Saturday, March 06, 2010

Writing & Publishing: the Fact of a Book

In an ongoing series of essays regarding publishing on her blog, Mary Scriver has been working out some ideas about how publishing of all kinds is, thanks to new media, undergoing a sea-change. It's a topic worth thinking about, for all those who write, as we're all affected by it. This essay series has prompted some thoughts on my part, which I've been circling around for a few weeks, in the context of re-evaluating my own creative process. I herewith expand on some of those thoughts. Sorry if any of this is a bit repetitious; sometimes we must circle around the same topics in order to go deeper with them.

My first response to the topic of writing and publishing is, as usual for me, a bit sideways:

To be as blunt as possible, I won't call myself a writer anymore, because it's insufficient.

I no longer consider myself a poet, or care to wear that label, although I do still commit the making of poems. I don't consider myself a writer, either. The making of texts and art from words is something I feel more rightly folds back under the sigil of Making in general—at least for me; I don't speak for others—as in, making art, making under the call or compulsion of the creative process, whatever one makes being something one can look back on as the result of one's creative process. After a long period of downtime, enforced by illness these past few months, I can say once again that I Make something almost every day; whether it's a poem, an essay, a drawing, a piece of music, a photograph, a woodcarving, or whatever else, I make something almost every day. Yet, since I won't label myself as a writer or poet anymore, feel free to disbelieve everything I say.

Too many writers live in their heads, completely. Working with words, which is what writers do, has a tendency to over-develop some writers towards being completely verbal, intellectual, and head-based. They may utterly forget the soma, eros, the feeling functions and kinesthetic aspects of life. They spend most of their time in their minds, even if their hands are connected to their minds, as transmitters of the words onto the paper.

Not all writers are like this, fortunately. I'd go so far as to say many of the best writers are not mental cases. That is: many of the most interesting writers are not head-based, not purely mental: they go out and experience things in their lives—and that is what makes their writing interesting. There is a resonance that experience gives. When you read a book that recreates a lived experience in your own soma, as you read, that allows you to empathize, understand, and inhabit events in the writing, you are expressing that resonance. To use Michael Mann's phrase, these are the harmonics of human experience; and you can feel them in yourself, when you experience art. That's what makes the particular in art also become universal, and able to connect with the audience. We feel our own lives resonate with the lives depicted in the art, the writing, the dance, the music.

Some of the most over-praised novels of the twentieth century tend to be over-praised precisely because the writers and critics who over-praise them don't get out much. (I'll cheerfully admit to my own subjective bias here, that while I can agree that many great modern writers do belong in the canon, some few who are over-praised by their disciples do not; and I would start that list with Philip Roth and Vladimir Nabokov.) Of course it's perfectly fair for a writer who lives in her head to connect with a reader who lives in his, too. But not all writing is purely intellectual, and not all the best, or the greatest. Critics tend to over-praise for two reasons: to support their own biases; and, because they accept received opinion about Great Books rather than judging for themselves. To be clear, I'm not saying over-praised books have no merit whatsoever; I'm saying they're often good, but not deserving of all the excessive praise that they receive. Let's face it: every great writer produced a few clinkers, too. That's just life.

A great novel or poem is more than just wordplay, plot, or character study; a great novel is more than the sum of its parts, it is a synergy. It is multi-sensory; a great reading experience should affect you in your body, not just your mind, leaving you wrung out and full of new memories. Novels and poems that stay only in the head, with no gut-punch, are arguably lesser novels. Of course, there are plenty of critics who would disagree with everything I say here.

Some dedicated writers will of course also object at this point: But of course writers live in their heads. They live in their imaginations. That's how they write, after all. The parallel argument is that Writing is a solitary act. The latter truism has real merit to it. Yet the first objection begins to show its limits precisely at the point where writers' imaginations fail, and the words become more important than anything else. Imagination is fed by experience. Fantasy, which is what all fiction is, even "realistic" fiction, is based on life: fantasy extrapolates from the real. This is what resonance is, after all: the sense that the writer knows what she's talking about, that he is convincing precisely because he's aptly relating a lived experience. Writing is as much a somatic art as a mental one. I would argue that it must be more so; but I freely admit that that's my own perspective, which is neither an accepted or popular one, among many writers. (I've been exiled from time to time for expressing it, even.)

So what is publishing? When we start to examine what publishing actually is all about, it's noticeable that many head-based, cerebral, intellectual writers have absolutely no idea or interest in publishing, beyond what it can do for them. Which is to spread their words around, and hopefully make some money for the writer in the process.

What I've noticed about many mental-dominant writers is that they care more about their writings than the vehicle in which those writings are transmitted. There are many writers who seem to feel that what matters is that their words are transmitted to others, to be read. It matters less to them how their words are transmitted. In which case, it's perfectly valid to consider cyber-publishing to be as real a format for publishing as print. Publishing indeed takes man new forms now, driven by the use of new media technologies. I think there's real merit in acceptaing new media forms of publishing as legitimate and worth making note of; I think it's quite acceptable to publish online as well as in print.

Getting one's words out there is what really matters to most writers. Many of these writers don't care how it gets done. Publishing is no longer limited to print on paper, and publishers are no longer the sole gatekeepers of distribution. A lot of writers are now able to go directly to their audiences, avoiding the gatekeepers entirely. The jury is still out on whether or not that's a good thing; or when it might be.

Now we arrive at the cusp in which the head-bias of writers who care not about the form or medium of publishing gets into trouble.

I knew a poet, once, who was of the opinion that his poems must convey exactly the meaning he intended them to convey, or they failed as poems. I've rarely met such a literally-minded wordsmith, yet he was adamant. He believed that the poem was a means of quasi-telepathic communication between writer and reader. There was no room in any of his poems for ambiguity, mystery, or multiple layers of meaning. There was only one meaning allowed, the meaning he had intended and determined.

The limitations of this idea about poetry are obvious: There is no room for interpretation. The poet dictates the meaning in the poem. What this adamantine poet missed completely was the idea of aesthetics, which is those aspects of creative writing that are the aura around what is being communicated. His poems, in their jewel-like precision, tended to be more like prose broken into arbitrary lines; they had no style, no soma, no heart. This poet furthermore missed the point that if poetry is only communication, there is no point; you might as well read the phone book. His poems were more like essays, often about general truths and Big Ideas, than they were moments captured from life. There was no threshold of revelation in his poetry: it was all very obvious. Perhaps well-crafted, but obvious.

So, this is my criticism of the head-only, cerebral, dictatorial attitude towards writing: Even as it focuses on its strengths, the play of words, it is fundamentally weakened by its lack being embodied. I know I've said this before, but it continues to bear repeated saying as contemporary poetry continues to be dominated by head-oriented writers.

But to what really makes me question the intelligence of a writer is when they seem not to care about presentation whatsoever. I've known writers who think bad typesetting on crap paper is just as good as a fine-press edition; well, after all, it's the words that matter most, isn't it? I've known writers so extreme in this attitude that, in those days prior to the internet, they were perfectly content with smudgy mimeographed zine publishing as a means for getting their words reproduced; the issue of legibility was one I brought up on occasion, but was ignored.

Speaking as a former professional typographer, book and magazine designer, and illustrator, it seems to me that what is getting overlooked by many writers is the AESTHETIC aspect of publishing: of making a beautiful, durable object, which one enjoys touching as well as reading. Some book editions are beautiful objects in their own right, not mere content-carriers for the author's thoughts and words.

There is a flourishing movement now, which is not at all vanity-press in either origin or execution, of handmade printing done on letterpress and other older printing technology. The people involved in this movement to produce the beautiful book are writers, artists, printers, designers, and small publishers. A lot of this movement uses revived older technologies to create beautiful objects in small editions. Poetry published as broadsides is part of this movement, and is becoming more common. I recently saw an exquisite broadside of a Gary Snyder poem with an illustration by woodcut artist Tom Killion.

I have collaborated with my sister, who hand-binds books and is an accomplished print-maker, on making a handmade book of my haiku. Is that vain? Only in the strictly Puritanical sense. ("Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. . . ." —Ecclesiastes.)

What print-on-demand publishing provides is access for the writer to distribution. You can print anything you want, but if you don't tell anyone about it, it just sits under your bed in a box. I'm not even talking about the financial aspects of publishing: I'm talking about spreading the word.

I worked for 24 years in marketing/advertising as well as publishing, for book and magazine publishers. (Some more dysfunctional than others.) I've done every single job that there is publishing, beginning to end, from computer-assisted design to bindery. So again I say, there is pleasure in the book itself, not as merely a carrier for words.

Blogs are perfectly fine for distributing one's words to the world: a form of publishing. But you can't curl up with a blog in your hands, and there's no ink or paper to smell. A laptop or a Kindle can give one a virtual curl-up, but again there's no paper texture to feel under one's fingers.

Reading a beautifully-made book is a full-sensory experience.

It's not just mental gnosis—cyberspace is all about cybergnosis, as it tends to completely divorce the physical from the mental, supporting the mental while neglecting everything else. So you can argue whether or not publishing in cyberspace is actual publishing—I can argue both sides of that issue myself—but it remains a mostly mental exercise.

Of course, many writers are very good at the mental exercise of making words happen, and not so good at the physical fact of presentation. As a designer I learned not to expect writers to have a clue about publishing or presentation. It's not their training, or their expertise. But for those of us who do both, it can be a repetitive trope: it becomes deadening to be required to teach the same lessons over and over again to the same group of people.

So my bottom-line thought here, after rambling, is that most contemporary discussions of publishing still barely touch on the fact of a book. A book isn't just an idea. It's a solid object. An artistic product, if you will. We can talk about the artistic and publishing processes all we want, but it remains that the solid object has a reality that just the words on a screen can't achieve.


I am astonished to discover that Sven Birkerts—one of our deepest and best thinkers on these topics, author The Gutenberg Elegies among other books—has anticipated and gone beyond my own thinking along these lines, in a long essay entitled Reading in a Digital Age. In this essay, he makes some of the same points about reading and publishing that I've been harping on, but also about the failures of and divisions within literary criticism that have become so problematic of late. Mr. Birkerts may purr where I sometimes rant, but if you think carefully about what he's contemplating, there is some of the most profound thinking about media going on, herein, since McLuhan.

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