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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Unpacking Ms. Penelope's trunk...

Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
vignette from
The Foliate Head 
Last night I tootled off to Crumhorn Mountain with child no. 2 to see no. 3 dance with The Order of the Arrow. Must say that being 1/16th Mohawk must help because he looked long and elegant and graceful. And that faux-Iroquois mini-dress and feather bustle looked pretty grand! Alas, it was quite hot dancing around summer fires, and an unexpected need to jettison dinner came strongly upon him...

We all stayed up late, all except Mike, whose plane was cancelled last night.  He got up by three in order to catch a plane at 4:00 a.m. and arrived in Chicago just in time to have a danish before running a workshop.

And now I am avoiding the mountain range of books in the guest room and frittering my precious time. Thanks to @tedgioia on Twitter, I just read Penelope Trunk's article, "How I got a big advance from a big publisher and self-published anyway." I have some fascination with these barn-burners who leap into self-publishing. I suppose my response would have to be "How I got little-to-decent advances from big publishers and small and university presses and published with them and didn't have time to worry about it a whole lot." In the comments she replies to someone with a question about fiction:

Nonfiction is about earning money. The author is writing the book to generate some sort of action that will earn the author more money than any book can earn.
Fiction is about art. The writer is looking for some sort of authority on this art to say the book is art. The publishing industry actually still serves as a good gatekeeper for this sort of thing.
The publishing industry probably would have rejected Fifty Shades of Grey as trash even though it became a self-published bestseller. But in general, the publishing industry establishment has a good eye for good literature. That’s why self-publishing fiction is so different.
So let's see. Considering self-publishing and poetry is absolutely pointless; I've had and will have gorgeous productions with publishers--The Foliate Head coming out soon and Thaliad in November being even more special as physical books than any I've had before thanks to Clive's artwork. I've had as much impact on the shape of each of the forthcoming books as if I had self-published. That is, I chose certain publishers (both asked for a manuscript) who allowed me to have input and to work with an artist. In the case of The Foliate Head, the choices in the book were 99% made by me, the artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins, and especially the wonderful designer Andrew Wakelin, who was not an employee of the publisher but a friend who worked with us out of sheer love for books.

"Action that will earn the author more money than any book" is certainly a nonfiction idea for those looking for fat speaker engagements and other mysteries. But what about fiction?

Johnson said that "nought but a fool" wrote for anything but money. Of course, I just wrote a very long series of poems about a fool... And what I really care about is the deep pleasure of writing, and also the frolicking with readers that comes afterward--dancing my dance of words with readers. At the moment I particularly care about novel readers dancing with me on top of an imaginary boxcar: A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. 

Anyway, I could hardly be paid for a lifetime of pushing words around the page for the joy of it. Who could afford it? And I have done that perfectly unwise for sales yet delightful-to-me thing of writing in many genres--novels of many sorts (realist, irrealistic, historical, coming-of-age, multi-genre, etc.), short stories, novellas, lyric and other poetry, long narrative sequence of poems, extremely long poem (i.e. epic), and stories and novels for children.

And I have certainly not given up on publishers, even though I'm one of those writers who turns in a clean copy that does not need a lot of editorial scrubbing. What I do ponder is what my publishers can do for me that I can't do for myself, and how to best use their limited marketing time. What is effectual, rather than just an exercise in treading water? It seems to me that a great deal of labor is misdirected, mine as well as theirs.

One question pops up; now here come a thousand. Mostly I don't mull these things because I'm more interested in what I'm writing. Perhaps I should think more about these issues, now that I'm committed to a summer and early fall of major reading. But just this instant I must go to the book mountain and grab another book and climb into a dream.


  1. Provocative and interesting, as always.

  2. I was just noticing that (if you can trust fb comments) people like precisely the things that publishers don't like!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Yes, that was interesting... The world is changing fast.

    Sitting at the foot of Mount Book. Like that name. Must take a break and go cook, since the chief cook is away.


  5. It appears that writers are possessed of myriad reasons for writing or seeking publication.

    For a different view, this link to might be interesting to read, as time away from Mount Book permits.

    [You’re so quick! I wasn’t certain the link was behaving so deleted the first comment at 2:57 PM, and now am stetting it. We are out of sequence, but no matter. If this one comes through twice, I’ll delete one. Apologies. Happy blogging! she said, chuckling.]


    To carry on: I checked her site and her bio, and she’s been writing and successfully publishing for decades.

    Indeed, how the book world is changing, morphing before our very eyes! Just imagine how our reading materials will be delivered in the coming years. Maybe right into our little heads.

    We are all futurists.

  6. Only quick if reading by my computer... and seeing something pop up!

    I don't know that I want a chute straight into my head. I like being able to stop reading a book when I find it undesirable to continue...

  7. Oh.

    How lovely!

    Thank you.

    And now I must put away the food and do the dishes. Luckily life comes before art... so perhaps I will write afterward!

    And I need to finish a sweet little book. Heading toward the 100-mark...


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.