Following my post on Ursula K. Le Guin’s remarks about American literature vs. capitalism today, I thought I’d turn it into a series of sharp, insightful things people are saying these days about that struggle between professional writing and the 21st-century industries that sustain it.
Here are a couple excerpts from an interview Jess Row did with Rumpus, back in 2011. First, concerning the publication of short story collections:
The economics of publishing have shifted so much so that big publishers can’t afford to take those kinds of losses as often as they used to. They still do sometimes invest, especially in a debut short story collection, because there’s a lot of energy around new authors, and I certainly benefited from that with The Train to Lo Wu. But in a sense the short story is kind of a niche format, and the big publishers as a whole have a very difficult time selling to niche groups in that way. Small presses have a much easier time focusing on the eyes and ears of people who really care about short stories. There is kind of a natural fit there.
…What the big presses have is distribution, systems for getting books to a large audience, so I feel, knock on wood, we’ll see what happens with my books going forward, but in some ways I like the idea of being in both worlds. The short story needs that sense of groundswell of a grassroots energy around it, because I think the idea of publishing collections and broadcasting them at a loss, spreading them around like pamphlets, which is what the big publishers have been doing, it doesn’t really serve the short story either. If the publishers think of them like a freebie, then I think it contributes to the way in which many people don’t take the short story as a form seriously. Whereas if you look at the way the magazine One Story treats stories as these little tiny things that they send in the mail, it returns a sense of preciousness and singularity to the short story, which I think is really important.
Then the crux of the matter — writers working for free:
My feeling is that if we’re talking about a large publicly traded media company, then the contributors ought to be paid something, even if it’s very little. The question of journalism being degraded so that it’s basically being treated as something that you just do for exposure or visibility or self-branding—perhaps it’s not a conspiracy per se, but it is by all accounts a corporate strategy.
I have a lot of problems with the idea that we should be paid less for book reviews that appear online than those that appear in print. I understand that because of the internet the question of how any of these properties make money is very much up in the air, but somebody’s making money, and some people are making a great deal of money, and the people who aren’t making any money are the people who care the most about what they’re doing—the writers and the contributors and the journalists, the people on the ground. I think that’s an unacceptable position, and I think that’s an unacceptable model. It’s a good business model, but an unacceptable artistic or cultural model.
Personal note: journalism is something that was recommended to me when I was in high school (i.e., in the mid-2000s but before the recession), but I ruled it out as something that didn’t really interest me. I was afraid of being burned out creatively if I had to pound out pieces, probably about stuff that didn’t actually interest me, on a weekly basis in order to support myself.
Now, my feelings are more mixed. I really enjoyed my years on the yearbook staff in college, getting firsthand experience for how a publication works, including handling proofs. I deeply regret that that kind of work is getting more and more scarce and tenuous. It used to be my ambition to work as a copy editor for a magazine like TIME: a publication that produced a diverse range of educational, well-written articles.
More specifically, when I hear professional writers talk about their experiences working on a staff with other talented writers, collaborating with editors to meet deadlines — I feel a powerful longing and wistfulness. I wish I had more experience in that environment, not to mention the benefit of constantly honing your writing, learning from those more talented and experienced than you.
I still haven’t ruled out a future career in publishing, but I know that now more than ever, it’s a difficult road. (Especially, as in my case, you have no interest in moving to NYC.)