The One Where I Talk About AWP, Star Trek, Revolutionary Road, and Publishing

Posted by @ 5:06 am on March 18th, 2010

At Bark, I read a post about magazines who try new things and how most lit mags all say the same thing about their mission. At the AWP Bookfair last year, a woman came to our table and asked what we’re looking for. I said, quite perkily, “We’re looking for great writing,” which was, clearly, the wrong answer but I had already answered that question approx. 1,311 times and wanted to be polite but also had nothing left to say on the matter. She pursed her lips and dropped the issue of our magazine like it was tainted. She said, “That’s what everyone says,” and then she flounced away.

I have thought about that woman a lot over the past year as I’ve tried to determine the right answer to her question. I would say the same exact thing if I were in that situation again. What else can I say? Should I put on a song and dance, or make up some fancy bullshit about innovation and genre blurring and experiment? In literary magazines isn’t the maxim that actions speak louder than words especially true? It’s important to be able to articulate a mission (which we do have) but sometimes, the proof is on the page. Sometimes you have to take a few minutes from your demanding bookfair table hopping schedule to open the magazine and look at a few things.

I think a lot about the idea of innovation and how so many discussions about the future of publishing continue to insist that the publishing industry needs to innovate. Most of these  discussions, however, are vague and indeterminate and based largely on the premise that if we incorporate technology and/or social networking somehow, we’ll be okay. If I’ve learned nothing else, I do know that innovation, or at least the rhetoric about innovation in publishing is all about the digital world.

Sometimes, people use words without knowing what they mean or they forget what those words mean or those words are used so often and so carelessly that those words lose their original meaning and intent and they end up just hollow and sad.

I like reading the dictionary and learning about the origins of words and reading the sentences the dictionary people come up with to demonstrate how a word should be used.

I looked up the word innovate in the Oxford English Dictionary.

1. trans. To change (a thing) into something new; to alter; to renew.

2. To bring in (something new) the first time; to introduce as new.

3. intr. To bring in or introduce novelties; to make changes in something established; to introduce innovations.

The creators of Star Trek envisioned chess in the future with a three dimensional game board but still, there was something familiar, recognizable about the thing. They introduced a novelty; they made a change to something established without destroying that something established. To innovate does not require forgetting where something comes from or how it began.

Desperation leads to poor decision making. Desperate people say and do desperate things. Desperation is not a good look. I recently watched the movie Revolutionary Road and love the movie or hate the movie (which is good but not as good as the book), the ending is heartbreaking. It speaks, in its own way to what people will do when they feel trapped, without options, desperate. April Wheeler’s quiet desperation is so intense she performs a painful abortion on herself. She destroys something inside of her to find a way out of her misery and, of course, her frantic choice does not end well, not for anyone.

Depending on what you read, these are desperate times for the publishing industry. There’s a lot of flailing while we try to innovate while simultaneously destroying those parts of ourselves that are bringing the industry down, tethering us to the past, contributing to our collective failure or at least, the general perception thereof. To what end, though?  What does it really mean for publishing to innovate, to evolve, to move forward? Is anyone even addressing that question or are we just bloviating about innovation with no clear understanding of the what and why of our words.

I’m mostly thinking aloud but I worry. I worry that as the publishing industry moves forward, desperately caterwauling about, trying to sustain ourselves, trying to innovate, we’ll forget completely about what innovation truly means, about renewing, about introducing new ideas, about building upon, not destroying established things and in the wake of that forgetting, we’ll kill the things most alive within us, the things that once made publishing great*. We’ll be left with something completely unrecognizable, an approach that won’t end well for anyone.

*I’m not convinced that it’s not still great. I personally think publishing is doing quite well.

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