Friday, December 31, 2010

Why aren't we all reading poetry again?

It is not a resolution, as it's been building over the last year, and I'm now confident it will continue. I'm really loving poetry right now. Not in a read-a-bit/write-some-garbage kind of way, but in a why-did-I-ever-stop-reading-this-and-who-do-I-read-next kind of way. There's much to discover.

To help me with this, I received a fantastic Christmas gift: my partner gave me his own version of a poetry starter kit, with a number of books of trustworthy contemporary poets to kick off the new year. I thought I'd list them all here with links, as we've listed great poetry books on SotB before. It's always worth spreading the word!

In no particular order:

Martin Espada's A Mayan Astronomer in Hell's Kitchen (Norton)
Maureen N. McLane's Same Life (FSG)
Denise Levertov's Making Peace (New Directions)
Audre Lorde's Coal (Norton)
Robert Hass's Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005 (Ecco/HarperCollins)
Philip Levine's Breath (Knopf)
Pablo Neruda's Odes to Common Things (Bulfinch)
Federico Garcia Lorca's Ode to Walt Whitman & Other Poems (City Lights)
Grace Paley's Fidelity (FSG)

As I start to read through this incredible collection of poetry books, I can look to Jeff Gordinier's advice. You'll recall that he's been in touch with us here at SotB before. In fact, he's the one that provided a list of contemporary poetry books referenced earlier in this post. Well he has a relatively new post over at the Poetry Foundation blog giving us all permission to flip through poetry books. It's liberating. Thanks, Jeff!

And happy new year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sweet, Sweet Relief to Us All

With today's LA Times interview with Russ Grandinetti, VP for content or some crap from Amazon, by Alex Pham, I feel like I had a mini epiphany. I think it was when Grandinetti said one of many lines that Amazon trots out regularly, like well-trained politicians, this one about Amazon's vision to make "every book ever written, in any language, in print or out of print, all available within 60 seconds. And we want to make the customer experience great." For the first time (I think), I found myself thinking, "oh.... oh, okay. Fine. Make "books" available in seconds. Do that, if you must, and just let the rest of us get on with our lives without having to hear about your friggin' vision." And then I thought, perhaps naively, that maybe we are seeing the splintering of markets, and those readers that want to read electronically, within seconds of thinking of a title or author, and [heart] Amazon more than ever can buy their li'l protected devices and use them to buy their li'l e-books and just exist, like a cult. And when I need a new book, I can go to the Boston Public Library or the Harvard Bookstore or the Brattle Book Shop or Aaron's bookshelf and get a new book to read, and not have to hear about / think about / even know about the latest Amazon stats. Because I'm kind of done.

But what pleases me about this idea is thinking about how often I've thought this, and others have said it, about Amazon but also about B&N and Borders. It does feel like these oversized, impractical dinosaurs are shuffling away. They are turning their big fat backs on printed books, which has pissed many of us off, but now... well maybe we can leave them behind, and stick to the tried and trusted independent stores and libraries. This isn't necessarily to say all e-books are bad (though Christopher might say they are), but it is to say that I'm ready to log off my computer and spend more quality time with Joe Lesueur's Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O'Hara and not look at a screen. I'm kind of like this guy (William Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage in northern Cali). So me and that guy and some of you can all quietly relax at home and let Amazon fatcats like Grandinetti spout quotes from whatever recent Amazon press release has been pooped out of corporate headquarters, and guess what? We don't have to listen!

But we can and should watch Patti Smith on Newshour here, because she will charm you. That's a promise. Just watch it real quick, go on, and then you can read. For serious, it's worth a bit more screen time.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

How did I miss Ms Amber Sparks

Her name sounds a bit like a drag queen, in which case I am that guy in the front row of her show applauding a bit too much.

Amber Sparks has a great post over at Big Other from earlier this month, about the lack of working class representation in literature (which I found via Daniel Pritchard's The Wooden Spoon, in which Pritchard follows the consideration through to poetry). I really appreciate seeing her raising the question of class, or the lack of consideration of class, in contemporary fiction, and the connection she makes between that gap and the economics of publishing and writing (to quote at length):

So what do these absences in our writing signify? What does our lack of class-consciousness say about us now? Did McCarthyism initially stamp out the desire to write about class issues? Or maybe it’s because we’re a nation and a culture deeply rooted in individualism. Concern about class tends to suggest collectivism, something that has proved to be anathema to Americans raised in the cowboy mythology. We prefer our heroes singular, not plural.

Or perhaps literature has become the province, largely, of the comfortably-off. I suspect this is closer to the truth. Writers might choose to starve to devote time to their art, but they themselves seem largely to come from the middle and upper classes of American society. The same may be especially true of those working in publishing and academia, people who had to have money to pay for school or to take unpaid internships in expensive cities like New York. These folks may not be interested in—or more likely may be made uncomfortable by—class issues, since they would necessarily resist any notion of their own privilege.

And now I am DYING to know where she got that great Kenneth Fearing quote. Ms. Amber, if you're out there...???

For the record, it is this concern with contemporary literature that made me greatly appreciate when I finally discovered Daniel Woodrell, whose own writing on class is being increasingly recognized after the amazing film version of his novel, Winter's Bone. The opening of his novel Tomato Red is a great take on class in modern America.

I suspect there are many interesting intersecting issues going on, some of which are touched on by Sparks, as noted. The reality is, it's hard to talk about difficult topics in a way that people who are not directly impacted by those topics want to read about. Editors assume working class people ain't buying books, but middle class and wealthy folks (hello, Oprah fans!) are. That's the demographic. And it's assumed that people want to see themselves reflected in their fiction. The book is a product to sell, and many houses want to reach the most consumers. There's a certain pessimism involved in that thinking.

I'll have to follow Sparks' link to Roxanne Gay's piece on this topic, as well. Glad this conversation is happening!

Monday, December 20, 2010


I have written about Cory Doctorow before - I mean, anyone who writes about publishing / media / anything even vaguely related to the internet has written about the man. He's whipsmart and very visible and has done a lot of great work. In the latest article from him that's getting attention, in last Friday's Guardian, he is discussing the problem of abundance online, using his own new experience as a publisher to make his point. I find it troubling.

I actually agree with his larger "problem" of the internet offering too much, as practical considerations that limited one's consumption of media - namely, availability - disappear. But then he gets into the kind of case study: he had enough short stories to put together into a book, but he decided to forgo the traditional publisher route and publish the collection himself, using readily available tools. I can pinpoint just where the red flags go up in my reading:
I'd reached the point where I had enough short fiction for another reprint collection. I'd done two before with small, reputable New York houses, and they had sold well. But, having looked around at the tools for publishing – print-on-demand presses like, automated ebook workflow tools like SiSu, and tools for publicising work like Twitter and blogs – I decided I could readily produce a collection myself with comparable reach and even more income.
What bothers me is his blase way of referring to his past experience, and his flattening of these publishing options. I know I'm overly defensive here, but all of those publishers put work into publishing his collections. From a quick glance, it looks like he's published with Tor Books (part of Macmillan), Running Press (part of Perseus), and someplace called Tachyon Publications, which looks to be an independent sci-fi publisher out of San Francisco.

A lot of great writers - including Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Kurt Vonnegut - have gone with small independent publishers for collections, knowing it would boost the bottom line for said publishers and help those publishers stick around to nurture new voices. (Forgive the all-white-male list - they jumped to mind.) They had a collective mentality, which is what I maintain is needed in publishing, and is something this mentality being put forth by Doctorow lacks.

In fact, Doctorow brags about making more money by self-publishing:

I'm not sorry I decided to become a publisher. For one thing, it's been incredibly lucrative thus far: I've made more in two days' worth of the experiment than I made off both of my previous short story collections' entire commercial lives.
I know we can't fault writers much for making money, because there is so little to be made in this profession. This still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It's just too simple. Why is it, one must ask, that "formerly expensive action can now be had merely for the time it takes to seize on the opportunity"? It's the reaction I'm increasingly having to excited reports of cheap consumer goods. There are sacrifices being made elsewhere for you to get that t-shirt for $4.99.

Likewise, crafts are being diminished so that publishing can be made available so readily. It's unclear to me how other people involved in this project - most notably, the "artist friends" Doctorow is using to design various covers - are being compensated, or the "voice-actor pals." It's all a big fun game with buddies "in three countries." But traditionally, those have been employees, with health insurance and stable jobs, who work for publishing companies that pay them to do that labor. I don't mean to get all Norma Rae here, but when we skip over financial compensation and employment stability and have a "let's just let people be artists" attitude, I always worry that we're screwing the working class and poor creative types who cannot take such risks, while the wealthy creative types can wait around for these jobs to fall into their laps, from friends, and not worry about the compensation.

I feel I have been the skunk at the proverbial garden party a few times around here, and that's too bad. I love fun as much as the next editor! But I sometimes worry that just as we were starting to build in ways of getting more voices heard from both sides of publishing - writers and employees - we are now blowing up the whole operation, and leaving the parts right back in the hands of the privileged few who can enjoy publishing, the career, as publishing, the hobby.

Bad News from Boston

I consider myself part of the problem I'm considering today. The need to widen the scope in our conversations, to include multiple perspectives, can certainly be work, but it's work worth doing. It's easy to gravitate toward people like you and that's something we'll always do, so we all need to remember to lift our head a bit higher and look beyond the familiar to expand our thinking.

In publishing, this is especially important. There is a long history of good ol' boys publishing good 'ol boys, keeping the opportunity to publish away from so many other voices. Many see the digital revolution as a way to balance things out, but I'm not entirely convinced. I don't want these digital options to be like the pox-filled blankets offered to Native Americans by Europeans - "what modern convenience!" followed by "I feel funny..." Will digital tools offer a range of voices access to readers, or give the illusion of an access that is still being denied?

It's unclear, but what is clear is that the hits the publishing industry is taking are hitting minority voices disproportionately, as is always the way. Many of us listened with concern as bookstores committed to progressive politics such as Women and Children First in Chicago, called out for help in the midst of the recession. Now we are seeing this struggle played out at Food for Thought in Amherst, MA, which lists the challenges it's facing:
We've been hit hard by many of the same factors contributing to the nationwide decline of independent bookstores, including: big box stores, Amazon, the rise of e-books, and, more recently, a severe drop in textbooks sales.
In this context, I should not have been surprised to hear that Jamaicaway Books & Gifts here in Boston is closing its doors. Even sadder, I heard this news while at a holiday party in nearby Roslindale, where a woman of color, born and raised in Boston, went to the store for the first time upon hearing it was closing and was blown away by its many books on diversity. "My husband's Latino, and so my two kids are bi-racial, and I'm looking at all these books about US! Why didn't I come here all the time before?!" And I thought, why didn't we all? It's a typical response to the story of a independent bookstore closing.

As the recession continues and we feel its impact in publishing, let's remember that the voices that have fought hard to be part of the conversation despite years of neglect - our voices of color, our GLBT voices, our voices from working class and poor communities, etc... - are facing a very real risk of getting shut down. Regardless of your race, class, or sexual orientation, you benefit from all voices being heard.

Best of luck to Rosalyn Elder and everyone at Jamaicaway Books & Gifts, who will go forward online. Here's to a fantastic final holiday season at your store!

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Need for Loyalty in a Saturated Consumer World

I read this story from Eugenia Williamson in the Boston Phoenix with an eyebrow cocked. It opens with news that indie bookstores are hot property in Boston right now, and goes on to explain how the big chains - B&N and Borders - are suffering from not jumping into the digital market fast enough and are now "closing outlets." I'm all for wishing these big bullies away and celebrating the sustainability of the indie bookstore, but I'm not sure I agree we are out of the woods just yet. Here's hoping! (I appreciate the commenter that mentions how unfortunate it is she didn't go a bit further out of town - something I'm guilty of myself! - to check out Back Pages Books in Waltham.)

What I do love about the article though, beyond this lede, is the way Williamson talks to both booksellers and literary agents, getting both sides of the story and presenting a wider picture of publishing, from what's selling to publishers through to what's selling to readers. It's all the same process, after all, but we have a tendency to talk about them separately, which runs the risk of making the whole industry more complicated than it really is. It was interesting to hear agents talk about what genres may get lost in the move to e-readers - reference are gone, genre fiction is next supposedly - and which are doing better than ever - business books, cookbooks, etc.... This doesn't address the fears about how we are going to allow for new experimental voices, especially in literary fiction, if readers get used to paying no more than $9.99 for a new book.

I spent today in lovely Plymouth, New Hampshire, where I visited two bookstores, one new books and one used: the Plymouth Book Exchange and the Readery. In typical New England fashion, it's completely counter-intuitive which is which. In fact, the Book Exchange is new books while Readery is used. Because Plymouth is a somewhat small college town, these bookstores were the main ones, as far as I know. The person I know who lives there said she goes to a Borders when she visits friends in New York. As we looked around these stores, it was like going back in time. (I'm sorry to say that as I know it sounds so condescending.) The new bookstore, which clearly did most of its business in textbooks for Plymouth State, has an odd mix of books - self-help, random fiction titles, some genre fiction mass markets. They were not marked down at all - they cost the price on the book. I was reminded of the B. Dalton in the mall where I grew up, which I have written about here before. Meanwhile, at the used bookstore, there was ample genre fiction. In fact, there was a big sign about what authors' books they'd take - mostly romance writers - with a note (I believe) that said nothing pre-1990. Someone came in and asked the woman about their policy and she also mentioned that they won't buy hardcover fiction, interestingly. They did have a general fiction that had some decent literary titles - Michelle Cliff, for example - but it was quite limited.

We come back to the problem of a limited market. Omnesha Roychoudhuri's new article in the Boston Review is getting a lot of attention, as she takes on Amazon and its business practices, and the potential impact its having on literature and reading. (Hooray for the BR getting all the attention!) This is where I recently was reminded of this concern many have that new novelists will have no market if readers expect only cheap books. Roychoudhuri quotes literary agent David Gernert as saying, “If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King’s new novel or John Grisham’s Ford County, for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25?” A fair point. The article nicely sums up, though sometimes in a slightly sloppy fashion, a lot of the problems with Amazon's style of cornering the market and then abusing the producers. (Ted Striphas nicely lays this out in a larger context in his book, The Late Age of Print, which I'd highly recommend.) But one of Roychoudhuri's detractors in a comment below states,
A lot of indie bookstores went down (or are going down) because they are too elitist, too focused on handselling what they consider to be "great literature" instead of great reads. If I get on Amazon and want to buy a beach read, I don't get sneered at by some indie bookstore clerk with an eyebrow ring and a condescending attitude. Amazon makes suggestions, but no judgments. I have been in way too many indie bookstores where the staff was unwelcoming, unfriendly, ill-informed and frankly unpleasant. No wonder people prefer to buy online.
I am guessing I wouldn't agree with this person's politics, but the point remains. What if your local indie bookseller is not handselling the books you want to read? What if, as in the case in Plymouth, they have too limited a selection for you? And what about the so-called brown bag factor - the benefits to buying online / digitally, so no one knows what you've bought? Roychoudhuri discusses Amazon's creepy auto-recommend feature, which is based on complicated system that favors certain titles and publishers. But this reader is saying s/he wants an impersonal recommendation.

The counter to that argument, I suppose, is that it's not as "private" as you think. Just because ordering a book on Amazon will not make your neighbor's 16 year old daughter working behind the counter at Molly's Books raise her eyebrows doesn't mean no one is keeping tabs on your purchases. Amazon's computers are watching, and even moreso with Kindle purchases. It may be more abstract, but buying online means your purchases are in fact being monitored more than ever.

Honestly, I think back to the cashier I referenced in my last post, at the Brazos Bookstore in Houston. The reality is that we all shop in different places, and customer loyalty doesn't have to mean absolute monogamy. There are places I will always avoid - I'm staring at big fat you, Walmart - and places I'll always favor - indie bookstores. I hope my favoring those stores will help them thrive, and I'll keep hoping that until I'm with Eugenia Williamson, glowing in the warmth of a healthy indie bookstore world, even right here in Boston (and the larger Boston metro area).

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The best writer you've never read.

A quick post before the whole stinking thing comes to a complete halt. Congratulations to Percival Everett for winning the 2010 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Award for I am Not Sidney Poitier. Ok, no, it isn't the most well known award in the universe but it does shine a light on the best novelist you've never read. Percival Everett is a master stylist with a deep and profound ability to write fiction in any style. He has done a western, a postmodern gobbledy-goo novel, a satire, short stories, poetry, as well as a great baseball novel among many, many other things. Hell, instead of just getting the same old shit at the bookstore, spend some of your hard earned money on a writer who, I promise, will become one of your all time favorites. Plus, for those of you looking for writer with super indie cred, he has pretty much shied away from major publishing house choosing to publish with houses like Graywolf and Beacon. That's something, right? Do it. Or at least go get one of his novels from the library you cheap bastards...then buy something once you fall in love.

"If Percival Everett isn't already a household name, it's because people are more interested in politics than truth."-Madison Smartt Bell

Congratulations, deserve this award and more!

  • Suder (1983)
  • Walk Me to the Distance (1985)
  • Cutting Lisa (1986)
  • The Weather and Women Treat Me Fair: Stories (1987)
  • For Her Dark Skin (1990)
  • Zulus (1990)
  • The One That Got Away (1992)
  • God's Country: A Novel (1994)
  • Big Picture: Stories (1996)
  • Watershed (1996)
  • Frenzy (1997)
  • Glyph: A Novel (1999)
  • Erasure: A Novel (2001)
  • Grand Canyon, Inc. (2001)
  • American Desert: A Novel (2004)
  • Damned If I Do: Stories (2004)
  • A History of the African-American people (proposed) by Strom Thurmond, as told to Percival Everett and James Kincaid (with James Kincaid) (2004)
  • Wounded: A Novel (2005)
  • The Water Cure (2007)
  • I am Not Sidney Poitier: A Novel (2009)