Jacob Russell of Jacob Russell's Barking Dog and the poetry scene in Philadephia
1. 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?
It’s not at all clear to me what, if anything, is in decline. Literary Fiction is a marketing genre for whatever doesn’t fit in the more precisely defined niches. Most of what gets published and reviewed under that name is retrograde, neophobic pap pushed by reviewers like James Wood who give every appearance of working for the publishers. Publishing is, and has been for some time, in a state of purgatorial transition driven by a bottom line business model mindset, but pursuing practices that make no sense from any perspective. Poetry is said to be dead, but never have more books of poetry been published, written by more poets. If one wants to find fiction that matters, look to similar venues—the many small presses that would seem barely to exist in traditional media, but are richly covered and documented in lit blogs. What to do? Hunt down books that engage your interest and pay no attention to best seller lists.
2. 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?
I haven’t seen an e-book, so can’t say anything about them. They may be a great improvement to reading on-line and perhaps offer an alternative to print. I’m more inclined to think that POD is the future. I mistrust the market driven need you see in computers and software to constantly ‘upgrade’ – regardless of whether the available product does the job or not: the old built-in obsolescence technologically updated. I put a book on my shelf and I know I won’t have to shell our more money a year or so down the line to be able to read it, or to add to my library. If we really want to talk about the future of publishing we need to get out of the trap framing discussion in terms of Late Capitalist economic models.
3. 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?
New HC books are certainly beyond my budget! The audience for those books aren’t the readers for the kind of writing I do. I have no way knowing what the statistical impact has been, but the trend, like so much else, favors an increasing narrow and wealthier customer base, which at the same time, opens markets at the lower end that parallel the growth of dollar stores and low cost retail outlets—except (thank Fred), they aren’t run by mega-corporations. In Philly I’ve lost count of the many small used/new book stores (and not so small, like Book Space, an abandoned 19c. factory with an inventory that compares with Barnes and Noble in sheer number of volumes HERE). These are stores that find low rental space in border neighborhoods, draw in customers with music, readings, eclectic inventories and informal settings. Because they exist below the threshold of the Corporate Collective Hive, they’re never mentioned in stories of the vanishing independent bookstore. I would lay odds that what’s true in Philly is true of major cities across the country, and all I’d have to do to find them if I was traveling, would be to ask poets who go on the road to read, or track them down on the Net.
4. Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once publishing 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 think I’ve covered this. Again, have to get out of that Late Capitalist Corporate framework. They’re irrelevant to what matters to serious readers and all but a handful of writers.
5. 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?
6. 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?
Prizes are a gimmick. Like raffles, or lotteries. A con game to get writers to pay up front to be considered for publication. Fuck ‘em!
7. 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?
I’d say I’m in a transition phase, but then the Barking Dog has been in process from the beginning. I use it as a way to sound out ideas, to post WIP, to network with fellow poets here in Philly, and to a lesser extent, to promote my own writing.
8. Please tell us about the alt art scene in Philadelphia: Feel free to list venues where interesting readings happen, any small magazines and/or publishers that focus on local distribution, any organizations/organizers that deserve mention, as well as particular artists who've caught your attention.
I can’t imagine a better place to be than Philly for poets. There are readings every week—not seldom, three or four, sometimes more. You will hear local poets and readers from all over the country. I’ve heard more than 100 poets just in the last year. We have Philly Sound -- with CA Conrad, who is a kind of force of nature, energizing and encouraging poets and events, and the collective, New Philadelphia Poets—just to mention two. Important here to mention that there’s an easy intercourse between what you’d call the ‘alt’ scene and academically based institutional poetry—Readers House at the University of Pennsylvania, PennSound. Temple University boosts Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Patty McCarthy and Ryan Eckes on their faculty. You will find links to many of these events on my blog.