Tuesday, September 08, 2009

How to Move Forward

I'm all for the old adage, those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It's a large part of my interest in the current book I'm reading about the "paperbacking of America," which obviously has many parallels to the painful, awkward transition to e-books. But at some point, nostalgia gets in the way of progress.

This is how I read Joni Evans' recent fluff piece in the NY Times, but perhaps I'm being harsh. I mean sure, the photo is fun. Perhaps this article suffers from being linked in Shelf Awareness today, so I went to it expecting a bit more substance. If I had stumbled upon it in the actual Times, maybe it would have had context that made it more... palatable somehow. Oops, an accidental moment of advocating for print culture again!

The same way everyone's obsession with Mad Men reads to me as a slightly coded frustration with multicultural living in which straight white men are challenged (a criticism admittedly stolen from my partner's reaction to the latest pop culture product to benefit from nostalgia for the fifties), I worry that our tendency to stare longingly and bleary-eyed at publishing's good ol' days is in fact a reaction to the loud-mouthed brats who have upset the old gentlemen's club of publishing - not just the literal gentleman's club of postwar publishing, but the elite group of white ivy-leagued publishers - including women - that held power really until the 1990's, when zines and other indie efforts starting making real headway on a big scale. Ah, what happened to the days when a handful of editors decided who read what and could all lunch with ease at their favorite little spot in Union Square, smoking and drinking and carrying on?

I guess in my mind I want to preserve some good elements of old publishing - strong editor-author relationships, for example - without preserving the elitism and the extreme centralized manner of publishing. Just as many people have taken back up victory gardens for a new era, can we take back up a thoughtful way of publishing for a new era, using the benefits of our online age without flushing the printed word down the toilet? Can we harness the explosion in reading that's happening into a newly organized publishing industry that keeps people employed and improves the written word, creating a useful and fruitful dialogue about issues alongside exciting, engaging, and intelligent fiction and poetry?

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