The Retreating Optimist
I’m working on those Retail 2012 entries, I promise. I got word that my short-term copywriting gig is ending a little earlier than I had hoped (or my new landlord had hoped) this week. And while this will cause me to look at Craiglist’s office/admin job listings a lot more than I’m comfortable doing, this, as we say, is my shit, and I’ll keep it to myself.
I made a somewhat hasty post online yesterday about this 100 Mile Literary Diet venture that they do over at Wychwood Barns. Anybody been to this? It looks like a lot of fun, and definitely has all the hallmarks of the kind of thing that makes the small press world feel victorious about itself. My concern is, maybe not surprisingly to regular readers of this space, with the name of the thing. It’s riffing off the 100 Mile Diet, which is a lifestyle choice my mother loves where you subscribe to eating only local food. Obviously, ideas work differently than food, and most people who get all their ideas from a strict 100 mile radius are dull and xenophobic.
I’m sure the Literary Diet differs from the Food Diet in its lack of an absolutist’s embrace, I’m not seriously linking them any more than the titler of the Wychwood Barns idea (Pedlar Press, I am told) is doing so. I hear it’s been a pretty successful adventure so far, by the definitions used by the presses involved. Noted necktie enthusiast, and Canada’s greatest book promoter, Evan Munday is quoted in the Quill thusly: “Some days it’s really phenomenal and we sell a lot of stuff. And then [two weeks ago], we probably only sold a little over a dozen books,” Munday says. For her part, Follett [This is Beth, the publisher at Pedlar-Jmm] says she often uses the space to offer early-bird specials and bundles, such as three backlist titles for $5. Last year, she sold roughly 250 books through Wychwood Barns.”
The scene sounds like a pastoral version of Meet the Presses or the Small Press Bookfair. I try to go to both of those, as they appear, and while I’m always happy at the crowds, I rarely see anyone there that I don’t see in a bookstore. That Pedlar sold 250 books over the ten-week run of the original experiment, using a lot of three-for-five-bucks style markdowns, is good in that it allowed 25 books a week to go sold. And some of those Pedlar books are pretty great. I wonder who buys them, though, even in the supposedly novel surroundings of the farm market? Are these 25 new pairs of eyes a week? If so, seems like a big victory. Or are these 25 regular book buyers saving themselves a trip downtown to Type or Ben McNally’s, and thus removing one essential element of the food chain from the mix? Of course, they could be saving themselves a trip to one of the big box superstores instead, and I’m all for that. But, is that who buys Pedlar Books? With their lack of barcodes and anything as corporate as a company website?
I understand that, with the Bertelsmann takeover of McClelland & Stewart, I need to take it easy on any criticism of the small press demeanour. I know what’s happening, I don’t really like it, and I’m not sure what’s next. That’s my partially-informed opinion on the issue. But, I also can’t believe that this kind of aggressively insular action is the saviour of the small press. The people at the 100 Mile Literary Diet are pretty charmed by their idea. There’s money from the OAC to review expansion, and, to quote Follet from the Quill and Quire piece again (a piece written by Natalie Samson, and published today online, to fully credit the source) “We just have to think who the audiences are and how to go about deepening our appreciation for those audiences.” This sounds like someone with a marketing plan based around her new idea.
I wonder if I can cringe at this and still be a good team player in the book community? I’m cringing. I’m cringing because I love. If I’ve stepped the bounds into the world of unattached pessimism, someone feel free to pull me back. But here’s the thing: I don’t want this kind of stuff to be the future of books. If I had my choice between this, and the massively electrolyzed supercorporation Borgfuture, I’d take the Wychwood Barn option, but only after a lot of thought, and a decision to probably just keep my own poems to myself, going forward.
I don’t believe that people who go to buy carrots and organic lettuce will also buy experimental poetry, just because there’s a friendly person at the table next door, selling it. I think that the 25 shoppers who pick up Pedlar books every week have their weekends improved by their purchase, but I’m also willing to believe that the great majority of them are small press buyers anyway, and if they weren’t going to get it from the farm market, they were likely going to get it from a far more permanent, far more invested, and far more important source, like any of our forever-dwindling supply of local bookstores.
Now, even if I’m right, and 21 of the 25 buyers per week are my fellow disheveled accolytes, what I warmly refer to as “my people”, that still leaves four new readers a week. A worthy accomplishment. But not a big one, surely. And we’re hoping to throw OAC money, money that may otherwise go to things like authors instead of things like farm markets, at it? What concerns me here is that we (and I’m throwing myself into the “we” here, when we say “small press”. Because fuck you, all poetry is small press, even if its published from the eighth rung down the ladder of a massive multinational based in some city I’ve never seen–), we tend to jump onto the novelty of small successes, and it blinds us to the larger trends and to the gaze of what’s always been working. And if we rally around such a small flagpole, if that’s where our thoughts go, then we’re distracting ourselves at a too-important time in the reverse osmosis of the culture.
I love Pedlar Press. And Coach House and Brick and all the other houses involved. I’ve been working on future blog posts concerning their upcoming catalogues and I’m really, really, excited. I have fanboy tingles aplenty. But I need there to be a broad and welcoming middle ground, both as a reader, a buyer, and a producer (to use our agrarian metaphor again), between the disenfranchisement of the corporate homogeny, that can’t think in anything as small as 25 books a week, and the disenfranchisement of the benevolent cottage fetishist, who doesn’t need any more than 25 to qualify as enough success.
And that middle ground is bookstores. Real bookstores. Real bookstores that are filled with people (hopefully) thoughtful and competent enough to handsell the right books to the right people, from a selection that may be biased towards the pleasures of home, but has ideas within it from 200, 500, 5,000 miles away. We already have too many new authors here who consider “exotic” literature to be from Whitehorse, or Gander. We can’t shrink like this, and feel good about ourselves in doing it. We can’t retreat, and if we’re going to retreat, let’s at least not puff our chests out with pride as we do it, okay? We can’t clear the the middle ground so Indigo can roll in and make it plain again. They might do it anyway, but we can’t make it this easy.
Bookstores. I want bookstores. Please give me bookstores, and ideas from all of the universe.
Not that I can afford books right now, without a job.. Back to Craiglist I go…
Love to everyone who’s maybe offended by some part of this. I’ll try and get out to see the sales in person.