At BEA this year, the lesson we small presses were left with was: Twitter. I had been thinking of Twitter as a fad and a rather lame one—after all, one of my first encounters with it was this. Which seemed to illustrate, and violently, the obvious criticisms of Twitter—the superficiality and distraction of the form, etc.—and show not only how dangerously insufficient such forms of communication can be, but what can happen when we choose them over actual dialogue, fashion over substance, form over content, why governments shouldn’t talk like teenagers.
But as soon as I was home from BEA I signed Clockroot up for Twitter. This wasn’t just a capitulation, to the market art has to survive in (etc.), although it could feel like that. Instead, as Pam noted, as her wonderful editor Fred Ramey has clearly known for some time, the people who were on Twitter, who were talking up Twitter (and Pam and I didn’t even attend the real Twitter party—) were the people who were excited. From whom one got industry buzz that was truly positive—a bee pollinating?—and not the buzz we’ve all been hearing lately, more like some anachronistic fly plummeting from light bulb to death throes. Publishing conversation has been all doom-and-gloom, talk of the end of the book, zero growth, the coming dark age of Google—but the young booksellers, publishers, bloggers, the readers who tended to be on Twitter had another kind of energy. That there are (still) great books, there are (still) great publishers, there are (still) great bookstores, and the internet with its weird and faddy forms is (still) an unprecedented way to discover them and help them discover one another. What other generation has been so lucky, to be able to encounter so directly, so inexhaustibly, other readers, publishers, booksellers, writers from around the world?
Much of this impression is thanks in particular to a conversation with an employee of Word Brooklyn. She summarized what she likes about Twitter, saying more or less, It makes you feel less alone. You realize that you’re off in your little corner doing this work, but there are people doing this work all over, and you can hear from them and support each other… I was so interested by this summary, because I would have thought that one thing the employees of great independent bookstores didn’t feel was alone, isolated. That in contrast to the chain stores they are rooted in their communities, are a gathering place, where a community of people living in one neighborhood or town meets a community of another kind, the kind that somehow alchemizes out of words on pages (or, perhaps, words on screens). The sort of magic worked by Amherst Books—it’s not that I can’t imagine the town of Amherst without it, technically, but that when I think of Amherst, what the place is, and is to me, the idea of it is already been born of that bookstore.
But it seems that this and no less than this—an origin and locus of community—is what the independents have to be to survive. They have to be better at community than both chain stores and the internet. They have to be both more of a place and more of all places: able to navigate the enormity of options, this long tail we all hear about, to curate and present the result to their own local community members. This is no small task, and makes me feel suddenly that independent publishers may in fact have it easier—we may go under, but we can do so with our own particular stubborn personalities, our books still out there somewhere. A closed independent bookstore once closed is just gone, a place people can only talk about nostalgically, the site of so many lost opportunities.
And, worse, or better, maybe those are just the sort of opportunities people are hungriest for right now—or at least that’s the buzz. That as the age of the suburb, the strip mall, the box store, the identical fractals comprising America, becomes the age of the internet, it’s this community—of particular individual places—that people miss, maybe even long for, are looking to build. This will give independents an edge, but more a theoretical one, an edge on everything intangible—the tangible, financial advantages belong to the big guys, the chain stores, the transnational media companies that own the big publishers who (used to at least) have the enormous advances and print runs and advertising budgets. So in figuring out how to actually possess that edge, we independents will indeed have to be hearing from each other, we’ll have to be in our neighborhoods and online, participating in and thus also shaping the possible communities. We’ll have to be figuring out what our particular voices actually are, what we can offer, which will mean a lot of conversation—and so maybe even Tweeting.
For another meditation on what I think are the same set of questions: Louis Menand’s essay in the most recent New Yorker. Menand is reviewing, very positively, Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, a reflection on the relationship between postwar American fiction and creative writing programs. The subtitle of the review is the old question “Should creative writing be taught?”, which is what drew me to it particularly, as a current MFA student, of course. Menand ends with a reflection on his own time as a creative writing student that I found engaging and bravely close to sentimental:
I’m sure that our undergraduate exchanges were callow enough, but my friends and I lived for poetry. … We thought that discovering a new poet or a new poem was the most exciting thing in the world. When you are nineteen years old, it can be.
Did I engage in self-observation and other acts of modernist reflexivity? Not much. Was I concerned about belonging to an outside contained on the inside? I don’t think it ever occurred to me. I just thought that this stuff mattered more than anything else, and being around other people who felt the same way, in a setting where all we were required to do was to talk about each other’s poems, seemed like a great place to be. I don’t think the workshops taught me too much about craft, but they did teach me about the importance of making things, not just reading things. You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make.
And if students, however inexperienced and ignorant they may be, care about the same things, they do learn from each other. … I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
This line, “You care about things that you make, and that makes it easier to care about things that other people make,” seems a good working definition of what role we “independents” (publishers, booksellers, whatever small-scale institution) have to one another, to a possible community of independents. We like to think we’re better at what we do than the big, profit-driven companies can be. There’s a possibility for self-righteousness in there, and plenty of missteps possible in the dance we all have to do between surviving in the market and serving art and community as we’ve meant to. But there’s also the idea that the work we do excellently in our little corners makes us better appreciate—better readers of—the work others do excellently in theirs. That it’s not just that we think writing a great book, recommending a loved book to a friend or customer, hosting a great reading, publishing something one really believes in, enriches the world, but also that it makes us more easily enriched, more enrichable.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything”—on the one hand, this is an everyday phrase, it doesn’t seem a particularly original note for the essay to end on. But these are all meditations on old themes, not original ones, just as the ways that we organize ourselves, despite whatever new media, hold the old structures inevitably in them and have to come to terms with this. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything is also an impossible phrase: one can’t trade one’s own past, of course, it’s not as though Menand is commenting on something materially, actually possible. Perhaps he’s also saying, then, that this experience he shared (and shares) in is beyond trade, beyond everyday considerations of value, beyond the market…
“Do you enjoy readings?” a friend (met in fact through an MFA program) asked recently as we were heading into a reading at the aforementioned Amherst Books—where UMass MFA students tend to go to readings at least once a week. “I don’t really think about it,” I ended up responding, and we concluded, Sometimes yes, sometimes no, but when they’re good, they’re unlike anything else. We agreed: You just go to readings, it’s not a question of what’s it worth or whether you enjoyed it, it’s just what you do. “Like church,” was the phrase. Indeed: a (literary) community needs its sites of worship, physical and maybe even virtual. And what happens in them may be the closest to church our particular (secular, distracted, web-surfing, whatever adjectives are associated with us) generation of readers, writers, humans online has. And maybe that’s no loss, but another form to be lived in.
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