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?