D. Harlan Wilson - writer (They Had Goats Heads)
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?
DHW: Practitioners and readers of literary fiction often romanticize its history, but it’s never been that popular, unless we go far enough back in time to a point where the only thing being published could be quantified as “literary,” at least retrospectively, in which case we’re talking about poetry. By “literary fiction” I mean fiction that’s stylized, allusive, and structured in a figuratively and melodically resonant way. There are exceptions, but what sells is writing with crappy prose, round characters, suspenseful plots, and variable quantities of sex and violence. Genre fiction, mainly. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, mystery, romance, etc. Part of the reason has to do with the movie business. Novelists are encouraged to write in such a way that their books can be easily adapted into films, and special effects are used mostly in science fiction, fantasy and horror. And special effects are what sell; they’re what people want, above all. More, though, is the fact that people don’t read that much, and if they do read, they don’t want to be challenged intellectually, which is what literary fiction does. Readers want mindless entertainment in the form of thrillrides, or sex/love, or some combination of the two, with the occasional witticism or would-be apothegm thrown in here and there. So that’s a problem. For me, anyway. Another problem is that literary fiction nowadays is mostly written by MFA hoity-toits who are visibly affected by their MFAness in their writing and think “good writing” (i.e., non-genre writing) has to be written in a certain clever look-at-me-I-have-an-MFA way. I hate that shit. So the main problem is that most writing, whatever it is, isn’t very good. Again – for me. Name-calling is of course a subjective thing.
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.
DHW: Yes, it makes sense that nonfiction lives larger online than fiction. People who read nonfiction are often more business-oriented, loosely speaking, not to mention that most people who read anything read nonfiction. Unless you’re a literature professor, creative writer, etc., fiction is mostly for entertainment, and readers of fiction, if they aren’t a different crowd than nonfiction readers altogether, regard it differently than they do nonfiction.
It seems that people who read fiction generally like in-print books, magazines, etc., actual things they can touch, with pages they can turn and smell. This is certainly the case with me. I hate reading fiction online, unless it’s flash fiction, which is mainly what I publish in the magazine I edit, The Dream People. I have a short attention span as it is, and I don’t like to spend long periods of time staring at a glowing screen. I like my online fiction quick and pointed. I also have a big library and collect books. Many avid readers feel and do likewise. Granted, the Kindle and other e-readers are becoming more and more popular, but I think that’s mostly for the sake of money. My wife Christine, for instance, reads a lot of trashy novels, mass market paperbacks, and she rips through them at lightspeed, unlike me – I read very slowly. Kindles are great for people like Christine who read quickly and in large quantities. But the quantity of fiction readers who own Kindles is still marginal.
CBT: 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?
The Internet will become a more prominent medium for reading fiction and nonfiction in online formats. But printed books won’t go away. Not anytime soon. And there’s no question at all, in my mind, that the Internet will continue to become a more effective medium not only for selling and distributing printed books, but for promoting them, too.
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?
DHW: I definitely don’t think e-books are good business. There is money to be made, but nowhere near as much as in the print market. This will change somewhat, I suspect, especially with the merger of image/animation+text online. But I still don’t see the print market taking a back seat in the near future.
CBT: In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks) have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too expensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?
DHW: Yes, books are too expensive. I don’t know what’s to be done about it. There’s a lot of factors to take into consideration, ranging from inflation, to declining readerships, to the cost of a printing press. For example, many small presses use the same printing press (e.g., Lightning Source) and the printing press makes most of the money. Larger presses, though, print their own stuff, so most of the proceeds funnel directly to them. Admittedly I don’t know much about the behind-the-scenes goings-on of the publishing industry. One technique I often see is to offer books for free or at discounted prices, for a limited time, as downloads, in an effort to create a buzz and pique consumer interest. I imagine this works well, in some cases, for bigger publishers, but probably not with small presses, and small presses are the ones who mainly do this. I guess I’m just not that optimistic about the future of publishing. Small presses have proliferated in recent years, but they often die quickly, because to compete you have to charge so much per book, at least if you want to offer comparable quality of narrative and presentation of narrative.
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?
DHW: I certainly would like to see the literary pocket-book make a comeback. But that’s just not what readers want. Market forces adjust accordingly. In my experience, contemporary readers who buy mass market paperbacks like their fiction absolutely un-literary, i.e., they want action, suspense, easy-to-understand prose, characters they can relate to, etc. In other words, like I said earlier, they don’t want to be intellectually challenged; the capitalist grind of everyday life is too much of a pain in the ass as it is, and when they curl up with a book, they want to lose themselves, quickly and cleanly and without (linguistic) incident. I can’t blame anybody for that. But we are collectively the authors of our own subjugation. Culture becomes increasingly stupider, and we all produce culture, and culture in turn reproduces us as social subjects. The flows of our desires changed significantly in the postmodern era. This is largely due to electric technologies and image-based media. But it also says something about the basic human condition. Ultimately we don’t want to be cerebral creatures; it’s hard. We want to be dumb animals; it’s easy, and it feels good.
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 unsolicited submissions?
I’ve never used an agent. Nor have I really tried to solicit one, for my adult writing anyway. Only recently have I contacted agents for a few children’s books that I’ve written. I’ve had some positive feedback but who knows what will become of it.
I think agents are definitely useful. It depends on what kind of writer you want to be. And if you want to make money. If money-making is your thing, an agent is indispensable. I make a decent living as an English professor, so I have the liberty of writing more or less what I want, and publications with small presses as well as more prestigious venues bolster my scholarship. I would not encourage folks who want to make a lot of money to do as I do. My writing is, for lack of a better term, experimental, stylistically and conceptually, and that sort of thing doesn’t sell, and editors don’t really like it, for the most part, and readers don’t either. But fiction that takes chances and breaks rules is what I’ve always liked to read and what I’ve always wanted to write.
In terms of “good art,” the best published writing I’ve read has been put out by small presses who take on authors sans agents. At the same time, the worst published writing I’ve read has been put out by small presses. It’s a crapshoot.
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 book is worth reading and all these others aren't?
I was just talking about literary prizes with another author and friend of mine. We concluded that they’re mostly a bunch of bullshit. I’ve read award-winning books that are so awful I couldn’t believe they had ever been published in the first place. And I’ve read incredible books by totally unknown and/or fledgling authors that were published and went out of print without the slightest recognition. The latter is usually a problem of exposure and lack of (publisher) funds for publicity. The main problem with prizes is subjectivity. Subjectivity fucks up everything, really. But it’s not only subjectivity; it’s quality of intellect and perception, too. Some prizes are dished out by committees of “professionals” or “veterans” who have a certain idea about what constitutes, again, “good writing.” Which, of course, doesn’t mean it’s good. But sometimes it’s good. Other prizes, like the Bram Stoker Award, are voted in by anybody belonging to, in this case, the Horror Writer’s Association, so you get authors lobbying for their books, asking all of their friends to vote for them, and it becomes a popularity contest more than a quality contest. But I suppose that has to be the case with the Stoker – most genre horror is crap (mind you, according to my subjectivity) – even if some of the best books I’ve ever read fall into the category of genre horror.
All venom aside, there are certainly exceptions to what I’m talking about. I mean, a Pulitzer or PEN/Faulkner winner might bore me to death, sure, but who can discount its literary merit? Only a goddamned idiot. The point is, like you say, prizes, more and more, are becoming marketing tools. I’ve won awards for my writing for this very reason. It’s a shitty way to build a canon. Canons are inherently flawed anyway – compliments of subjectivity. And historically they’re a white male bourgeois patriarchal project. Thankfully, that’s been changing.
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?
DHW: I don’t like blogs and I don’t read them. I only recently started a blog because I’m an author and I have to have one, right? Despite not liking book promotions at all, I do a lot of promotions. I don’t harbor fantasies about one day becoming a famous author, before or after my death. But I wouldn’t mind landing a few monstrous paydays while I’m alive. Frankly, though, I’m happy right now with some of the recognition I’ve gotten from other authors, reviewers, etc. who I hold in high regard. That means so much to me. For instance, blurbs for my writing that I’ve gotten from Alan Moore, Kim Stanley Robinson, Mike Resnick, Barry Malzburg, Steve Aylett, John Shirley, Larry McCaffery, Robert Venditti, Lance Olsen, Mike Arnzen and others remind me that I might not be as much of a hack as I think I am sometimes. Like I said, my wife and I make a comfortable living as English profs. She’s a writer, too, and any monies that come in from writing are superfluities. Welcome superfluities, no doubt, but they are what they are.
Anyway, blogging is ok. The name of mine is “Goatheads Anonymous,” which calls attention to my upcoming fiction collection, They Had Goat Heads. I call it a flashblog to cater to the short attention span of online readers. I post stuff about my writing and publications, but also ephemera, general observations, information about other authors and filmmakers and artistic figures that I like, bits I find funny on, say, YouTube, and that sort of thing. And I also run The Dream People, which gives me an additional presence online, but I’m more interested in the magazine to showcase authors, artists, etc. that I like and that I can give exposure to.