Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Jordan Jones -- writer, publisher (Leaping Dog Press)

Jordan Jones of Leaping Dog Press:

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 narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

Literature is definitely dying. We live in a post-literate culture, with the attention span of small furry woodland creatures. The causes are many: television, video games, the internet, the telephone. The 20th century has mustered a full-scale assault on thought and communication.

2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the novel be considered the prime example of it?

Literature is the nuanced written communication of human emotion, predicament, and passion. The novel is *a* prime example, but so are drama, poetry, the short story, and evocative non-fiction.

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 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"?

Literature should be considered a calling, not a career. Prizes and the MFA programs (and I admit here that I contributed to the latter by taking an MA in Creative Writing), have turned out to be part of the death throes of literature. Occasionally the top prizes (Prix Goncourt, Nobel, Whitbread, etc.) will help get notice for work that might otherwise not get the notice it should. But there were years in the later life of James Joyce when no one was awarded a Nobel prize in literature because no worthy writers could be found. Awards can be as political as anything else.

4. Literary publishing 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?

With a ten-fold increase in books published and a 50% decrease in column inches for reviews, it is now 20 times less likely that a small press title will get reviewed in the New York Times, Publishers Weekly, and the rest. Sales figures are dismally low for the literary titles.

5. 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?

If work is commercially viable, it will be agentable. However, more than the economically viable is worth publishing. Literary houses, which often have little to offer financially, don't much attract agented work, and they are the venue for those squeezed out. One possible trajectory here is that the economies of print-on-demand may make it [possible to keep publishing literary fiction].

6. Returning to the question of agents -- are they too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?

Agents are beneficial for the kinds of work they can sell. Of course, they can't create buyers, nor reverse the trend toward celebrity biographies and books by psychiatrists and medical doctors who have Oprah's ear. They sell ... what sells. That's their function.

7. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?

Way too many. But too few of the big publishers will publish the kind of edgy fiction, let alone poetry, that the smaller houses handle. But the marketplace has gotten very confusing for readers. In the age of the internet and print-on-demand, it's difficult for a reader to have any sense whether the books they are coming across are of value.

8. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

The "form" of the book is a pleasant thing, but it is rapidly being replaced by YouTube.

9. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?

There are many opportunities on the internet to find new audiences. But literature needs to expand beyond the bounds of the page, or even of the written word.

10. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

They can buy it!

11. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?

I am working on a play by Joe Martin, a playwright and director in Washington, DC's avant-garde theatre scene, about Rumi, the Persian mystic. Additionally, I'm working on a collaborative multimedia project with visual art, music, and fiction riffing on Borges by Rikki Ducornet and friends.

Bio: Jordan Jones is the author of Sand & Coal, published by Futharc Press in 1993. His poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and translations have appeared in The American Book Review, Asylum, The Boston Book Review, Fiction International, Heaven Bone, The LA Reader, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Small Press, as well as in the anthologies Anyone Is Possible: New American Short Fiction (Red Hen Press, 1998) and What Book!?: Buddha Poems from Beat to Hip Hop (Parallax Press, 1998). In 2004, Obscure Publications published Selections from The Wheel.

His translations of Rene Daumal's poetry collection Le Contre-Ciel appeared in two volumes from Obscure Publications in 2003 and 2004. His translation of Rene Daumal's novella Mugle is forthcoming from Leaping Dog Press.

He was co-editor of The Northridge Review and poetry editor of California Quarterly, and founded Bakunin (1990-1997), a literary magazine "for the dead Russian anarchist in all of us." In 2003, he co-founded and co-edited the online multimedia collaborative art exhibit, The 365 Project, (the365project.org). He is currently the editor and publisher of Leaping Dog Press and Asylum Arts Press, which has been publishing since 1980. LDP/AA has over fifty titles in print by a diverse group of authors, from Baudelaire to Nerval, from Stephen Dixon to Rikki Ducornet, from Richard Kostelanetz to Robert Peters.

He lives in the Neuse River Watershed of Wake County, North Carolina.


  1. Sylvia9:19 pm

    Somehow I don't agree with the author- literature isn't dying...it's changing. I guess every change is a death in itself.
    This portal goes to prove that books are still very much in the picture.

  2. So many of the organized demonstrations against the status quo of the 60s and 70s were the work of intelligent, literate people. Even those considered rabble and trash by the power elite of the day were quoting Marx, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Fanon and so forth as justification for the unrest. There was samizdat protest poetry; there was guerilla street theater; there were high-profile literary figures joining the marches and speaking out against war and unquestionably making a difference.

    If I wanted a certain peace of mind as a member of the ruling elite, in order to "fix" the situation and foster a climate of relative docility, I'd normalize a materialist, anti-intellectual culture. Owning and controlling various media feeding troughs it wouldn't be impossible to shape popular opinion; I'd run it like any political campaign, only with a much longer (generational) arc in mind.

    I'd canonize imagery and demonize thought; I'd privelege the emotional catharsis of the group (or audience) over the loner's confidence in her or his own eyewitnessing or logical conclusions. I wouldn't burn dangerous books...I'd simply make it unprofitable to write them and embarrassing (or intellectually impossible) to read them.

    How would I do that, at a level deeper than that of editorial policy or more direct than the seductive aura of a vacuously charismatic political figurehead?

    Start at the level of grammar school; of kindergarten; of course: I'd be sure not to repeat the mistakes of an earlier age (during which a generation capable of critical thinking was accidentally raised) and remove most notions of liberalism/secular humanism from early education and start right away on such distracting, thought-muddling issues as school prayer and Creationism and so forth. I'd waste attention spans and intellectual energy on dress codes, debates about the flag and classes on abstinence. Popular Religion, which is both anti-intellectual and anti-commonsense in a global dose, would be an important tool.

    Apropos of which, of course, I'd start banning books left and right; the pretext would be "obscenity" but the context would be the obscenification of free thought and rebellion. "Huckleberry Finn," "Slaughterhouse Five," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and so forth would have to come off of the curriculum for all those impressionable junior high school students. Books about "The Rapture" would be a useful replacement: who's going to fight for a life, a democracy, or a even a planet itself that's destined soon enough, in any case, to vanish in a Biblical flash of righteous apocalypse? Even those who weren't strict believers who had nevertheless been exposed to the trope would, on some level, believe.

    All those kids from a generation or two before who identified with anti-authoritarian Huck Finn or Billy Pilgrim or Randall P. McMurphy would now identify with a militarized Christ (or an Alex P. Keaton) instead.

    So. How long would the above-described scenario need in order to take effect? As long as it takes for a brainwashed consumer to come of age. You'd see the first effects in a decade from inception, probably. For the sake of argument, say the date of inception coincided with the Reagan inauguration...

    Slowly, the giddy, free-wheeling, frank and postmodernist literary experiments of the late 60s and 70s would yield to the flashy-and-or-bland professionalism of the 80s, 90s and beyond. The age of high-end literary fiction topping the charts would be over because *the replacement audience for it would be under-educated out of existence*; instead, most books would become non-fiction and what fiction as survived would become mere paper television...soothing us with whimsy or manipulating our emotions but leaving the critical regions of our ironed-flat minds serenely unmolested.

    This could be what you mean by, "literature isn't dying...it's changing," ...or maybe not.

  3. Finn Harvor8:03 pm

    A couple of points. First, re: contemporary culture's canonization of the image -- surely it is the *photographic* image that must be questioned, or, if that's too much for a technologically advanced society to stomach (everyone loves their camera, including me), then at least the sexualized camera-generated image. (Case is point: yesterday some students took me out for lunch to a Seoul version of a N. American family restaurant. Playing on the monitor in the waiting area beneath all the distracted moms and running-around kids was a music video showing a woman of such sublime gorgeousness, of such hyper-kineticized sexual appeal, that the images were not so much reminiscent of TV-as-it-once-was but the Penthouse magazine of the 1970s, with its rather innocent lack of hard-core and its highly aetheticized palette of Kodachrome-soaked reds, greens and the tawny browns of tan skin.)

    Second: re: political activism now vs. political activism then -- well, I don't know if the activists of the 60s and 70s were really that much more literarily sophisticated than the activists of today ... but perhaps so; it was a more literate time generally. This begs the question, though, of whether we should be making *more* political (or at least, politically informed) literary art now. This goes back to a conversation I had several months ago with Dan Green -- he's very firmly against politics in art; the contemporary literary sensibility is anti-politics because it is anti-tendentiousness. And that's fair enough -- bad art is bad art, no matter what its justification. (Though defining "bad art" ain't as easy as it seems.) In any event, isn't the flaw of Green's argument its throwing-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater tendency? Yes, in a perfect world art and politics would be separate. But the imperfect world we have always lived in has become markedly less perfect in, oh, say the past four years. Maybe the standards we apply to art need to possess some flexibility and recognition of larger contexts

  4. Finn:

    I'm not "against" politics in Art...but I do consider political Art a form of kitsch. I think that Art influences political thought without having to indulge in its specific battles; what beauty and solace I find in Art, I find in its ambiguity.

    I think that the "best" literature (how to define that is a separate 500 page discussion, I guess), in all of its ambiguity, has the power to shape and sharpen the mind of the citizen...I think the benefits are subtle and powerful (the sensitizing and refinement of worldview)...and only possible if the citizen is capable of actually reading.

    I've a film director friend in Berlin who was a video artist in 1968, and I've seen footage (in his collection) of Genet, Burroughs and Ginsberg involved in a political protest in Chicago in '68. I think we'd be hard-pressed to find footage, from recent years, of such a constellation of literary practitioners not only involved with radical protest but also well known enough by the crowd that their mere presence would be significant! Like them or not, all three were arguable Outsiders who influenced the thinking of their time; I think its fashionable to discount the impact that Outsider ("hippie") worldviews had on things back then, but contrasting then with now, it's almost astonishingly clear that the received wisdom on all that is either simply wrong or propaganda. The system was, in fact, affected...things changed...(without the 60s, and its successful anti-War movement, as a preamble, would the Nixon impeachment have been possible?) the changes weren't all permanent, of course, but that's because so much energy was put into rolling the changes back.

    College campuses were the hotbeds of radical thought in that long-gone era and they tend now (with a few exceptions that only serve to prove the rule) to be bastions of conservative dogma; even the bien-pensant freshman tends to be deeply compromised by her/his consumerism. I blame the gutting of the Liberal Arts education...but that goes back to my initial comment.

    Anyway, it's more than possible that I'm utterly wrong in all this...it's easy to see what one expects (wants?) to see and disregard contradictory info. If the contradictory info in this case is more hopeful, I don't mind being absolutely wrong and having my eyes opened to this. Truth is, I'd be relieved, because the alternate worldview's so dire.

  5. Or, let's put it this way (addressing politics in Art): I think an *aesthetically* radical Artistic statement...something capable of challenging cozy comformities of thought and behaviour by presenting an interesting alternative...is more powerful, politically, than any writing that addresses itself literally and specifically to the issues.

    Any way, I welcome this exchange, Finn...thanks for the thoughtful response!