Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Survival by way of Co-existence

I apologize for the light posting, but my day job is keeping me very busy.

I wanted to point out two recent instances of how the not-so-new digital age can include good ol' fashioned books, as the two often complement one another. I figure it's a useful strategy for keeping books around, at least for now. Right?

The first example was on CNN, not a station I watch all that voluntarily. Well, I don't have cable, so I can't watch it either way, but it is on at the gym and it's much more bearable than ESPN. I was there this weekend, running and watching Fareed Zakaria GPS. It was, of course, all Iran, all the time - as it should be. But after working with his guests to incorporate online information, especially snippets pulled from Twitter, on a giant flat screen that lay in front of them as a desk, Zakaria then looked up and ended the segment with... wait for it... two book recommendations! Though I cannot vouch for these books, the ones he recommended were:

- The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran by Hooman Majd

- ... I don't remember! Sorry, but I was running and just pleased to see BOOKS being promoted. It was a travelogue, by an American who may or may not been of Persian descent.

Everyone's been discussing the Twitter effect with this news story, the amount of uncensored voices coming off the streets of Tehran right into homes across the world, and it is astonishing. It's also fascinating to see the way media is handling media - so there is old stalwart CNN, suddenly risking being seen as dated, clicking through online and recommending, on air and online, Andrew Sullivan's blog. It's nice to see in this enthusiasm for all things immediate that someone thought of books, for those of us that want to see real time but also want the full back story.

The second item I wanted to note here was new Granta editor John Freeman's plea for print in the UK Independent. While I admire his rhetoric here in arguing for the importance of print publications, I also appreciate how he ties in the importance of literary voices, first:

Publishers are still buying multi-million celebrity "books" but grow antsy when it comes to signing up literary writers, the type whose fourth or fifth book (such as Joseph O'Neill's Netherland) might someday underwrite an entire season. It's always the end times in publishing, sure, but due to the anxiety over new technology and the comeuppance created by far too much corporate merging these are especially dour ones...

A week ago, a friend told me that one of the largest publishers in the US had recently done a survey. The pure cost of making a book, they discovered – before paying any advance – was roughly $65,000. That was the number editors had to keep in mind before they made any decision about signing up a new title.

Could it conceivably earn back $65,000? This question puts most types of literature at an instant disadvantage. Do any books of poems earn back $65,000? What about a short story collection? Can any book in translation stride over that mighty financial hurdle? Or a collection of novellas? Maybe that number was revealed to editors as a reminder, not a rule, but it points rather unsubtly toward what sells: entertainment, scandal, politics, and famous writers with known audiences.

And then pulls in international voices in particular, combining his perspective on technology with the reality of new literary voices emerging from anywhere and everywhere:

While American literature remains enormously vital and restless – could England ever have produced a Thomas Pynchon? Junot Diaz? – a literary journal cannot in good conscience pretend that an Anglo-American dialogue is at the heart of our cultures. Not when Nigeria alone has given us Chimamanda Adichie, Helon Habila and Uwem Akpan. Not when Kiran Desai and Suketu Mehta are exploring New York more viscerally than most writers born there, or when some of America's most exciting young novelists, such as Dave Eggers and Tony D'Souza, are finding a way to tell vital stories set in Sudan and Western Africa...

In troubled and violent times, we do not have the luxury to avoid the hard questions which have stalked English language publishing in recent years. What stories are made visible? In what syntax do they appear? Why are writers in translation made to speak on behalf of their entire country?

Another fair point.

Freeman makes a solid case for the importance of print as he wraps up, spinning ideas around but somehow having them land on their feet: "If the forces at work in publishing persist, we're moving towards a world with less and less available in print. Publication on an actual press upon paper which was once a tree will become special again, as it should be - a cause for celebration." Once again, a vision I can support.

May Granta live on, then, and prosper!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Really enjoy your blog. I am wondering if you are familiar with one of my favorite publishers of new voices - Narrative Magazine, an online lit mag whose mission is to bring great literature to the world for free. They certainly are thriving, and and as a non-profit, all of their reading & contest fees go toward paying the authors they publish. Info at www.narrativemagazine.com.