Thoughts on capitalism, democracy, literature, and the heroic nature of the small press

Shelf full of literary journals
Below you'll find my decidedly North American response to a Facebook discussion today centered on capitalism and the "democratic nature of writing." This, inspired by and in tandem with this interview by Nawaid Anjum published in today's The Indian Express featuring Turkish writer Elif Shafak: "The novel is one of our last democratic spaces." Parentheticals are additions to my original comment. 

[In the United States,] publishing was never an “industry” until Stephen King rose to great fortune through the production of blockbuster novels that led to blockbuster movies. 

Before that, and even now [in the small press], publishing was about landing one bestseller on your list so that you could use the proceeds to pay for the urgent obscure titles you loved and for which the publishing house was built. 

Publishers were book lovers in the most intense sense of the phrase [before commodification became a thing in earnest]. 

Also, they don’t call them houses for nothing; the field of publishing was mostly family-owned businesses throwing support behind authors they believed in, sometimes even subsidizing their lives so that these authors had the space and time to  write (Harper Lee’s is a great example) . 

After Star Wars and Jaws and The Shining, and the Gordon Gecko “greed” decade of the 1980s, “houses” consolidated to become media empires because that’s what businesses did at that time, given the lucrative opportunities they then suddenly enjoyed. 

The pleasures when capitalism succeeds. 

It wasn’t an easy turning away from obscure writers, though; publishers often still thought about the money they earned as allowing them to support scads more books from other writers who they adored, and whose work might not otherwise see the light of day. 

But throw in some marketing savvy, desktop publishing/Macs, the Internet, and the passage of publishing house family values to strategies compelled by politics and economic forces, and now you see how major publishing houses have broken away from their small press roots to become conglomerates more interested in profits than in writers [and words, and art]. 

The publishing world, at the level of small and micro presses, is still a far more democratized space; in fact, I think it has never been more diverse! A place where books are cultural artifacts and not paper products on pallets at Costco next to the Charmin, as Sara Paretsky once described in a lecture I attended at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference back in 2003. 

Economics have always been publishing’s Achilles heel, but the spirit of the small press is―for me anyway―a sign that democracy is alive and well in those spaces, in spite of the burden, because the small press still concerns itself chiefly with stewarding words and ideas and the people behind them in acts which are, in some ways, nothing less than revolutionary.

[Speaking of which]

The novel is a democratic space. It is one of our last remaining democratic spaces in today’s extremely polarised world. In my novels, I question taboos — political, cultural, social and sexual taboos. I believe it is a novelist’s job to ask questions about difficult issues and some of these issues might have been suppressed, silenced, censored — but it’s not my intention in any way to try to “preach” the answers. I don’t like that. …I always leave the answers to the readers. But literature should be able to raise honest questions and in doing so, make the invisible a bit more visible, make the unheard a bit more heard, and bring the periphery to the centre and give the disempowered a bit more power….

―Turkish writer Elif Shafak


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