Brenda Schmidt of Alone on a Boreal Stage:
CBT: When I started this interview series it was already clear that publishing -- especially of literary fiction -- was in dire straits. At that time, one explanation that was fashionable was 9/11 was the reason people weren't reading as much literature (or as much anything) as they used to. Now we are living in a time when the long-term repercussions of 9/11 are still with us. But using 9/11 as a primary explanation for what ails literary publishing simply doesn't work. For one thing, we are now in the midst of a particularly serious recession, and for another, it is clear the general decline in reading is a widespread -- and possibly unstoppable -- phenomenon that has roots which go back decades.
What is your take on the current depressed state of literary publishing? Is it a passing phase? Or is it an intractable problem -- in other words, it is the new normal? And if the latter, what can be down to counteract it?
BS: I suspect literary publishing has entered a new phase, a downturn well beyond anyone's control. I should state right off that I just started reading Literary Theory: An Introduction by Terry Eagleton, a book that was mentioned in a post on That Shakespearean Rag a while back. I took courses in analytic criticism and critical theory in the 1990s, which I absolutely loved, and now with three books of poetry under my belt and a couple manuscripts in the oven, I thought it might be a timely and enlightening read as I weigh the publishing options. And it is enlightening. I first paused in the chapter titled "The Rise of English." There Eagleton reminds us that "[l]iterature, in the meaning of the word we have inherited, is an ideology. It has the most intimate relations to questions of social power." It, like religion, is a kind of "social "cement"", as he calls it. Well, it looks like the cement is breaking down. While I was considering all this, I happened to read in The Globe and Mail a review of Jaron Lanier's book You Are Not a Gadget and upon learning that Lanier thinks the digital world is a kind of religion, I thought yes, it is the freshly poured social cement in which we're currently sitting. And setting. Needless to say, I promptly ordered the book. It's on its way.
CBT: How much potential do you think the Internet has as a vehicle of publishing? It's clear that there is a place for online criticism; the lit-blogosphere is dominated by it. The blogger Dan Green has even coined a phrase for this form of critical writing: the crit-blogosphere. But the crit-blogosphere's logical partner -- the fic-blogosphere -- is marginalized. Not many people read short stories or novels online.
Will the Internet really become the medium in which serious people both publish and read fiction? Or is this a technological pipe-dream, and is it more a question of using the Internet as an effective means to sell and distribute printed books?
BS: So many serious people are already heavily invested in this digital reality. A solid web presence is necessary to sell books these days. At least that's what we're led to believe. You can learn a lot about what works by watching other authors and publishers. For instance, I've been following Guy Gavriel Kay's Under Heaven journal ahead of the Canadian release. His Wednesday March 17, 2010 entry speaks to all this far better than I ever could.
Things are evolving so quickly. More and more publishers are offering eBooks. It's hard to say where publishing will go. As far as fiction is concerned, it's my understanding that less and less people are reading short stories and novels in general. I hope it's just a temporary situation and that people will learn to better manage their online time, but a big part of me thinks there's no going back.
CBT: It is arguable the Internet isn't effective as a medium for publishing long works of fiction because very few people can stand looking at regular screens for the necessary length of time. But e-ink provides a solution to this. It eliminates eye strain.
How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business model?
BS: Given the hype surrounding the unveiling of the iPad, I think these technologies are the way of the future. People get excited about shiny new gadgets and some of these gadgets make perfect sense. You can pack so many worlds into the digital world. How wonderful it must be to enter The Year of the Flood when you're crowded on a subway platform during rush hour. That's not my reality, but it is for so many.
CBT: In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks) have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too experensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?
Books certainly aren't cheap, but what is? I suspect it's more a matter of shifting priorities. We've been riding the tail of a nasty recession. Personal debt, as news stories keep reminding us, is at historic highs. After the average person pays their rent or mortgage, pays the daycare, buys groceries, etc, how much is left? Are they willing to spend the remains on a book? Dollar-wise, twenty hardcover literary novels roughly equal a trip to Puerto Plata. Twenty novels equal a root canal. Twenty novels equal a visit to the vet to get the cat fixed. And so on.
CBT: Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once published in hardcover and then, several months later (and a spot on the best-seller lists willing), they were available as affordable pocket-sized paperbacks. However, in the 1980s this practice ceased and literary paperbacks started being published in North America as pricier trade paperbacks. Only genre fiction retained the pocket-book form. In retrospect, was this a prudent decision by publishers of literary fiction? Or should the literary pocket-book make a return?
I haven't run across any recent articles that speak to this. I imagine digital issues are their primary concern right now. How can't they be? I can just see publishers scratching their heads as they consider the future. Meanwhile they're posting events on Facebook and links on Twitter as the slush pile behind them reaches for the ceiling.
CBT: Agents now have enormous power, effectively controlling which writers get access to acquisition editors at major houses. Furthermore, agents find themselves under enormous pressure, acting as the line of first readers who have to sift through avalanches of submissions. Is this tenable over the long run? Is it good for art? Or should large houses be accepting both agented and unsolicitied submissions?
As a poet published by small presses, I have no experience with this. I read the stories coming out of the book world just like everyone else and wonder where things are going. I often wonder how much art is lost in the slush pile. A fair bit would be my guess.
CBT: Literary prizes have also grown in power. They have arguably replaced the glowing review as a marketing tool. But are they as effective as criticism in building a contemporary canon? After all, critics can express nuance, prizes can't. Do book prizes give the message: this books is worth reading and all these others aren't?
Literary prizes are powerful indeed. A nomination for a major prize means the book will be purchased. It means it will be reviewed. Everyone knows this. That's just the way it is right now. I'd like to think that marketing and canon building are very different animals, but perhaps that's just wishful thinking on my part. After all, both literary prizes and criticism are, for the most part, judgments made by peers. The former comes with big bucks and bling while the latter is buried in the Saturday paper. I wonder how many people actually appreciate nuance in this Gaga age. Less and less, it appears, if one goes by the shrinking space for reviews.
CBT: Thinking of your own site, what sorts of changes do you foresee in it? Are blogs destined to become the new magazines? Will you start using a format (and possibly working with partners) in a magazine-type way? Or is blogging as it's currently defined how you want to keep posting work on the Net?
More and more magazine-style blogs are springing up, and with the funding cuts to literary magazines in Canada I'm sure there will be more. I have no plans to start a blog-based magazine right now, but you never know. And I don't foresee any major changes in the way I blog. I began to blog prior to the publication of my second book with the hope that it would help my work find readers. While I have no way of measuring its success in that regard, I do know that blogging has brought me into closer contact with the larger writing community. Thanks to blogging, I hear helpful gossip. I get the odd heads-up. I have access to a range of opinions. I get the odd gig. Thanks to blogging, I'm confident that I could visit any city in Canada and find a friendly table of writers who would invite me to sit down. That's important to me and no small feat given that I live in a mining town in northern Saskatchewan. But that's what the internet, at its best, can do.