Monday, October 19, 2009

AIDS is over

It's been a crazy last week, but I wanted to post after attending an incredible conference in pieces on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of last week.

The conference was held in conjunction with an exhibition at Harvard's Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts titled ACT UP NEW YORK: ACTIVISM, ART, AND THE AIDS CRISIS, 1987–1993. This exhibition and conference seemed to generate very little media, but I don't know if that is despite efforts from the organizers or due to their focus being on within Harvard. If it's the latter, it's a damn shame. I would highly recommend a visit to the Carpenter Center to see this exhibition, which includes plenty of great posters and pamphlets from ACT UP New York, produced in conjunction with the group's groundbreaking and often effective AIDS activism. Also set up as part of the exhibition is a sea of monitors playing the interviews Sarah Schulman and Jim Hubbard have conducted about this work, as part of the oral history they are still producing. (For those unable to make it to the Carpenter Center, click through the link to see the interviews online and find out more about this great - and important - project.)

How does this relate to publishing though?

If you read some of Schulman's writing, you will see her constant fight to get published as a queer woman writing about queer people. And at the conference, you could hear underlying much of this struggle the way in which the media, including book publishers, ran hot and cold on AIDS. ACT UP was a grassroots movement that became hip and got the attention of the mainstream media, and helped launch some incredible and important people and books into the national spotlight. But at some point, the publishers had to look for the Next Big Thing, the demographic of choice for the typical book buyer who was willing to shell out money.

Many minorities can tell this tell - black women have had their day, as have Indian writers. Publishers chase non-fiction in the form of memoir, typically, as well as fiction. But they move on. This isn't political publishing, this isn't commitment to a group or cause. This is chasing a buck.

The AIDS publishing fad, which produced such books as Paul Monette's heartbreaking Borrowed Time, was dangerous, because it was playing with lives. Bringing attention to this disease and the devastation it was causing, particularly among gay men in urban centers, was vital for survival, and when corporate publishing decided it wasn't earning out and left it, many were left in the wake of this fad. Some might argue that once the face of AIDS realistically was not as much artistic young gay white men but in fact people of color, increasingly women of color, people who were poor... it just did not sell as well.

This is where independent publishing becomes more than just hip or funky. It becomes integral for keeping voices in the world of books in the form of memoirs, fiction, poetry, and informational books. At the same time, university presses have done an incredible job saving the history of AIDS activism during the early onset of the disease. This is why universities need to support their publishers and step aside to allow independence on their part, so editors can pursue projects left aside by corporate publishers chasing a buck and overlooking issues with serious impacts on the lives of many of us.

And now I have to chase some projects to see if I can contribute to salvaging some history!

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