Sunday, November 11, 2007

GUEST WRITER: Silencing Writers in the Corporate Nation (Anca Vlasopolos)

(The following article has also been reposted in permission from its author.

In this article, the author discusses the systemic silencing of writers by corporate America.

As writers, both published and unpublished, think about the ways you and your works have been silenced by corporate America and academic presses.

Feel free to post your comments.)

I come by my interest in silence and silencing honestly—I grew up in Communist Romania, where the price for speaking out, as my father found out, was imprisonment without the right of habeas corpus. In fact, I know specifically where the U. S. sent the "extreme rendition" prisoners when it sent them to Romania. But that’s not the silencing I will be discussing. For a long time during my academic career I pondered the meaning of silence and silencing in women’s writing, not just in the case working-class writers or writers of color, where the problem was exacerbated by class and race, but in women’s writing precisely because that silencing cut across color and class lines, and the most aristocratic women were in many instances as definitively silenced as the milkmaids walking up the path of the estate. But since stellar scholars and writers, whom we in our general cultural amnesia now neglect, such as Joanna Russ (How to Suppress Women’s Writing) and Tillie Olsen (Silences), have brilliantly examined the subject, I will not be discussing that either.

The subject of my essay is the corporation-owned publishing media and the non-free-market economy that govern the present silencing of writers. I also want to address how academia, itself increasingly a corporate mimic, furthers the aims of the manacled and gagged market place. This paper is not a social-science analysis. I do not profess to practice social science without having been trained in its disciplines. But I am a writer and continue to be a voracious and eclectic reader, so I hope to entertain while edifying you, in the ancient manner, with lots of anecdotes and observations.

The most effective way of silencing a writer is not giving him or her an outlet. I’m not talking about the necessary winnowing that goes on constantly in a culture in which many more people write and submit their writing for publication than read and have any appreciation for literature. I’m talking about people who are experienced, published writers, for whom each new book presents the same dilemmas, problems, and humiliations as the first, each time without the hope that one still clings to in one’s writerly youth. We know that publishers commit colossal mistakes; this is not a recent phenomenon. We need only mention James Joyce, whose Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was rejected multiple times before it rose to become a classic. Proust’s first volume of A la recherche du temps perdu was rejected so many times that he ended up publishing it himself. And I could go on to myriad examples.

What I’m addressing here is the systematic, systemic silencing that goes on in what has become the ultra-capitalist business of publishing. About ten years ago, The Nation magazine did a feature on the remaining handful of independent presses in the country, small presses that were not subsidiaries of the petroleum industry or the Disney or Warner entertainment empires. Of those presses, fewer remain today. Picador has been swallowed. Dalkey Press has bit the dust. Coffee House, Milkweed, and Graywolf still limp on, they too trying so hard to find the best seller that they rarely publish the distinguished books that used to make their fame—if not their fortune, and there’s the rub. In the days of independent presses, when the Penguin "group," for instance, didn’t stand for a huge multi-national conglomerate, presses expected to make 8% profits on successful publications. Today, anything less than 25% is considered a marketing failure, and the writer whose book doesn’t see those profits can kiss his/her next advance goodbye and can go back to the starting line in terms of getting a publisher for the next manuscript.

The dominant presses, themselves subsidiaries of larger global corporations, control the market in various other ways that make it difficult for all but the most persistent and informed readers to be exposed to any books but those the publicity departments of these presses want them to see. The presses control the display at your local Borders, Barnes and Noble, and even independent bookstores. They pay for shelf space, so that their books will occupy prime space near the entrance to the bookstore, in the most eye-catching location, and that their books be placed with the cover rather than the spine in the shelves facing the browser. These presses control signings and readings. The pressure has become so great that even independent bookstores are reluctant to set up signings and readings for any but the major presses, even for such presses as Archipelago, with its high-quality and well-regarded international list. So, basically, unless you walk into your local bookstore determined to order the book you want even if it’s not on the shelf, you’re going to buy something on display that catches your eye. Even when you order a book, as I’ve done many times, the bookstore personnel forget to notify you that the book has arrived. They send it back to the publisher, who then charges the author for returned books against royalties, so that through creative accounting, such as that practiced by one of my presses—Columbia University Press, a writer is always in deficit; this despite my memoir having been kept in print for the last seven years (thus clearly making money for CUP).

In addition to the raw rapacity of the multi-corporate presses that dominate the market, the process of publishing with the multis as well as with the independents who fashion themselves in the image of the multis, such the venerable Knopf and Farrar Strauss (the latter no longer an independent), silences writers. No major, and a good deal of minor, presses will look at unagented manuscripts. This barrier between writers and presses sets up yet another profit-making enterprise that depends on the generation of capital, not on literary excellence and lasting power. Agents become agents to make money. They will represent writers who write what’s been written, published, and proved successful. They do not seek fresh, original voices and authors who may create a "market" for their work over time. Agents look for works that fit present, proven, money-making niches. So, apart from the rapaciousness of the corporate publishers, writers have to deal with the cupidity of agents, some of whom moreover have the arrogance to regard themselves as literary critics and to force writers to make major changes in order to make a sale. I had an agent tell me that the political content of my detective novel was too disturbing and that I should make it into a screenplay, which he offered to represent, because he felt the political content would be muted in such a treatment. A famous agent told me that my most recently published book, The New Bedford Samurai (from the small, independent press Twilight Times Books), which she received in manuscript, was a "deliberately noncommercial" production and that I should bide my time and wait for her to read it when she had time because, she said, she was in the business to make money. On one occasion, when my colleague Christopher Leland and I participated as invited speakers at a writers’ conference at Oakland University, we sat at the same table for lunch as other invited speakers, among them two agents from New York. While it’s indisputable that at my age young people look very young, these two were, by their own admission, in their early and mid-twenties. Chris and I asked them what they were looking for when they shopped for manuscripts, and they said: "Edgy young fiction." The publishing industry, like others, depends on the wisdom of people who have hardly lived long enough to have read the literary masterpieces and the discovered treasures that make up expanding canons. They are the gatekeepers.

In the same crass and often ignorant way in which agents manipulate writers toward commercial success, editors at presses regard themselves as great stylists in the mode of Ezra Pound and Toni Morrison, to name but two illustrious editors. With a handful of exceptions, they are not. They’re people whose jobs and renewals in those jobs depend on their finding, the same as the agents, works that fit an already fabricated and commercially developed niche into which they snugly fit, without disturbing readers or upsetting reviewers or making trouble for the bookstores. The phenomenon of Harry Potter, a series that is at least well written and imaginative, nevertheless is exemplary of a book piggybacking on many equally inventive and well-written fantasy novels that made the niche for Harry and were not even mentioned as predecessors by reviewers largely ignorant of a genre they generally treat with contempt.

Which brings me to the reviewers: It is as rare to have a major newspaper review a book by an independent press as it is to spot a wild orchid in Michigan. Local papers will review books by writers who live in the area, thereby bringing the book to the attention of at best 5,000 readers, and major metropolitan newspapers like The Detroit Free Press and Detroit News no longer even have local reviewers—they pay for syndicated reviews from national sources, like the Associated Press. A half a page advertisement in The New York Times Book Review section costs over $22,000 for a single time, so no independent press can afford to advertise the books it publishes in venues where the reviews make or unmake a book. A review in The NY Times Book Review does in fact make or break a book in terms of the agent’s interest and the next publishing contract. The definitive biography of the poet Rilke, for instance, published by Farrar Strauss, had a lukewarm review in the Times Book Review, and although it received a glowing review in The Nation, neither publisher nor agent accepted the writer’s next project, original fiction. This despite translation rights FS sold to Germany, France, and China. In Germany, the book became a best seller, and the writer was invited (travel and honorarium) to present in Europe, repeatedly, for this book as well as for his critical work and translations of Hesse; clearly, the European market is still more inclined toward writing of substance than the American, but our multi-corporate practices are beginning to take hold overseas as well. Shopping for a new agent and publisher in one’s late seventies had effectively silenced this writer for several years.

As for me, I engaged in an email exchange that got increasingly more acrimonious with the book editor of the Seattle Times. I had a limited number of review copies that my publisher expected me to send out—she dutifully sent out her copies to the biggies—and I sent queries as to whether papers such as the Seattle Times or The Providence Journal would be interested in seeing the book because of its Pacific- and Atlantic-rim subject matter. The Seattle Times editor objected to my calling my book a nonfiction novel. I told him that the genre had been so dubbed by Truman Capote for In Cold Blood, and that, if anything, my book as even more of a hybrid than Capote’s. He then riposted that he knew about Capote, which I doubt, but that it was the kiss of death to call a book a nonfiction novel because it would confuse readers as to whether it was fiction or not. I explained to him that parts of my book were fiction and others were research and meditative essays based on science, cultural anthropology, and the most recent ecological data about the Pacific Rim. He, however, got to have the last word. My book has not been reviewed by the Seattle Times. It has a snowball’s chance of being reviewed by any of the well-known newspapers in the U. S., even though it got a great review in the Cape Cod Chronicle and in the Grosse Pointe News.

So, writers battle demographics ("edgy young fiction"), genre (call it something we can easily place on a labeled shelf), agents, who nowadays regard themselves as literary critics, editors at presses who do the same with generally few qualifications other than an M.A. in English, to the corporate structure whose whole interest in literature is to make its 25% or more, to the bookstores that are being owned by the corporate structures in the way that they display, advertise, and order books. In addition to all these modes of silencing, writers must confront academia.

I’ll begin this section of this "j’accuse" by quoting Flannery O’Connor, who, when asked if academia silenced creative writers, responded, "not enough of them." It may seem paradoxical that a writer delineating modes of silencing would side with the need to silence others. However, the problem with creative writing in the academy is two-fold: creative writers who have jobs in universities and colleges become the "wives" of the publishing world, that is, they put out without having to be paid. Forgive the vulgar analogy, but I’m following Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s examination of wives versus prostitutes in her Women and Economics, where she states that wives cheapen and undermine the labor of the sex workers, who at least have the freedom to choose and to be paid piecemeal, so to speak, as opposed to the wives who have been sold or have sold themselves to a single master. So, to some extent, the writers in academia, only in the sense that they have a master—the university, which exacts publications for tenure, promotion, contract renewal, and salary raises. The writers, in turn, can offer their wares for free to the market and generally do. If anyone here takes offence, do please remember that I number myself in this category. The condemnation includes me. I have published over two hundred poems and short stories, two chapbooks of poetry, a collection of poems, a detective novel, a memoir, and a nonfiction novel. The only advance I ever received was so small that I was barely able to cover the upgrade to a newer computer.

If I added up my income from my writing, I’d have made perhaps $5,000 over a lifetime of writing. I’m not counting, of course, the salary increases and the promotion, which are vastly greater than the direct earnings. But what does this practice do? It offers yet another subsidy to the corporate publishing world. Excellent work for free—can anyone get a better deal?

To go back to O’Connor’s quotation: while writers in the academy cheapen the labor of writers who should be able to support themselves through their writing, academics also depend on attracting and retaining students and on getting good evaluations from them. Consequently, professors of creative writing encourage students to submit for publication even when these students have not lived enough to have much to say, have not had time to think enough to have anything worth saying, and have not read enough to have developed skills that outshine or at least rival their predecessors. Thus the market is flooded with free work by a huge amount of scribblers whose white noise drowns out the few genuine talents and the occasional genius. Add to that the fly-by-night or fly-by-screen journals run by equally unformed and uninformed "editors," and the possibility of true talent to be heard becomes more and more remote.

Unlike the corporate publishing world, however, which pays no mind to where a person has published, only to how much, academia worships addresses. Not content, not style, not the felicitous merging of the two, but merely addresses, and this form of worship applies to scholarly as well as to creative endeavors, but I am convinced that the system of peer review that to some extent justifies, though only in part, address worship for scholarship has no counterpart in the world of creative writing. It’s not other fine writers who judge a dossier of a novelist or a poet to say how s/he is doing—it’s the address, and the prize. We know from scandals such as the one that led to the website that contests in creative writing harbor outrageous examples of corruption and nepotism. Grant giving at the NIH, while subject to fads in science, has never approached the utter cynicism of the giving of prizes in creative writing.

The corporate market silences creative writers by looking, always, not at plot, characterization, formal structure, etc., but at the bottom line, which rhymes only with excessive profit. It surrounds itself with safeguards for the production of successful sameness, with agents at one end and influence buying at the distribution end. Independent presses mirror the corporate publishers because the weak desire to emulate the strong. Academia provides shelter for writers who in turn through their own labor and their unwise encouragement of fetal writing from students flood the market with free labor, thereby exacerbating the economic difficulties of any writer of genuine power to be able to count on his/her literary talent to make a living. The result, ladies, gentlemen, and scholars, is the dross we find on the tables of our local branches of the Exxon Mobil bookstore and the mute inglorious Miltons and Jane Austens who write deliberately noncommercial books that remain forever silenced in some hard disk or flash drive or, even in our day, yellowing somewhere in an attic trunk. The system should be a public scandal, but for that to happen we would have to have non-corporate, independent press and media in this great country of ours.

This essay has been posted here with the writer's permission.
Copyright 2007 by Anca Vlasopolos.
Guest writer Anca Vlasopolos was born in 1948 in Bucharest, Rumania. Her father, a political prisoner of the Communist regime in Rumania, died when Anca was eight. After a sojourn in Paris and Brussels, at fourteen she immigrated to the United States with her mother, a prominent Rumanian intellectual and a survivor of Auschwitz. Anca is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She is married to Anthony Ambrogio, a writer and editor; they have a biological daughter, Olivia (a graduate of Oberlin College and a PhD candidate at Tufts University), and an adopted daughter, Beatriz, who came to them from Guatemala in 2000, when she was 10.
Her publications include Missing Members (1991), a police procedural; No Return Address (2000), memoir; Penguins in a Warming World (2007), poetry; The New Bedford Samurai (2007), non-fiction novel.
Professor Vlasopolos presented this essay at a symposium on Silence and Silencing at her university.


Nomi said...

Thank you for writing this essay and giving Jennifer permission to post it.

I wish I didn't believe it to be true.

Techapostle said...

I know how difficult it must have been to grow up on Romania. A good article, well written. You write well!

In this context I have come across this interesting article: Do have a look.