If you listened to my Denver travelogue, you know I attended the 2010 Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference there. Its sights, sounds, conversations and panels provided lord knows how much grist for my riff mill, but one part of the event indirectly gave me more to think about than anything: the bookfair.
This bookfair (compound theirs) collected into a vast cavern hundreds of exhibitors behind tables, in booths, on kiosks, etc., most of which were publishers, literary journals and MFA programs. The biggest names present were outfits like Melville House (from whom I bought Madelaine three novellas and Tao Lin's Eee Eeee Eeee), McSweeney's (with whom I tried, briefly and unsuccessfully, to haggle for Nick Hornby's Housekeeping Versus the Dirt), Tin House (I don't know anything about them except that they're relatively well-known), the Paris Review (who wanted ten bucks an issue at the start) and Bookforum (who were giving away free copies of all the issues I've missed recently).
But it was the small names that made me think. I returned to the bookfair on the conference's final afternoon, which I understood was when the exhibitors, saddened at the prospect of schlepping boxes of unsold stock back to the University of Southeastern Wherever, got ready to deal. After the Melville House buy, I took my remaining cash in hand and dove into the ramshackle small-press and tiny-journal village, looking to make a gamble on a oddity or five.
My enthusiasm quickly disintegrated into paralysis and disorientation. I wanted to buy something from one of these tables, but how to choose which table, let alone which thing from that table? I was lost in a landslide of unknown titles, unknown authors, bearded dudes and horn-rimmed girls. My only recourse being to the shockingly superficial, I started going by the books' cover designs (some of which were cool), the journals' titles (some of which were clever), the dudes' tweed jackets (some of which were ironic), the girls' tight patterns (some of which were striking) and the tables' giveaways (some of which were liquor).
Even that didn't work; I still couldn't pick anything. A copy of Affinity Konar's The Illustrated Version of Things sitting on Fiction Collective Two's table briefly caught my eye, but only because I recognized the name as that of a former fellow contributor to 3QuarksDaily. That's when it struck me: this chaos was a grand mal case of filter failure. I didn't have the filters to guide me toward any one option — or even a subset of options — and few of the option providers bothered to position themselves in filter-favorable ways.
The gates were all open; pretty much nothing stood in my way. With the exception of Mathew Timmons' Credit, an enormous book of credit card application text that retails for $199.99, everything was cheap to free — and certainly abundant. I know that (a) I was willing and in fact actively seeking to drop some bucks on unknown literary quantities and (b) there were novels, magazines, chapbooks, journals, reviews and what have you somewhere in the heap that I would love. But I didn't even have a guess as to which direction to turn to maybe sort of find them. What happened?
Possibility one: I just don't know enough. While I am a "writer" inasmuch as I spend a substantial chunk of my time arranging text and presenting it to an audience and a "reader" inasmuch as I spend another substantial chunk of my time reading text others have arranged, I'm an outsider in the world of Writers and Writing Programs. If I was an insider, I'd be aware of which house was which, which journal was which, which university press was which. I'd know who I'm compatible with, who's most likely to surprise and delight me. But then again, it's not as if I'm totally ignorant of publishing; I'm in contact with publishers on a daily basis because of The Marketplace of Ideas. I'm just not tapped into this subscene of a subscene, about which more in a bit.
Possibility two: The exhibitors offered a too-small, too-narrowly-defined and thus too-similar range of products. Most everything on offer, save McSweeney's Wholphin DVDs, was some kind of bound-paper text delivery system; only title, author, length, width, thickness, paper weight and surface design differentiated them. Nothing I could see, hear or touch gave me useful information about how much more interesting I was likely to find any given bound-paper text delivery system than the others. Astonishingly, this was as true for the exhibitors themselves as it was for their wares! I could easily find out the name and location of a small press, say, but what about their mission? Their principles? Their sensibility? Their aesthetic? Their territory on the map of literature? The painful part is that some certainly were extremely interesting — and some were undoubtedly so uninteresting that they'd sap out my interestingness.
Possibility three: The exhibitors aren't talking to the wider world. I was looking to buy a bound-paper text delivery system sending a certain sort of message. Were all my filters not stuck in fail mode, they'd be selecting for the works sending messages like "You'll find this poetry intriguing and funny," "This novel will enrich your inner life," or "This publication will point the way to interesting things." But everything around me seemed to be sending messages no more specific or enticing than, "This is a literary paper," "This is a novel," "This is a chapbook."
Worse, I feel a sneaking suspicion that the real messages might amount to little more than signals sent from and to the members of the aforementioned sub-subscene: "This author wrote a novel," "This author is really smart," "This author won the imprimatur of such-and-such press," "This book will make you seem like you Know What Time is Is, literarily speaking." I get the impression of MFA people — students, holders or aspirants — writing to, for and, to an extent, about other MFA people.
I read a New York Observer profile of young novelist Joshua Cohen, which revealed his none too pro-MFA attitude:
The novel [Witz], which comes out in May, was nine years in the making. Mr. Cohen began it the summer after he graduated from Manhattan School of Music in 2001. Unlike most young American novelists, he never sought an M.F.A. "The M.F.A. is a degree in servitude." Mr. Cohen said. "It is a way to keep writing safe — to keep reading safe from writing. That I would be criticized as being romantic, or impractical, for making that statement just goes to show everything that's wrong. Writing is a conviction before it is a craft."The accusation that it's "a way to keep reading safe from writing" feels reasonably sticky, even if it's less than transparently clear. It gets at the reason you won't find me in an MFA program, or indeed, in any other branch of academe: the academy talks to itself. I want — and many of my friends want, and since you're here, you probably want — to talk to the world. I would blame my difficulty in finding something to buy at the AWP bookfair on the fact that its small presses and such don't talk to readers beyond their circle, but I'm not sure that's quite it. They may not care about connecting with the world too far outside the ivory tower. And that seems like the road to extinction.
This is why (former Marketplace of Ideas guest) Richard Nash is the smartest dude in publishing: he knows, and goes around saying, that the publishing business is the business of connection — of connecting readers with writers. Making more books isn't so much the issue, given that this country's coming up on 200,000 new ones per year. Making more books out of pulp, ink and glue is even less the issue, as medium and readership become ever more disconnected concepts. As someone who writes, I'd say it's all about readership; I'd write in iambic pentameter for the Cybiko if it meant more and greater reader connection.
But one critical step in the quest for reader connection is for readers to, like, know who the hell you are and what the hell you do. Wandering the bookfair's aisles, desperately trying to give some tiny publisher my money, I meditated upon the idea that profile height is the most precious thing in the world. If the profile of any of these books, authors, houses, poets, etc. stuck up just a bit higher, they'd have my cash now. Fortunately, a profile is, in theory, pretty damn easy to build in these days of Internet, but most of the books I passed by appeared to have been put out as attempted profile-boosters themselves. I don't know if that's a good idea. I'm sure I wouldn't put out a book without the profile to support it. Going the other way around seems perverse.
I ended up, by the way, at TriQuarterly's table. Unlike the vast majority of the other exhibitors, they offered their back issues from the early 1960s on, which already made them stand way out in a sea of late-2000s releases. The filter of time was at work: a volume of a journal that still holds up decades and decades on has its very existence to recommend it over the mass of stuff that all came off the presses in the last few months. My purchase was the fall 1972 issue, a hefty thing with neato graphic design and the theme "Prose for Borges". Borges — now there's a name you can trust.