This follows J. A.’s post here, which sprang out of conversation here; it’s also motivated by Greg’s recent post about Rilke. In all three places, I’ve been criticizing some “dominant values” in US culture and small-press culture:
There’s nothing inherently wrong with celebrity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with youth. There’s not even anything necessarily wrong with having money! (I wish I had more, much more.) But when those things become the dominant values in one’s life, and the basis of what one does, what most people do, then things go out of whack.
The US circa 2010 is a youth-obsessed, wealth-obsessed culture, where many many people want to be famous, and spend their time thinking about famous people. That is the dominant culture. And I submit that, to the extent that any small press is pursuing these aims for itself and for its writers (especially to the exclusion of other goals), it’s not being part of a counter-culture.
…Of course, being a counter-culture isn’t inherently desirable, either. But if one does want to oppose those dominant US values—love of celebrity, youth, and wealth—then what can one do? Below, I’ll try proposing some alternatives.
I want to reiterate that I don’t have much interest in critiquing any particular presses or writers. “Live and let live,” I say. And I can’t claim to know what most presses and authors are “really” doing! I’m more interested in describing overall trends, and in examining how we are one and all complicit in them—which may be good, or may be bad. Everyone can decide that for him- or herself.
And I certainly don’t intend to portray myself as divorced from the dominant culture; rather, I’m seeking to understand how I’m very much a part of it, and from there determine whether I want to change that. That is something that I find difficult to decide, and it isn’t a decision I can or would want to make for others.
So here are those three values that I argue dominate US culture, and that then often remain dominant in small-press culture:
What values might replace these? What else could writers and presses be prioritizing, and pursuing? And what would that look like?
Let’s try substituting something different for each one of those values.
A while back, while visiting my sister, I ended up talking with one of her friends for a few hours. She told me about her job and friends, her hobbies and interests. And over the course of the conversation, I learned that she hated her job, felt her friends didn’t really know her, and that she didn’t really enjoy anything she did. What I gradually learned was that she was entirely miserable, and what’s more, she didn’t know what she could do to change her life, and stop being miserable. So for the most part she went to work, came home exhausted, ate some take-out, watched TV, and prayed that something would eventually happen to change her life.
I found this remarkably sad, and yet this woman is far from alone. Contemporary life in the US is extremely alienating. Many traditional communities have broken down, and families are often spread far apart (my parents, sister, and I live in three separate states). Many traditional jobs have disappeared, having been replaced by abstract corporate jobs and service industry work. Who goes “downtown” any more? Who walks their town streets? When you want a loaf of bread, you buy one made by a corporation at a corporate grocery where your neighbor works as a cashier; you don’t buy it from your neighbor who is a baker, and who owns a bakery. Has any of us ever even been to a local, family-owned dairy? Rather, ice cream is a thing that Ben & Jerry make, then ship to 7-Eleven.
(Of course there are alternatives to all of this, alternatives that I strongly support. I take a lot of hope in things like the DIY crafts movement, car-sharing, the spread of urban gardening, etc. But can we agree that participation in these movements is still minority behavior in the US?)
Why do I want to be famous? (And I do.) Part of it is ego—but what is the source of that? Why does my ego manifest itself in that way? What I really want, I think—or what might satisfy me in lieu of fame—is to be valued. I want to feel a part of a successful community, where what I do is understood and appreciated by the people around me.
Part of the fear and challenge of being a writer is confronting the very real risk that not many people will appreciate what we do—what we invest so much of our life and energy in. And so the dream of celebrity is one way of combating that: “When I become famous, my work will be validated. Everyone will appreciate—or at least respect—what I do. No one will question my doing it!”
An alternative to celebrity is to create communities where writers are valued. But this is also key: in those communities, everyone would be valued. Many small presses and journals list “community building” as one of their primary goals, and I don’t doubt that’s true. But time and again I see writers split off into factions, cliques, movements, ideologies. The Language poets don’t like the lyric poets. The experimental postmodernists don’t like the mimetic realists. And so on. Let alone things like this: the MFA students don’t like the Slam Poets. The underground doesn’t like the mainstream. Let alone thoughts like this:
- “Look at all those idiots reading Dan Brown novels. They don’t appreciate actual literature.”
- “I tried giving my relatives some of my writing, and they didn’t understand it. That’s because they don’t know anything about contemporary literature.”
- “The only people who appreciate my poetry are other poets. Well, to hell with everyone else!”
These arguments do nothing to build community, and they do nothing to reintegrate writers into larger, functioning communities. Writers could instead:
- Work to reduce their isolation from the rest of the culture. Resist the impulse that readers should be damned, plain or otherwise. Create reading groups to help people read difficult works. Don’t assume people won’t understand things (or that it’s bad to not understand something). If writing is difficult, seek to explicate it for others. Remember that you yourself once didn’t value or understand these things! You came to a gradual understanding. Look at how scientists have to explain what they do to lay audiences—and people exhibit a real passion for reading that kind of writing (or is the lay science boom of the 1990s over?). Isaac Asimov prided himself on being able to explain general relativity in five minutes, and such that anyone could understand it. Why not strive to be able to explain, say, deconstruction to anyone? Or Language poetry? Or simply what one’s writing interests are? (Without using jargon!)
- Work to respect one another, and to support one another, regardless of whether they like one another’s writing. This could involve reaching out to different writing communities. I’ve long been suggesting, for instance, that unread MFA poets seek to collaborate with people who make comics. What’s there to lose? And what other communities can we be reaching out to (and beyond the immediate answers of filmmakers and musicians—although that’s cool, too)? Other ideas: Distribute other writer’s books/journals. Help them find places they can sell them on consignment. It seems to me that what small presses really need is a shared database of all the bookstores and reading venues in every town in the US, to help enable anyone distribute and promote a book. (Record labels do this for bands: they help them tour.) Perhaps someone is already doing this? Many someones? We could also compile lists of journals that publish reviews. More journals could publish reviews, translations. There’s more that could be done than just buying one another’s books and coming to hear others read.
- Seek opportunities to reach out to “non-readers”—audiences beyond fellow writers. Invite non-writers to readings!!! (Does anyone ever do this?) Buy copies of your favorite books for them. Ask them what they’re reading, and talk to them about it, and why they like it. Check it out yourself—you may even like it! Don’t dismiss their interests. (Anyone reading a Dan Brown novel might also be interested in reading Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, or Carol Maso’s The Art Lover, or David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress… I’m being serious here! And remember that works can lead to other works: I started out reading The Poky Little Puppy—having it read to me, to be precise.) Explore different genres, different styles. “Read outside your comfort zone.” Find ways to bring writers and non-writers/non-readers together. Books are usually about things, right? Find people who like those things, and suggest they read those books. (Work from content to reader, rather than from style to reader.)
- Defend what writers do as having worth. Too often I see authors give up a priori: “No one will ever read this.” “I’ll never be able to publish this.” “No one will ever want to buy this.” I hate these attitudes, and how they can become extrapolated into judgments of the entire small press community: “No one cares about literature any more.” “No one buys or reads it.” These thoughts benefit no one, and do nothing to defend and restore literature’s (lost) value. Why should we apologize for what we do? Social workers don’t go around apologizing for what they do, even though they, too, are often undervalued and under-appreciated. But they believe that what they’re doing is right, and necessary—and that others will eventually come around.
- Educate others as to why what they do has value, and should be valued by the rest of the culture. (Note that this includes flexibility, and making things the culture will value! There’s give and take.) How can writers benefit other parts of society? Can we get involved in progressive groups and help them out with their writing? Their grant applications? Their publishing? Citizen journalism? Just as we can read outside our comfort zones, we can write outside our comfort zones as well.
- Publish writing other than “high art/experimental lit.” There’s a crazy one for you. But why not consider it? Experimental writing can be defined rather broadly. Most presses and journals that I see define it rather narrowly—often as narrowly as a particular aesthetic. “Post-language.” “Avant-pop.” And that’s fine. But it’s possible to create bigger tents. Imagine a journal that publishes both realist and non-realist fiction. Now picture one that also publishes science writing. And fan-fiction. And writing by children…
There’s a reason why writers like to go to big cities: because that’s where other writers go. But even then, that doesn’t necessarily translate into functioning communities that encompass all of what community means. And while the internet has done a lot to allow writers to connect with one another (stellar!), that can lead to its own problems (see below), and doesn’t necessarily help create local, functioning communities.
Youth is fine, but what’s more important than youth is health. And the US seems to me to be a very unhealthy country. Obesity, heart disease, and cancer are widespread. People are sedentary. We don’t eat well. (Many of us still don’t have health care!) Our environment is a total wreck.
I’d prefer to remain young forever, but I’m getting older. (Mama, I can’t help it!) So I’ve been paying more attention to how I can stay healthy, because I’d like to remain writing (and fully active) well into my 80s, if not longer.
- Explore how writing is a physical activity. Writers often embody the above problems (pardon the pun), because of the nature of what we do (sit and write, then discuss it on the internet). And yet I rarely see small press writers discuss health, and its role in writing. Why not? Indeed, the cliché is often: “I bring my laptop to a café and get some coffee, and then I write.” (This means you’re dependent on a drug to write.) “And a few hours later, my eyes hurt from staring at a computer screen.” (This means you’re damaging your body.) …But who talks about this? Instead, discussion of writing is often a very heady matter, focusing exclusively on intellectual, abstract matters. But the body writes, too, and that should not be overlooked.
- Don’t dismiss the physical. Many intellectuals these days are sympathetic to the need to build communities, but still scoff at acknowledging the importance of the body, and the physical. (There persists that Enlightenment divide where the head is lofty and ideal, the body low and debased.) How many writers are proud to never have played sports? Or to know nothing whatsoever about sports? Where does that bias come from? I’m not talking about commercialized sports, but just sports. How many writers see no connection between what they do and physical exercise? To what extent does that even sound like a silly idea? And yet we live in a society that does not prize individual health. We’re encouraged to drive everywhere, to eat terrible foods, to watch TV, to consume massive amounts of fat and sugar and salt. To resist these pressures is to live in a counter-culture. (Our love of youth is a vicarious love.) I mentioned above that writers can reach out to other communities: what are the connections between writing and urban gardening, writing and proper diet, writing and fresh air, writing and turning the TV off? Some of these connections will be obvious, others more mysterious.
- Explore how writing connects with other physical activities. Here in Chicago, a lot of my friends are interested in connecting writing with yoga, massage, meditation, spirituality, walking, dance, other movement. (I’ll be writing more about the work we’ve been doing, eventually.) We’re convinced that there are very deep connections here, connections we’re still uncovering, and learning to think about. (I’ll confess that I often share the knee-jerk, intellectual bias against the body.)
I would like to make more money. I’d like to be able to sell my writing. And I want a job that I don’t detest, and that doesn’t make me too exhausted or bitter to then not be able to write. I want to be able to get health care if/when I get sick (there’s that health again). If I want to buy something reasonable, I want to be able to do that, too. And I’d like for my work to be available to others—so that if someone wants to buy it, or otherwise get it, they’ll be able to. Money is a means to all these ends.
But not the only means. And how much money would I like to have? An infinite amount? No, just enough. (Well, I like to think that.) …What I really want, I think, is to be supported: by myself, but also by my culture. This is a complicated issue, and harder, I think, to see solutions to than the other problems, because we’re so caught up in commercial capitalism. But writers could:
- Band together and lobby for increased arts support. It’s really sad how little our federal and state governments spend on the arts. Why is that the case? Are we really doing everything we could to change that?
- Help spread financial security. Some writers are better at business matters than others. (I personally know nothing about them, alas.) Teach a grant-writing workshop. Compile lists of grants and fellowships and scholarships, or help disseminate such info. Help other writers with their taxes. Help a press secure not-for-profit status. Design a website for a press or author you like. Do free graphic-layout/art-design consulting/work for a press our journal you like. (One of the things I admire about the Indy Media movement is how it encourages community members to share and exchange their skills. “I’ll teach a free workshop on how to build a computer.” “I’ll teach a free workshop on how to bake pies.” …Why not teach free writing workshops in such places in exchange for other skills?)
- Seek to support writers who are less well-off. (Here’s an inspiring example.) Could writers band together and help one another get health insurance? What about group applications for grants? What if writers incorporated and sought to get tax breaks and other business incentives?
- Seek to support anyone who’s less well off. How many of us volunteer in prisons? How many of us help organize literary events for children? For the disabled? For the elderly? What goes around comes around. (Notice how many of these issues are tangled up with one another.)
In all of these cases, imagination is the only real limit. Where lies the boundary of literary culture, and the literary life? Only wherever we choose to draw it.
These comments are offered in the spirit of a beginning, not a conclusion. I’ll be very happy to continue this conversation with anyone interested, working to refine and develop this—and to actually do these things!