September 16, 2012 by Marcus Speh
While I’m affected (and saddened) by some of the experiences shared here, I don’t agree with the negative views on the demise (?) of either publishing or bookshops.
I just spend a couple of hours in an English bookstore 5 min. from our doorstep in Berlin. It’s a Sunday. In Germany this means everything is closed, or is supposed to be and I presume the bookstore gets to be open because they also sell coffee and muffins. The store was stuffed with people sitting in the comfortable chairs using it evidently as a place to meet, read and relax in the midst of books. This is not an established bookstore: it’s run by a Czech couple and was opened only a year ago. In our neighborhood, which used to be bohemian and has become affluent over the past 10 years, 3 bookstores have opened in the last 2 years alone. Small bookstores, sometimes specialized, but no chains, run by exactly the type of person that Darryl Price describes.Now, this is Berlin, it’s a special place with a great influx of artists and young people from all over the world. It’s a trendy neighborhood within Berlin. But when I go to other parts of the city, the picture is similar. At the same time, the big book selling chains that supposedly choked all the small stores, are full, too. These are just observations but what else do we have it in the other day, especially with regard to contentious issues that no 2 people can agree upon? I could go on in a similar vein on the topic of publishing. Take a look at Gissing’s “Grub Street” for a taste of the ancient, traditional vampirism of publishers and the literary world—I found the description heart-wrenching when I recently read it more than 100 years later. To follow up on David’s story about Walt Whitman: who published Proust’s masterpiece? (Answer: the first volume, Swann’s Way, was vanity publishing, paid for by the author himself). Or take Joyce’s experiences with publishing “Dubliners” (not an example of experimental prose):
“Between 1905, when Joyce first sent a manuscript to a publisher, and 1914, when the book was finally published, Joyce submitted the book 18 times to a total of 15 publishers. The book’s publishing history is a harrowing tale of persistence in the face of frustration.” (Via Wikipedia)
At the same time most of the books that I see published in the literary fiction market are, while consistently technically better written than books for the mass market, of low quality. They are not good books to my mind: they do not lend wings to my imagination. The books in the market on average (the very few exceptions confirm my inference) do not cement my pride in the print-based publication industry. They make me hungry for change, which is coming as sure as eggs is eggs.I spend a fair amount of time listening to, talking with and blogging for younger writers (even though many of them are less “beginning” then I am myself), who embrace the new e-publishing paradigm rather naturally – like the alt lit writers, perhaps with a tad more conceit for the old ways than necessary, but entirely not without respect either. Doing that has sharpened my understanding for things to come.
The replacement of one paradigm by another, of one world by another, never is a pleasant process. It isn’t pleasant for people on either side: those who are left behind feel left out and dismissed; and those who build the new world share all the discomforts, uncertainties and fears of the pioneer. One should think that Americans understand this more than any other people. Hence I am somewhat surprised at the (overall) negative tone of the discussion—facilitated in a medium and on a platform — Fictionaut — that did not exist 5 years ago.I say all this while looking forward to another meeting with a literary agent next week. An agent of the aging publishing industry of printed books, I hasten to add. It’ll be the jolly meeting of two dinosaurs and I hope to meet someone I can drink with to the new age, to better books and more power for poets!
I can’t really say what “publication” means, but I do know that it’s changing fast, and not to the worse, just to something more acclimated to the current weather. I also don’t know where the balance lies between, say, digital and nondigital publishing for a writer, but I doubt that it was ever easy for a writer to straddle the fences that crisscross the reality of writing or to find the right way to talk to everyone who has staked a claim in the land of story-making.In more than one respect, digital literature in digital publishing is alien to established readers and writers. This alienness may breed repulsion and it may breed respect. I’m reminded of what Virginia Woolf said beautifully, mysteriously about “The Russian Point of View”:
“… the mind takes its bias from the place of its birth, and no doubt, when it strikes upon a literature so alien as the Russian, flies off at a tangent far from the truth.”
Perhaps the mind is not the best companion when it comes to appreciating current changes in publishing. Mine certainly “flies off at a tangent far from the truth.”