Sunday, August 08, 2010

Kerry Clare -- critic, lit-blogger

Kerry Clare of Pickle Me This

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?

My take is an outsider’s, a reader’s, but it seems to me like too many books are being published and too many of these are bad. Too many publishing companies invest more money in marketing the bad books than creating good ones. But, economics aside, I see people reading everywhere I go, on public transport, on park benches, walking down the street, and so I’m never too disheartened. Also, independent presses continue to make wonderful books, perhaps because for them, it has never been about economics in the first place.


2. 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?

It’s true, publishers are far more interested in using the internet to sell books than to make books more interesting, and perhaps it’s because of this that I don’t see tons of potential. I know that lots of interesting stuff is happening online, with short fiction in particular, but I don’t read it. Something about the internet makes my attention span shut off. And as a writer, there is such value in print. Online publication seems lesser to me. Though I’d like to be proven wrong about this, if only for the sake of the trees.


3. 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?

The only people I know who read e-books work in publishing, and are paid to get excited about such things. Though it’s worth noting that I travel in circles of book fetishists, and that I owned a cassette Walkman until 2003, and didn’t give up on VHS until a few years later. What I like about books though is that they don’t require a device you have to pay for to be read. They don’t need electricity, when you drop them they don’t break, etc. etc.

That said, I’ve never met anyone with an e-book who didn’t really, really love theirs. Maybe you have to try it to really understand.


4. 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 are not expensive compared to other consumer goods, and compared to how much labour goes into creating them. But cheapness seems coveted above all things by consumers, and so I am sure price has been a deterrent for readers, though that’s about a bigger problem than just in publishing. I’d love it if books could be cheaper and not somehow not devalued, like the Allan Lane penguin paperbacks which were so beautifully designed. Or the way that really good literature used to come out in mass-market paperback. Mass-market paperbacks now are almost universally terrible.


5. 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 guess it’s clear that my answer is yes!


6. 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?

It’s a strange system, and I’m not sure how effective it is, but I do think that something is working. The number of friends I have who’ve published books gives me faith that deserving manuscripts get discovered somehow.


7. 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?

Most readers don’t care about criticism. They’d find the idea of reading about reading ridiculous, and they just want to devour a good book. The kind of books that are most devourable are usually the kind that prizes are awarded to, which is always what gets critics all wound up, but most readers don’t care about critics. Have they ever? And is the canon ever determined by what most people read? Certainly not in retrospect. Ultimately, critics will determine the contemporary canon, they way they always have. They just won’t know it because they’ll be dead.


8. 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 don’t think blogs could ever replace newspapers or magazines, and we’d all be worse off if they tried to. Blogs are complementary to other media, and something wonderfully different onto themselves. I love how they give a voice to the common reader, allowing us to contribute to “the atmosphere which writers breathe as they work” (to steal a phrase from Virginia Woolf). They create wonderful communities of readers who are passionate about books, and we should aim to become better readers through the discussions we have in this community.

Although my blog has always been more of a personal endeavour for me than a community-building one, a way to keep track of my reading experiences and responses. My author interviews have been an extension of this, an opportunity to gain more insight into books I’ve enjoyed, but I know (and appreciate) that other readers value the interviews too. I have had some guest posting during this past year, and have liked the effect of multiple voices, so perhaps I’ll have more of that, but for the most part, I’ll continue as-is.

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