Jürgen Neffe: The disembodied book

I just found this, thanks to my friend Eva's link to a page with excerpts from Herta Müller's poems and new novel -- and much else in English about contemporary German literature. Jürgen Neffe: The disembodied book - signandsight

I'm convinced that Neffe is right: a book needs an author, but an author doesn't need a "book" as we've known it up to now. That is, a bound block of paper pages. His essay has got me thinking about my own work: three novels (one just finished, two older ones never sold) and a collection of short stories (published long ago and now barely available). Why not publish these myself?

The reason I've hesitated is that I feared that, with out the imprimatur of a reputable publishing house, nobody would read them.

But -- Why can't I become the reputable publisher? This means more than just promoting my work, though it implies that too. YouTube, FaceBook, blogs, etc. can put titles and blurbs before your eyes, but that's not enough. The main thing is to build a reputation for putting out words worth reading. I've already got a start. There must already be at least two dozen people who expect that from me. Actually, if everybody who bought any of my books remembered my name, it would be a more like tens of thousands -- but I don't suppose they all do. If I can interest some of them to read my new novel or my about-to-be expanded short-story collection, and they recommend them to others, I'm off to a good start. Not riches or fame, probably, but readers and conversation partners.

I'm serious, folks. I have already exhausted my list of potential literary agents for going through the old, obsolescent route (selling to print publisher). Two are still pending (they've got the book or a sample and are supposedly considering), and I'll give them a couple of more weeks to respond. If (as I expect) they say "no", I publish myself. Not on paper ("print-on-demand" strikes me as a technology that was obsolete at birth), but on any of the emerging Internet vehicles. We don't need to let all that old publishing apparatus get between us.


Dreams of the absent father

This book would be fascinating even if its author were not now president of the United States. It's the voice of a very young Obama (he's still not very old, especially for a U.S. president), just out of Harvard Law School. Obama, Barack. Dreams from my father: a story of race and inheritance. Rev. ed. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004. It's the work of a young man, learning how to write a book and using the richest material he had, his own experience. Especially resonant for me were his pages on his community organizing experience -- frustrations and small triumphs -- in black Chicago. I too was a community organizer in a Chicago community, a few years earlier and many blocks north, in the Division Street area, then (1964-66) mostly Puerto Rican. And I recognize those feelings of the young organizer -- "Anything is possible," "Yes, we can" -- and surprise and disappointment when the people we're counting on turn out to have much more complex motives than we had imagined. And that sometimes take a long time to discover, because people are embarrassed to admit something (e.g., illiteracy, or some relationship or past event) or because they disguise their true motives under a mask of bravado or, most commonly, because they don't well understand their own impulses and anxieties.

I'm glad the author became our president. I think he's the best man possible at this time. But he would have still been impressive if he'd merely made himself a professional writer. This is a beautiful memoir, generous to those people in Chicago, to his stepfather in Indonesia, to his mother and his Kansas grandparents in Hawaii, and especially to the absent but imaginatively very present father. And it will help all of us Americans who are not black to understand a little better how a black man experiences our society.

Photos of Barack Obama, Sr., from BarackObama-net.

Publishing to the right public

[A friend and colleague has asked me, "What are your thoughts now about Fictionaut?" His are mostly critical, and he seem perplexed by the site's notion of "publishing" -- which means simply uploading to the site. Someone else may be interested in this discussion, so I'm posting my response here. I'd be interested in your reactions.]

Yes, as could only be expected, the comments [on stories in Fictionaut] are mostly gushes of praise without critique. If someone doesn't especially like a story, I suppose he just passes on without leaving a comment. So it doesn't work as a fiction workshop, which would have to be seriously critical. It's simply (for me) a place to park stories I hope somebody will look at while I seek some other, more selective publisher. Except that I (like other users) have also sometimes posted a story that has already been successful elsewhere, in hopes of impressing the crowd. "Melliflua" always seems to make a hit.

The only serious on line fiction workshop I know is Zoetrope. I used to post there often, and may return. You are not permitted to upload a story until you have earned the right by critiquing a certain number (3? 5? - I don't remember) of other stories, and there are intelligent guidelines for critiques. "Melliflua" is one of the stories I posted there, where it was spotted by a woman who edited In Posse and who asked me to submit it. That doesn't happen often, but the fact that it can happen makes the site especially attractive.

What is "publishing" today? I think we have to go back to its basic, core meaning: making publicly accessible, "publicly" implying people you don't personally know. The Fictionaut public used to be limited to registered users, but I guess it is now open to anyone with an Internet connection. Like my blog and your web page.

So today the challenge is not to get published. That is now easier than it has been for millennia, since the days when a singer of epics could gather the whole tribe around him or herself. (Something recently brought to mind a course I took in college with Albert Lord, author of Singer of Tales, about those epic singers. Lord was convinced that the Iliad and Odyssey had been composed and originally "published" in the same way as Serbian epics sung to the rhythm of the one-stringed gusle. But I digress.)

The challenge, as I started to say, is not to get published but to get read, and especially to get read by people who like the kind of things we write. That's where book-producing houses and Internet sites with critical editing ("publishers") are useful. Certain Internet sites have developed a readership larger than you are likely to find on your own, and the older-style publishers still producing paper artifacts sometimes promote their products effectively. If you publish your own stuff, you can still get it read, but it takes more effort and a lot of connections to draw attention to it.