|A house for Orpheus|
in Aberystwyth, Wales
Out walking, May 2011.
- Maze of Blood 2015
- Glimmerglass 2014
- Thaliad 2012
- The Foliate Head 2012
- A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage 2012
- The Throne of Psyche 2011
- Val/Orson 2009
- Ingledove 2005
- Claire 2003
- The Curse of the Raven Mocker 2003
- The Wolf Pit 2001
- Catherwood 1996
- Little Jordan 1995
- Short stories and poems
- Marly Youmans
Friday, June 03, 2011
The House of Words (no. 32): Building culture, supporting artists, example of poetry, leveling, possibilities
THE HOUSE OF CULTURE
We readers and writers are constructing a kind of house and helping to build the culture we would like to see when we read and when we write. When we buy a book or a piece of art or a ticket to a performance, we vote for an artist, a store, a gallery, a performance space. We register a liking and a support for future work of the artist and the venue. If we don’t do so, that artist, that writer, that performer will have a slightly smaller chance the next time around. If we consistently don’t do so in large numbers, that artist, that writer, that performer may well dwindle out of our sight, no matter how much we like his or her work.
POETRY AS EXAMPLE: A PROBLEM
This morning I’ve been exchanging emails with an editor friend, batting views about the matter of selling poetry. The two things seem contradictory, don’t they? Sell. Poetry. Definitely at odds. Some movements in poetry discussed in The House of Words—publishing solely on the internet, the nanopress model—yield to the desire to escape the burden of selling.
Perhaps this is nothing new—“sugared sonnets” went the rounds in the Renaissance. Shakespeare’s lyrics were known before they were printed. Donne had a private circle of admirers of poems in manuscript. And yet poets and printer-booksellers were already collaborating on making books (or sometimes not collaborating—theft was an issue, as it is again today in a fresh, new way.)
But why is it so difficult, this matter of art and sales in the U. S.? In the case of poetry, is it because we Americans think high art a bit snooty, and poetry the snootiest of the snooty? Are we still flattened under the rock of Modernism, which said to some people that poetry had to be difficult to be understood? My editor friend is rapidly coming to the conclusion that poetry books by someone who is not well known can be almost impossible to sell unless the poet has a very wide web presence and circle of friends. Reviews do not sell books, she says—if a writer is obscure and unable to travel, he or she simply does not sell, even with the best of reviews. This editor has come to the conclusion that facebook friends do not convert into poetry buyers. And now she begins to feel that perhaps the public does not feel a responsibility to support the arts when they can consume so much for free.
Take a look at her words: “I think we all have to lower our expectations and definition of what ‘success’ means in this kind of market. And I am certainly having to re-evaluate what I want to do as a publisher. How much time and energy can I devote to editing, producing, and selling other people's books, plus running the business when the return on investment is this small, or even non-existent? The reward of getting good & deserving work out into the world and preserved for posterity is another matter, and that's why I do it. But I no longer think there is a trick to it, or something I have to "learn" -- I could be spending $1000 more in promotion on each title and it might not result in any more sales at all! Friends in other disciplines -- music, fine arts -- say the same things.
“With so much content available for free, it becomes harder and harder to encourage people to actually pay for the more esoteric forms of art. On the other hand, a U2 concert here later in the summer was sold out months ago - that's an experience, a bragging right, a badge as well as music -- and entirely different from the solitary experience of reading poetry or listening to progressive jazz or live classical music.”
I can’t say that I don’t know exactly what she is saying. Here I am with a brand new book of poetry, The Throne of Psyche. I have done two readings so far, both well attended. From the amount of finger-snapping, spontaneous clapping after poems, and laughter at the last one, you would have felt sure that quite a few people would want to take home a book—particularly one so beautiful: in fact, unusually beautiful, with an immaculate, imaginative design and a cover by Clive Hicks-Jenkins that is nothing short of gorgeous. Nevertheless, I was surprised: I sold relatively few books, even though many people attended who knew me.
Why? Is the reading no longer helpful to such things, now that the world has changed from the days in which readings were a major way to purchase poetry books? Or is it not the reading itself but the ancillary publicity that is important—articles in the newspaper? I was digging in my garden yesterday, and somebody I had met once at a party hailed me and said he was ordering my book. He had read about the book in the local paper. For each reading I received two articles… Is that what matters for selling?
While I would like to say numbers don’t not matter and just go pick daisies, one’s subsequent ability to publish always depends on prior books. Bookscan numbers rule the bookseller’s world. That’s why I say a purchase is a vote.
POST-POSTMODERN LEVELING OF CULTURE
Also, one thing that I have noticed in the last decade is that the person who devotes a life to the visual arts or writing or poetry or some other art is now considered to be pretty much the same as one who, say, retires and decides to take up watercolors or write occasional poems. That’s why I wrote my recent piece about our local painter Ashley Cooper: to distinguish her from other artists, less serious, because artists of all sorts are helped and encouraged and energized for more work by a modicum of recognition and support, and they are diminished by lack of recognition and support. An artist who gets insufficient support may not be able to make that studio rent or get a bigger studio, may not feel able to travel to New York City to show work, may simply feel more alone than ever in the little room with the brushes and the canvas.
MUSINGS: POSSIBILITIES AND NEEDS
Here are some thoughts in response to the problems I see right now. They may not be helpful. They may be. I don’t have the slightest idea. But they are certainly just the beginning of a discussion. I would like to hear other people’s ideas on these matters. I would like to hear suggestions.
Multiple types of formats for publications are a help; that’s already going on but could increase. The nanopress model Nic Sebastian talked about earlier in the series certainly stresses multiple streams of access, free and paid.
Perhaps it’s time for small presses to look more to a Renaissance model of wealthy patrons or an eighteenth-century model of patrons-and-subscribers. Samuel Johnson worked on the subscription model; his books were bought before they were made. Could Kickstarter mean the beginning of a revival of the subscription system?
We need to inculcate the idea that if--as people who love the arts and the idea of participating in creating our culture—we want to have small presses, galleries, performance spaces, we need to contribute to them. We need to buy a painting, some books, tickets to interesting performances that have no “bragging rights” in the popular culture. We need people to invest in the kinds of art they care about: to buy, to attend, to share the word about work they love.
What about those other kinds of rights--copyright and Creative Commons? Right now, I think net travelers need to understand that the creators of visual images, film, and written words have rights. The makers have the power to give those rights away through Creative Commons licenses. Unless they do give them away, they hold those rights. If not in public domain, ask for permission to use an image, a poem, a blog post, a video, etc. (Why? Here are two examples. When you visit sites like Drawn! and others, it becomes pretty clear that the theft of online art discourages artists, whether they are established or young beginners. This one is more specific: I had an e-friend who published a new poem almost daily on her blog but became distressed by someone who consistently stole the poems and passed them off as her own. The joy of the creator was marred, and she no longer participates in the life of the web.)
There’s a lot more to ruminate, both about specific issues and large, encompassing ones. But I’ve talked enough for now. I’d like to hear what others have to say.