Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Toward an Ecology of Local Literature

     What does a behemoth publisher like Bertelsmann AG, the German firm that owns Bantam, Doubleday, and Random House, have in common with an agricultural giant like Cargill, Inc.? Besides the obvious, that they are both transnational corporations, they both replace local harvests with bio-engineered invasives.
     Unlike “frankensoy” shipped from China, of course, literature in this digital age does not leave a long carbon trail, unless China is where it is printed. Hence, I do not object to disseminating the multicultural garden sprouting from the soils of every bioregion or under the feet of our migratory human race.  It’s a vital part of thinking globally.
     What I object to is the silence, the engineered inability to sense the here and now, to lift one’s nose and sniff the rot in the local breeze. What does a neighborhood smell like when a bank owns all the politicians and peddles bunko credit? What does the water feel like as it slowly heats the proverbial frog?
     Non bio-engineered local writers may ask, “If we don’t submit to altering our genetic codes, how will we earn our daily bread?"
     We know how the current publishing model promotes only block-busters and their imitators, how books by unknown authors get but a few months to justify space on the global book shelves before being remaindered to the dollar store or extinguished in the shredder.
     How much less might a local writer find a market, with his provincial interests in, oh, say, some biker tased and gunned-down by cops as he rolls forward vomiting on a city stoop and the attorney general whose dad is the Vice-President of the United States saying it’s OK or some black chicken catchers at a downstate farm replaced by machines after they sue for years of stolen wages? What local business or multinational corporation headquartered here would bankroll that sharp nose?
     What state grants would do more than keep a non-bioengineered native writer chasing a perpetually receding horizon?
     Here’s what we do. Local progressives activist: read and promote local literature and use it as an organizing tool. Reformist non-profits on the sugar-tit of corporate grants: utilize local literature to generate a common vision and uncommon strength. Local writers: turn from all that “how” of writing you get with MFAs and workshops to the “what’s going on” you get when you turn on your senses and engage with your neighbors. Using both cyberspace and local space, meet, collaborate, and forge deep alliances.
     When each local community sows its political and cultural seeds in its own soil, we’ll weed out the corporate invasive strains and reap literature that’s alive and change we can smell, taste, and see.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Casualties from the Fast Track

          I recently read Mark McGurl's new book, The Program Era, about the effect graduate level creative writing programs in a growing number of colleges and universities have had on the availability of new fiction in the American literary market place. While there have been a number a good reviews, most notably in The New Yorker and Rain Taxi, I'm not going to add my two cents regarding McGurl's excellent insights. I will only say that McGurl has confirmed what I, as an unknown and largely unpublished novelist, have already long ago concluded: that the best way to successful publication is to have that "MFA fast track."
  After I wrote my first novel back in the 1970s, the only literary agent I could find to consider my work was one to whom I had to pay about $200. After a period of time, he (or someone in his employ) read my novel and sent it back with a report. While the report was generally a good one, he admitted that he couldn't "place" it. Later I saw this same literary agent being interviewed on a national television program. He had some really nice rings on his fingers and I realized I had probably paid for one of those rings. Then I got it. I realized I was the rube.
  I've now written six novels and have self published four of them in very small numbers at my own expense. After trying to find an agent after writing my second novel, querying every agent I could find from various listings, I realized that finding a literary agent was as difficult as trying to find a prospective publisher used to be. First I suspected that the role of literary agents was to screen out the plethora of aspiring new novelists on behalf of a diminishing diverse yet concentrated publishing industry, one that was looking to make more profits while scaling back on its costs of production. In this regard, I also realized that picking from the pool of well-trained creative writers provided by the MFA programs was a way of being assured of finding potentially lucrative products. I found this process a cynical way for the publishing industry to get students to actually pay, through their tuition, for the process of finding potentially worthy works for publication –– yet another cost saving measure.
  I know at least four other novelists in my immediate community who have written novels. None of them have been successful, and by that I mean have not made any money from their labor. I absolutely refuse to believe their works are unworthy of success. Another local novelist, who had the MFA fast track and published a couple of monetarily successful novels from a mainstream publisher, turned her back on the local literary community except to acquire a few sycophants before moving away. This defines the dynamic between the money making profit hungry publishing industry in collusion with canonical oriented academia as suggested by McGurl’s The Program Era, and aspiring, yet stranded, local or regional novelists and fiction writers. It is the reason I advocate a new resurgence of local or regional publishing enterprises: to infuse new full bodied substance into an anemic national literature from the places from where we find inspiration, from the places where literary artists have aspirations, and for those places that ought to be in touch, through artistic works of all kinds, with our local cultural, social and historic environments. Such are the parts that truly constitute the sum of our national cultural identity.