Thursday, July 03, 2008


Via Josh Maday, bless his heart, I read an article about independent publishing that asked, like, how come e'rbody loves indie movies and indie bands but ain't nobody love small presses? It's a good point and the hypothesis is that it's cuzza "vanity publishing" which makes it so there's too much negligible li'l lit out there that don't get edited.

Which, okay, sure. That's peripheral to the real problem I think, which is that don't nobody know nothin' about if something is good or bad, and reading is harder than watching TV or listening to the Shins, and what if you read a book and it isn't very good but you're reading it? What if I read a whole book and it's weird? I will just assume that the writer is too smart for me and so weird and I won't know anything and next time instead of reading VAAST BIN I won't read it. And shit, they can give the stuff away as PDFs but I'm not gonna read it I'm gonna read Updike, he's awesome, everyone knows he's good, no worries there, and I'm gonna play CROOKED RAIN CROOKED RAIN and make that suck.

Anyhoo. What we really need is to start calling bad shit bad shit so that my genius brother fo real don't feel like he's risking something by reading something ain't nobody heard of. So people don't think the joke's on them. Which is what everybody thinks, all the time.

I want indie publishing or small literature to be something that the guys talk about at lunch. Instead of TV I want the conversation to be like, "Did you read that Josh Maday motherfucker?"

"Did you buy the Anne Boyer from Mitzvah Chaps?"

"OMG I love Lame House they have the best paper."

"Either Tao Lin or Zachary German is racist or a bad typer."

"No Colony when does that come out?"

"Hey brody did you see Publishing Genius redesigned their index page?"

Anyway -- to this end I'm going to start giving away TShirt Iron Ons that say, "Fuck you, I'm retired." I think that'll help build critical mass. Get yours today.


Josh Maday said...

great post, adam. not just because you said my name in it. though, thank you.

your point about the real/percieved additional effort and thought required for reading as compared to listening or watching is a great one. i think you're right: so you listen to a three minute song that sucked (and you didn't quite catch all the lyrics), so what? so you watched a 90 minute film that blew -- no big deal, you got some cleaning done while it was on. but you read a strange book that you aren't quite sure you liked or understood, which required total attention, and it took how many hours? no way. i would seriously be interested to find out the ratio of indie/emo bands to lit mags or even small/independent press writers. just for giggles. good post, adam.

Adam R. said...

Thanks Josh. I want to see that statistic too. It'd make a good dissertation. I bet there are a lot more people in indie bands than there are small press affiliations. In fact, I bet there aren't that many more small press things than there are indie filmmaking companies. I mean, only like twice as many or something, which is saying a lot.

Josh Maday said...

I would be very interested in seeing all of those statistics compared.

Hey, I'll take one of those cool t-shirt iron ons. Those are going to be a hit.

Joseph Young said...

i think the opposite may be true, adam. we are willing to take chances on indie bands because our critical facility is set lower, not higher, for them than for lit. we can enjoy an indie band on it's own terms much easier than a novel or poem.

there is a personal/cultural experience people get from music, film, they are not getting from lit. i don't think it's because that experience isn't there but rather that it isn't being transferred, not crossing the barrier from brain to blood. i may write a thing on this today.

Josh Maday said...

what you say is interesting, joseph. lots to think about.

Adam R. said...

Whoa, interesting. I'm not sure I follow the reasoning in the first paragraph, but your thing will bear it out I hope. I guess I think that we take chances on indie bands more than indie lit because it is a medium that is more attuned to our ability to understand and vocalize our personal experience with it.

I think the obstacle to the transfer of the visceral experience is fear.

Adam R. said...

Josh, comin' right up.

Joseph Young said...

Self-Help for Sad Writers? or, Chin Up, Chinowski?

Literature—essay, fiction, poetry—is in a slump. Or so it's said. The number of literary readers is down, really down, claims the National Endowment for the Arts, young people hardly read at all, test scores are abysmal. Then again, we in the lit business, us writers, know how profligate we are, literary journals, reading series, small presses, literary blogs populating the virtual and paper world like spring grass, ink grass. It's very odd, we seem to be writing, publishing, critiquing in droves, but no one but writers seems to be watching. At least not until an author brings home a big contract with a major publishing house.

A recent post on a UK Guardian blog, "Why writers can't go it alone" by David Barnett, wonders why small presses, those little publishers of poetry chapbooks and short story collections by unknown, though often talented, writers don't get the same respect as their equivalents in the indie film and music world. "We love independent filmmakers and musicians, and celebrate their maverick spirit," says Barnett's tagline, "so why don't we want independent writers?" Barnett says that the same experimental and DIY entrepreneurship that can launch a band like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to stardom and NPR acclaim only gets writers a back seat to obscurity. He postulates that this occurs because, while we associate indie film and bands with innovation and youthful vigor, we lump indie presses in with vanity publishing, the dreadful schlock writers foist on the world through self-publishing and scam presses like Publish America. Barnett says that the source of this difference is that we expect writing to be a "higher art" than pop music, and "If just anyone starts punting books on to the street without the careful control of intelligent, creative people, then goodness knows what kind of situation we might have." Readers require a stamp of approval from Random House or Signet before they reach for their wallets.

It's an interesting theory, but mostly sidesteps the issue: people are excited by independent music and film in a way they aren't by indie lit, they go out to see it in great numbers, buy it, listen to it, talk about it, argue over it with friends and family. Indie music is a major cultural phenomenon, with fans spreading far beyond small groups of in-crowd musicians and their hangers-on, as is the case with much independent literature. The excitement around these bands is palpable, at the shows, on the radio, at parties, on campus.

Presumably, there is something about music and film, some individual and shared cultural experience, people get from these arts but don't receive from literature. Many would say it’s a result of our fast-moving, information-rich, limited attention span society. Listening to a new song from a new band costs you 99 cents and 4 minutes of your time. A novel is 15 to 25 bucks and at least a week sitting in a chair. The experience of music is immediate, visceral, in a way reading isn't, at least not to the kids. We're in a post-literate world, an iPod and Internet culture.

This is another good theory but one that is built on prejudice as much as anything. The theory presupposes we, or our young people at least, are dumber than before, less able to handle nuance of thought, less willing to make investments of time and understanding. It's the these dumb kids these days theory, the same kind adults have been propagating for hundreds of years. It also presupposes that there is some inherent quality to film or music that makes it more suitable to today's culture, that makes it automatically more digestible.

I can't subscribe to the idea that we are dumber than before. Human intelligence doesn't just evaporate, not because of the Internet or television or Elvis Presley. Second, who says indie music is somehow more ready made for consumption, that it doesn't require an investment of time to come to understand and appreciate it? Yes, it generates excitement in a way writing doesn't, but the people who follow indie music do so with passion and intelligence and are open to experiment and innovation. The low-fi rambling ruminations of The Mountain Goats are held in esteem by legions of indie music lovers and the baroquely orchestrated soul searching of born again Christian Sufjan Stevens, indie phenom and critical darling, has little precedent in the world of pop music.

Similar arguments could be made for independent film, and illustrate how willing people are to give new artistic ideas a try, as long these arts find their way in, past the brain to the blood, exciting us with new ways of thinking and feeling.

So the question must return: what's the difference? Why are people so excited about these arts and not independent literature? Must we lay blame on the writers? Are they not providing the kinds of literature that move people to buy the books, interview them on NPR, wax poetic about them in the pages of the New Yorker? Why are these slots reserved for the biggies, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, while the independent presses are ignored?

There is tremendous hand wringing by writers on the subject, with various theorists lining up in camps on either side, arguing ferociously for their position. Stories today have no plot, no drama, nothing to keep readers turning the page, say neo-traditionalists, it's all navel gazing and flourishes of language. Poetry, they say, has devolved into abstraction and word play, lacking any real human feeling. On the other side, experimentalists complain it's all the same tired formula, beginning, middle, end; character, conflict, epiphany, modes dictated 30+ years ago by the rise of university writing programs. No wonder, both sides say, that people are bored with literature.

I find all of this hard to accept, that writers and their writing are screwing up, failing in their jobs, or that there is nothing in a story, poem, or essay to which readers might be attracted. Writers are as passionate about their art, as intelligent and deep thinking, are playing with form and theme in as innovative and stimulating of ways, writing about the human heart and heartbreak as well as the very best songwriters and independent directors out there. Individual and cultural experience is there, in the words and rhythms and lines, it's just not being transferred, from writer to reader, it isn't being received, picked up.

At the risk of sounding flakey, might I postulate it has something to do with writers' low self-esteem? We have internalized the bad news: writing is over, either pack your bags for the coast and get out or hunker down and accept it, your audience is paltry, no one cares. We argue viciously over whose fault it is. We lament the days of the author star, Hemingway on the cover of Life Magazine. Sure, we try to remain positive, say that smaller audiences don't mean less personal satisfaction, that the chance to break big is still out there, even if the odds are long, that we should just keep plugging away and don't sweat the numbers, passion and perseverance will find a way. And yet, there is a hangdog fatalism about much of this, a defensive shrug. We writers don't quite believe our pep talk; we have become head shy and circumspect. And perhaps we fulfill our own prophesies.

Indie film to a degree, and music certainly, has given up worrying about how it is distributed, over what medium and by what format. While writers argue over the merits of the Internet and whether paper is better than electrons, bands distribute CDs and mp3s with equal vigor. As writers blame each other for our ills, compete over limited space in the big magazines and bookstore shelves, bands fill the Web and book the local clubs, confident there is room for everyone. For every fan of the infectious pop of Vampire Weekend, there's another for the atmospheric introspection of Andrew Bird. In fact, these bands may share the same fans; indie music lovers aren't split into "high" and "low" art categories nearly to the degree readers are. Bands enjoy a fluidity of audience that writers don't, based partly, I think, on their willingness to market with confidence. Bands don't care if you are a reader of university-based literary journals or online lit-zines, they just want you to hear their music.

Perhaps writers should come out of their box and play. Innovation doesn't have to stop at the page, and neither does confidence. Some writers and magazines are doing interesting things in this regard, the Literary Death Matches of Opium magazine, for example. But these things don’t have to be "fun," if it's not your style. Serious is good too. It's about getting the experience off the page and into readers' consciousness. And I believe those readers are out there. They are hungry for good literature, of all kinds, traditional and experimental. They just may not know how hungry they are. They may not realize the experience that is available in the words, how rich and vital it can be, how exciting. Before the fire can spread, it has to be set. Just as in music and film, consumers of literature need to be woken up to its possibilities, they need to realize there is something to be woken to. Literature isn't dead, just sleeping. Words, as much as any art, are a part of who we are.

ryan call said...

i liked reading that, joe

ryan call said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Adam R. said...

I liked reading it too, even though it bummed me out a little. I don't feel like I feel inferior. Anyway I'm doing something proactive by making Iron Ons.

Joseph Young said...

iron on away your bummed!

thanks, ryan.

Matt Bell said...

Great stuff, Joseph!

Josh Maday said...

yes, this is excellent, joseph.

Joseph Young said...

My post was posted here: Kinda like B but college seniors?

peter b. said...

I love this conversation

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