Thursday, January 18, 2007

James Chapman -- author, publisher (Fugue State Press)

James Chapman of Fugue State Press:

1. Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?

Anybody who enjoys doing so can still take a piece of paper (or a website) and write two words next to each other. So literature is OK. We’re writers, and our press has operated for fifteen years on this basis: that good work will take care of itself. If it doesn’t sell right away, OK, but with us it stays in print. For decades--nothing goes out of print. That way, if you wrote the book well enough, it will be gradually found and read by the people who really need it. Meanwhile writers should do their work, and not distract themselves with questions about business trends.

2. And what is literature, anyway? Should the novel be considered the prime example of it?

Literature is writing that’s art, and is not debased. Which form is the “prime” form...this isn’t something writers need to think about as they work. Novels have no status above blogs or haiku, because forms don’t carry a status; any form can be done at a high pitch of beauty and emotionality. Also any form can be (and will always be) debased into a convention. A writer should work in whatever form attracts his temperament. I personally publish (and write) novels because they interest me more than anything else literary. Good novels expand. Whether they’re saleable lately is not as important as whether or not they’re wonderful.

3. Prizes and awards are playing an increasing role in determining an author's career-trajectory. In short, winning a major literary prize can win a writer a large audience overnight (not to mention, considerable fame and financial remuneration). But, as British critic Jason Cowley has observed, what is lost is the ability for readers to think in a critically complex fashion.

Are literary prizes dangerous in this regard? Do they convey to the public the message that "this book is worth reading and all these others aren't"?

Literature is not a competition in any way. So prizes are always goofy, unless they’re cash awards given to writers who are actually going hungry. And for some reason that’s rare. Sartre turned down the Nobel to prevent himself from becoming an oppressive brand name. He didn’t want his private voice reinforced by the institutional authority of The Prize. He had a good idea there. But readers are free. They’re free to be attracted by prizes if that’s how they feel about it. They’re even free to think in ways that British critic Jason Cowley would not consider “critically complex.”

Folks’ve been giving out prizes to writers since Aeschylus, and some readers love hearing about it, and others are skeptics who can see right through the scam. But you can always cheer up a morose writer by giving him a prize. So prizes are good for that. There’s an old trick where literary society people serve as judges on these prize panels, and award the book prizes to their own society-writer friends. Lately some of these tricksters have been caught and gotten a little bit (not enough) of bad publicity. But the fashionable-society side of literature is a closed system, and the folks who run it have no shame, so the practice won’t change I guess.

4. Literary publishing has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being pushed out?

Art and commerce can’t be “married.” What you get is shite. It’s not even good commerce. It’s like the marriage of lasagna and tar.

5. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out?

We’ve never gotten a good book through an agent. We don’t actually have a policy that states “We do not accept agented work,” but maybe we should. Agented submissions are always in some sense commercial writing--vetted and often messed-with by the agent--and never contain very much of what we consider beautiful or interesting.

6. Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem that the majors are squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end? In other words, even when good writers get published by small houses, do they have a fair chance of winning an audience? Or are the major houses introducing an overly corporate, overly aggressive mentality to the book trade?

People who want to read something deeply interesting are going to seek it out, even if it takes a couple of Google searches. A person like that isn’t going to read a book just because some marketer shoves the book in front of his face. People who don’t want to read something deeply interesting, those aren’t our readers; they will pick from the regular menu.

A corporate literary book marketer tries to scare the reader into thinking that he absolutely must read such-and-such a book by Jonathan Foer or whoever it is this month, and if he doesn’t read it, he runs the risk of falling behind, of not being cool. That’s the way deodorant is sold too, with fear. But a good deodorant that works well is going to keep on selling for year after year, even if you stop advertising it. Fashionable, defective book products will not, no matter how much you try to bully the readers.

7. Returning to the question of agents -- are they too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?

Agents (like editors) are businesspeople who for some reason are allowed to tell authors to make major changes in their books. I’m not talking about good copy-editing or proofreading--we do a scrupulous job of that. I’m talking about a guy, who read some Amy Tan novels in college, telling a serious author to eliminate one character, combine two others, and get rid of this weird section that doesn’t contribute to the arc. For now, authors seem to be accepting this treatment, even (scared bunnies that they are) embracing it, because all the power is with the gatekeepers. Nobody wants to lose a book deal by offending an editor or an agent, by saying No, I know more about this book than you do, and let me explain to you why it’s more interesting, more unusual, more beautiful the way I wrote it.

But as more good independent books get produced, books that were never homogenized by businessmen, books that have the nerve and the ear to be interestingly incorrect, the readers will notice the difference. Indie rock and indie film were founded on that difference. Of course the book business is much more conservative, and has successfully mocked and marginalized real indie publishing so far. But it will happen. Authors will start to insist on their actual words being published, a thing that hasn’t happened in a hundred years. Books will gain texture and unexpected life. That’s the “formula” for saving literature: make the books better. Stop smoothing them out!

8. Does America have too many publishers? Or too few?

Way too few interesting publishers. There are half-a-dozen.

9. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

If ebooks ever converge with audiobooks, so that you’re reading along with the author as he talks, and it’s somehow on a big bright screen on your little tiny cell phone (so you don’t have to carry some other device), then maybe. Maybe e-books should think of themselves as the DVD version of the printed book--there could be extra material like author interviews or commentary included. But even that doesn’t sound interesting; more like a distraction. The more you think about this stuff, the more technologically brilliant the paperback book seems.

10. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?

Ultimately the Internet is a good opportunity for book publishers to go out of business, in favor of free non-book-oriented reading. The readers I know do lots of their reading on the Internet, where for free you can get everything from the best translations of the Sumerians ( to amazingly well-written and heartbreaking personal blog entries from three minutes ago. This is not a “narcotic subculture,” it is the culture. It’s literature. But right now, Fugue State Press makes most of its connections to readers through the Internet, not in bookstores. People see reviews online and in blogs. They go read the excerpts online. They jump to Amazon and buy the book. It’s easier for everybody.

11. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

In English teaching, it would help if the emotional content of a book were emphasized, rather than the easier-to-teach forms or historical contexts. Don’t treat emotions as tacit or understood, or too unsophisticated a topic: talk about them out loud, treat them as the primary purpose of the book...which they are. Then kids will see there’s a point to these things. Of course it’d also be dreamy for us if every college had a course in advanced/experimental fiction, and sought out new work every year. But that would probably alienate kids even worse than they are now.

12. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?

Right now publishing a sort of hand-made novella in the graphic form of an oratorio libretto. Later on (if the author says yes) I hope to be doing a beautiful three-volume epic poem (with footnotes) about a spiritually-seeking Irishman in Savannah during the Civil War.

Bio: James Chapman is the author of six novels to date, most recently Stet [2006] . He also operates Fugue State Press, a publisher of advanced and experimental fiction which has published work by Andre Malraux, Noah Cicero, Randie Lipkin, Prakash Kona, Eckhard Gerdes, Tim Miller, Joshua Cohen and others.


  1. [IMPORTANT: The following was emailed to me by Steven Augustine, who was prevented by blogger software from easily posting himself. The URL of Steve's blog is]

    My favorite interview thus far. An earlier interviewee suggested, in so many words, that pleasing the generalized taste of the market was the writer's obligation (if only because TV had conditioned the audience to think of the novel as a homely, patience-trying thing).

    The future of literature clearly doesn't involve pandering to people who don't like literature; the future involves creating more readers who LOVE it. Every great book is based on a centuries-old Virtual Reality technology that doesn't stop with the five senses but delves into thoughts and emotions as well; properly used, a great book fears nothing from the basic (in comparison) technology of television. The general culture only began forgetting this miraculous fact because reading skills have been allowed to atrophy to such basic levels over the past forty years or so.

    Target the schools; target the parents; target the kids. Make serious reading skills seem cool and sexy again. It can be done; why are so many 'leading' publishers putting all that money, time and energy instead into further lowering literacy's mean level by hyping the tripe-of-the-moment? They're cutting their own throats (a business practise in the vein of non-renewable policies like clear-cutting the forests) and ours with them.

  2. Anonymous9:06 pm

    I read this article out of sincere curiosity,and hunger.I absorbed each and every word,thought provoking,well put.I met a genius of a young man once named James Chapman in Bakersfield,Ca in the mid 70's,through his nephew Dino.He was deep,sincere,and very entertaining indeed.I never have forgotton him.He was pure joy,with an intelligent nature...