This weekend, Clockroot participated in the Juniper Literary Festival, hosted by the MFA Program for Poets and Writers at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. It was my first time attending, and was truly a wonderful experience. Despite the bleak perspective of the publishing world overall, the small presses, bookstores, and writers represented at the festival seemed not overly gloomy, and possibly even heartened by a growing sense of community, by the need to find creative solutions to the challenges we all face. Most are located within New England.
Eric Lorberer, founding editor of the Rain Taxi Review of Books, gave a great talk on “The New American Renaissance” in literature, tying the historical moment we find ourselves in to the beginnings of American literature and democracy. He brought up Alexis de Tocqueville’s idea of associations as a defining element of American democracy and culture–associations to build schools and churches, to publish books and newspapers, to play music and govern the life of the nation–in short, to do everything. Lorberer made the point that we are much stronger when we band together than when we try to accomplish everything we need to do on our own.
He also argued that book publishing’s fate is intertwined with that of newspapers and magazines. At a time when we may be trying to save ourselves first and foremost, we cannot ignore the serious losses and setbacks that other media are undergoing, he argued, and we must do everything we can to support them. As an example, the drastic cuts in newspaper and magazine coverage of books are already decreasing publishers’ ability to get the word out about their books to potential readers. (Ray Bradbury laments the loss of LA Times’ book section, which he used to write for, here.) More generally, the health of the news media directly reflects the health of our democracy overall, and in consequence, our ability to question and influence cultural trends. And to publish what we like.
A panel with editorial members of the Massachusetts Review, FC2, Slope, and the lit magazine Jubilat also discussed their approaches to problems of editorial curation, funding, and distribution. No small problems. But the thorniest and most interesting issues came up in questions posed by the audience. One audience member asked the panelists what they were doing to strengthen their associations with other members of the small/independent press community. Their answers: trading ads, hosting joint readings. This is a start, and wonderful events like Juniper, which bring many members of this community together (some for the first time), are a strong step in the right direction. But is this really enough? Will it help us weather all the challenges ahead? Are we doing enough to strengthen our associations with people whose values we share and whose projects and successes are important to our own?
(On that note, I think everyone at Clockroot has been inspired by Open Letter and its blog, Three Percent. Personally, I most admire Chad Post’s endless willingness to devote what some publishers see only as personal PR space to promoting other small presses, bookstores, and authors. In keeping with that idea, we hope, I think, to promote here not only Clockroot’s books, but other relevant and deserving presses and authors as well, that we might strengthen each other and work to create new collaborations.)
Pam brought up another hot topic: e-books. Specifically, she asked if any of the panelists were considering implementing any electronic reading technologies. The resounding answer was no. Certainly, the represented organizations’ small sizes and lack of extraneous funds partially explains their reluctance, or the mere impossibility of such projects. But, meaning no disrespect to the panelists, there also seemed to be a general attitude of: “We don’t like it, and we don’t need it.” And like many bibliophiles, I myself will probably always prefer an actual book to an LCD screen. But does this mean that we should dismiss the idea altogether? Doesn’t this decision mean limiting our ability to reach new, unconventional, or simply distant readers? Doesn’t it mean restricting us to an old-fashioned, highly imperfect system of distribution? Should we really make such an important decision based solely on our personal aesthetic preferences?
Most of the presses represented at the fair may be intentionally cultivating a local, regional, or national audience, and so may be perfectly content with this sort of willful self-containment. But Clockroot, as we focus specifically on literary works in translation, draws authors and ideas from all over the world. If we draw works from everywhere, why would we want to limit our ability to find readers who appreciate this work–wherever they happen to be, regardless of our ability to deliver to them in a conventional fashion?
The ideas of consuming locally grown food and locally created products is, I’m sure, also contributing to this debate. And as you may have noticed, Clockroot’s identity is greatly informed by the Pioneer Valley and the sense of cultural community here. This is something we’re all grateful for. But does the desire to support local presses, authors, and bookstores have to be in conflict with creating a more global audience, or learning about the wider world out there? I don’t know the answer to this question, but I would rather entertain it than answer too hastily.