I recently came on this short reverie, which I'd committed to the page in anticipation of completing a collection of unfashionable essays. Its opinions may well belong to a man of 71 (68 back when he wrote it) who is set in his ways and who bristles at change. In fact, that's exactly to whom it belongs. Make of that what you will.
I am no theorist, nor even a man who thinks well about philosophy, politics, or social policy in their broader avatars. My testimony, then, is only that of a writer devoted for the most part to ‘minor’ genres.
There I stood at the top of a small local mountain in rural Vermont, where I live, the snow deep, brilliant, crossed only by tracks of deer and coyote . I was 68 years old, and had just sold my ninth book of poems to an independent publisher, its editor/director the most sensitive and competent I’ve known.
There was some satisfaction in that, but just then another project announced itself to me: a book of essays on certain people and landscapes of Vermont, and of a place in remote Maine where my family has had a fishing camp for four generations.
Many of those people would be well over a hundred if they still lived, men and women so attuned to their backwoods environments that in memory I still find it hard to tell in their cases where human nature ends and actual nature takes over.
Their culture and particularly their narrative skills have all but disappeared now, none of them left a written account of those lives and times, yet they had meant so much to me as man and artist that I felt I owed them a tribute.
An evil voice asked, Who will publish a book like that?
A better voice replied, It’s what you want to write, so write it!
As it happens, a certain New York house has since that morning expressed interest in that very volume. This is a ‘niche’ publisher, which caters to readers with similar enthusiasms to mine –canoeing, fishing, hiking, hunting. There appear to be enough of them that the house can survive on sales alone.
To most publishers of poetry, non-academic literary criticism, personal essay and short fiction, however, government support is increasingly crucial, and here’s the rub: the American hagiography of– The Market. Despite the fact that unfettered U.S. capitalism lately produced disastrous effects at home and worldwide, an article of Market Faith is that if it sells in plenty, then it must be valuable. Efforts, especially from the Republican party, to stifle the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, crucial supporters of work that does not meet the market standard of value, are therefore unrelenting.
Given the Latin etymology of the word, with its emphases on saving and
together, it strikes me as bizarre that the congregants in this faith regard
themselves as ‘conservatives.’
As I stood on my snowy eminence, I remembered doing so on other hills when I lived farther south in the state. From there, my prospect today would be onto out-of- scale new houses ... or else much older ones, lived in by single families for generation upon generation but now belonging to relocated suburbanites, who have entirely altered them and their surroundings. These newcomers seem oddly intent on transforming what they fled to into what they fled from.
In a word, downriver from me a demographic revolution has occurred, native families –the ones so brilliantly limned by Robert Frost– forced out, consumerist culture imported, along with such notions as that no real town can endure without a five star restaurant, and so on.
This is conservatism, this sundering of community and tradition?
A warning about the extinction of upper New England’s hill people may have less glamor than an elegy on the indigenous people, say, of the Amazon basin; and yet the juggernaut of The Market and of Globalization is assaultive of both.
Where am I going with such apparent divagation? Well, the social transmogrification to which I’ve alluded in Frost’s territory (and in the Latin-American rain forest) makes a lot of money for certain non-local entrepreneurs. Similarly, if one looks at the best seller list of the NY Times, one finds it dominated by what we call page-turners, books that have scant regard for felicities of style or intricacy of narrative but seek, in effect, to ape the pace, dazzle and formulaic quality of television, film, and now the so-called social networks and video games– in a word, books which, to the delight of large interests, sell in a hurry and in large numbers. As with real estate, what makes the most money becomes what’s most important.
And yet some of us keep insisting on writing and reading the ‘minor’ genres, on the related urgency of language both precise and lyrical; we go on living, at least metaphorically, in precious and vulnerable little houses, which may be razed or ‘refashioned’ when the global market’s juggernaut reaches them, as surely it must.
With respect to writers and readers of American poetry, for example, these little houses have been and become more and more the sort of little publishing houses that I have stuck with throughout my long career– with one disastrous exception: I once sold a collection of poems to a company, only eight per cent of whose assets lay in publishing as we once knew it; the corporation, or so I was told by my excellent editor there, actually had much more invested in food for pets than in poets.
My book sold well by my measure...but not nearly well enough to avoid rather quick consignment to a shredder; the pages I’d labored on were then turned into paper towel (another of the company’s investments). That fine editor got fired, probably for taking too many books like mine. The executive officers wanted an 18 percent return, and neither I nor my poetic fellows would be contributing much to that.
I’ve never had such an experience with a small press ...and yet, as I have hinted, these presses are heavily dependent on financial support not only from individuals of means but also from state and federal governments. It’s not hard to imagine what may become of them if the dismantlers of such support for the arts prevail.
Of course it behooves these publishers, along with their writers and readers, to pressure political representatives for aid to our less commercially viable arts. But I suspect, to make an analogy, that just as many more people watched bear baiting in Shakespeare’s time than watched his great tragedies, so today the poet, the essayist, the short fictionist all appeal to constituencies whose political power is paltry when stacked up against The Market or Globalization or– what is for us the same thing in many respects– the producers of those page-turners.
Do I sound like a pessimist? I am.
Now it may well be that our future lies in the world of cybernetics: online publishing, electronic books, Google, what have you? I am all but innocent of that world, my own computer, for example, serving me solely as a very high quality typewriter and a machine for sending and receiving e-mail. So I can scarcely offer an opinion one way or another on such a score.
If that is literature’s future, however, I may live long enough to miss the feel of an actual book in my hands, the capacity physically to turn its pages, back as well as forth, and to regard favorite old volumes as they in turn regard me from their shelves. I'll miss the tiny Woodsville Bookstore across the river in New Hampshire, from which I buy all my reading materials, and with whose cheerful and literate proprietor I share tips on new authors; the chain Leviathans will have forced such a shoestring operation into nonentity.
As I stand and look out from any local promontory, it is all too easy to imagine an immense, garish and costly modern structure standing in the vista, like some grand Random House looming over the crumbling small houses and shops of my actual, my metaphorical, my spiritual village.
The prose volume I refer to was A North Country Life, since published by Skyhorse early in 2013.
The Woodsville Bookstore I thought I'd miss somewhere down the road has already vanished. RIP.