Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century
April 11, 2016 § 5 Comments
Milkweed Editions has just released Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, a new anthology edited by Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer. The book features a range of essays from writers, editors, digital innovators, and others in the field, including the likes of Sven Birkerts, Jessa Crispin, Richard Nash, and Jane Friedman, reflecting on the current situation of literary publishing, including the rapidly-changing digital landscape, the need for a greater diversity of voices and gatekeepers, community- and audience-building, and the overall health of literature. To mark the book’s launch this month, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore talks with Kevin Prufer about his views on where independent literary publishing stands in the current era.
MOORE: You and your co-editors do an excellent job of discussing how literary publishing has evolved from the dawn of the 21st century to the current moment, a sixteen-year span that saw incredible change, in book publishing and e-book formats, in AWP (and AWP bookfair) attendance, and in how literary magazines reach out to readers. Has the task of a writer transformed in any way, or is the writer’s mission essentially the same despite the new packaging.
PRUFER: Well, I think the literary writer’s mission to think complexly about the world, to speak the truth, to write well about important things, to create works of social, aesthetic, and literary value–all that is unchanged. But the form that literature takes is certainly evolving dramatically even as I write, in ways we can’t know yet.
Whenever there have been major changes in the way literary work is disseminated — the evolution of writing, the invention of the printing press, the creation of even more inexpensive means of mass text reproduction, the emergence of the penny dreadful, the broadside, the paperback book, among many many examples—what we call literature changes, molding itself to new forms of production and consumption. I think it’s hard to argue against the fact that we’re living at a time of major changes to the way we reproduce, sell, and receive literary texts, involving not just the speed and convenience of e-readers, etc., but also new, more fluid ways in which literary work might perform and evolve on the screen and among mass audiences. Sure, the writer’s mission remains the same—but what literary writers produce will inevitable be profoundly influenced by these recent developments in literary publishing. That’s always been the case.
MOORE: How do these changes influence the advice you would give a writer just starting to engage the world of literary publishing?
PRUFER: I’m not sure what advice I’d give a literary writer starting out. I think I have none for her writing, except that she write as well as she can. After the writing is finished, though, I think it pays to be very aware of the complexities of literary ownership in a world where anything one writes can be reproduced infinitely and nearly without cost, to understand the implications of how new literary production models ought to be considered in, say, book contracts; and to understand that publishing a book in paper is rewarding and exciting, but is certainly not the only (or even primary) way that readers encounter the work of writers these days. There are all kinds of ways of finding an audience, and all kinds of pitfalls in those ways.
MOORE: Has your view of online publication versus traditional print publication changed, for your own poems and the poems your students write?
PRUFER: Yes, by necessity. I still love paper and always will. Like every writer my age (or older), my first encounters with literature were in actual books, often read with a flashlight under the covers when I should have been sleeping. And I still get a thrill out of seeing my work in bookstores.
But I also suspect that at least as many people encounter my work on the screen as do on the page – and I’m not at all sophisticated about on-line self-promotion, social media, etc. That’s just the way it is – someone types up a poem and posts it somewhere (or links to it, or whatever), and suddenly many more people have seen it (though perhaps not really read it) than would have if it remained in the pages of a small print literary journal.
And of course, on-line publishing has its frustrations – the certainty that typing errors get replicated; the fact of the glaring screen, the impossibility of formatting long poetic lines on narrow iPads; the weirdness of watching my students read poems on their iPhones.
But here’s where I truly feel – and am deeply ambivalent about – the influence of on-line publishing (and I mean publishing in its broadest definition – a Facebook post, a blog entry, an on-line lit mag appearance all might be said to constitute kinds of publishing): I was discussing the work of a younger poet in a class of PhD students here at the University of Houston when one of the students said, “Well, I really like her work, but it feels very 2005 to me.” This was in, I think, 2012. “What on earth does that mean?” I asked her. “Well,” she said, “it feels like what everyone was writing that year. It feels dated.” This led to a discussion about on-line publishing and the take-away for me was that younger readers are encountering literature in ways that I never did. They are sometimes experiencing it almost simultaneously with its composition. A poet composes a poem one day, it appears on-line a week later, and it’s generated a thousand hits within another week, before perhaps sinking into the ether. The large conversation of literature, which seemed to move much more slowly when I was a student, has sped up today. Issues, sensibilities, styles, literary fashions emerge quickly, are noticed simultaneously, and vanish.
For now, this is just an observation. I’m not sure how I feel about it, except I am sure my students encounter contemporary literature in a way that is vastly different from how I encountered it in 1993, when I’d have been very hard pressed to say how a poem from 1986 was different from what I was reading that week.
MOORE: Now that you’ve completed work on the anthology, and given the discussions that ensued with the various contributors and co-editors Travis Kurowski and Wayne Miller, are you optimistic about the future, or troubled about where independent press books and small literary magazines may be headed?
PRUFER: I’m cautiously optimistic, I suppose. Before I began work on this project, I’d devoted much of my career (outside of my own writing) to old-fashioned publishing. That is, I edited a stubbornly old-school print litmag called Pleiades and ran a press called Pleiades Press. So I came to the project with a lot of knowledge about how books get printed, distributed, edited, etc. – but more limited awareness of what was happening over in that other, more up-to-date country of ebooks, ecommerce, interactive literature, etc.
And, as with every book I’ve co-edited, I hoped mostly to learn from contributors, to come out better informed. All the voices in the clamor of Literary Publishing in the 21st Century aren’t entirely optimistic, though many are. Many others are deeply troubled by the increasingly corporatized (and engulfing) large commercial publishing houses and the changing roles of readers, editors, agents, sellers. I get their concern that much has been upended, that the future looks uncertain. At the same time, the forces at work here seem so vast that enormous change is entirely inevitable, and always has been. I am left with the conclusion that literature itself is an intensely malleable thing, that it evolves and even flourishes in moments of great change and upheaval, and that it will always find ways—new ways, certainly—to reach readers eager to encounter it in all its renewing forms.
Kevin Prufer is an author and editor, with books including In a Beautiful Country (2011), a finalist for the Rilke Prize and listed as a 2011 Notable Book by the Academy of American Poets, and National Anthem (2008), named best poetry book of the year by the Virginia Quarterly Review. Prufer’s many honors and awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Lannan Foundation. He is a professor in the English Department at the University of Houston.