A bare decade ago, in 1988, the editors of “The Review of Contemporary American Literature” asked me and 20 other critics why we believed literary criticism was a moot point to mainstream America. Specifically, we were asked, why were newspapers and readers turning their heads from a particular kind of original literature? The sense had been upon us for at least 10 years, of course, that the tide of ideas had been washing out for a long time, and that this was good neither for a book’s shape and narrative possibility nor the potential for a brave content.
Further, we knew that review space was diminishing in proportion to the attention spans of the great numbers of readers who together determine mainstream literary activity. Some of us, proudly sectarian, even insinuated that our own critical agendas were the best lifejackets around to wear in the face of such a disaster. We chastised. We fussed. We complained.
But our gloomy cockalorum response was neither new nor news, and nor was our choired begging for genuinely good writing. We complained that the mainstream review media wasn’t giving us enough space, time or encouragement to approach the task, and that we were too short-handed to do it well. We left these and a great many other dead birds at others’ feet.
Ten years later, in 1998, the literary industrial complex is as market-focused as before (and why not? – it’s a business after all, and not mine, not ours), but it suffers even more from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune: conglomeratization.
As one house swallows up another, there are fewer publishers, which means even fewer acquisition and line editors who might otherwise, and to good effect, advocate their wistfully individual tastes via the books they would have helped put into circulation. The workforce of book-publishing professionals in New York, who are largely editors, in the 1990s has declined by 16 percent, to 2,714 from 3,218, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Consider the spectacular media buys of recent years: European behemoth Bertelsmann in 1998 purchased U.S. behemoth Random House, which previously had gobbled up a publishing-house aggregate that includes Knopf and Pantheon. Bertelsman also bought Doubleday Bantam Dell, which had been merged in recent years. Paramount, the movie company, acquired Simon & Schuster, which, for a few months in the mid-1990s, dropped its former name due to the weight, perhaps, of being a studio subsidiary. What formerly was known as a book publisher is now Simon & Schuster the media subsidiary. Time Inc. technically acquired Warner, but the movie company emerged more dominant in the media company called Time Warner. Britain’s Penguin overtook Viking, Dutton and New American Library. Robert Maxwell acquired and made Macmillan a British firm. General Cinema grabbed Harcourt. TV has a piece of every action, and vice versa.
Consider the effects: Book publishers increasingly have shifted their identities into that of media companies. Their books, to an increasing extent, are replicated products, tangential synergies that later do better commercially as movies, music productions, sagas, spin-offs and, alas, more products. The smaller but in many ways more critically substantial houses of W.W. Norton and Farrar Straus Giroux, which itself is the result of a merger, still survive as medium-sized independent entities and therefore seem to publish against the grain. FSG seems likely as the next to go, as industry costs further thin the fish that provide the possibilities that readers can draw from the sea.
Print commercialware – tell-all books, cookbooks, timely memoirs and point-of-purchase recipes for happy living – of course most commands the public’s consciousness. These timely junk products are easiest to market, they sell more quickly and the industry has been racing to meet demand for more: In 1950, just over 11,000 new hardcover titles were published; the figure, according to Publishers Weekly, in 1990 had reached 46,743 new titles. By 1997, the figure teeters at 49,000 new titles a year. The critical consensus, as well as that of many industry insiders, is that this mass of felled trees are unskillfully (i.e., mass-) marketed, poorly edited and concocted more than thoughtfully imagined and, to most readers, that apparently is just fine.
But the book-distribution system, in a nation of 240 million consumers but far fewer readers, is buckling under the economic strain: Fully 35 percent of all books sent to bookstores today are sent back to warehouses as “returns,” according to the Book Industry Study Group. The shelf life of books is “somewhere between radicchio and active yogurt culture,” said Jean M. Srnecz, a vice president of merchandising for Baker & Taylor and a contributor to the report. The print industry is determined not to cut its losses: It continues to dole out million-dollar contracts for celebrity books and, as a result, has cut the number of “mid-list” literary titles (books selling fewer than 5,000 or 10,000 copies) to pay for the unsold”returns” of the so-called blockbusters.
Against and in spite of this scenario, is the samizdat tradition of self- and desktop publishing, cooperative publishing, open mics, Web zines, one-shots, mail art, graffiti, and language written and spent on the fly. This entrepreneurial spirit is as undaunted by the mainstream culture and its distribution systems as it is spurred by official literary culture’s economic brinkmanship. The outsider or extra-literary activity – an example of which you are reading now – is in one way very much like water: It finds its level, it makes its way. Neither the good nor bad can be drowned out.
This extra-literary activity can be be found everywhere – in graphic arts, within literary table talk (the official authorial interview, which is so much part of the personality of so many print literary journals), and even in journalism where reporters have the power and audience to sculpt the public’s view of the unread dead, as we’ve recently seen in the aftermaths of Michael Dorris and Jane Kenyon. More extra-literary examples may be found in the publications of specialty presses, in the work of rubber-stamp artists, on art gallery walls and, of course, on the Web. Hypertext literary projects such as Pif, george jr., Storyspace, Grammatron, The Electronic Labyrinth and many personal home pages plumb the verbo-visual possibilities.
As the former editor/publisher/stamp licker of “Cumberland Journal” and “X: A Journal of the Arts,” both print magazines, I once was one of those small-press publishers and independent cooperatives that together account for most of the 40,000 different publishers operating in the United States. These lone-ranger publishers, as well as their authors, are cared for, more or less, by one-shots, academic journals, “zines,” limited- edition review sources and organizations that do their best to give the voiceless a “buzz.” Their number is large but their mass is small: Many of these independent print presses release fewer than four titles a year. Rarely do any of them publish work that finds critical attention in the mainstream, and rarely is any of their titles afforded mainstream distribution. You and I simply can’t find their work.
Other writers and artists (for the landscape consists of art-makers of all sorts) working and writing outside the tradition persevere, many of them releasing language-based but still uncommercial work that is fascinating but commercially unfeasible, given the marketplace of commerce – but not in the marketplace of ideas. They and their ideas abide precariously but demonstrably on the Web.
The Web is democratic, idiosyncratic, niche-driven and mostly free. Its online literary distribution system – peddling free poetry, fiction and comment – stabs at the heart of traditional capital-first tendencies. As often as not, the specific writings are there because distribution makes their existence possible. These writings are not primarily there, at least not in 1998, to sell products or ad space, as contributions were meant to do from the start of any print magazine.
The Web’s wild and woolly approach to publishing is good, of course, for the free expression of ideas and even, but less importantly, for expression for its own sake. But Web writing is not always reliably expert or even respectful toward grammar (and with facts, the Web can be as fallible as print). My secondary worry is that designers with no visible talent with words often seem to be in charge of Web publications, which, as one result, publish work that is less than it seems. I’ll explain: Many identify/link their contents mercurially, i.e., “Shadow,” “at 3 a.m.” and “Lust” when many of these scraps of prose more accurately might be described as “a late-night musing at the moment ready for hypertext coding and page design,” but who would click that?
Nevertheless, the classics of literature are available on the Web, more interesting work is finding its first airing on the Web, and the battle to transform a browser with seconds of clickable time into a reader devoted to minutes and even hours of reading is lively.
Many Web publications (Smug and Fray, for two well-known examples) offer work that is written within the natural linguistic extension of the Web’s distribution system: first as hypertext. Other sites publish more sustained and printlike narratives, such as one finds in that one finds in Salon, suck, Pif and george jr. These zines are primarily content- and page-based, insistent in their editors’ beliefs that narrative must be informed, useful, thoughtfully presented to be read, and be well-written. Between the two approaches is the real Web promise. Match Smug’s technical vituosity with Alex Massie’s exquisitely human voice found at anthology.net, for example, and you’d have a site to read as well as admire in source code.
My own site, george jr., is intended more as a praise song for ideas than one for computer-based communication. Neither is it a heave of rocks at print, which I adore. Such appraisals and rebuttals have been written elsewhere and well, mostly notably in Sven Birkerts’ “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age,” which warns that digitized text is the start of the end of the printed book. His book is written so winsomely that, I too, at first felt nostalgia and loss for in fact what is not gone and what is not at risk: the book, the printed page, the existing canvas. The typewriter, during its earliest years, also was maligned, but now is seen simply as another tool. The ballpoint, after all, hasn’t killed the pencil before it, and so on.
Using a computer to read, examine or write literature can be bedeviling, but it isn’t the devil that Birkerts warns us against. Neither is the physical form of the book and print magazine as purveyed by the mainstream literary-industrial complex some kind of monster.
Tools and books, which themselves are tools, merely are bi-product and product of current communications systems, and neither of them, while anything else yet lives, is the sole or best measure of the imagination.
In the beginning was the word and it at first was not written. Painted, drawn, spoken or electrified, the word is still the primary thing, even among the covert examples brushed into the corners of literature’s kitchens. It is there, I believe, where some of the most interesting paginations may be found.
Otherwise, where else might these dialogs be found?