Jon Paul Fiorentino of the lit-blog Asthmatronic, the literary magazine Matrix, and the small-press publisher Snare Books:
1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?
I think it's exaggerated to a certain extent. It's pointless to blame other media. I live in a world where people buy books, read books, talk about books. The literary press world I am involved in has its challenges for sure, but I see positive outcomes ahead.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the novel be considered the prime example of it?
Literature is the result of an artful use of language. I think. I don't know if the novel is always the best example. There are non-literary novels out there, like the Da Vinci Code or the novels of William Shatner.
3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.
Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?
It's a tricky question. Remuneration is important for literary artists because they often get so little for their hard work. I think people are smarter than to lose their critical abilities simply because of award culture. I think that prizes can bring an important work to a larger audience. I feel sorry for those whose reading lists consist only of award winners, but you can't blame award culture for that. People should know better and for the most part, I think they do.
4. The publishing industry has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?
The world I live in is the world of the Canadian literary press. So the cult of the deal is not a huge issue. Presses like Coach House Books (who I publish with) and Snare Books (which I operate) make decisions based on the artistic vision of the editors. I look at sales figures in order to see how to improve what I'm doing for my authors but not to determine what to acquire.
5. As well, should the Canadian cultural nationalism of the 1970s make a comeback? Do we need a "National Culture Policy" that will put more Canadian books front and center in bookstores?
I don't think a policy that attempts to celebrate Canadian books equates to nationalism. I think Canadians should read contemporary Canadian literature. But of course, they don't have to.
6. Last summer, Douglas Coupland published an article in the New York Times criticizing Canadian literature for having too many books set in rural rather than urban settings. Is he right?
He's right. Mostly right. I mean, most of us live in urban centres. The anachronistic tendency of Canadian fiction and poetry is something to be concerned about.
7. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?
No, it's not a sound policy. It's a very dangerous policy.
8. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?
I don't believe in bitching and moaning about fairness. But there is some work to be done to ensure that corporations, both retail and publishing, are acting ethically. They don't always. And they must be held accountable. But being a small press author does have its advantages. You can be insistent, even aggressive about your own work without being 'corporate'.
9. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?
10. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
I don't know. I do most of my work on-screen. But like most writers and editors, I am a fetishist. Book lovers will always love books.
11. You're the author of "The Theory of the Loser Class" and blog at Asthmatronic -- a site devoted to all things loser. In the past, CanLit has produced two of my favourite loser novels: "Sad Paradise" by Britt Hagarty and "1978" by Daniel Jones. Jones' work is still remembered. Hagarty's seems to have slipped into oblivion. Does Canada do too little to keep the flame alive of lesser known writers? Is Canada a bad country for an artistically spirited loser?
No. It's simply that we were born to lose. So it shouldn't come as a surprise when that happens.
11. Editors of small presses and literary journals tend to be taken for granted. Yet there is a strong argument for saying they stand out as real heroes of contemporary literature; they actually read work by unknowns -- a habit the major publishers and agents have, generally speaken, fallen out of. Do editors of small presses and small magazines deserve higher status within the cosmology of literature? Are they currently under-appreciated?
In my personal cosmology, they hold the highest status possible. And since I'm never wrong, I think they deserve a higher status in the universe.
Bio: Jon Paul Fiorentino is a Montreal-based poet whose most recent is THE THEORY OF THE LOSER CLASS (Coach House), as well as an editor and publisher. He co-edits Matrix Magazine and publishes Snare Books.