03 May 2006

testing . . . one, two, three . . . testing

The worst already happened in the world of books. By and large they have come to seem over the last four decades an increasingly conservative mode of communication. Even bestsellers exist in a secondary position in our culture to the spectacles of film, television, the web, the Xbox, the iPod, the cell phone. Three behemoth media corporations dominate Manhattan publishing. These Brobdignagians employ the print arms of their swollen conglomerates as tax write-offs, considering low sales figures and small audiences tantamount to failure. That is, they view their products exactly the same way executives at McDonald’s view their death patties. More disheartening still, many independent presses have decided to mimic in miniature this preposterous paradigm rather than trying to subvert, re-imagine, or otherwise stand in opposition to it.

That isn't, of course, to suggest Manhattan isn't bringing out some wonderful and surprising work (think José Saramago, David Mitchell, David Markson), but it is to suggest it is bringing out less of it—much less of it—than it did, say, during the sixties, when over 100 big houses thrived in New York. Nor would I want to suggest that alternative presses don’t bring out some bland, simple, sloppy stuff in innovationists’ clothing. Still, in our current sociohistorical reality (and I use the term loosely), alternative presses by and large remain sites of aesthetic, political, and philosophical resistance. They remind us that our fiction, and hence our world, can always be other than it is. They exist, in other words, as a possibility space where everything can and should be thought and attempted.

It was with that in mind that Ted Pelton and I came up with the idea for this collective blog while lunching at a sushi bar in Boulder, Colorado, one blustery blue day late last month during the Small Press Festival hosted at the University by Jeffrey Deshell and Elizabeth Robinson. What we decided to do is bring together a number of diverse voices from the universe of alternative prose and publishing to discuss—well, to discuss anything that interests them. What, for instance, consistutes the "alternative"? What trends do they find engaging? What authors and what events? How does one go about starting an alternative press? Why? What are the politics of such an enterprise?

In addition, we hope to see reviews of engaging new and overlooked alternative books, announcements of upcoming publications and conferences and readings and the appearance of new presses, reports from the front, lists of resources, interviews, photos, conversations about experimental prose, you name it.

Needless to say, the goal isn't for us to agree, but for us all to engage in what we hope will be a stimulating, diverse, and revealing polylogue that both celebrates and interrogates the assumptions of alternative prose and publishing, while reminding ourselves all the while of that stingingly dead-on observation by Ronald Sukenick that summarizes the whole: If you don't use your own imagination, someone else is going to use it for you.

And so, onwords . . .


Frank Sauce said...


Hope there is some real discussion about the existence of real literature in this world, whose creating it, whose printing it. We all have our personal preferences and there are a lot of great writers in print, both by the bigger publishing houses and the independent presses.

However, academia, like the publishers, often neuters the creative process. Most writing and poetry from those institutions today lack the profound complexity or the chewable meat of real literature. Sure, a lot of writing from these institutions is very clever, and I really enjoy reading it, but it lacks heart and soul, those very subjective and intangible elements of a work of genius. Academia ruins genius with heart and soul as effectively as the big publishing houses.

The question of quantity of readership remains an issue, also. I remember once, years ago, going into one of those clearance bookstores at one of those factory outlet malls, waiting for my sister to ransack the Coach store and having drunk two cups of coffee already. With nothing better to do, I found, clear in the far corner, at least forty copies of William H. Gass' "The Tunnel." There, clear out in Lincoln City, Oregon, one of the master works of the later part of the 20th Century sits ruined by a black magic marker, but quite the deal at $5 each. That's right, real literature doesn't sell. There's so many good writers out there that the great writers don't get read as often, because those who do read in this society are so busy reading clever books that we don't have time to read all the great books that take months or years to get through because they are so dense. Sometimes, the great author will be overlooked and undervalued because their work and their publisher is not a part of the established publishing world (academic or 'for profit') or worse yet, the author publishes their own work.

And, lastly, trying to make literature into a multi-media experience for our instant-message-society is great, but then it becomes multi-media art and not literature, even if words give the work it's artistic merit. It's like slam-poetry or spoken word, the performance and the spoken word together define the work’s achievement, but it seldom holds up on the page.

And that’s my pickle-nickel on company time, if the moderators allow.

~Frank Sauce

Lance Olsen said...

Thanks, Frank. I quickly want to pick up on your comment that "academia, like the publishers, often neuters the creative process."

Brian Kiteley, in his wonderful experimental fiction-writing guide 3 a.m. Epiphany, underscores that point by arguing that most workshops "promote mere competence."


My sense is that craft can be taught, but not vision. The result is often a standardizing of creative work rather than an opening up, a challenging, an invitation to risk-taking.

Raw Dog Screaming said...

"...an invitation to risk-taking."

That's the last thing people seem to want at the group level. Risk-taking is the enterprise of the individual, even among "nonconformist" groups, as they wish to maintain a unified "public image" (the "PI" factor will be the subject of my first blog here).

At the same time, Lance's invitation to others to participate in this blog could very well constitute an invitation to risk-taking. Here's hoping we can still surprise ourselves...

Unknown said...

All publishers are hurting. All my publishers, even my foreign ones, are months late paying advances and royalties...citing bad cash flow...so why do they keep buying titles? because they need to keep putting new titles on the shelves or there will be no cash flow.

New platforms for entertainment are on the rise -- cellphone, iPod, mini-Tv shows there...and games...more writers I know now work writing games...and some of these games are intricate...

Anonymous said...

Dear Lance Olsen & Ted Pelton,

Ours is a small publishing endeavour, based in London, UK.

We are promoting and distributing our books independently - trying not to rely on amazon!

We have one title out at the moment - "Uncorrected Proof" by Louisiana Alba ..reviews on(http://swimanog.wordpress.com/)

More titles are coming from writers in the UK and Australia.

We just launched a special promotion for the end of the year: FREE POSTAGE for all books purchased on our site, and the books are signed by the author. Visit our site http://www.elephantearspress.com and let us know what you think on our blog.

We are trying to spread the word around the world. Thanks in advance for your help and for any suggestions you may have.

Best wishes,

Valentina and Richard

ElephantEars Press