Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Daniel E. Pritchard -- poet, essayist, critic (The Wooden Spoon, David R. Godine, Publisher)

Daniel E. Pritchard of The Wooden Spoon and David R. Godine. Publisher:

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 done to counteract it?

DEP: I think that the 9/11 explanation was always a red herring—it never made any sense to me, at least. The best explanation, beyond it being simply random (which is possible but people like to feel they have control, so this explanation is also unpopular), is that there was a shift in American culture over the last 40 years, in which the public perception of elitism has become drastically negative. When you look at culture in the 1940s—60s, broadly speaking, being an member of the elite was a positive role; you had Trilling and Eliot, for example, and each of them was openly elite in their attitudes -- although on different sides of the political equation -- but nevertheless respected.

In the sixties and seventies, something changed: the kids didn't want to be like their parents, "real knowledge" became something antithetical to what it took to be a member of the elite. Instead of Trilling, you had Kerouac; instead of Auden, you had Ginsberg. The academy, as it had been, fell out of favor. Now it's a real insult to be called an elitist; it's one of the more common smears that conservatives use against liberals and something that liberals desperately try to deflect—neither side wants the label, but we obviously do want the best possible people in charge, and anyone would admit that, so this is purely a shift of image. You have to mimic Joe Sixpack but think like a member of the elite to be successful.

Literary fiction has felt the effects of that shift because literature, I think, is perceived as something just for "smart people", for elites. My family (all working-class) can't bear to buy me just books for Christmas, say, because it isn't "fun" and books are "boring." I have to laugh. The reading landscape probably looks much more like the early twentieth century, with most people reading popular books if anything and a few people delving into up-market an literary titles. There's nothing to be done to counteract this, not systemically. Although, I think it is changing among younger people who have had "coolness" and "fun" sold to them all their lives; who saw the catastrophic stupidity of that culture in the 1980s (hair bands and such).

But really: focus on the work at hand, as a publisher, author, critic, etc.—that's the best course of action. Make something worthwhile, by whatever standards you hold, and be brutally honest about it to yourself at least. That's the way.

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.

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?

DEP: The more studies I see that are done on the way that people read online, the more I think that it is a medium better suited to fact and information distribution than for literature. So maybe non-fiction books, criticism, history, etc., have a permanent place on the internet. The more successful digital readers all mimic the folio as much as possible, and that's where literature seems to be gaining ground. Now, whether this is essential to the way we think and engage with the folio versus the screen is still uncertain. I tend to believe that newspaper- and magazine-length work is completely viable online, and it will eventually put an end to those previous types of short-shelf-life, disposable print media; no reason to fight that. Newspapers don't last on a shelf, so in the long-term we're just losing the waste. Publishers just have to make the internet work economically now, that's where the block seems to be.

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?

DEP: Right, I also believe e-ink (I'd never heard that term before) is the future for longer work. You still lose the ease of accessibility and note-taking aspects of the folio (flipping back and forth still has an edge in the sense it is a easy act to perform), among other things, but most readers don't need or want that. E-books might have a future, they just don't really have a present. The cost of buying an e-reader and then buying the individual books is still much greater than buying two hundred used paperbacks, and there will always be the public library where books are free. It's a technology for the rich right now, for people who travel constantly and can't carry books around, maybe for teachers if textbooks are available. Something big has to change about the economics for the e-reader to really take hold among general readers.

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?

DEP: I do read Litkicks, and Levi is a really good guy who cares a lot, so his input is always welcome; I totally disagree with him about the price of books being unreasonably high though. The list price of books has risen far, far more slowly than other media, especially movies, so is more of a personal complaint than a viable explanation. I complain about it as well, but I complain about a lot the things I buy. If I went to the movies a lot, I'd complain about that, too. Books like the Harry Potter series have sold at least as well, if not better, than any album or dvd. They were priced more or less the same as any other book, and they sold a ton of hardcovers, so maybe the average cost of a book isn't so high if the book is worth owning.

Having worked in publishing for a while now, and at a small up-market publisher for the last two years (David R. Godine, Publisher), I think that an increase in price would actually have been more realistic until this depression, downturn, recession; whatever it's called. Small and mid-sized publishers make a pretty slim margin on the books they sell (never mind the returns). There are a lot of variables at play: cost of production, market for the title, length of the print-run, author royalty, design, shipping costs, illustrators, translators. It isn't arbitrary at all, and making books cheaper isn't something publishers can just will to make happen. It will have to be either a major production innovation
or a restructuring of the economics of bookselling.

CBT: 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?

DEP: I love the pocket format, because I always have books with me and it usually necessitates a backpack or briefcase. But those affordable pocket paperbacks fall apart: cheap acidic paper; poor binding; wide spines. They're difficult to read sometimes. There are hardly any thumb margins. They're not drastically cheaper to produce for their appropriate list price. Unless it's for one or two bucks in a used book cellar, I'd rather toss in the extra fin for something that I can put on my shelf and keep there pretty much forever. If I don't feel like I need to own a book, I go to the library. It's the long dime over the short nickel, so to speak. Small format is great but it just isn't realistic for most books.

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?

DEP: Agents are a tough subject. They're case-by-case, I think. Some are probably great, others are out there just to make a buck I'm sure. Large houses are just as tough a subject, though. I think that it's the business model, more than the agents or the issue of submissions, that's the biggest problem here; I've been saying that for a long time.

Now, what is good for art?—you're just trying to get me to say something silly. Because nothing really intelligent can be said about what may or may not be good for art. As soon as you say "these conditions are best" or "this type of person is best", some world-changing writer comes along and proves you exactly wrong. What's good for art are good artists. If you say more than that, you're just filling column inches.

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 books is worth reading and all these others aren't?

DEP: Prizes are almost as good as reviews as a marketing tool—but then you have the Nobel secretary saying something like he did about American authors, and it really undermines the authority of a prize to a lot of readers. A positive review from a respected critic like James Wood, Adam Kirsch, or William Logan—because they take heat for what they write and are so independent-minded (bull-headed some might say)—is still just phenomenal.

On the other hand, time is the only thing that makes the canon. Critics can help, certainly, and there are examples of critics making a huge impact, but there are plenty of examples where the critics were totally wrong and a book's importance was only realized in retrospect. Prizes make a tidy list, sure, but they're just as hit-and-miss as critics. Occasionally you have a book that's so obviously important and capital-G Great that there's no question, but only persistence over time, and influence, make the canon. And authors aren't in the canon: titles are. Everything so-and-so wrote doesn't have to be great for one book or story or poem or essay to be among the best ever. In all our egotism, I think we've lost sight of that fact.

There are other issues, like royalty rates for anthologies and textbooks, which have a much greater effect on the "modern canon" than the Man Booker or the National Book Awards are having. Millions of students all over the country are taught certain books and poems — for a good author, that's worth more than any award.

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?

DEP: My blog, The Wooden Spoon, is a way to filter some of the things that I find online and to work out some of my thoughts on books, authors, and literary/cultural issues. I post some reviews there, and I'd like to do that more, but it's really there to open a discussion. I love comments. Even when they're adamant about how completely wrong and foolish I am, as long as they're cogent and pertinent, I love them. Because it's as close to the coffeehouses that we get, or I get, at least; I'm not wealthy enough to just sit around and be fabulous and literary all day in Athans (our local coffee place) and I don't work in academia. Those comment discussions are sustaining.

I'm founding a literary review site that is separate from my blog, The Critical Flame (, that will be as serious as any print journal. We'll have reviews and criticism that, at least, will make up for the loss of so many book review sections in print media. I have a few editors who will be working on it with me, all bright young people, and we're taking review and critical essay submissions now for this first few issues. There is no essential difference between print and the internet except the seriousness with which we approach these projects. The next Partisan Review or Paris Review will be online only. It might be already.

Bio: Daniel E. Pritchard is a poet, essayist, and publishing professional from
Boston, Massachusetts. He works at David R. Godine, Publisher, during the day, has a regular blog of literature and culture, The Wooden Spoon, and in the spring of 2009 Daniel is launching an online journal of book reviews and criticism, The Critical Flame.

1 comment:

  1. The ease (and pleasurable tactility) of flipping back and forth is indeed an advantage of print books, though offset, at least in part, by the search function of an ereader, even for fiction. I often find myself looking and looking for a remembered phrase, metaphor, scene.