The other side of the window: Novelist Jonathan Baumbach on independent publishing
by Maud Newton |
This literary moment’s persuasive illusion is that fewer works that challenge the reader’s skills are being read. The reasons may be beside the point though they are everywhere apparent. Impatience seems high on the list. We want immediate payoffs for our commitments of time and concentration. Fiction, suggests the evidence, tends to be used more and more as a licit form of drug abuse.
Originality tends to generate difficulty in that it breaks faith with expectation, undermines the prevailing verities of last season’s fashion. Originality, by definition, takes us by surprise. Surprise is one of the touchstones of art. Literary art is always somewhat difficult during our first unescorted encounter with it. It often arrives without fanfare and without self-defining context.
It is probably fair to say that art sells only when it becomes an identifiable commodity. Commercial publishing tends to court literary work that is a thinly disguised variation on the recognizably artful — last year’s award winner tricked out to seem at once new and safely familiar.
An inevitable self-justifying cynicism pervades in an industry that knows in some secret pocket of denial that it is not doing its job. We are continually offered the cliche that there is nothing new by people who want to believe the new is really just the same old thing shrewdly disguised in this year’s marketing strategy.
Reading itself, reading anything, is an ambitious act in an age dominated by visual media. Even the simplest books require the translation of language into thought and image. Still what’s the point of reading work that is like television when television is tastier, more easily digested, and less time-consuming. If one reads books at all, shouldn’t one go for an experience one can’t get from TV or movies or anywhere else. Taking the trouble to read, perhaps we ought to go for something that throws our whole way of seeing into question. Art permits the dangerous in the comfort zone of the imagination.
Yet the system has its own self-referring logic. Books brought out by small presses, with little or no publicity budgets, which is to say little or no public identification, have virtually no hope of selling fast enough to earn space in the stop-and-shop bookstores. Review media unwittingly collaborate with the chain of circumstances that discriminates against fiction that does not conform to any of the prevailing verities. Media give extensive review space by and large to books publishers announce as important through, among other signifiers, commitment of advertising budget.
Even writers of established reputations who are not perceived to have large audiences (or audiences large enough to satisfy the multi-national corporations that own most publishing houses) pay the price.
Now I come with some trepidation to the argument implicit in this piece. What’s fun about reading fiction that refuses to yield itself without a struggle? Ah, fun! Still, I think it reasonable to say that the more active we are as readers, the greater the potential satisfaction in the reading experience. It’s a bit like love, but isn’t everything that matters?
It is not the resolution of difficulty that the ideal reader we imagine for ourselves is after, but the nature of the mysterious, mysteriousness itself.