October 8th, 2011 / 8:42 pm

Death x 3: Frances Bay, Curtis White on lit’s (lack of) future, & “Why Originality Isn’t All That Important”

1. Charles Napier isn’t the only one who’s left us: Frances Bay passed away last month. No creamed corn was served at her memorial service.

2. My mentor Curtis White wrote something pretty pessimistic at Lapham’s Quarterly about the future of literature.

3. I wrote something a little more optimistic about why originality isn’t all that important.

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  1. Cvan

      I have to disagree with White, strenuously disagree with him, about indie bookstore employees not reading.  The most voracious readers I’ve ever met have been bookshop folks, and typically the caliber of what they devour is much higher than the norm.  It’s as if White is totally misconveying this as to make his “indie store same as chain store” point, but he’s simply wrong.

  2. William Owen

      Concur. Indie bookstore folks are THE people to follow on twitter/blogs/tumblr/down dark alleys to find out what is good. Choose your path game – short rebuttal why White is off base: Tinkers won the bloody Pulitzer because Filgate happened to mention it to one of the judges at a thing.

      Long, drawn out rebuttal – And I also just find White’s whole tone that publishers aren’t trying and aren’t pushing the envelop. Does the reading public not have a hand in this state? Do publishers have to take responsibility for not only finding, editing, producing, and distributing important books but also developing mind-projection rays to ensure consumers are picking up the next great addition to the canon instead of the latest John Sandford?

      I mean, we have a population that chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain. What are we really expecting from these people? This isn’t stopping good writing from finding a voice, an outlet, is it? Sure, Nora Roberts makes 8000 times what Selah Saterstrom makes, but who’s to blame for that?

      I think we have some of the greatest literary journals to have ever existed today – Electric Lit, Forklift, Fence, Clarkesworld, Rattle – some of the best publishing experiments happening – FC2, Cursor, Fictionaut – and some amazing presses publishers – Palm Press, Tarpaulin Sky, Greywolf. Sure Soft Skull sort of shuttered last year, but they’d been road stopping us for years.

      I just went to one of the best readings I’ve ever been to at the West Cafe in Brooklyn last week. Mental Marginalia. It was their third one. People are doing it right! I mean, look at this site you are reading? Html Giant is the most exciting literature site eva.

      And the big publishers are still putting out books. Lots of them. And some good ones to boot. Wolf Hall, The Graveyard Book, The Name of the Wind, Chabon, McCarthy, Winterson, Franzen, Whitehead, DFW, Pynchon, Where Good Ideas Come From, The Hunger Games.

      Finally, the reason publishers aren’t publishing books that might land them in jail I would guess comes largely in part that I do not know precisely what would land a publisher in jail today. We won that battle I thought? I thought Ginsberg sealed it for us? Howl was deemed to have cultural merit, no?

  3. Anonymous

      Typo fixed.

  4. deadgod

      I’ve seen that “originality” argument before.

  5. alan

      I’ve seen that “originality” argument before.

  6. Anonymous

      I think you’ve misread Curt’s article. He doesn’t say anywhere that indie bookstore employees don’t read; that line was referring to the sales reps who purchase titles for large chains like Barnes & Noble. Cheers, Adam

  7. Anonymous

      Looks like Alan beat you to it.

  8. deadgod

      I’ve seen that comment before, but only once.

  9. deadgod

      He did if he’s a tachyon.

  10. deadgod

      No one working in the store read books, and they were no more capable of recommending a challenging literary title than they were of shaping your investment portfolio or diagnosing a kidney complaint.

      It seems that, in this paragraph, by “the store”, White is talking about Borders/B&N, which, in the ’80s and ’90s, are asserted to have imposed, as distributors, an exchange system where “the store[s]” didn’t pay for the books delivered to them until those particular books were sold.

      But he’s already said that “by the 1970s most independent bookstores […] had thoroughly conceded the authority to determine what would count as literature to the commercial presses.”  By smearing everything from the ’70s ’til now together in his anger, he makes it sound like, with only a few exceptions, all customer-service teammates in “bookstores” for the past couple+ decades were not-readers.

  11. Anonymous

      I think your second paragraph’s a real overstatement. Again, I don’t see anything in the original article to merit that interpretation.

      Meanwhile, if y’all have had a different experience in a B&N than the one Curt’s describing—if you’ve met a sales rep or employee there who’s up on, say, anything other than mainstream commercial fiction—then I guess you get to be right, and Curt gets to be wrong.

      Here’s my most recent B&N encounter: I walked in looking for a copy of Marx’s Capital (Volume 1, the Ben Fowkes translation). The B&N 1) didn’t have a copy in stock (of course). 2) The employee I spoke with claimed to have never heard of the book. 3) She then told me they “didn’t have it.” When I politely suggested that she search again (adding that it’s, you know, the best-known translation of what is arguably the most important book of the 19th century), she was at last able to locate the title in their system, and order a copy for me. Oh, I should add that this was the B&N that’s attached to DePaul University.

      I guess should also add of course that Curt created and ran FC2 with Ron Sukenick; he’s not talking entirely out his ass here. Those sales reps he’s describing—he spent a lot of time working with them. Those returns—he had them done to him. His “anger” (your word, not his) might have some justification. (Meanwhile, your experience in book sales/publishing beyond being a customer is…?)

      (Curt quit FC2 in the late 90s, but he’s still involved with publishing; he’s on Dalkey’s board.)

  12. Anonymous

      He must be one, then. QED.

  13. Anonymous

      And most indie bookstores do in fact sell the same stuff one finds at a B&N. Indeed, most of them look practically identical these days. Obviously there are (scant) exceptions, but is anyone here seriously going to argue that Curt is wrong about this? What planet do you live on, with all these awesome indie bookstores? Places like City Lights and Woodland Pattern are clear exceptions to the rule.

      I can’t speak for the 70s; I wasn’t buying books then. Today, the situation makes me pretty much want to puke.

  14. deadgod

      QEnonD.  If he’s a tachyon, then he beat me to it.  Those terms don’t preclude there being some other way or sense that he beat me to it.

  15. deadgod

      Not saying White’s “talking […] out his ass”; just that the sentence that I’m guessing that Cvan and William were responding to isn’t clearly about B&N employees and not about indie-bookstore employees–though that was my impression of the sentence.  It’s no “overstatement” to say that White says that the Borders/B&N bookstore illness was already infecting independent bookstores as early as “the 1970s”.

      At the B&N nearest me, there were (six months ago?) a copy of Capital, Vol. 1 and a couple about Marx (of the ‘for dummies’ sort).  I bought Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (transl. Milligan) there a few months previously.  I don’t remember seeing Marx at the Borders that used to be nearest me.  (Let me add that at neither store was a wage ape ever less than polite to me, harried as they were/are, though there was a woman at the Borders whom I avoided at the cash register, due to her being mistake-prone.  I’ve had those jobs, too, and appreciate what I know to be difficult cheerfulness.)

      Neither store was/is well-stocked with books that I’m interested in, like In The Middle Of Nowhere (a Fiction Collective book)–they were/are full of books – and readers – that/whom I’m as pleased as White and maybe you to despise.

      –but that’s the privilege and delight of snobbery, isn’t it?  –the sense of difference it gratifies.

  16. Cvan

      A.D., the sentence I responded to was certainly not referring to publisher reps (reps not reading was mentioned in the previous paragraph).  The line I’m referring to (and deadgod provides) refers in a blanket fashion to bookstore employees, so it’s assumed that White means both indie and chains staff.  Although White makes some good points, on this particular one, he’s incorrect. 

      Frankly the chains and Amazon have ruined the business.  Too bad we in the USA don’t have a price-law to disallow 40% off rapaciousness like they have in effect in Paris.  The indies struggle so they grasp at major publisher co-op deals, and on and on. 

  17. A D Jameson

      No, I don’t think it can be assumed at all that White means indie folks; recheck the sentence. He’s very specifically referring to B&N employees there, and B&N employees only. Your original reading—that White is claiming that indie bookstore employees don’t read—is a product of your imagination. So he’s hardly incorrect on it.

  18. A D Jameson

      I’m hardly a snob when it comes to literature, ha ha. Curt may be; why don’t you ask him? And I don’t despise anyone—not sure where little ad hominem things like that are coming from…?

      (Among my friends, I’m known as the guy who’s a fan of Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. I’ve written a lot on the aesthetics of their works.)

      In any case, snobbery’s misdirection. I’m glad your particular B&N has some Marx. Shouldn’t that, like, be the norm? Would you not agree that it’s, say, distressing that a campus bookstore run by B&N doesn’t have any in stock, and that an employee there doesn’t know who he is?

      Whether the employees there are nice or not has nothing to do with it. I actually didn’t say anything about the woman’s attitude. She was…nice enough, I guess? She has a shitty job so I don’t expect her to be all smiley. (I’m buying Marx, for fuck’s sake!)

      Frankly, I’d prefer she be a total asshole and for the store to have the book.

      Look, everyone, Curt’s not insulting your or anyone else’s precious indie bookstore employees! Follow them on Twitter and go talk with them and buy books from them, whatever. He’s describing a much more dire situation, in which giant retailers like B&N and Amazon have steadily gained monopoly control of the publishing industry. That seems to me a much more important thing to discuss and debate than your misreadings of his perfectly clear sentences.

      And this takeover has already had dire consequences for American fiction, and the situation will probably only get worse. Do you have any interest in publishing a book? And seeing it in a store? Well, good luck with that! I’ve published two books, both with small presses, and let me tell you, it’s absolute murder getting anyone to stock them, anywhere. And it’s none-to-encouraging when the folks who run much larger (but still very small) presses like FC2 and Dalkey tell you, yeah, we have to kill ourselves to get our books in shops, too.

      As for indie bookstores: to the extent that they are clones of B&N and jump on the bestseller bandwagon, they deserve all the criticism people like Curt can mount. If they’re not providing a counter-culture, then the hell with them. (Remember what Alfred Knopf himself said? About how the invention of the bestseller would ruin publishing? Well…he was right!)

  19. A D Jameson

      Someone got beaten, somewhere; that at least is not in doubt.

  20. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Your experience notwithstanding, that Barnes and Noble at the DePaul Center must have one or two cool people working at it, because they often have unusual and unexpected stock, things I would never expect to see at a corporate bookstore, esp considering how few shelves they’ve got. I’ve found stuff like David Markson, Carole Maso, Peter Markus (Calimari!) there, and they generally have not-bad stuff on display on some of their little tables in the center aisle.

  21. deadgod

      [I’ll be pleasingly specific.]

      That White blogicle that you link to in your blogicle concludes with his statement of for what and why he is a snob:  “literature’s ‘nobility'”, which stems from the capacity of “the poem” – not of “Literature” – “[to] provide[ …] moments in which it reveals the Real”.

      Here’s some of his language that causes me to think White “despise[s]” those indifferent to and/or enemies of “the poem”:

      capacious bosom of Oprah Winfrey and her bathetic book club

      arid speculations of those Hollow Men

      how little real understanding […] I got from the so-called independents

      loser Willie Loman[s]

      celebrity memoirs, confessions of failed politicians, moronic self-help tomes, and jokey piss-jobs about not running with scissors

      No one working in the store read books, and they were no[t] capable of recommending a challenging literary title[.]

      The way you talk about that “employee” at your B&N caused me to suppose – “maybe” – you, too, were a ‘despising snob’:

      claimed to have never heard of [Capital]

      it’s, you know, the best-known translation of what is arguably the most important book of the 19th century

      she was at last able to locate

      –so, in answer to your question, no “ad hominem” argument.  I agree with the scorn White has for his targets (though not so much with the gleeful Chicken Little forecasting), and share your elitist assumption that a college-affiliated bookstore that doesn’t have Marx on its shelves is failing.

  22. deadgod

      I don’t know what you mean by ‘beat somebody to something’, Adam.  You do understand that I made my joke and then alan made his joke in response (opposition?) to mine?

  23. Cvan

      I’m hardly setting up a strawman to attack it.  I’ve now reread it four times.  Sales reps also go to indie stories and returns are also made by indie stores.  The only product of one’s imagination going on here is the one for which you continue to bizarrely provide cover.  Everyone but you reads it otherwise.  Why persist?

  24. Cvan

      “Precious indie bookstore employees”?  Look, I read as many of Dalkey’s titles as anyone here, and of course I wish they were available on shelves in stores.  But…the culprits (at least initially) are the chains and Amazon, and the victims are the indies and the readers.  Again, the goddamn victims here are the indies and the readers.  The indies are just trying to survive with everything stacked against them.  A.D., your contempt and snarkiness is such that perhaps this is phrased in a way you’d understand:  Do you also mock rape victims? 

  25. Cremistress

      Yeah, you’re just wrong. And you’re pissing me off. “I” worked at B & N. Just shut up.