Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, November 21, 2014

More thoughts on the LeGuin NBA Speech, etc.

"Here, every story, in its own way
and from its own universe, told in its
own mode, explains that there is no
better spirit in all of American letters
than that of Ursula LeGuin." -Slate
Especially for Midori Snyder Crankypants!

It tends to be hard to accept people condemning capitalism roundly when capitalism has been so very good to them personally. There's a having-your-cool-cake-and-liberally-eating-it-too vibe that is difficult to ignore. How, exactly, do we critique capitalism without throwing the essential baby out with the dirty bathwater? Perhaps the speech will lead to a more particular examination of the state of publishing. Who are these people who treat books like soap? Are there houses that publish only crappy books? Are there no alternatives? Is every list with a Grover the Farting Kangaroo or Inside Celebrity X inhabited only by such books? What's the state of things at individual houses? What's the proportion of dross to gold? Is it really so much worse than in the past? I don't know, but I remember a course in which I read nineteenth-century bestsellers as I great eye-opener. I like Ursula LeGuin and respect her body of work, but that's still a stumbling block. We're writers; we should be able to do a better job of excising the gangrened flesh and leaving the body to survive.

It's always worth saying that the only genre that matters is the one called good books. LeGuin stands up against the domination of "the Realists" in prizes and publications. It's a fine thing to remind us that what is important is not genre but making a strong work out of words, and though I tend not to set one group against another (and not to divide by genre), it's certainly true that what we call irrealism has been the stepchild in tatters to its so-called literary sibling, geared in prize bling. Although it is certainly true that the sf/f/h world has its own clubbiness and prizes...

The great powers of modern civilization--the power of the media, the power of big corporations, and so on--are always going to tilt in directions that distress us for the simple fact that they are the powers. Make it, "The Powers." They will always have to suffer correction. Always. This doesn't mean that we must entirely eradicate them. Yes, the big New York publishers have been purchased (almost all of them) and are now part of conglomerates. They suffer greater pressure to produce a larger profit margin, when really about a 3% margin is good for publishing. Yes, we live with that. But we have choices. With New York, we choose to have a certain kind of reach in terms of marketing. Of course, often that reach is not exerted on behalf of a book, so it's a bit of a crap shoot... but the publisher has name recognition and relationships with stores and libraries. We also have the choice (which some of us have taken) of moving from the Big 5 (formerly Big 6) to alternatives of some sort--I love the freedom I have had with Phoenicia (Montreal), Stanza (UK), and Mercer (US) to help make decisions and collaborate with an artist. (My problem is, of course, how to have the same sort of marketing a big house like Farrar, Straus can and sometimes does offer. I haven't worked the kinks out there. I'm still trying things.... The other thing I miss about FSG is Elaine Chubb, the world's most persnickety copy editor. But she retired. No one can replace her.) Others make other choices and go with micro-presses or self-publishing. All of that is, indeed, freedom. Like most freedoms, it comes at a price.

Small Beer Press
Yes, there's a mort of things worthy of criticism in the world of publishing. In Shakespeare's time, there were other problems with publishing (or with the schemes of sticky-fingered printers, as it was then.) Writers complained then, now, and every time in between. The arts are always in trouble, and great artists often go unrecognized while lesser lights are worshipped and rewarded. None of that is new. For the most part, we can only do what our times let us do, whether we live centuries ago in courtly circles and circulate work privately or later on reside precariously on Grub Street or write today on a computer and submit our work in a mere instant. But it's strange to think that our era is unusually bad overall because our era offers writers more options than ever. Whether we like them all is another thing, and certainly there's huge controversy over self-publishing, the proliferation of online 'zines and MFA programs, and much more. But there's life in ferment, and ferment is certainly what we have.

In every century, there have been times when world's end seemed near. LeGuin looks at the future through a dystopian lens: "Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies..." Oh, I'm as quick as anyone to let my imagination show me what shadows loom over us and have complete sympathy with such a remark. Solar flares! People on the other side of the world who want to chop off all of our heads! Putin with no shirt on horseback, aiming to be a centaur! Teens who can't put away their dratted iPhones! But these voices of people who "see alternatives" are already with us. We may choose to ignore them. Most of us may never be given a chance to read them. But there are plenty of voices that speak with truth and joy, that hold up what's lasting and see technology only as a useful tool. They are with us. Find them. I love Jeff Sypeck's suggestion in the comments (prior post)about what the powerful, lauded, rewarded Ursula LeGuin could do to help books:
She's right that "we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art." Such people and publishers exist, but you know who's uniquely suited to make them known to the world? Ursula Le Guin! One word from her in the press could sell 20,000 copies of Thaliad. She could start a Facebook page and devote it to nothing but endorsing, and encouraging discussion of, books from smaller presses, or linking to eloquent blogs, or maybe even putting in a good word for the cream of the self-published crop. She could even put conditions on interviewers: Sure, I'll answer a bunch of predictable, fawning questions from the Salon books editor, but only if we can talk about this great little novel I discovered, because not nearly enough people are reading it...
Sienna Latham, New Zealand grad student and Southwesterner
studying alchemy in early modern England and founder
of Hindsight, with cat and Glimmerglass.
What would the American scene look like if all famous-in-our-time writers took their power seriously and used it to support and reveal good but relatively invisible writers? Lovely little bubble of a dream, Jeff!

p. s. Ursula LeGuin is my mother's age--my mother the former librarian, the weaver, the gardener, the volunteer. I love seeing active older women who have something to say  and do. What a great example for those of us coming along in their wake...


I had a jolly time at Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga yesterday evening and managed to thread the labyrinth of little snowy roads home by midnight. Thanks to the lovely people who turned out despite the cold, and who had wonderful questions... And thanks to Rachel Person, who organizes events for Northshire. I first met her at the NBA Awards when her husband, Steve Sheinkin, was on the finalist slate for the YPL (what a fun judging time I had that year--such a great panel of people who were thoughtful and of a similar cast of mind.)


I'll be signing Glimmerglass at the Fenimore Art Museum on the 28th, along with 11 other writers. 11:00-2:00 p.m. I think they'll have some of my other in-print books, including Thaliad and A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage. More on that one later...


  1. As always, I am intrigued by your words.
    Please, if you would, contact me via email. ( I have a question about book publishing that is not appropriate for the comment section.


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.