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.