programs may not know or care, or don’t realize it’s their job, in part, to be providing that information. But that’s another discussion: my point is that it’s not so easy to coerce them into confession. 

None of this is to say that publishers shouldn’t be honest with their authors. It is, instead, to say that the very fact that it’s small press publishers who can be coerced into confession is a result of a system of exchange in which the more power and money you have, the less you have to tell anybody anything about it.

What can we do about it being so hard to publish books (books that everyone loves and needs)? Can we imagine more sustainable models?

SMS: We do what we can.  There is no model that works perfectly, whether it's based on contests or donations or author assistance or collectives (which also fund books that sell and books that do not).  We need more reviewers, more readings, more virtual connections.  And we need to destigmatize (again) the kind of work that offered us models in the first place, the cheap and dirty mimeograph or xerox.  It's the work that counts, ultimately.  I'd rather use the language of “getting the work out” and “sharing work” and “building community” than of “marketing” and “selling,” but in some sense I feel uncomfortable with--even as I troll university websites late at night looking for professors who might like Tinfish's work--they may boil down to the same thing.

MW:   I think it’s not that bad an era to be a small press publisher or to be running a literary magazine. Sure, putting out books is time-consuming and somewhat costly, but there do seem to be many ways of doing such things, more than before, and not all of them are tremendously expensive. The growing number of print-on-demand options and online literary journals of significant quality shows that people on the lower end of the financial power scale can continue to do a lot for literature. In fact I’m tempted to say that the small press world does more than ever to help worthwhile writing reach anybody who’s willing to look for it.

 SMS:  After re-reading this conversation, Mark, I'm fascinated by how many times you used the verb “to confess.”  Small-press publishers “confessing” their finances, MFA programs not “confessing.”  Why this theologically loaded word?

MW: I used it because I believe that the recent controversy about small press practices has been mired, from the first, in a discourse of accusation, guilt, sin, confession and (I suppose) possible redemption. Not that it was about religion, or that many of the people involved are invested in religious belief (although some may be), but since the issue is one of belief as much as practicality, a drama of belief has been being staged. It has been many years since I wrote my essay “On Genre As Conversion Experience,” which talked about the ways contemporary writerly discussions of genre remain more invested in the dynamics of religious discourse than many writers realize, as opposed to the supposedly religion-free discourse of community or intellectual field etc. And I think that’s often still what we have. Of course, having said that, it might seem that I would be suggesting that we rid ourselves of that anti-rational and anti-community claptrap and start getting our materialist business together more straightforwardly, but actually I think that the idea that we could do such a thing often just becomes a liberal fantasy that people should all be able to talk to each other despite our lack of shared values. Which brings me back to where I came in to this conversation, so let me just end by saying that there are few things I myself love more than a friendly, energetic exchange of ideas.

CM: I agree. Thank you both for your generous thoughts and for your tremendous contributions to poetry.

1 comment:

Nicholas Manning said...

Yes and yes... Wonderful conversation, thanks to all for this.