May 9th, 2013 / 4:48 pm
Behind the Scenes

Soderbergh on Cinema is Soderbergh on Publishing


Film director Steven Soderbergh recently spoke at the 56th annual San Francisco International Film Festival. Before the speech Soderbergh said he would “drop some grenades.” Rarely does that happen. But what Soderbergh did was special – he pierced holes into an industry that is corporatizing and mainstreaming a once beautiful and individualistic art form.

I’m not a student of film nor would I consider myself knowledgeable on the industry. So after I read the full transcript of Soderbergh’s speech I wondered why I was so captivated. The answer was simple: I was reading a speech about the state of film, but as a writer, I was reading a speech about the state of publishing.

Soderbergh’s main sticking points: a bigger film budget yields bigger results, those in charge at the studios don’t watch cinema, artists need to be supported financially long term, ambiguity is toxic to a mainstream audience, and too much emphasis is placed on testing and pre-sales numbers, may sound like sour grapes to some, but I believe he’s accurate. I believe what he says about the state of cinema is in direct correlation to how I, and many, feel about the state of publishing.

Soderbergh loves strangeness and ambiguity in film. The ambiguity in my second novel, published by Penguin, was questioned by my editor. The push to extend the “reality storyline” in the book became a main focus during revisions. There had to be more of a love story. Things had to make sense. Sentences deemed strange and vague were questioned with “I really like this, but what does it mean?” The push for things to “make sense” has resulted in boring movies and boring books.

I also quickly understood I wasn’t going to have the full backing of a company so large, because they had celebrity memoirs and Nora Roberts. They had books with multimillion dollar investments. Shortly before my book was published there was little interest from reviewers and bookstores were hesitant to stock it – the presales numbers were too low. What little support I did have seemed to quickly drift away. My experience, when confessed to other writers published by a large publishing house, is often mirrored.

Here’s something Soderbergh says in his speech that should make every young filmmaker, writer, and artist, take notice: when questioning why his film Side Effects didn’t do well he comes up with the answer that there is no answer because everyone at the studio had already moved on to the next release. And when a film (or book) doesn’t do well, it’s not the studio (or publisher) who is truly affected, it’s the artist.

Books are released at high volume. The stress is on quantity not quality. There isn’t time to reflect, because the next product has to come out. Editors at the major publishing houses are swarmed on a daily basis with submissions (my former editor once told me she receives at least one novel from a reputable agent each day). How is there possibly enough time to thoughtfully read a truly ambitious and new piece of literature? Has anyone suggested slowing down? Has anyone suggested passing on the latest vampire thriller and maybe fully backing something truly different?

I understand Soderbergh has worn the hat of mainstream filmmaker and profited, but at heart, he’s an artist who worries about highly creative and challenging work disappearing entirely from the culture. He’s worried because the type of work he supports (example: Shane Carruth) he believes makes us better, more compassionate people. The effects of a culture feasting on Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Fifty Shades of Grey may be difficult to gauge, but look at the physical characteristics of our society consuming cheap meat, fast food, and pizza.

In the beginning of his speech Soderbergh describes being on a plane and seeing a man watching a compilation of fight sequences, skipping over all dialogue and narrative. I can easily envision a future where readers download in one easy-to-read file all the juicy tidbits from the memoirs of Kim Kardashian, Justin Bieber, and Taylor Swift.

Big film studios like big book publishers will continue to release what sells. That makes sense. This is a business after all and people don’t have the time to research new films and books. But some responsibility of what we consume when it comes to movies and books should rest on the shoulders of those releasing it. This is what Soderbergh ultimately wants and is getting at in his speech: for the big studios to financially support (long term) and release work with artistic merit so a larger public will see it.

A few days ago I ate lunch outside the building I work in. This time of year the streets are lined with food vendors and the park is scattered with people. I sat on a stone ledge overlooking a grassy lawn next to a middle aged woman reading a neon yellow hardcover. After I asked what book she was reading, I decided to push a little further. I asked what made her buy that book. Her answer: it was on the front table of the store.

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Shane Jones is the author of several books. Crystal Eaters, a novel, will be published in 2014 by Two Dollar Radio.

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  1. Joel Kopplin

      Some really compelling thoughts here, Shane. But I am also curious as to what extent these things haven’t always been true. Do you get the sense that big publishing houses were more generous or adventurous at any point?

  2. John Minichillo
  3. Ken Baumann

      Right on. From living amid and working in the film & TV industry for a bit, I can vouch for the parallels.

      The fifth paragraph in Soderbergh’s speech is the most interesting, though. He poses the ecological concern… Is it even ethical to make a movie at the blockbuster scale? Certainly not. The amount of time, energy and money spent making these movies is supremely wasteful, considering humanity’s mega-precarious ecological position.

      Hopping over to publishing: Can big publishing houses ever be ethical? The structure will never support it, as long as it functions as a very large machine. There can only ever be pockets of autonomy and careful attention.

      No human society in history has voluntarily simplified to try to circumvent thorough collapse. Organizations (corporations) rarely do. I just wonder if it might be more useful to focus on questions of If A Big Thing Should Even Exist instead of How Might The Big Thing Best Serve Us.

  4. Justin Chandler

      Have you heard of Ivan Illich? some of what you’re saying here I recently read in his Energy and Equity, but I wanted to mention him in case you hadn’t. Good points regardless.

  5. Deborah Lisoway

      There are notable examples of big publishing houses being adventurous. Depending on your definition of “big” Dalkey Archive, New Directions and Grove come to mind. Knopf has a history of putting out strange, wonderful books like Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford, Kobo Abe’s work and David Ohle’s Motorman. Helen and Kurt Wolf were responsible for bringing a world of talent to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (Calvino, Stanislaw Lem…).

      Exceptions, yes, but still exceptional.

  6. Ken Baumann

      Thanks! Added his stuff to the pile.

  7. Joel Kopplin

      I think you’re right, Deborah. These are all great examples.

  8. marshall mallicoat

      The rock really is a feast

  9. herocious

      We need to make more front tables

  10. On Making Sense | draft: the blog of process

      […] Jones has a good post over at HTMLGiant that reflects on the publishing industry and on some cogent comments Director […]

  11. Mike Kleine

      Thanks, Shane, for writing this article. And I appreciate the honesty, truly–you talking about your second novel and Penguin and then how the novel was received, initially. Your [entire] article reminded me of the issue of hyper-production, how we are living right now: always getting the next big thing/product/film/whatever out there as quickly as possible. How most electronics have an average shelf-life of ~6-8 months. Something to pause and think about. Reflect.