“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Literary Links: Contemporary Literature Is Very, Very Good (or Thank God for the Small Press)



The other week, I published a response to two articles attacking Creative Writing Programs. In this post, I noted that: ‘There is no crisis within contemporary literature as such, but there is a crisis in how literature is produced, disseminated and advertised within the marketplace.’ While part of my point was to note systemic inequalities in the book trade (more on this below), I was also trying to gesture to the fact that there is an incredible amount of absolutely phenomenal literature being published right now. Nonetheless, I think my more positive point got lost in all of the outrage; please allow me to correct this now.
In February of this year, I became the book reviewer for Triple R’s Breakfasters; when I took on the role, one of my biggest concerns was whether or not I would find fiction that I actually wanted to read on a weekly basis. Thankfully, I have had no trouble whatsoever in finding excellent books, and, in point of fact, I’ve been shocked by how much great literature is being published at any given moment.
            In Australia, for example, this year has produced standout fiction like Other Stories by Wayne Macauley, Glissando by David Musgrave, Like Being a Wife by Catherine Harris, How a Moth Becomes a Boat by Josephine Rowe, and The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland (a beautifully written book that I’ll be reviewing this coming Tuesday).
I’ve also read phenomenal world literature both in English and in translation, including Alain Mabanckou’s Broken Glass, Jean-Phillipe Toussiant’s Running Away, Brad Watson’s Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, and Joshua Cohen Witz (admittedly, I’m still in the process of reading the Cohen book).
            You can add to the above list a bunch of other books I’ve ‘discovered’ or only recently gotten around to reading, like Evan Dara’s The Lost Scrapbook (which is an absolute, stone-cold classic novel that literally everyone should read—buy it now!), Horacia Castellanos Moya’s Senselessness, Cesar Aira’s An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter and How I Became a Nun, and Roberto Bolano’s Antwerp, Last Evenings on Earth, Amulet and By Night in Chile (I read 2666 last year). Plus there’s been a bunch of work recently re-released or translated into English for the first time, like Thomas Bernhard’s Prose, Robert Walser’s Microscripts, and Janet Frame’s Selected Stories.
            But I will note one thing: the vast majority of the above books—especially the new titles—were published by small and independent publishers. Many people have read Mark Davis’s excellent 2006 article, ‘The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing’, which noted that large publishing houses have increasingly moved away from publishing fiction, but equally—if not moreessential is his follow-up essay, ‘Literature, Small Publishers and the Market in Culture’, which discusses the increasingly important role small publishers have come to play in literary publishing.
            In my opinion, the vast majority of good contemporary fiction in English is being published by small publishers, such as The Dalkey Archive, Open Letter Books, and Melville House in the U.S., or by great indies like Sleepers Publishing, Giramondo and Affirm Press here in Australia. But of course, as the President of SPUNC—The Small Press Network, I would say this, wouldn’t I? But the whole reason I got involved with SPUNC is because I believe this to be true: small publishing, for better or worse, will increasingly be the locus of true literary culture.
            The good bit about this is that great books do get published; the bad bit is that indie presses just don’t have the same kind of access to the market place that larger publishers have—and the smaller scale of indie publishing runs makes issues like distribution much more difficult, too. While indies can get the books ‘out there’, that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily get into the hands of most readers, and the danger is that literary culture becomes an increasingly marginal, pseudo-subcultural practice—much like poetry (and for that matter ‘radical politics’) by and large already is. It’s for this reason that I spend (too much) of my free time advocating for small publishers to get a fair go in the marketplace [yes, I did shudder internally while writing ‘fair go’ in this sentence], and it’s why all of us, as consumers should know a little something about the different publishers we buy from—not all books are created the same.
            Anyway, that’s enough proselytising from me for now. On that note, here are a few links to keep you busy:

•   Joshua Cohen, author of Witz, is publishing a new story each week on his website.

•   Alain Mabanckou, author of Broken Glass is speaking in Melbourne this month; book to go see him here.

•   Quarterly Conversation has a rave review up of Sergio de la Pava’s (self-published!) experimental novel A Naked Singularity, which the reviewer deems one of the best novels of the decade…I’ll be reviewing this in the next couple of months and am looking forward to reading it.

•   Jonathan Franzen has his glasses stolen. Media frenzy ensues. Franzen expresses qualms about said media frenzy. Media frenzy ensues regarding qualms about media frenzy. Repeat ad infinitum.

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