Matthew Firth, author (Suburban Pornography, etc), publisher (Black Bile Press), and editor (Front and Centre):
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?
I think it’s an exaggeration. Too much dithering by those who don’t have enough to do in their daily lives, so they create anxiety over the state of literature. But, then, seriously, who cares if literature is in trouble when the planet is in trouble, when millions worldwide are in trouble, when kids everywhere are in trouble, etc. Relatively speaking, whether literature is in trouble or not is a sickeningly bourgeois notion.
2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the traditional novel be considered the prime example of it?
I’m not sure. Anything that’s written down might be literature. Travel brochures are often called travel literature. Someone hands you a pamphlet on the street and says, “You wanna to read some literature?” So maybe it is just about anything, including the novel.
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"?
Yes, literary prizes of all sorts – big and small – size doesn’t matter, the small ones are just as insidious as the big ones – should be resisted, both by readers and writers. They are bullshit through and through. Writers competing for prizes and awards is ridiculous and pathetic. Readers who covet only prize-winning books are lazy and are following the crowd without bothering to think about how they’re spending their $20 or whatever. Yes, prizes bad.
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?
Not sure. I'm uncomfortable with the notion this is a recent thing. Art has always had a whorish aspect to it. Our hyper-commercial world just makes this more obvious. But artists and writers have been selling themselves for centuries, so, in that sense, why stop now?
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?
No, it’s not a good policy. It’s counterintuitive – how do you find new voices if you only read agented fiction when to be agented means you’ve been at it a while and are no longer new and likely have published a book or two already? Makes no sense. Yes, good writing will be squeezed out. But that’ll happen anyway. Writers should stop crying over such things and just work a little harder at what they’re doing, rather than blaming the fucking system or some such.
6. 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?
It’s not this simple. This makes it all sound so controlled and manipulated and evil. Leave that to governments.
7. 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?
Don't know. I don't have an agent. I've had three books published by three different presses.
8. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?
Too many of a certain kind, how about that? Too many that publish really boring, mewling middle class books. Not enough with any balls to what they're doing.
9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?
Again, over-rated. The book in its current form is a beautifully effective high technology. I mean a real, paper and glue book – it's very high technology. It's high tech because it works so well. You can read it on the shitter, in bed, on the bus, in the coffee shop on your lunch hour and it takes no energy apart from what your mind churns. It's very difficult to improve upon. I don’t think it can be improved upon. E-books and the like are a ploy to sell more shit to people who have too much shit to begin with and too much money to spend on useless shit.
10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?
Yeah, it makes the world smaller, more accessible. So folks in other parts of the earth can find you in a few seconds. You can make quicker connections. But the competition to maintain those connections is fiercer. You have to have some savvy to stay visible online.
11. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?
If so-called venerable institutions are going to save literature, start planning the funeral procession now. I have next to no use for English Departments. Libraries are of more value, are more egalitarian, smell more like how people really smell. That sort of thing.
12. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?
Writing new short stories. But I work slowly. I have to fit it in. I have a regular Joe day job, two kids, wife, commitments, etc. Writing is my vice and my indulgence. Suburban Pornography has been out for a year now. I’m still pushing it when I can. But a new book is a ways off yet. I’m still doing Front&Centre and all my Black Bile Press stuff, which always excites me. Working on the micro press scale is a lot of fun, very gratifying. The writers are more down to earth, and appreciative and giving and don't have that snotty sense of entitlement that so many bigger time writers have.
Bio: Matthew Firth lives in Ottawa. His latest publication is Suburban Pornography.