Monday, July 11, 2011

Anderson Brown - lit-blogger, professor of philosophy

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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? 

AB:  don’t think 911 is probably the fraughtest variable here, I see the situation more as driven by information technology. I’ve yet to look at an electronic book myself but everybody seems to think they’re swell so maybe they are.
I think that traditional literary publishing is in dire straits, that is not at all the same thing as serious literature being in dire straits. In fact we are awash in excellent writers from all over the world.

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?

AB: At the moment the internet is such an effective means of selling and distributing printed books that overall book sales are up, despite the fact that some more traditional publishers and booksellers are struggling to keep up. But in time I predict that the internet will indeed be the principal conduit of information and anyone practicing any kind of intellectual or literary craft will be living and working with the internet.

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?

AB: They’re a huge success. The younger faculty here at the state university, 20-30s crowd, are all into these text-accessing gizmos, on the grounds of research. Don’t ask me any more. Myself, I have yet to look at one, not that I’m resistant, I fully intend to check it all out, only I’m content with books.

Bottom line is, books are old snuggly friends. Invent some new snuggly friend, OK, I’m easy. But I haven’t seen it. And no, the paperback book trade is not in danger. Very strong market. As to hardcovers and journal subscriptions for academic libraries and the whole regime, a lot of us say, good riddance.
4. 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?

AB: I don’t think so. I worked the floor of the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver over twenty years ago and books weren’t that far off in price from now, 15-30 bucks for a very nicely-made paperback trade copy that will last a lifetime on your shelf. Sometimes novice book-buyers would balk, but as I tell my students, well within the pizza budget. As to institutional “textbooks” that cost two hundred dollars, I say good riddance.
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?

AB: Publishers mix it up a bit to see what works. They are in it to make money, but, you know, after all. If there is a strong potential market for “affordable pocket-sized paperbacks,” as you are understanding these, then let’s hope someone chances upon that opportunity.

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?

AB: I’m a blogger. What I see are people out promoting themselves through blogs and social networks. A Tweet deck on Twitter can simultaneously post the content to one’s blog, Twitter, facebook etc. Maybe I just don’t see the people trying to get their stuff read by cold-calling publishers, but I could name a whole lot of writers who I know of from their own efforts on the internet.

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?

AB: “Critics can express nuance, prizes can’t” Oh, well, I’ll take some criticism then! Apples to oranges, two different things.

I guess that I play a part in “building a contemporary canon”; I’m really into Roberto Bolano, for example. But I don’t aim to do that, that’s just a side effect of my collectivist behavior.

The literature is like the language, it’s not the sort of thing that can or should be controlled or managed.

8. The is an ongoing debate over whether newspaper book reviews or lit-blogs provide better criticism; the argument takes various forms, though the one I've seen most often is that newspapers have made too many cuts to column inches, the quality of book reviewers has fallen, and book reviews are often written by writers log-rolling fellow writers, while lit-bloggers are not under commercial pressure nor careerist. Any comments of your own on this situation?

AB: The issue that the internet raises is authority and legitimacy. Presumably a professional critic (one writing for a newspaper or TV or a professional web site), the anchormen of yore, had passed through some filters, some kind of vetting, and so could be given some reasonable credit. But as one dog said to another, “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” And the fact is, you sent me your interview because you noticed me on the web somehow: I wouldn’t be opining here if I hadn’t just started putting my own stuff out there.
In a way it may be a good thing that people from now on will have to develop their critical skills to assess the reliability of their sources of information. Better than mental laziness. A danger is that we all cocoon ourselves in echo chambers that confirm our own biases. That troubles me. 

9. And, 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?

AB: I’ve always read novels. It occurred to me that I could keep a reader’s journal on a blog. In 2006 I set up Anderson Brown’s Literary Blog. All it was was a journal, and it still is nothing more than my report on the latest book. However the blog helped me organize it into something more coherent. Today I specialize in several areas, have an extensive blogroll, am citied in a list of Irish-American cultural links, have been reprinted in a Lagos magazine, get hits from all over the world and a steady trickle of free books, and everything is product-linked to Amazon. And there is a five-year journal discussing, I think, around 80-100 novels. Meanwhile I’m just a guy in his pajamas sitting here doing the same as always.

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