For Feeling Bookish Podcast: Why I created the literary journal Socrates on the Beach — Small Press vs. Large Press
NOTE: This was meant to be heard aloud and not read — it is here because of technical issues.
The bend in the river in the present day state of the written word, between the large presses and the small presses has never been so pronounced as now. Of course, there are exceptions, and vaunted older writers (DeLillo, et al) who will continue publishing because of name recognition, but I’m also seeing something diabolical. On the whole, large presses are publishing things that can’t be called literature or even aspire to be dubbed such. The amount of celebrity and political memoirs has grown like a hulking sack of horse manure, along with a plethora of “information” books — how to do this, how to get this, how to be a good person (the last is also the lightning rod for the fiction aesthetic of large presses — sensitivity readers be damned, goddamned). So How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie is the key work of the genre — and for the large presses, the key work for all genres.
Information is the central reason the internet exists. If people want information they go to the internet. Information is not literature, though. Literature is really about the psychological spaces and states that have often been uncharted. I’m reminded of a stealthy sentence in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady delivered by one of the villains, Madame Merle: “It’s not information I want, at bottom it’s sympathy.” I think this is the hidden charge behind all the statistics, that more dressed up word for information — that is, who viewed me, who liked me and the endless tracking, the scrolling. So even if people say they want information — no, mainly it’s something else (the Jamesian conundrum). And I wouldn’t call this “sympathy” happiness. Joseph McElroy said something wise: “I’ve learned that interestedness is more important than happiness.” More and more in consumer culture people want their egos stroked, but great literature won’t do that; it will challenge you and your assumptions, as it should.
So we cut a wide swath of books out this way. Now we are left with business realities. No Cormac McCarthy novel before All the Pretty Horses sold over 5000 hardback copies — that’s five books in 25 years. My sources tell me no large press is going to take a novel or collection unless they think — the operative word — think that it will sell 10–15,000 copies. So one sees the disconnect here. There’s no midlist, there’s no nothing. The generation of the Franzen, Chabon, and Junot Diaz is the last one that is going to be grandfathered in under the old system. Everyone born after 1970 is doomed. Joshua Cohen, the best novelist of his generation many say, is now back on a small press with his latest book. It’s over. Fair enough. But why is it over? The latest of many things wrong is the supermodel “essayist” (not my word) — I won’t go into the name, people will know who I’m talking about. Her claim to fame is being in a music video and taking selfies, which media rags dissect like each one is a new Shroud of Turin. The New Yorker calls her “perfect-looking.” Speak for yourself, please. There’s a certain look that can carry a brutality, an ugliness, the scar of too many compliments from men who are dolts — I’m sorry, but I’m not. The inordinate amount of press for this book — which takes away press from the McElroys, the Mark de Silvas, the Christine Schutts, the Susan Daitchs — is despicable. Obviously, people aren’t going to live in her sentences. She has no relation to the sentence — something that all those other writers do — and I did look at the sentences, blogspeak. It is information, gossip — but of a most meaningless sort. She is an image, a projection — and the question of people projecting onto her isn’t interesting to me, because this is a problem for elites. The New Yorker and The New York Times are still the main channels of too often useless cultural propaganda, that which fuels the hypocrisy. I’m Heraclitian (everything is connected). The elites are concerned about a supermodel who get projected on, which bleeds down and suddenly overworked people, who have time for little else, are as well, because it’s the headline in The Daily News, while meanwhile one-hundred people sleep in Herald Square every night at those little tables, they sleep sitting on the chair, hundreds sleep in the Staten Island Ferry terminal — you can see where my sympathy lies. And all these celebrities with their social causes — and Obama’s birthday on Martha’s Vineyard — forget it, fuck you.
Okay, fine. So the Schutts, Lutzs, the António Lobo Antuneses, and the Jen Craigs have to put up with this. So, the “I have to sell 15,000 copies” is completely unreal. Cormac, in a hotbed of literary activity couldn’t sell 3000 Child of Gods and he had a three-page spread in The New Yorker on that specific book. Nonetheless, there is still an international community of like-minded people and they are writers, academics, readers, translators, artists, people who work at The Paris Review or The New Criterion, who are the keepers of the flame along with the small presses and journals that are willing to take a chance — I’m calling out Daniel Davis Wood’s Splice in Britain, which is publishing de Silva’s The Logos, an 1100-page book — that is taking a chance for a press as small as them, but Daniel believes in literature, he’s worked with serious artists, with Genese Grill, Gabriel Blackwell, and Anna McDonald. So we have the keepers of the flame — the people who know literature is not about story (information) or only about it…and those words of Emerson have been in my head these last few years, about how he read (and how so many involved in large presses don’t read):
I read Proclus, and sometimes Plato, as I might read a dictionary, for a mechanical help to the fancy and the imagination. I read for the lustres, as if one should use a fine picture in a chromatic experiment, for its rich colors. ’Tis not Proclus, but a piece of nature and fate that I explore. It is a greater joy to see the author’s author, than himself.