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Alternative Values in Small-Press Culture

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:

  • Celebrity
  • Youth
  • Money

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.

Celebrity Community

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 Health

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.)

Money Support

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!

  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

71 thoughts on “Alternative Values in Small-Press Culture

  1. Fantastic post. I might add for the “youth” thing that it might not be a bad idea if some of the younger type venues went out of the way to invite older writers to contribute to what they are doing. I’m 39 and I just asked another writer who is 66 to do a project with me.

    Some of the “line about a line” posts here I noticed were by people not all that young, which of course is great.

  2. Now we’re talking! Although, I’d still say that your argument is weakened when in one breath you say, “And I can’t claim to know what most presses and authors are ‘really’ doing!” and in the other say, that the three values that dominate US culture, namely, celebrity, youth, and money (I’d include violence, beauty, hate, and power), “often remain dominant in small-press culture.” I think it’s a gross mischaracterizing of the so-called small press.

    1. That’s fair, John. I should clarify that when I say “remain dominant,” I’m trying to invoke Jakobson’s notion of the dominant, which I’m so wont to do. And while that’s clear in my mind, no doubt it doesn’t come across on paper; sorry. Something can be dominant without it being all there is, or meaning that everyone subscribes to it—I wouldn’t want to claim that, not at all. But the pressures to subscribe to these things are, I think, very real, very tempting. (And I agree that violence, beauty, hate, and power are also very real temptations.)

      Ultimately, I’m less interested in mounting a convincing argument that these things are dominant, and more interested in discussing alternatives. I’ll leave it for others do decide whether said values dominate what’s done, or part of what’s done, etc., wherever and whenever—as well as whether they should. (I really do mean it when I say I’m not necessarily even opposed to these values. There’s nothing inherently wrong with valorizing celebrity, youth, and money.)

      As for what small presses are “really doing”—the field is just so big! We always oversimplify when we generalize (and yet we must generalize at time, no?). And it’s of course very possible for a person or press to resist one dominant temptation, then lapse in another case. One can be a feminist and also be a racist; real life is like that, always such a mixture of things. (This is why I so dislike the typical “liberal/conservative” divide: you just can’t split the culture so evenly.)

      1. Thanks, Adam. The reason I criticize this aspect of your argument is that many people who might otherwise be sympathetic to your suggestions for improvement and ways to build community and support might be turned off by what still seems to me, Jakobson’s notion of the dominant notwithstanding, far to simplistic an assessment of what many independent presses are in fact doing. You’re offering alternatives to many people who, and presses that, are already practicing many of these alternatives. This is, of course, an idea that’s ironically threaded throughout your suggestions. I wish you would foreground, rather than weave it in your suggestions, what the independent presses have been doing, and how it has offered alternatives to the mainstream publishing conglomerates.

        1. Sure. I think you probably know more about that than I do, though! I’m not involved with any small presses or journals at the moment, so most of what I know about them is what I see on the bookshelves—my own shortcoming. I’d love to hear more about alternative things that writers and presses and journals are doing, myself.

          Certainly I imagine a lot of these things have been thought of before, and are being enacted already. Hell, I stole most of these ideas from Curt White, Jim Munroe, Kill Rock Stars, and myriad others. I don’t intend to pretend otherwise.

          One never really thinks of anything…

  3. YES YES YES. I feel inspired. Sometimes it’s as if we have all these feelings and could never quite express them. And it’s true, I tend to go into negatives (why don’t people read, etc) and I tend to dismiss people who don’t read/write/understand. We all say we want to reach a wide audience, that we want to write outside the box, and then we stay in our cafes, typing away, very much in a box….

    @Johnmadera Well, you can’t fault the man for missing a few things. Otherwise he’d be talking for ‘pages’ on end…

    @brendenconnell I agree! Yes, I’m young myself, but I still recognize that the world is built on the achievements of the youth, on trying to publish a book as early as you can, be successful as early as you can, do everything before you turn 30,40,50 because then you become irrelevant–and that needs to change. We’ve got a lot to learn from older writers, and not just because they’re ‘old and wise’ or ‘sagelike’ but because they’re good writers.

    1. Hi Susana,

      Adam has no trouble developing his ideas for pages on end. And believe me, I always appreciate it. So I’d love to see him develop his criticism of “small-press culture” in a way that doesn’t simplify the vast diversity of approaches out there.

      Adam is not simply articulating his feelings, he’s making an argument. And for me, an argument must have evidence before it can be convincing. Adam writes:
      “So here are those three values that I argue dominate US culture, and that are then often remain dominant in small-press culture: Celebrity; Youth; Money.”

      That’s it? Okay, I’ll offer a counter-argument: So here are those three values that I argue dominate US culture, and that are then often remain dominant in “small-press culture”: _______; _______; _______. Now let me offer you solutions to these problems. See how that works?

      This is not to say that Adam’s suggestions for ways to build community and support, and to address health issues are off. They’re great, and many of them, as he indicates, are already being practiced and also need more direct action to be realized in more significant ways.

      Oh, and if you think that’s nitpicking, I haven’t asked why Adam has hyphenated small press, or why he privileges “small’ press over “independent” press. To me, it may be important in this discussion to distinguish the two terms and also find where they overlap and intersect.

      1. ha! well, nitpicking is necessary at times. It helps us refine our own arguments, so that we can better present ourselves to the world. Besides, doesn’t it add to the sense of community, all of us writers helping each other out? As long as it’s all in good spirit.

        And yes, Adam, why “small” over “independent” presses? Anything to say about John’s “violence, beauty, hate, and power”? Can we hope for a Part 2 and does begging help aid such a request?

        1. Hi Susana,

          I wrote “small presses” without really thinking. The thought of writing “independent presses” didn’t even cross my mind. I was just generalizing; apologies. Though certainly someone could make a distinction between small and independent presses, I suppose. I’m afraid I wouldn’t know where to start, though.

          John’s right that violence is a real problem in the US; he and I have agreed about that since the start. I shudder at how violent some aspects of our culture are. The problem here, I think, is that the debate often focuses around violence in media, which is a distraction from the real problem: ACTUAL VIOLENCE, like the kind routinely doled out by our military and police forces. But that’s another discussion entirely…

          Thanks for the nitpicks! I never mind them. I award each of you one copy of this.


      2. Those are all very fair criticisms, John. I don’t think I’m presenting the most coherent critique of small presses, or independent presses, etc. And I can say I’m not really interested in doing that, but that doesn’t excuse my painting with a very wide brush in this regard.

        So apologies if you took my criticisms to heart, or if I’ve offended anyone in the scene. One of the things I like about you, John, and what you do, is that you’re a pretty staunch defender of the small press scene, and what’s out there. I’m probably more inclined than you to view it all more negatively, not because it deserves it, but because I tend to be more of a contrarian.

        Probably between us we come out even. And meanwhile, I think we’re both very happy that people are out there, doing things. Making stuff. I never mean to put anyone down.

        In any case, here’s another way of saying what I’m up to: probably most of us here have felt dismay at the things I’m reacting to: feeling that small presses out there (one or more) are replicating structures, and prioritizing values, from the larger culture that we don’t necessarily like. That may be a fair impression, or it may be a shallow over-generalization. Regardless, what I want to do is channel that impression into something positive and alternative, rather than developing the criticism (which may even be unwarranted).

        Is that possible? I hope so.

        1. Oh, I feel what you’re saying. And I, too, have felt some dismay at those writers in the small/independent press world who are arrogant, hurtful, stingy, self-serving, backbiting, who are motivated solely, seemingly, by fame, sex, and money, who care more about their self-reflexive scene and could care less about building sustainable communities. And yes, I agree that there are “small presses out there (one or more)…replicating structures, and prioritizing values, from the larger culture that we don’t necessarily like.” But I think they’re in the minority. And more and more, as with those aspects of mainstream culture I dislike, I am shutting off their noise.

  4. This was fantastic, A.D. — really brimming with ideas for action, not just the rhetoric thereof. We need more of this. A couple of things: on your great point about needing to build a culture in which reading is supported too, in which the ideas behind books and ways to read are taught, I think it’s also important to tear down the angst over jargon as well. Jargon is not a frivolous thing: it’s a type of style. But it’s actually more like shorthand than a particular aesthetic. Weirdly, academic theory – and, in this, it follows from philosophy, both analytical and continental – requires one to think into the ideas that rest behind almost every word. This is exactly what makes philosophy so replete but obviously it overwhelms any reader who is seized with a sudden enthusiasm only to be mired by the language and feel either too dense to understand the work or, alternatively, too smart to fall for what they arrogantly come to see as its meaninglessness. One thing dense work takes is time and patience but also a sense of interiorization – and I really think that this too needs to be made understood by general readers. Asimov’s pride at being able to explain relativity in 5 minutes is only half th story, then, because it makes everyone think they’re an expert in 5 minutes. Rather, the point from there is to use that first plank to encourage and entice people with the confidence to reconstruct the whole floor.

    On health, to me, one of the most amazing (and yet I think overlooked, because not explicitly stated) points was David Foster Wallace’s insistence in his famous commencement speech that the point of doing art, or liking it, is to cope with torture. The torture of being alive in a world, let alone a world like this one. “This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” Adjustment, for Wallace, is not about adaptation to torture, I don’t think, which is part and parcel of the torture, but adjustment to understanding torture as torture and to look toward the ethic that tells you not only you but everyone else deserves better than this. Look at the rise of mental illness.The pharmacologization and psychologization of this in terms of treatment entail a perfect refusal of a broad social critical element, of thinking unhappiness at work, say, is also misery with the workplace, that loneliness is attached to the deracination of social investments, that body trauma is attached directly to the cultural distension of our entirely unchosen but selected for us consumer rights. The only thing that really offers resources to deal with any of this are the humanities and the arts. That’s it. Nothing else does, or cares to. That includes the law.

    Lastly, on money, I think this – more than anything else – is where a type of political commitment among artists is demanded. Of course, the real integrity of that commitment would be that the artists committed to help other writers – say, seeking health insurance for all – would look to provide those benefits even to those who opposed them on political grounds, because they’re committed to the universality of the principle. But it really demands that artists – and writers especially – move into a mode where they understand that just wanting to write is a matter of privilege and luck without organizations of support to shore up the conditions when both of those things run out. And in a culture that looks to disinvest in the arts almost constantly, that end will come. If you want this system to leave you alone, you need to fight the war for the unproductive space.

    Thanks again, A.D. This post really inspired and fired me up. I’m going to really think over its ideas and what more I can do.

    1. Hi David,

      Thanks for replying so fully!

      I agree with you about jargon: it is often very necessary, and should be useful. But it’s also important to be able to discuss things on a variety of levels, depending upon one’s audience, and to try to make things approachable for people who don’t have the same training that we’ve probably had. Elsewhere in this thread Greg wrote about how people want to be involved. I agree, and the more I teach, the more I understand the importance of not overwhelming people initially, but working instead to help guide them toward what I love.

      (And, yes, understanding something in 5 minutes is only the beginning of something—something they hopefully want to pursue further.)

      I find it very humbling to remember that everything I now understand, and cherish, I once didn’t understand, or even know about. It’s easy to sometimes forget this; I forget it all the time: “What? You haven’t read Pynchon? Tsk-tsk!” …Well, when did I read the man’s work? And how long did it take me to understand it? And do I even understand it now? I was just talking about Gravity’s Rainbow with a few different friends, and I remembered that I haven’t read it in seven years. So I doubt I could speak about it all that knowledgeably, really. I could learn a lot from someone who’s reading it for the first time right now.

      Meanwhile, I haven’t experienced a lot of what other people consider important. A massage therapist, for instance, might consider me very foolish. I’d rather she didn’t, but seek instead to guide me to what for her are basic principles.

      Regarding your other comments, it’s a real pleasure to meet someone who will argue for the essential value of the humanities and the arts! This is a struggle we’re all stuck in, whether we like it or not, because too many people in our society want to eliminate what we do. It’s very sad. Curt White has written very movingly about it, in The Middle Mind and elsewhere. (See, for instance, his writing about how colleges and universities are systematically eliminating tenure, and transforming English departments into “service” departments where all that’s taught—and mostly by adjuncts—is comp/rhet, tech writing, and ESL. There are a lot of business-minded deans and provosts who don’t understand why, say, studying literature brings the university or the culture any value!) …Curt really opened my eyes to how so much of what I love in culture requires constant defense.


  5. just a quick thought: if somebody were to start two databases (I don’t know how or where you’d do this, but it’s a wiki thing, right?) — on reading series and on indie bookshops — and let the rest of us know, I bet we could easily contribute to it w/ info from our own regions.

    1. Great idea. I would be that somebody if I was more web-savvy. I guess we need something that everyone has access to. Broken down by state.

      Some bookshops:

      Woodland Pattern – Milwaukee, WI

      Quimby’s, Book Cellar – Chicago, IL

      Tsunami Books – Eugene, OR

      Wandering Goat Cafe (not a bookstore, good for readings, they are very open, email them) – Eugene, OR

      Dog-Eared Books – SF, CA

      Talking Leaves – Buffalo, NY

      Rust Belt Books (used) – Buffalo, NY

      Freebird Books – Brooklyn, NY

      Unnameable Books – Brooklyn, NY

      Most of these stores have readings and/or series

    2. So, here is a link to Book Your Own Fucking Life as an example of what I’m talking about: http://byofl.org/

      It’s similar to Duotrope in that it’s a maintained, filterable database. Only, obviously instead of bands and music promoters/venues , it’d be writers and reading series MCs/bookstores (and obviously some crossover with bars/coffeeshops/etc. that might serve as a venue for readings on occasion.

      1. Thanks, guys. Greg, Eugene, all, I updated the small-press friendly bookstores page at the Indy Wiki Thingie:


        And we can keep that going.

        Let’s face it, a lot of small presses have no distribution—they want to get their books out there, but they often don’t know how, or can’t afford SPD, or just don’t have the time. It would be a real boon for everyone to have a list presses and writers could turn to so they could know whom they could approach, etc.

        1. Of course Powell’s. Kevin S. and company have a treasure trove of small press materials, from books to journals. I’ve not seen anything else to rival it. All the people we know and love? in one place, the books on top of each other. Old (and new) Unsaids, old Caketrains. Great.

  6. Great post, Adam. Lots of good ideas that would be well worth pursuing.

    A couple of minor qualifications. From the UK, I start to get nervous when people talk about “community”. Over here it is Conservative party shorthand for reducing government spending on the poor and sick and young and old, and saying the financial burden should fall more on charities, families, “the community”. So community per se is not necessarily a good.

    And on health, while it is true that we live in a culture of increasing obesity and inertia, simply encouraging people to take more time to exercise is not enough. The main reasons why people eat too much, eat the wrong foods, and do not take exercise are: lack of time, lack of money, stress and unhappiness. So rather than encouraging people to pay attention to exercise and diet, what we also need to do is encourage more happiness and less stress, and find ways around the lack of time and money.

    Incidentally, while I find the science fiction community (there’s that word again) far from an ideal place, some of the things you propose are actually practiced there. When my first book was published (well past my 50th birthday, and from a small press), I found myself invited to give a reading (of non-fiction, no less) at the World Science Fiction Convention with younger and more famous writers, and in front of a large and very appreciative audience. Within the sf community there has always (to my knowledge) been a willingness to pay as much attention to young writers alongside old writers, Grand Old Men alongside the less famous, those published by major publishers alongside those published by small presses. And that openness has been very healthy for the genre.

    1. Community is one of those words we need to take back!

      You’re right, Paul, about how sci-fi often respects its elders. (I wonder why that is?) (Of course, it’s often respecting Grand Old Men, as you note. But it’s a heartening thing to see.)

      And yes, you’re right that health involves a lot more than simply exercising, including stress and overall happiness. These things are all rolled up together. I’d like to write much more about such links…and to read anything already written about it, if anyone out there can suggest such things. I’d really appreciate it.

  7. This post is so wonderful for so many reasons. Thank you. I think part and parcel of all three of these points is our unwillingness to expose what we do to more people. I know I’m guilty of it… How many times have I said to a co-worker or friend, “oh, it’s not anything you’ve heard of,” or, “it’s not anything you’d want to read.” But why not? Musicians drag everyone and their mother to their shows. So why not writers? I know when I have shown people my work, other indie work, books, etc, I’ve made some surprising converts and seen some really amazing reactions. And it makes me crazy when we scoff at Dan Brown readers–when in reality, these people are more likely to be part of our community, to support and read us, than the vast majority of people who never read in this country.

    I also really appreciate your mentioning arts funding, and how we have to get more involved and be willing to fight for it. We can hardly lament the fact that the NEA doesn’t fund more experimental writing when so many of those who practice it proudly proclaim their total independence from and often utter disdain for politics. It’s just the most obvious disconnect, and yet so many writers fail to see that. And it’s where community comes in, too; if we do more to include, reach out, build communities, what we do will mean so much more to many more people–to communities, who are empowered to take action and have an impact, whether it’s creating a mentoring program for neighborhood kids, or securing funding for a favorite author’s project.

    Anyway, thanks. There’s so much to think about here.

    1. Good point on the Dan Brown readers.

      AD’s suggestion to invite non-writers to readings – this I have done time and again. To reiterate – it works.

      This may sound simplistic and obvious, but don’t those things turn out to be true: people (no matter writers or non) want to be involved (if they can) they want to be invited to things (who doesn’t?). It’s an extraordinary human gesture. “I want to invite you to this event.” – And it is an event, people talk to one another before and after, and often people go out after a reading, to eat or drink. It’s a social occasion.

      When I was in Portland, OR last year on a reading tour I found a craigslist ride back to Eugene and on the way I told my driver about what I was doing, invited her and she showed up with her ex-husband who talked with me for a while after the reading about music. A great time. Many people want to be involved. Posting notices about readings at food co-ops, anything. In libraries and other book stores. Having drinks, putting out a donation jar. If the book store allows it (Rust Belt in Buffalo does) bring food, feed people. It seems people want to be entertained – then entertain. We’ve had a few events recently in Brooklyn where we had conversations with the writers after and did so without a moderator. I think they went fine. Getting away from the haughty, academic type reading is the key. Many writers have musician friends. Invite them to play before or after or during the reading. The sky is really the limit. Grass roots, grass roots.

      1. I agree that those recent readings in Brooklyn went well. Not having a moderator however led to some uncomfortable lags that I’m certain writers and non-writers alike had difficulty responding to.

        It also doesn’t help when writers don’t know how to use a microphone.

        Fixing these aspects would go a long way toward making readings not only bearable, but engaging and entertaining.

        1. “Getting away from the haughty, academic type reading is the key.”

          Totally, Greg. I’m a writer (kind of), and even I’m profoundly uncomfortable at those kinds of readings. Making it fun and inviting, not exclusive, is what it’s all about. Making people say, “I want to be part of that!”

  8. Excellent post, AD. I was briefly talking with Peter Cole at AWP this year about this exact thing, community building within small/independent press publishers and writers, and the exposing of said community to a larger audience. I see this essay as the first step in that direction. Said a lot of things that I been meaning to say and in a more lucid way than I could have put them. Much appreciated.

  9. Great post, Adam. I really like your ideas here and the alternative approaches you’ve suggested that are at once idealistic and pragmatic. That’s a very important combination in indie publishing.

    And speaking of community, Dave Housley and I are trying to create a database of resources for indie publishers called the Indie Publishing Wiki. This project is in its early stages but great folks have contributed knowledge and it’s a wiki so anyone can just jump in. I would love to see more people sharing what they know and making the community stronger. You can find the database at: http://indiepublishingwiki.com/

  10. kind of weird–but if you look at microcosm publishing or some other zine places, it seems these are things they are already addressing based on their books & zines alone.

    what’s the divide in that sense, b/w zines and “small press/independent press?”
    art? ‘quality?’ ideology? different communities?

  11. I also want to say that I appreciate the ideas here but I also think that as we talk about community, we also need to talk about some of the things that get in the way of attempts to create community. I say this with a great deal of respect for everyone in Indie Publishing but as a community, I find that we often have great ideas but less ability to follow through. People don’t respond to e-mails or do the things they say they’re going to do or communicate openly about whether or not they will ever get anything done. It’s often about ideas without commitment to those ideas and I think we need to include this in the conversation about how indie or alternative publishing can grow. On the whole, I think the indie publishing community would be stronger if people would be more realistic about what they can accomplish and more reliable when they do commit to something. I’m personally tired of hearing about how busy people are and how they have jobs and blah blah blah. We are all busy so maybe one thing we need to think about is how to be better accountable to each other.

    1. Roxanne, isn’t this the way it is everywhere though?

      Big publishers don’t respond any more professionally (from my experience) than small ones. And the same goes for every form of business. There are flakey people everywhere. To be honest, the chances of an indie press getting back to you on something are much much higher than institutions/businesses etc. in other parts of the arts.

      1. Brendan, definitely but I guess we’re not talking about big publishing so much here so I didn’t mention it and I’m not of the mind that two wrongs make a right.

        1. Agreed. Flakey people everywhere is not an excuse for flakiness in the indie community. I’d argue, if anything, editors/publishers/writers/artists/booksellers/critics in the underground owe it to each other to be more responsible, respectful and accountable. Such behavior would lift up everyone.

          1. Hey, I’m not against it. Generally speaking, I have found a direct correlation between people who answer emails quickly and people who succeed in whatever business they are doing.

            1. I’m with you, Brendan. I know if I don’t answer email as soon as possible every single day, it will get buried among the ever-incoming masses.

              I think Roxane’s speaking about a larger issue, too, though (or so I’m guessing). I’ve heard that some small presses — and I realize it’s tough when it’s a one- or two-person operation and everyone has day jobs and/or families and/or their own writing and other responsibilities — but I’ve heard about people not filling book orders for weeks on end, which gives the scene a bad rep. It’s easy to see this kind of “customer service” leading readers to only buying from Amazon or B&N (in which case writers barely get a cent) or giving up on indie presses altogether (if distribution is limited & consumers can’t find titles in the most convenient bookshop).

              This is obviously just one topic of many, but I think the takeaway is let’s all be responsible to our readers and supportive of each other in whatever ways we can, no?

              1. Weeks on end? One publisher I know doesn’t fill book orders sometimes until six months later. I know people who are begging him to take their money. At the same time the guy is six months late paying me. Weeks doesn’t seem bad at all.

              1. I am not saying it is always the case! And also, I am more speaking of publishing houses than individuals.

  12. thanks for the post AD. i once had the idea that small presses should organize volunteers who get shipped books that they would then work to get placed in their local bookstores–a volunteer (consignment) sales force. other than warm glow-y feeling, payment could be in free copies of books. think that would work?
    and if someone wants to start a database or add this to the http://indiepublishingwiki.com, here’re my cobbled together list of bookstores (many now sadly defunct)… it would be great to have a grand database with not only venues but also small press reviewers (volunteering their info) tagged with interests:


    1. That spreadsheet is awesome, Eugene! Thanks! And a wiki format seems like a pretty good approach, partly as a way to combat info going out of date.

      I’d be happy to be part of a volunteer distribution force like you describe.

  13. Do any of the former musicians here remember Book Your Own Fucking Life? I immediately thought of that when AD was discussing community-building and a database to facilitate booking reading tours and promoting.

    What would it take to create something like that for bookstores/reading venues?

    1. I think it would take everyone w/ some knowledge to contribute to and expand the wiki thing Roxane has started. She posted the link in one of the comments above. Last I checked, though, there wasn’t much info there.

      1. Well, what I’m thinking of isn’t exactly what Roxane is doing, though Roxane’s wiki site is/will be most definitely valuable once more people actually start submitting info.

        BYOFL is more akin to a Duotrope of sorts, a filterable database, kind of what you’re talking about up there, actually. So, I’m going to go up there and contribute to that thread.

    2. I think it would take everyone w/ some knowledge to contribute to and expand the wiki thing Roxane has started. She posted the link in one of the comments above.

      1. I know about intentional communities Adam. They are a little more intense because you are directly living with people.

        I’m not joking when I talk about writers and poets banding together, creating a place (of course it would take money) where writing is nurtured, health of course, working in a garden, yoga, preparing meals together, a retreat of sorts. In the mountains? In the foothills?

        1. Some friends and I have been talking about such things for a while. It takes a lot of courage to actually do it.

          When I was younger (like in high school), I wanted desperately for there to be some kind of 24-hour library/performance space/coffee shop: someplace I could go at night and read and maybe hear some music poetry etc. and drink coffee. Such places didn’t exist in my neck of the woods then; now Scranton has some coffeeshops with later hours, like Northern Light. Which doesn’t really have performances or a library, but is a nice coffee shop. If I still lived in Scranton I’d be there all the time.

          Along these lines, I’ve occasionally thought that I’d like to run a bakery/coffeehouse that focused heavily on literature and performance, also included a library. It would be in the downtown of some nice medium-sized city with train access to a larger city. …Well, it’s a pleasant dream. My dad’s in the food industry, though, and I know a bit about what I’d be getting into, which makes me shy away…

          A very dear friend of mine, the poet and walking artist and sculptor and massage therapist and yoga instructor Michelle Tupko, has been talking for a long time about creating a space more like the one you describe: something located more in nature, where people could do yoga and massage and meditate and go for long walks and grow their own food and follow their art practices. She’s talked about maybe trying it in Northern California.

          These kinds of efforts are important. A lot of us want to live differently. What holds us back?

          1. Thanks for this amazing post, I’ve followed it with lots of interest. Things *are* starting to rumble and starting to happen.

            Now that the “get good money from universities” route is so limited, maybe the community-making task is free floating again. Maybe this is good and exciting, maybe we can make it new?

            anyhow wanted to mention groups doing things in line with your ideas: http://nextobjectivists.blogspot.com/ (reading a lot and exploring community writing, “poetry exists outside a myself”)


            the pan dulces group is planning a writing retreat-into-the-city for later this year… a house should be next years plan!

            1. Thanks for those links, Denise. I like your idea of turning the university/economic-downturn into an opportunity. It’s easy to forget that it can be, and just get depressed!

              I’ve been meaning to make it to one of the Pan Dulces Workshops. I’ll redouble my efforts. When is the next one?


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