Chiming in on the BlazeVox Situation

There’s already a gazillion posts up around the lit blogosphere about the situation at BlazeVox Books — probably the last thing anyone needs is me chiming in, but there are some things I’m not hearing anybody else say that I would like to put out there. In particular, I’d like to respond to Johannes Goransson’s post at Montevidayo, because I admire Johannes’s support for collective, community-based approaches to sharing great writing with one another, and also his commitment to counter-hegemonic practices and his critique of institutional “legitimacy.” …At the same time, I am troubled by some of the rhetoric I’m seeing used in defense of BlazeVox’s practices that is also slightly present, although to a  lesser and more nuanced degree, in Johannes’s post.

Johannes says:

“The fact that subsidizing of the press calls into question the “legitimacy” of the press suggests to me that legitimacy is tied up in money.”

I think there is a difference between legitimacy being tied up in money, ie, tied up in possessing money, in capitalist value systems, and legitimacy being tied up in sound fiscal management and ethical business practices.  A  press that functions within our current system(s) by exchanging books for payment and/or collecting donations from individuals who may not purchase books, even or perhaps most especially a press that is critical of our system’s values and how our system is constructed,  has some responsibility to maintain the trust of the folks who support it — including authors, donors and readers.

Part of what troubles many folks about this BlazeVox situation is the shifting submissions numbers in Gatza’s various email  and the fact that his arguments regarding the press’s finances do not appear entirely consistent. …I don’t want to put a lot of work into reiterating some of what seems sketch in his various email correspondances. I think Mike Meginnis provides a pretty comprehensive summary at Uncanny Valley. I do not think he is lying about their situation, more likely he is a charismatic and committed editor who is just not great at admin, who is probably better at the editorial than the business aspects of his work, which I imagine is also true of many others in small press publishing.

OF COURSE small presses should absolutely feel comfortable asking for financial support, and those of us connected with communities of small press publishers and writers should develop some sense of shared responsibility and commitment to supporting small presses, both in terms of purchasing their product as well as direct individual donations.

But I think in most cases, the author function and the donor function should be separated, even when an individual is both a donor and an author. Of course many individuals will be both writers and donors, but fundraising correspondence should not happen within the context of editorial correspondence. (This is why I am pleased when I see journals send their subscription pitches and mail appeals in separate envelopes from their responses to submissions). As Matt Bell, Roxane Gay, Chris Higgs and others reminded us in the conversation at htmlgiant, there is a power dynamic between publishers and writers submitting their work for consideration, even when a press rejects institutional legitimacy and is very embedded in community. …And although I don’t think our primary concern should necessarily be proving our legitimacy based on external or normative standards, there is still a possibly worthwhile argument to be made that the more that small presses can appear “above board” in terms of not condoning “pay to play,” and not being “clubhouse-ish,” the more trust and respect we engender both within and without small press communities.

I work at a small public foundation (meaning that most of what we give out in grants we raise ourselves, rather than being endowed) that supports grassroots social justice groups. Our grantmaking decisions are guided by a committee that includes activists directly affected by the issues we support. Because of the community-based nature of our work, there is often a lot of overlap between grantees and donors. Meaning many people employed at grantee organizations also make small individual donations to us, who fund their organizations. Because of the power imbalance between funder and grant applicant (even in a community-guided process), and because we must maintain a fair, transparent grantmaking process in order to remain accountable to a community of donors, we would never, ever, ever have any overlap between fundraising and grantmaking-related correspondance.

This is probably going to sound super Pollyanna, but on some level, I think if anything, small presses should be maybe be modeling a higher standard of mutual trust and accountability than more institutionally validated publishers, because of our sense of community and commitments to one another as individuals.

Additionally: I think it is perfectly fine, is actually desirable, for small presses to create innovative alternative models, i.e., “cooperative” publishing. But we need to very clear about what these models are and why they are an alternative. These models need to be documented. This is why the call for “transparency” from BlazeVox is important. In my work, I have seen far too much bad management and fundraising practices justified by good ideology — organizations that in the name of rejecting the dominant norms of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” for instance, move forward with a complete lack of oversight mechanisms that ultimately just means the organizations are unsustainable, their workers are vulnerable or exploited, and their financial practices not accountable to the community they claim to support. I can easily imagine that similar patterns emerge in small presses, where work is fueled by passion more than acumen, and often rests on the shoulders of charismatic individuals. I feel like some of the defenses — NOT Johannes’s, but others — of BlazeVox romanticize the press’s “quirkiness” and Gatza’s “passion” as in some way counterhegemonic and anticapitalist rather than just sloppy and unaccountable.

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12 thoughts on “Chiming in on the BlazeVox Situation

  1. It seems to me that what most people have been upset about is that the press asked for the money after the MS was accepted.

    I’m not going to judge that. It just seemed to me that that’s what all, or most, of the fuss is about.

    (Good to see you back here, Tim!)

  2. Tim,
    Yes, my response was not a response so much to Gatza’s situation as the discussions of legitimacy that it seemed to generate. I do think there were problems in the Gatza operation. I don’t think the pay-ro-publish (even if that was only an impression not a demand) is good at all. I’ll write more in a week or so, I’m going to Japan for a week, but then I’ll weigh in. I think people’s responses have a lot of different subtexts, many of which I don’t understand at all. And thus the heated rhetoric all around./Johannes

    • For sure, and I think I mostly agree with your discussion of “legitimacy,” and I hope I did not do that annoying thing where I positioned myself against you too oppositionally in order to make my point and so misrepresented your argument. I think yours is an important discursive/cultural analysis /reading of the kneejerk reaction against the practice of soliciting monetary contributions of authors — my aim was to move from this into a more institutional, materialist discussion of best practices around such solicitation. That said, I do think there are discursive moves on all sides of this conversation that trouble me — some of the poets defending Gatza are using anti-institutional and anti-capitalist rhetoric in ways I worry justify systemic dysfunction.

  3. Tim, as somebody who’s worked for years in the non-profit advocacy world myself–THIS:

    “In my work, I have seen far too much bad management and fundraising practices justified by good ideology — organizations that in the name of rejecting the dominant norms of the “nonprofit industrial complex,” for instance, move forward with a complete lack of oversight mechanisms that ultimately just means the organizations are unsustainable, their workers are vulnerable or exploited, and their financial practices not accountable to the community they claim to support. ”

    YES YES YES YES YES. Good intentions do not justify bad management or being sloppy or slipshod in financial practices. Not ever. But too often we don’t hold artists or non-profits we agree with to the same standards we would hold any small business to. We have to do better, be more professional–I totally, totally agree with you.

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