Saturday, March 13, 2010

Flying The Coop

Mark Medley has an interesting article on the ecology of the small press/large press divide, for which I was briefly interviewed last week. You can read it here.

I've been trying to post a response to the article for an hour now and have failed. I'll post it, for now, here. If any readers out there can figure out how to add a comment to the article on my behalf, my neurotic side would be greatly appreciative. Maybe it would lessen the tingling sensation in my left arm.

My response:

A Couple of things:

One: Cordelia Strube was never a Biblioasis author. She is, in fact, currently a Coach House author, which is why I thought of her, to act as a counter to the idea suggested here that movement is only one way. It is far more fluid than that. Strube is a hell of a writer who has worked with both larger and smaller presses, for reasons that may not always be entirely about the money. The other authors mentioned, and the point I tried to make in doing so, is that many of these writers switch back and forth between larger and smaller presses, depending on the project. Think of Leon Rooke, one of your Canada Also Reads candidates, moving from Thomas Allen to Biblioasis to Porcupine's Quill to Thomas Allen to (in 2010) Exile.

Two: We are not farm teams and this isn't baseball. It doesn't do justice to what actually happens in publishing -- see above -- and it does not do justice to the authors on our lists. The quality of play on a farm team is almost always far below that of the majors: that just isn't necessarily the case here. In baseball, if you're one of the best, you move up to the majors, at least in part because excellence in the sport and commercial reward are very closely aligned. It just does not always work that way in publishing. Everyone, especially in the industry, or reporting on it, knows this. It's simply not a question of a writer hitting their peak, as Mark suggests, then leaving. And how we judge "excellence" is not always the same. Are we speaking commercially? Aesthetically? There's much more at play here than the quality of the work. No self-respecting publisher would view their press as a farm team. It's a tired cliche, and an extremely disrespectful one. Coach House, Cormorant, The Porcupine's Quill ... they're just damn good presses, with proud histories, who have made lasting contributions to Canadian literature and culture, and for frankly often very little reward. Perhaps it's time that they get some.

3. No one begrudges the writers their money. Though I've yet to read the Waterproof Bible, Superheroes is evidence enough Andrew is wonderful. I'm sure his new book is as well. But he also strikes me as a writer who might, for a variety of reasons, be back with Coach House or some other press at another time. And the gap between what smaller independent presses can offer and what the larger presses are willing to offer in many cases is getting to the point of being negligible, especially for literary fiction. This is just more evidence, as I see it, that the "ecology" of this particular issue is a bit more complex than Sam Hiyate and company would have you believe, and that there's a lot more here which needs to be explored far more rigorously. No one begrudges writers their money, or their moving on (or, for that matter, their return). But if you focus TOO MUCH on following the money you risk missing out on the larger (& quite possibly more interesting) story.

Dan Wells

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