In her July 10th entry, Remittance Girl wrote about how publishing doesn’t matter to her any longer. Coincidentally, a number of my favorite writers have stopped publishing because their novels don’t make sufficient income for support. Articles are beginning to come out about the impacts of electronic publishing and the changes in contracts, the fall of income for writers. We’ve seen the changes in journalism and now fiction is falling as well.
As someone who writes poetry, even as bad as this sounds – I just shrug. I call poetry the “lowest of the low” for art forms because every stranger on the street you meet says they write poetry. Making a living supported solely by your poetry, uhm, well, I’ve just never seen an example. Writers might win a MacArthur genius award, or win the Nobel Prize and gain income that way, but even the Poet Laureate of the United States was listed as earning only $35,000 in 2011 and that’s for work other than directly writing poetry. Making a living from writing poetry has long been undercut by the very people who claim to be poets, but never buy another’s book of poetry. Prose and journalism are falling to the flood of equal, easy access to publication.
While I don’t know how to fix “the system” of income production for other fields in the creative industries, I do know that it is a painful time in publishing. In this case, prose readers don’t want to pay the premium prices charged for new novels, to buy the subscriptions for the magazines, or newspapers with at least somewhat-researched articles – thus cutting off the flow of income of which supported the writers.
Where this Walmarting of the prose domains will end, I don’t really know. I can commiserate though as poetry in my adult lifetime (80’s onward) has been about “Read Me!” It is only rarely that I’ve ever heard someone recommend another’s book. Frankly, I’m the only reader I’ve ever met who has collected books of poetry as part of my library. And the comment about “Read more poetry”
is seen as an insult to the person waving their electrons in front of a critic’s eyes.
It is the rare occasion when a poem is so good that it sweeps my critical faculties away on the first read. Or rather, I shouldn’t claim it to be rare because there are a number of writers whose work just leaves me breathless for the most part, it is just that they themselves are rare compared to the amount of poetry I read because it is so readily available on line. Prose writers are only now beginning to feel this effect of unedited, unexpurgated, vanity-published spew building to a slush-pile of available, cheap content which makes they, the True Craftspeople, hard to find, much less compete against.
The disregard for the craft and the flood of “cheap goods” is part of the dynamic change in the publishing industry. Trying to withhold content, or the mantra I continue to see “Don’t write for free!” reminds me of a small finger in the last section standing of a dam which was already washed away.
So if the point of being published is not about income production, then what remains? To me, it is the introduction to a specific society of readers. That is the purpose of working to be published. What this means then, for the writer, is not that you have a chapbook out, or an Author’s page on Amazon, but that your work shows up associated with specific arbiters of taste and culture, that it’s possibly reviewed by venues such as the Best American Poetry. And if the arbiters of taste don’t appeal to you, well, then, make your own, but the point is that there is critical thought behind the choices, there are winners and losers, it is not a democratic process, but a selective one.
The internet poetry boards are flooded with the democratic process, the equal access, the all-accepting entrants. And no one reads another’s words. All those poems will pass as technologies change, servers die, codes obsolesce and the languages become unrecognizable. The hard drives seize and are buried in the rubble of the landfill. There is nothing physical left of those words, and no memory of them beyond that of the ardent “poet.” The democratic access to publishing is transient and self-aggrandizing. This is what we have learned from equal access to the publishing process.
It is only content which is self-consciously crafted which does have a chance at memorable, and more importantly, physicality. The form of a physical book will become the highest standard of regard for the word simply for the fact that it takes more resources and more effort to produce. The arbiters spots are changing, but making a thing from ephemeral words is going to resurge like vinyl is in music.
It’s no longer a matter of “getting published,” but being published or recognized by people or organizations which matter to you – whom you read. So, get out there – And Read More Poetry.