Forum / On Publishing

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    David Ackley
    Aug 07, 04:37pm

    A previous thread on the anthology I recently came across and bought, NEW MICRO Exceptionally Short Fiction, and the responses in the thread has kicked into partial focus some thoughts on publishing in general at the present moment.

    First, it seems clear that the traditional model of publishing that we may carry around in our heads of wise curating editors and paternalistic institutions like Houghton Miflin and The Atlantic have crumbled in the face of the international conglomeratization of publishing in general. A novel, story or poetry collection that has any 'literary' aspirations has little chance of making it through the commodity maze to publication, and still less chance of commercial success. Accordingly, forget making a living as an author; invest your hopes in lottery tickets: the odds are better. This is all well-known, but I begin with it as a reminder, since otherwise intelligent people I know, with books to peddle, still are investing their hopes in this dead system.

    For my own part, I still see a vestigial belief in the system( which is essentially, I would argue, a dead hierarchy) in the way I will send out stories to 'quality' literary magazines , where presumably , those wise curators of the past have gone to live out their days in a kind of benign, ineffectual dusty obscurity, presumably fostering literary aspirants who think ( as I have) that pubishing in say AGNI or The New England Review would actually mean something by way of say, critical attention to one's work, or a more elevated audience( whatever the fuck that might mean.) It's probably a harmless delusion, a further way of 'eating the air, promise-crammed,' except for the fact that I see good writers doubting the value of their work because of an failure to 'break through,' even into print.

    It's easy to say that rejection is an inevitable part of a writer's existence, but fairly hard to continue under it as a constant response. And I'm not sure that anyone benefits from the interposition of editors as curators in the present climate where determinations of quality are purely functions of taste, however it might be tarted up with 'aesthetic values,' or some other reified corpse.

    I had/have in mind to go on from here, but I think I'll suspend for the time being and ask for responses from anyone else who has thoughts on what it's like to live as a writer in the present 'climate,' of publishing, which like other such seems to itself to be changing, or perhaps, who knows, in a kind of crisis.

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    strannikov
    Aug 07, 07:27pm

    David: Renewed thanks for posing these questions and concerns.

    In no way, shape, or form that I can discern has our insidious, invidious Internet shown itself a close, caring friend of fiction in any form, of verse and poetry, of functional criticism, of drama or farce, and I would say it has shown itself a determined enemy of satire.

    Finding any welcoming niche online (as I and many have found Fictionaut to be overall as an online showcase) always feels something like an accomplishment: but as we hear from others or know for ourselves, for writers of any kind, writers of all kinds, posting anything online or more formally getting published online often enough is an indulgence in self-marginalization.

    We might well remind ourselves what a squirrelly ontological domain the Internet occupies. It is NOT "the real world", only its defective image and its warped mirror. The Internet can thus aspire to no more than a "deficient ontology": and because "virtual reality" is not ever "completely real", we earnest practitioners may be entrusting our work to a media environment ontologically incapable of treating the work on its terms, which come down to arrangements of words and their sounds and the meanings they suggest without any necessary assistance from audio/visual prompts and cues.

    Just this week I picked up the Collected Poems of Galway Kinnell and found a stimulating anecdote from his "Biographical Afterword" (by Barbara K. Bristol): in the 1990s (just as the Internet was emerging, I note) GK exchanged poems with Sharon Olds almost every day by fax machine.

    The venerable fax machine might (perhaps possibly maybe) be the technological choice for a REAL alternative to the deficient realities afforded by the Internet.

    Networks of fax exchanges among fictionists, poets, dramatists, essayists, critics "could" become the basis of a rich and thriving system of American samizdat. ("Samizdat" was the Soviet-era, unofficial and underground exchange network of literary work in manuscript form: "sam- + izdat" [self - published].)

    Fax exchanges of original work with trusted correspondents could begin to build ACTUAL communities of writers. Should enough actual communities flourish in time, some new form of offline "critical mass" could begin to pose publishing solutions of its own.

    I very much prefer to regard the Internet, that is, as a transitional technology for writers, and not for very much longer, whatever else we may do.

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    David Ackley
    Aug 08, 12:33am

    Thanks Edward. Not inclined to have this be a binary, agree with this not with that kind of conversation, I am happy to read your contribution and let its ideas perc.

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    Mathew Paust
    Aug 11, 02:57pm

    In my experience, being a superficially self-abnegating egomaniac, communities of artists (perhaps writers especially) quickly take on characteristics of a hypothetical community of cats. It's quite evident here on our beloved Fictionaut, where a perhaps timid presumption of collegiality keeps our hisses and growls sublimated in passive-aggressive degrees of recognition or non- with corresponding comments rarely reaching beyond the polite, unless with overwrought effusions of adoration for the rare exceptionally magnificent triumph of artistic craftsmanship.

    I have found, here and in reading about famous writers groups of yore, that most wordsmiths, being hypersensitive, self-absorbed, complex personalities, secretly loathe each other, and, to paraphrase the presumably original words of a recent Nobel laureate who played guitar, would rather see each other paralyzed if not outright dead. Thus, I would argue, the urge to have one's precious work reach beyond the parochial bounds of his own kind, to have it read by dogs, zebras and alligators (to carry the ridiculous metaphor forward), which is best done by the marketing wizards with legacy publishing houses hip to what's de rigueur in the passive arbiter of appetite piped into sentient heads, thus enticing their hosts to seek admiring feedback from acquaintances by appearing to read or have read "the book" or "books" behind the series everyone but everyone had to watch in order to be able to speak to with familiarity amongst the madding crowd of whomever.

    So in an attempt to answer what I recall is the original question, yes, I certainly believe we must conntinue to butt our precious, tender, underappreciated heads against the gates of commercial curation no matter how bad might be the breath on the other side.

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    James Lloyd Davis
    Aug 11, 05:26pm

    We... the community of writers are an incomparable lot. Everyone who writes is a writer, acceptance being a matter of innumerable benchmarks beyond the writer's control.
    When I was young, there were protocols that had nothing to do with academic or corporate acceptance and everything to do with seduction. If you could tell an interesting story and in terms of a style most people could digest, you could make a little money... some being able to make a living... some even got rich... and the "market" for writing was huge, because virtually everyone read. They read books, magazines, newspapers... and the institutions that published paid for the content. Writers expected compensation and they got it.
    Today?
    I don't have to describe it to any of you.
    We're fucked.
    But we don't quit because we are writers.
    The actions of writing define us.
    We're still fucked, but hey... we are irrelevant.

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    David Ackley
    Aug 12, 06:43pm

    Each of your arguments opens ways to think about the question(s) of publishing, which mainly seem to be Where, and what are the chances? At least from the submitting writer's perspective.

    I do think that taking "Why write ?" as a given, when the possibilities of publishing in the present day are so unappealing and unavailable, is to risk the despair that follows a purposeless activity that consumes time, energy and thought.

    In the not so distant past, writing was nearly inseparable from notions of communication with a large, interested audience; producing income for the writer, intellectual relevance, reputation, influence, and even occasionally power. Witness Tostoi, who aside from enormous sales worldwide, was referred to as the "other Tsar," in Imperial Russia. Disraeli was both a popular novelist and Prime Minister. People pushed each other off docks jostling for the latest installment of a Dickens serialized novel and revisions in English Poor Laws owed something to his depictions of the hard lives of the lower classes. It is hard to think, I grant you, of an American equivalent.

    I do think it's a fair question to ask at present: Leaving aside publishing, and "because I have to," (No-one's holding a gun to our heads), Why write?

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    Mathew Paust
    Aug 13, 11:42am

    The muse. That one person, whether real or imaginary, you believe will get and appreciate what you say. What other reason could there be (leaving aside publishing and "because I have to")?

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    Ann Bogle
    Aug 17, 04:26pm

    I used to define success as "get a teaching job." I have a friend who faulted my cover letters as the likely culprit when I didn't land a teaching job.

    So I am impressed when two writers we all have heard of landed publishing deals that allowed them to quit their teaching jobs!

    The hope of a teaching job long behind me, I now set my sights on securing a publishing deal. I have heard recently that I ought to go to major publishers albeit without an agent and that I ought to self-publish.

    I know my opinion of self-publishing. It is that it is a lot of work for little return, maybe even a waste of paper, considering the relative merit of trees.

    The literature needs to be read and to be available to be read. It should not be a vanity excursion. The author needs to wish for the writing to appear as a book that invites to be read. If self-publishing has saved writers much anguish in not having their work in book form, then it is worth it.

    I have paid to play and flown to faraway cities to join in the group belonging of self-publishing writers and some who are on a mount of having publishing contracts and whose fees for services are paid and travel fees waived.

    A hierarchy. But do you compare what you wrote to what the chosen ones wrote? Does it necessarily dim by comparison? Or is it partly based on chance? Are there two groups paid and unpaid? Is that the same as read and unread?

    I have to say that I am no longer much of a reader of books, though I own a lot of books, and I buy books usually once a year. And that I wish I was in the habit of going to the public library.

    I wish I was devouring books, reading for its own sake. I would feel more in the fold of writing and publishing for their own sake. Or for money where there is a way to figure that in.

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    Mathew Paust
    Aug 17, 09:22pm

    As some of you may recall I'm in the midst of reading <i>The Last Night of the Earth</i>, Charles Bukowski's final collection of fairly spontaneous thoughts arranged in the intentionally much-broken lines of a poet. Having only just now stumbled across this tidbit in a poem called Wandering in the Cage, written near the end of his life, it seemed appropriate to add it to the mix, tho it likely will pinch some of us where it hurts, provoking smirks, eyerolls, off-page snorts, and whatnot (I'm putting the words down as a lump rather than arranging them in Chuck Buk's poetic fragments--not to disrespect him but simply from laziness):

    "on writers: I found out that most of them swam together. There were schools, establishments, theories. Groups gathered and fought each other. There was literary politics. There was game-playing and bitterness. I always thought writing was a solitary profession. Still do…"

    Of course, this doesn't even touch on the root question, as I understand was the prompt for this discussion. Several poems later, in Upon This Time, Bukowski addresses the question itself:

    "Fine then, thunderclaps at midnight, death in the plaza. My shoes need shining. My typewriter is silent. I write this in pen in an old yellow notebook while leaning propped up against the wall behind the bed. Hemingway said, 'it won’t come anymore.' Later— the gun into the mouth. <i>Not writing is not good but trying to write when you can’t is worse</i>. Hey, I have excuses: I have TB and the antibiotics dull the brain. 'You’ll write again,' people assure me, 'you’ll be better than ever.' That’s nice to know. But the typewriter is silent and it looks at me. Meanwhile, every two or three weeks I get a fan letter in the mail telling me that surely I must be the world’s greatest writer. But the typewriter is silent and looks at me…. This is one of the strangest times of my life. I’ve got to do a Lazarus and I can’t even shine my shoes."

    [I wish this forum had a preview option, so I can see if the coding for italics works.]

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    David Ackley
    Aug 18, 04:36pm

    I want you both, Ann and Mathew, to know that I've read both your responses several times and will probably do so again. So there is one provisional answer to the question, which is to find someone to read your work who will take it seriously.

    I liked reading Ann's reply because of, in part, the way she lets your attention fall into and consider the silences, or spaces, between statements. There's a lot going on there in those spaces, or at least so my imagination has occasion to contribute.

    I like the way Mathew opens our conversation to Bukowski--to include him in the conversation--

    but which also in a way is an answer to Ann's unstated question ' Why don't I (Does Anyone?) read anymore? The latter question/ statement posing another complicating factor to 'Why write?'[If there's nobody out there reading?'] I think it's a very good question, since I would automatically exclude from what I understand as
    'reading' (and its purposes) as anything appearing on the NY Times bestseller
    lists-- for which the alternate category of 'consumption' can suffice--leaving who?

    But to go back to "Why write?"

    I became, toward the end of my college days, a lazy student, bent it might have appeared on not finishing. Which happened to be true, since I saw nothing much out there that appealed to or was available to someone who really liked doing anthing but to read and keep reading. I foresaw that the available work was likely to be more alienating than the alternative--whatever that might be.

    A Marxist might say that this is simply the nature of work under capitalism where almost everyone is separated from the product of their endeavor. Be that as it may, there was simply nothing I could see myself doing with any commitment or enthusiasm.

    A friend of mine, a painter, told me much later on( it would have helped earlier) that we are animals who make things. In writing at least, as with painting, sculpture, composing, we are, you might say at one with the product of our work, which you might also say is our self.

    Let me cut to the chase, though

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    David Ackley
    Aug 18, 04:38pm

    Sorry, I meant to delete that last line, but it slipped through.

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    Mathew Paust
    Aug 19, 12:04pm

    Which brings us back to the explanation you precluded at the start, David, and which several of the contributors here give in their profiles as their raison d'être, "because I have to." I've evolved (some would say devolved) to the category myself, now that I'm retired and have nothing else to do for which I have the aptitude, and without which I would collapse to a barely animated, mumbling wraith on a park bench feeding imaginary squirrels.

    As for recognition, that's one reason I'm here--even if most of the feedback approximates merely the equivalent of a polite or friendly or nod and reciprocates the polite or friendly nod I give their work. Even there, tho, beneath the surface civility one can see what to many serves as the true currency here, those coveted little numbers that can elevate a piece to greater visibility on the "recommended" feed. So even here, David, that competitive "animal" drive to be seen is alive, if not especially "well," in the most basic sense.

    And is it really consensus we seek, that our work appeals to others whose intelligence and sensibility we respect, or is that even possible with a society in which popular consensus can shift willy nilly from one carefully articulated whim to the next thru academia as well as the wider marketplace? If so, is it truly there, the cloistered or commercial markets, for which we ultimately dance, albeit coyly and with the self-abnegation that enables us to retreat into our modest camouflage if we misgauge the value of our presentations? And would this, too, be where our "muse" resides? The one sensibility--real or imagined--without whose validation we feel stranded outside ourselves in an alien tableau?

    I enjoyed a long and relatively satisfying career as a reporter/writer for the slowly dying industry of print journalism. Been retire a little more than a decade now, and write solely for my own pleasure--keeping active, of course, those occasional sidelong peeks at a readership beyond my immediate purview. I've learned, quite happily to minimalize my needs, surviving on Social Security and Medicare without what I consider the current frivolous accouterments--TV, "smart" fone, even wifi (I hijack the neighboring brew pub's fairly reliable signal--shhhhh...)and maintain my physical health by eating carefully and walking 5 miles every morning. I'm divorced, and our three children are grown and thriving (more so than I was at their age). I preserve my illusion of sanity doing what I'm doing at this precise moment, as you preferred in your college days, and, I suspect, still do: reading, more reading, and, ultimately, writing. For me, anything else no longer really matters.

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