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

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Updatery and good words

Updatery

In a few hours, I'll be off to Saratoga, New York, where I'll read from Glimmerglass tonight at the Northshire Bookstore on Broadway. I've never read there before, and it's a weeknight, so I'm crossing fingers and toes in hopes of seeing a reasonable number of human beings in chairs at 7:00 p.m.

My Tuesday event at the Delhi Women's Club went off wonderfully--I loved talking to a big group of women! I ought to do groups of that sort more often. They're lively and smart, and a lot of them are readers.

LeGuin on words and freedom

Back from a Saratoga reading and after a good night's sleep, I  have some more settled thoughts here.

Here's a quote from Ursula LeGuin's speech at the National Book Awards. You can read the whole thing here

I agree with her about much, though I think these problems are not new, and that we have some of the writers she calls for--they are simply less visible than they might have been in a different age. And some of her points are the reason that we should not simply accept a publisher's koolaid that tells us which books are the best books...

Plenty of books remain relatively invisible, never nominated for the major awards (that costs a small publisher a good bit of money), never pushed as lead book by a publisher, seldom read, staying alive by word of mouth. Yet we have small presses and new alternatives, and that's good. In fact, a lot is good.

Please leave your thoughts, as I am dithering mightily on what I think about what she has to say! She does divorce freedom from capitalism, and that's a very big deal.
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship.

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write.

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.

14 comments:

  1. I think it a bit of screed...and odd. All the bad guys are there -- evil greedy publishers, corporations, and profiteers. She needs to go back and read Balzac's "A Harlot High And Low" -- none of what she is talking about is new to the business -- maybe just on a bigger screen. But holy crap, there are fabulous small press who do a terrific job, there are excellent international book fairs, and there are more and more tools to sell publishing. So our freedoms to create the books that matter to us are not truly impeded. Those hard times she talks about (which sound more Soviet than Capitalist -- though she wouldn't agree) are balanced by a whole new set of choices that authors now have which they didn't before.

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    1. Yes, that's what I think is missing! Bad things are always with us, it seems, but what about those things?

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    2. I'll have to update this when I know what I think. I'm swinging back and forth on a lot of what she says... But i have to get ready and go to Saratoga! Stop, snow! Forebodings and bad faith vs. hope and small publishers and new alternatives? Which will win out. Must think.

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  2. Grr...that should of have been "self publish" -- where even bad books do really well -- ala Shades of Grey. And good books grow and thrive ala "Wool."

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    1. I'm still planning on doing some self-published reprints... when I get the time! ACK, time!

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  3. Oh, I think she's saying something important, both about the capitalistic forces that have taken over the publishing industry (this is a fact, and small presses can only do so much to counter it or offer alternatives) and about the role of art in pointing to different ways of being. I share her assessment about dark times, and how important art will be in helping culture and spirit survive.

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    1. Hmm, I'm swinging back and forth on this one. Bad times, yes. Small presses, yes. Publishers sold out, yes. Alternatives, yes.

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    2. I'm going to have to mull the whole thing more, I guess, as I don't seem to know my mind!

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  4. I think we have come to a very dangerous place. We have come to accept capitalism as a religion and not simply as a tool. There has always been greed, but it used to be considered a vice, now it is a virtue.

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    1. Ah, that's one I have no trouble agreeing with... for a moment. On the other hand, I disagree and find that this applies to only a segment of the population... and that we don't need to be so paranoid about the free market! I MUST BE CHANNELING EMERSON!

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  5. Dear people, I must go to Saratoga and so can't think about anything else, but I'll be very interested to see your comments when I get back. At which time I may be able to think sensibly again. Please spend the intervening time praying for NO MORE SNOW TODAY. Or in the wee hours of tomorrow.

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  6. I admire Le Guin and I like her work, but I agree with Midori: This is a screed. Her lamenting the state of publishing at the age of 85, after a long career as a bestselling author which presumably also made her relatively wealthy, reminds me of those professors who come out, wanly and hypothetically, against the academic labor system—but only after they get tenure. She makes some worthwhile points, but in this matter, she's hardly a profile in courage.

    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...

    "Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write." Please. When was the last time someone told Ursula Le Guin what to write, or said no to any book she wanted to publish? I know she doesn't necessarily mean herself here, but with whom is she claiming solidarity? At this stage in her career, how can she not feel impossibly distant from those of us who publish with small presses, self-publish, and cling to the bottom of the midlist?

    With that, I'll politely withdraw to the Cave of Contrarianism...

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    1. Exactly. It's hard to look at her comments relating to capitalism without feeling that she's got her pot of gold and can afford to say what she likes...

      Jeff, that's a fabulous thing to suggest to her! You should do it!

      Yes, I agree. Impossibly distant. And some of us have walked away from the publishers she calls "commodity profiteers" and toward situations where we can do exactly what we want. When we do, we pay for it in lower sales. But that's the price for the freedom she touts.

      You're a good contrarian. You may sit with Midori and have a cup of tea now. Me, I'm fresh back from the reading in Saratoga and am going to tumble into bed.

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    2. Forgot to say that I've talked to someone who was at the NBA dinner and says that, yes, she seemed angry... And that the publishers at the table didn't comment...

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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.