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Writing, Publishing and the Opportunity to Change

March 23, 2007, 3:14 pm

Even though I am now part of the on-line publishing world because of this blog, I still have mixed feelings about how the internet changes the experience of reading. I suspect that this is because printed things that I can hold in my hand — books, magazines and newspapers — are so much part of the fabric of my life. In my youth, books were soothing talismans when other things were painful or scary; “The New Yorker” appearing in the mailbox was a portal to another life, a sign of hope that my bourgeois suburban childhood with its oppressive rules could and would come to an end. Because of this, although I am a person who knows that I should read “Slate” the way I read “The New Yorker,” I don’t: it doesn’t *feel* the same. I can’t take it on the train or to the gym the way I would take something printed on paper. And I never read the New York “Times” on-line. Ugh. I actually moved to Shoreline in part because I couldn’t get a real paper delivered in Zenith, one that left grime all over my fingers and my morning coffee cup.

And yet, I have clearly adapted to certain kinds of changes already. I blog. I read blogs. I read academic articles on-line. For a long time after the invention of email I used to write letters, but now I don’t. I will die with an archive that pretty much ends at age 35.

Because I don’t write them, I also almost never receive a letter anymore either (except for the occasional thank-you note from a niece or nephew). I would say that the loss of letters has been adequately compensated for by how much I like email as a genre — I like its immediacy and intimacy, even though having a fight over email is an awful feature of internet life I never could have anticipated and I had to learn not to do it. On the other hand, sending terrible, unretrievable thoughts to others that could be obsessed over relentlessly was not a practice invented by computer wonks. My maternal grandmother was apparently famous for sending awful letters to people when she was angry at them, to the extent that it has become an eternal maxim in my family that writing to someone is the most devastating way to express anger and is always an impulse to be checked.

The nature of correspondence has changed so radically, not just in my lifetime, but in the last ten years, that I can fully imagine that my other literary habits will too. And I am starting today.

My friend Jane Lazarre (this is her real name and she is not a character in this blog) has notified me that there is a new on-line fiction magazine called The Persimmon Tree, established in part because older women writers, many of whom are quite well-established literary figures, are having a rough time getting their work published in a corporate literary environment where movie deals and other kinds of marketing tie-ins tend to be determining factors in whether a manuscript gets to an audience in the form of a book. And even publishing in magazines is part of the marketing web: have you noticed that most magazine features, fiction and non-fiction, are now drawn from book manuscripts and are part of a pre-publication marketing plan? This isn’t new, of course, but fewer short pieces are being accepted for one-time publication, thus shrinking publishing opportunities even more.

Whatever else you think of the industry, a trip to any chain bookstore suggests that publishers favor pop fiction and memoirs written by people in their twenties recovering from drug and alcohol abuse; and/or incest; and/or a strong need to cross-dress for which their parents are/are not to blame; and/or a swift rise to fame that was ill-managed. These books are also often published in six or seven different colors to match your decorating scheme and to encourage places like Starbucks to make selling books part of *their* store design (I am not kidding.) And I suspect that feminist writers — as opposed to feminist-lite writers like Candace Bushnell and Jennifer Baumgardner – are having a particularly tough time because, although there is a substantial youth market for women’s books, the vast number of younger female readers don’t want to deal with an older generation’s feminism that, as Katha Pollitt said unattractively but persuasively in the last “Women’s Review of Books,” might cause them to be associated with “hairy-legged lesbians” rather than life as a high-fashion executive or as the bisexual former girlfriend of a fashionable lesbian musician (who probably does have hairy legs, covered up by sexy ripped jeans and a lot of money.) Strangely, given how limited the academic world is, a new assistant professor has a far easier time getting a monograph published than an established writer whose book will not guarantee a (very large) profit and multiple tie-ins aimed at the youth market.

So far I have only read Jane’s (completely amazing) excerpt from her unpublished novel, because she’s my friend and I wanted to read it first. And speaking of marketing, take it from this feminist that you would be well-served to read Jane’s other books. If you want to buy any that are in print (she also has a number that are out of print that can be purchased from used book dealers) go here. I recommend all of them. She is a beautiful writer of fiction and non-fiction, whose work is read and taught by academics, and has also served a more popular audience, for decades.

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