30 January 2007

Two Arguments

Two Arguments

I seem to be hearing what amounts to two recurring and concurrent arguments on this blog -- interconnected arguments, surely -- but two arguments, as follows:

(1) The economic argument, which is also an aesthetic argument: the major trades are a problem b/c their approach to the literary marketplace has little to do with literature per se, which they view in the main as a commodity. The consequent emphasis on producing blockbuster novels and the like is clear evidence that the trades will continue to churn out homogenized product as long as it continues to make money -- or to lose money, as in loss leaders.

Against (1), the small presses offer a competing model of literary production, in which what is valued is the literary per se, as opposed to its capacity for commodification.

(2) The aesthetic argument, which is also an economic argument: those who are involved with the trades, from agents to editors to publishers (in many cases, entertainment magnates), hold relatively conservative views of what literature can be. Now while it's clearly the case that economics may drive such aesthetic predispositions, aesthetics can drive economics too -- there are prevailing sensibilities about literature that can, by virtue of the massive circulation of ideas and values (and, uhm, fiscal inertia) attendant to publishing networks, be made to speak rather directly to readerships.

Against (2), the small presses offer a competing model of literary aesthetics, in which what is valued is unconventional literature and literary modes, as opposed to more mundane realisms and the like.

In the midst of this deplorable (yes, OK) situation, we have the "long tail" argument, in which people (readers) will presumably be buying less of more. But may I observe here that there is less, and there is LESS. Buying (selling) 3000 copies of a book -- 3000 down on the flatter part of the tail, if you look at the overall distribution range -- is a whole different ballgame than selling (buying) 50 copies of a book, and 3000 is a good bit higher than most (most) small-press runs with which I'm familiar. So I'm not certain about the scales at stake here, finally, and without being certain, I'm simply not willing to put too much hope in the tail end of things.

But here's my main point: If I have to choose between (1) and (2) -- and nobody is holding a gun to my head, mind you -- I'll have to rate (1) as the more urgent reality at this point. It seems to me that if literature as such -- by which I mean to designate quality literature, or literary fiction, poetry, etc (please permit me to allow these terms to pass unexamined) -- is jeopardized outright as a result of economic realignments at the global level, then the small presses might think about getting less caught up in aesthetic arguments than in finding a home for any literature, as long as it's deemed of sufficient quality.

I know that the word "quality" will give some conniptions. Me too. However, given the urgencies at stake here, as I understand them, I likewise see no reason why someone who's doing challenging work in a realist mode, but can't find a home on the trades, ought not to be welcomed by the small presses.

(This is already happening, of course, in some quarters, and in said quarters, there are people making negative noise about this development. Please don't ask me to name names.)

Of course, small press publishers are free to publish what they wish -- it's their (your) dime. And of course, much (but not all) of the literature I continue to be drawn to is aesthetically ambitious. But my appeal, I suppose -- and w/o wishing to come off as too disputatious -- is that we might reconsider the aesthetic argument as a rationale for publication, and turn our attention to the literary, in all of its more ambitious manifestations.

Then what?


mark wallace said...

You're not going to get an argument from me, here, Joe, but just some thoughts/concerns.

In the poetry world, we've entered an era where terms like "innovative," "postmodern," "avant garde" and what all else have been broken down so often they can come to seem meaningless--and yet I feel unwilling to entirely give them up in the name of the idea that quality can come from any kind of writing, even as I don't really feel able to deny that fact.

However, if we accept Jeffrey DeShell's recent suggestion that all writing is experimental, in the sense that, as he puts it, none of us when writing even necessarily know how any given sentence will end, then any piece of fiction is more or less a test of what fiction can be.

For me, then, I continue to see a distinction between writers who understand Jeffrey's point and whose work puts a genre to the test, and writers whose work more clearly is designed to fall back on genre norms. What we might mean by "quality" in realism then is someone who takes the condition of realism not as a given, but as a test.

Once we're at that point, then I'd say we'd have to admit innovative genre fiction writers as well. And there are some fantastic ones--M. John Harrison (do you know his novel "Light"), Thomas Ligotti, Lisa Tuttle, Dennis Etchison.

To me, then, the canon of what counts as "experimental" or "quality" fiction definitely opens up in the way you suggest.

But then I think this also: writers of innovative genre or realist fiction still have more places to publish than writers whose experimental work concentrates on more extreme challenges to fictional structures.

So hey, let's open up experimental small presses to a larger notion of the experimental, sure. But let's also continue to insist that presses that concentrate on realist or genre fiction ought to open themselves to broader notions of the role that experiment plays in the works they publish. I mean (with serious half-seriousness) horror publishers should have picked my work up long ago.

Lance Olsen said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Joe, although, as I comment in my conversation with Jeffrey, I wouldn't want to suggest, as you do, Mark, that all writing is to some degree experimental. I think such a claim unnecessarily blurs a difference that's an important one. Richard Ford, in a phrase, ain't Jimmy Joyce.

I'm tempted to say what I'm seeing is a kind of specialization or nichework among small presses, some of which are doing exactly what you would call more literary projects. University presses, especially, are involved in this, but also ones like Graywolf.

Still, there are sooooo few outlets for what most of use here think of as the "otherwise" to, say, realist fiction, that it strikes me as absolutely essential to make those publishers fretful and multiply.

Anonymous said...

i wonder if it might be okay to request clarification of terms of this argument, which i find deeply interesting?

is it that the big houses are sliding so far into what they hope is predictability of sales (armed with instant POS data, so that history becomes the future, in their decision-making anyway) that it's become more difficult to place genre texts that push the boundaries?

or might this be a call to smaller houses to change their traditional practices?

i'm also unclear about the relationship between smaller house practices, aesthetic decision-making, and commerce, herein.

i'm sure this lack of understanding on my part is simply a lack of sufficient background in these issues. my history is severely within 1. literary writing and publishing (in what i'm assuming is the aesthetic structure described in your post) and 2. within a very small country's aesthetic structure, where the questions about numbers lead to, perhaps, different conclusions, as our within-country capacity to reach/sell to readers is about one tenth of the US's (so that 3,000 copies translates here to 300).

thank you for a fascinating and explicative blog-- any clarification hugely appreciated.

Joe Amato said...

Anon, you seem to be inferring properly, from what I can tell.

My point is that the big houses, as you put it, exhibit an increasingly predictable response to the entire concept of the literary, and that this predictable response might not be as much about aesthetic conservatism and related rear-guard anxieties as about product, period. Granted, they do tend to churn out homogenized product far more regularly than they do innovative (term used advisedly) lit. But really -- they nonetheless DO publish innovative lit, too.

So my hunch is that what's most urgently at stake here may be less a matter of retrograde aesthetics per se than simply quality (term used advisedly) lit.

In which event, the discussion becomes (perhaps deceptively, yes) easier. Instead of bitching about how the trades don't want to publish the literature many on this blog prefer, we ought perhaps to be seeking alliances with ALL writers for whom the literary is not simply a cash cow (even if some have -- by virtue of their appeal to realist modes, say -- more outlets for their work, as Mark indicates).

It's not that we can wish away aesthetic issues. My own sense of where the aesthetic is most palpably ideological would take me too long to explain hereabouts, but suffice to say that I see more to be gained at present by softening the aesthetic argument (at least as it relates to economic realities) and strengthening the argument concerning the literary generally.

As I posted way back in the early days of this blog, way back last summer (!), we might get more mileage out of advocating for a more purposeful sense of the literary (i.e., "the function of literature") than by arguing for a more aesthetically challenging literature 'in contradistinction to which the big houses churn out yadda yadda yadda.' To my ear the latter argument is sounding more shrill with each trade volume that appears courtesy of a former avant scribe. (See Matt's grad seminar list.) And who knows? -- perhaps the former will ultimately lead more readers, and writers, to the latter? I have a hunch, at the very least, that both sides of this "divide" will be put into more productive conflict with each other.