Can small presses save us from formulaic Fast Fiction?
In literary fiction, commercialism demands bestsellers, leading to a version of Primark-style Fast Fashion, where popularity trumps originality, argues Fiona O’Connor
Declan Meade of Stinging Fly Press has spoken of “the curse of the Neilsen Book”. Dr Leigh Wilson, co-founder of the contemporary small press network, believes big publishers’ need for bestsellers tends to favour a generic culture that precludes originality while it draws on novelty. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons
Since good old Plato the written word has recorded anxieties about its own existence. Paradoxically, the worry about written words centres both on their fixity and their flux. For Plato, meaning once inscribed took on a corpse-like value; words, in other words, recorded the death of an almost palpable dialectic engaged in during the moments of Socratic dialogue. The irony is of course that we would not know of these ancient concerns had they not been written down. The other longstanding worry has been the unintended senses that might be drawn from a writer’s words once they were beyond her domain of reasoning – her head.
This is a modern concern, from Jacques Derrida’s decentring of the writer in Of Grammatology to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author: “To give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text,” Barthes wrote.
But the death of the author may have had another, still more painful, consequence: the demise of writing’s economic viability. In dying as author the writer kicks the financial bucket as well, rings down the curtain on liquidity, joins the choir invisible and goes under the balance sheet.
Socrates famously refused payment for his rhetoric. In the intervening 2,500 years writers have seen their economic status fluctuate. The 1911 Copyright Act recognised writers over publishers as the creators and rights’ holders of their material, as part of the professionalisation of writing. There has always been a continuum between bestselling good fortune and penury for writers, and still today an elite of literature can afford to turn the heating on. But it is an ever decreasing circle. In the digital age writing has become a commodity without value, for the writer at least. Technology, the speed and ease of publishing and the democratisation of writing through the demise of print, all have taken their toll. The average earnings of writers is now less than €4,000.
Could the decline also be in consequence of a dislocation between creator and process of production? Writers are unusual in that, unlike other artists, they play little part in the actual production of their art. “Typographic man”, as Marshall McLuhan termed the pre-electronic species, was conditioned by the technology – the mechanics of repetition offered by movable type. Somewhere in the process of developing this “power of extension”, writers became separated from the production of their work.
A recent symposium held at London’s University of Westminster, Literary Criticism and the Small Press, focused on the means of production in literature as a shaping influence on literary writing. It’s an area of criticism largely ignored to date, but given the corporatisation of mainstream publishing, one that is badly in need of some attention. To what extent is literature tailored for commercial objectives? Just how much of what reaches the bookshops is decided not by writers but by those who, as one writer put it, “couldn’t write fuck on a venetian blind”?
The symposium examined historical as well as contemporary versions of alternative publishing showing a variety of possibilities for small presses. Nancy Cunard’s 1920s venture, the Hours Press, promoted the avant-garde of Paris including Ezra Pound, Samuel Beckett and Laura Riding. Cunard learned and practiced the craft of printing. Virginia Woolf too, became a professional printer; starting as the type compositor for Hogarth Press, putting together the tiny blocks of type, compressing meaning into a back to front shape that became each page. Woolf found the process of printing “exciting, soothing, ennobling and satisfying”. It also influenced her writing.
Succeeding modernism, presses have acted as catalysts for activism: Soviet Union and Eastern bloc samizdat, meaning “I-self-publish”, allowed writers and artists to exercise creativity outside the limitations of state media. In the US the 1960s Kitchen poetry from the San Francisco Bay area is a marker for contemporary versions. Post credit crunch, Commune Editions is currently publishing activist poetry “in an era of protracted crisis”. The founders of Commune Editions also engage with the process: “We know how to typeset a book, how to put it in production…There’s a knowledge base that accumulates.”
In New York the whimsically titled, Ugly Duckling Presse is a non-profit, volunteer editorial collective producing beautiful books often containing handmade elements to call attention to the production process “and the history of bookmaking”. At the Westminster symposium, Presse founder Matvei Yankelevitch spoke of the hand-to-mouth finances of the press, and the innovative open days when volunteer armies of bibliophiles get printing, sewing, packaging, producing the objects they love – perhaps an idea to be considered by Irish small presses?
By contrast with such hands-on connections to readers, mainstream publishing presents a very different approach as far as writers are concerned. An immense level of production characterises the current publishing phenomenon: 184,000 new titles from the British and Irish big publishing houses last year. But in a limited field; celebrity cookbooks, biography, crime thrillers and war memoirs being the odds-on commercial favourites. Within literary fiction, commercialism demands the bestseller. It’s a formulaic approach leading to Fast Fiction, a version of Fast-Fashion, Primark style, where the constant push is towards updating trends – presenting the same thing but a little bit different: just-in-time supply chain systems finely tuned as adrenaline drips to the pulse of consumer interest.
This may be where the balance tips for writers, away from the ownership that arises in the act of creation, as enshrined in copyright law, and towards the publishers and what they, or the markets they serve, dictate. Dr Leigh Wilson, convenor of the small presses’ symposium and co-founder of the contemporary small press network: https://thecontemporarysmallpress.com/ puts it like this, “If someone goes to McDonald’s and their Big Mac isn’t the same as always, that’s a failure”. Wilson distinguishes between the legal ownership still belonging to writers, and the notion of aesthetic ownership – the particular writing style, unique trace of ownership as human stain on the writing that says “you can tell this is mine because of the way it’s written”. Wilson fears that it is this aesthetic ownership, gained in the years following the copyright act and the modernist developments of the 1920s and ’30s, that is now in question.
“Some writers feel that literary fiction has become generic,” Wilson explains. In a relationship with mainstream publishing where the writing is dictated by the obligation to sell out, so to speak – to be on bestseller lists etc., the writer enters a service culture that precludes originality while it draws on novelty. Wilson notes the prevalence of young writers and first works as a feature of mainstream publishing’s compulsion to generate renewal through uniformity.
A realistic indicator of the relationship between mainstream publishers and writers is “the curse of the Neilsen Book”, as Declan Meade of Ireland’s highly successful Stinging Fly Press terms it. Neilsen is a global information and measurement company whose annual figures decide the fate of many a mid-term writer: “Streamlining the supply chain in this way brings many business efficiencies to the market, and leads to cost savings for individual businesses,” says Neilsen’s website. It’s a philosophy seemingly at odds with any reckoning of ‘crucial cultural value’ put forward by the International Publishers Association.
The association’s most recent annual report records a sense of bewilderment in the face of the Future Shock velocities of change appearing on the technological horizon. In the face of immense transformations the association sees its responsibility being “to communicate the value of publishers to society”, as opposed to what they see as the cynical market ethos of e-publishing and the incursions on copyright law taking place as literature morphs into content.
Because the future for the codex suggests further orphaning from any writerly affiliation, and therefore payment. “All things digital commingle where and when they never have before,” writes MIT’s Media Lab Head, Nicholas Negroponte.
Marshall McLuhan found that “Art is always one technology behind. The content of the art of any age is the technology of the previous age.” Thus Socrates fretted 3,000 years ago over the new technology of writing undermining his philosophical practice. With digitisation comes a levelling process, a one-dimensional society with no elites, according to Herbert Marcuse. Futurologists such as Negroponte and Jaron Lanier now predict the commodification of everything, a levelling process “whereby we will become entirely commercial beings”, writes technology expert John Markoff. A taster of this may be seen in the success of Wattpad’s user-generated content for its 40 million readers. Ashleigh Gardner of Wattpad speaks of a social media generation which is comfortable producing content, sharing it and engaging with it. “These are readers who are not looking for a story, but a relationship.” Not writing but waving.
The irony is that such networks earn vast fortunes for a few “owners” from content generated by millions of users for free. Free also from any standard of aesthetic value as has overseen the literary canon for thousands of years.
So perhaps Socrates was right to worry about the technology of the papyrus: the loss of the inimitable – that uniquely human mark of the struggle to bring meaning out of chaos.
Fiona O’Connor is a lecturer at the University of Westminster, London