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Two Separate Conversations: An Interview with Dave Daley and Stephan Elliott

By Caroline Picard


Published:

via e-mail August, 2009

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Daley and Stephen Elliott, who each participate in both print and online media. Dave Daley has worked as an editor for a number of publications, including The Journal News in White Plaines, NY, Details Magazine and McSweeney’s. In each instance he has developed different strategies to publish short fiction in the printed form, and when he began doing this at The Journal News, he published the only regular newspaper fiction series in the country. Currently, Daley has started a fiction blog, FiveChapters, where he has published over 125 stories; each story is divided into five parts and published over the course of a workweek.

Stephen Elliott, is an author in San Francisco with six original books under his belt, including Jones Inn (Boneyard Press, 1998), Looking Forward To It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About It and Love the American Electoral Process (Picador, 2004), Happy Baby (McSweeny’s & MacAdam/Cage, 2004), My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up (Cleis Press, 2006). His latest book The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder was released from Graywolf Press last Fall and has been the recipient of many accolades, including TimeOut New York’s favorite book of 2009. In addition, he publishes The Rumpus, online blog of cultural commentary.

Pairing these individuals, who both wrestle directly with the changing contemporary literary world, was a unique opportunity to explore the shifting landscape of publishing in the age of the Internet. The conversation that follows reflects a larger dialogue concerning the changing model for cultural distribution. We see it in the music world, where indie record labels parallel indie presses, just as the Sonys and Universals parallel the Houghtons of the publishing world. Of course this leaves everyone—authors, publishers, agents, and critics –in a suspended panic as they wait to see what the future has in store. While this conversation is not about defining that future, it does sort through a number of subtle distinctions, problems, and hopes that are prevalent in the business of writing.

Caroline Picard: People have referred to your (Dave’s) site, FiveChapters, as a kind of hyper-modern Dickensian serial, in which you simultaneously borrow an old form (the serial) and apply it to modern technology—do you think this has an impact on the kinds of work that you publish? Do you think this approach (online publishing) will change the tendencies of contemporary fiction? Does one write stories differently depending on the form of publication?

Dave Daley: First, thank you for that very generous description of the site. I like to think of FiveChapters as taking a 19th century form and transferring it to a 21st century technology. But really, I started the site because I was horrified by what people—myself included—were reading online. My idea was to make it just as easy to read great fiction online as it is to go see if there has been another Parker Posey sighting at Whole Foods.

At the outset, I was more concerned with how the Internet affected the way we read, rather than the way we write. (Although, of course, one naturally follows the other.)

The short story, to me, seemed just as relevant a form as ever—perhaps more so, as attention-spans tighten. You’d think it would be the perfect form for this time. But as technology changed our reading habits, I’d argue a large percentage of our reading became distilled down into what fits on one computer screen, on what can be read during a five-minute break at our desks. FiveChapters was my way of trying to sneak the short story into an online world.

These stories weren’t written for the web, they weren’t even, in most cases, written as traditional serials with cliffhangers. Unlike Slate’s experiment with Walter Kirn and hyperlinked fiction, these stories don’t utilize the outside web at all. It’s where the readers are, so it’s where I’m publishing. These could just as easily be newspaper serials, or published in The Atlantic, or in a lit journal—if that’s where the readers were.

FiveChapters is simply designed—there’s no advertising, nothing that slows you down. Each part is on one page, so there’s not a lot of clicking. It is not fancy. But that’s because it is designed to be a place to read.

To me what the Internet does at its best—it gives a multiplicity of smart voices a platform they never had before. A great book critic, in the past, needed to pay 20 years of newspaper dues before having a chance to be the book editor at a paper. Now, start your own site, and if you are good, you’re likely to be discovered, and in turn, sometimes given old media opportunities.

This feels like a good segue and jumping-off point for Stephen, who has done such a good job of collecting the best of the web, and adding brilliant original voices to The Rumpus—turning novelists into book and film writers. I think of that great Katie Crouch review of her ex-s novel, which would have never found a home in the offline media world.

Stephen Elliott: I certainly agree with Dave that the majority of what people are reading online is just awful. I think there’s a lot of room to smarten things up. That’s why I started The Rumpus. I think there’s lot of people killing time in their office job and they go to sites that are frequently updated, like Gawker and The Huffington Post or Slate and Salon or blogs. And most of the content they find is just terrible. And worse, it’s all about the same things. Salon will be analyzing Obama’s walk (does Obama walk like a Republican? Our posture expert spills the beans!) or Slate (is Obama’s dog a liberal? Our canine expert gets the full woof!).

At The Rumpus we are publishing content that’s specifically for the Internet. Our reader is basically someone who might enjoy The Believer or The New York Review of Books when they’re offline, but want something shorter, but still a little challenging, when they’re online.

There is a lot of good writing online, but it’s hard to find an online magazine that’s frequently updated with good writing about culture, as opposed to “pop culture” and by “pop culture” I don’t mean popular culture but mass-produced culture. I go into this more detail on The Rumpus.I think a reason there aren’t more good online magazines (there are lots of good blogs) is that it’s still really early for Internet magazines.

CP: With so many magazines calling it quits and publishing houses laying people off, what is your perception of the future of publishing – Stephen, from the perspective of an author selling books in print and having worked with a range of publishers, and Dave, from the perspective of an editor? What is the relationship between corporate and independent modes of representation? I feel like talking this way might point back to the question of developing the Internet as a venue for culture, while also redefining the function of print media.

SE: I don’t know about the future of the publishing, but one thing I think is important is to segment what we’re talking about here. The future of celebrity memoirs and ghost written novels is not relevant to the future of literary publishing. The people most worried right now are the people publishing vampire books, the people that make a lot of money. But literary writers have never been well paid, and they never will be. Smaller literary presses will continue to come and go. They are acts of love, sustained by affection and enthusiasm that run a natural course. The books that make a million dollars have nothing to do with me. If Random House and Harper Collins were to go away, there would still be plenty of great small presses publishing great books.

So I think you have to have two separate conversations here–one involving publishing deals in the six figures and one involving quality literature. Quality literature, writing and publishing, is going to do fine, I think. And the success of the rest of the book publishing industry I have no opinion on, and I don’t care, either. Though I do hate to see so many awesome bookstores closing.

To go further into your question, corporations are bad for literature and culture in general. There seems to be this idea that we need them, and I don’t fully buy into that. There’s lots of great print media doing great culture coverage. Too many to name. And then there’s People Magazine and the rest of the “guilty pleasures” who are apparently losing readership to Perez Hilton and TMZ.

CP: While the Internet has built-in distribution, distribution is problematic for smaller presses: On the one hand distributors, large and small, are suffering and on the other hand it’s difficult for smaller organizations to get distribution in the first place. This is perhaps a bold and maybe even ridiculous question, but what is the future of the physical book? How does that compare with the future of medium of online publishing?

DD: This is definitely where it circles back around to money, and Stephen and I might come at this from slightly different places here. I think celebrity memoirs are relevant in this way: they help pay the advances that go to literary novelists. I have never worked in book publishing, but my sense of it has always been that Random House and Harper Collins make their money on the cheesy fiction and the self-help books and the celebrity silliness, and then some of that money helps to underwrite auctions for things like Reif Larson’s book or other young novelists or even when Knopf or Viking publishes a “career” novelist like a Robert Cohen or Stewart O’Nan.

The O’Nans and Cohens of the world deserve to get paid well, deserve to be able to make a living as a writer. If it takes two years to finish a book, a $100,000 advance isn’t necessarily that much, and yet I don’t think either of them has ever earned it back to the extent to where they get royalties. Literary fiction is in many ways underwritten by big these corporations—and the media still takes its cues from that. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

The paradox here is that an independent press, in many ways, throws literary fiction to the whims of the market. And I don’t think the market can support it. Once or twice a year there is a breakout, an Eggers or a Zadie or a Bee Season or an Everything is Illuminated. Most literary fiction, even the wonderfully reviewed, sells very little. Now, off of a big press, if writers get used to much smaller advances, less marketing, and don’t mind working at night after a day job, that’s one thing. Younger writers might be OK with that. The mid-career novelist, on book four, not pretty enough for the Details profile, etc., with a mortgage and two kids? I don’t know if it works as well for him or her.

And while it is possible that a new and more interesting indie model arises from this,—I think of Graywolf as a house which has taken on many of those acclaimed, mid-career novelists, most recently J Robert Lennon–there’s a distribution question too. I went into an amazing bookstore yesterday, City Lights, looking for his new one, and it wasn’t there. The question of how the artist gets paid in the Internet era—how the editor gets paid, how investigative reporters get paid—seems to me to be one of the really important questions as we move forward.

SE: I’m going to totally disagree with Dave here. There’s this idea that these large publishing companies are going to pass on their profits from the garbage they publish and use it to pay legitimate authors, and I just don’t believe that at all. It might work out that way sometimes, but I don’t think Random House or Harper Collins ever intentionally lose money on something they think is good. If O’Nan is still getting $100,000 advances, and I hope he is, he is a member of an extreme minority, a statistical anomaly so rare as to be irrelevant.

For every good author that received an advance big enough to live off on their second or third books, I can name you ten that didn’t. Peter Rock, Peter Orner, Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles, just to name a couple of major authors off the top of my head that are not being paid close to six figures for books that take them years to write. The publishing houses would rather pay $100,000 for a first novel (when you’re lucky, and I’ve never once been lucky), then they half that, by the third book you’re lucky to get $25,000, though your third book is almost always better than your first.

Publishing houses aren’t putting money from celebrity memoirs into publishing good literature. They’re putting it into publishing more celebrity memoirs. Literature is not funded by the propagation of trash anymore than the The Wire was funded by Temptation Island.

The vast majority of literary writers always have, and always will, write for much less money than they’re worth to society. O’Nan is a very good writer, and I applaud every writer that gets paid. But it’s not the model. Ever since quality publishing houses merged with mega-corps they’ve paid authors as little as they can get away with. They only pay you more when they have to, not because the latest O.J. bio is flying off the shelf. I would go a step further, I would say that celebrity memoirs are bad for books because they lower the value of books, and they destroy the brands of the person publishing those books.

If the publisher considers what they’re publishing to be trash, then they shouldn’t publish it. And I think the publishers know a lot of these books are trash. They wouldn’t read them. Publishing shouldn’t be cynical. If someone truly believes in a book, then fine. But don’t tell me you had to publish it to fund great literature, because that is a lie.

CP: To me this begs the question, how is culture consumed? And does this affect the future of The Book? Is online publishing more democratic? Does it serve a wider audience? It seems like you both use the Internet as a kind of tool or platform to assert aesthetic judgment (whether in the selection of stories, links to other sites or cultural reflection)—providing a filtration system of sorts; this could be a kind of service, right? But what does it do for the audience?

DD: Part of what the Internet has done is shattered the idea of the mass audience, and accelerated the cultural fragmentation that was already taking place. Part of that is a great thing. Online, we have access to exactly what interests us. If we love indie music, the reviews on Pitchfork are probably better than a fan ever had access to before, especially if they didn’t live in a culture hub and have access to something like trouser press or some other zine.

That’s definitely a service, and The Rumpus provides it, and I hope FiveChapters does too. And yet, I also believe that artists should be paid for their work. That they should be able to live off it—pay mortgages, raise families, even. The shattering of the mass audience, and the rise of the Internet, where all is free, threatens the entire way the culture world generates revenue. That may well, in time, work out to be a good thing. Maybe a million Graywolf presses and McSweeneys and Akashics will bloom.

But my day job is in journalism, working for a mid-size paper at the crossroads of the South and Midwest, and I see what’s happening to newspapers—as the revenue constricts, the things that make newspapers important get cut. Statehouse bureaus shrink. International bureaus disappear. Washington coverage gets less in-depth. Critics lose their jobs. Projects and investigative reports vanish—the Internet hasn’t figured out a way to duplicate these tasks yet. I’m not sure they will. Yes, anybody can now start a blog and be a statehouse reporter. But newspapers paid those people, covered the resources, protected them under their legal umbrella, and gave their work a mass audience. I worry none of that is possible as we go forward.

FiveChapters has published some great writers. At the same time, The Atlantic and a lot of other magazines that used to publish short fiction, don’t do it anymore. And The Atlantic paid them good money, and gave them a much wider audience than I can provide. I also don’t pay anything for the stories on the site.

I hope that we are not heading toward a time when artists and writers without best selling status can’t make a living. The current model of publishing is wildly imperfect, but I’m concerned that what comes next has the potential to be worse.

SE: Partly, with so much information available, we’re looking for editors we can trust to publish only good content. We have a blog on The Rumpus and I always tell volunteers, “Don’t link to mediocre.” There’s too much great art to link to things you don’t love. And it’s the same with book publishers. A book publisher should never publish a book they don’t love. I’m not saying that everybody has to love it. I’m not saying that at all. But somebody should, preferably the editor.

So for me it’s about filters, which is the opposite of democratic. There’s a lot of places people can go for crowd-sourced content. Metafilter might be the best example, and The Huffington Post might be the worst example.

CP: That still leaves the question of compensation and sustainability out on the table: How are authors supposed to make a living and where does the money come from?

SE: I feel like that’s not the right question. That’s a question for journalists. Who goes into novel writing or short story writing thinking they’re going to make a living at it? You’d have to be crazy. I’ve written seven books and edited four, and I’ve made less than $150,000 total on all of them. I wrote most of my first book when I was 21. I’m 37-years-old, and I share a one-bedroom apartment with a 27-year-old hipster in San Francisco. You pick up extra cash teaching or a university brings you out to do a reading or you publish in a magazine occasionally or you do anything else. I was lucky to get a two-year fellowship that paid about $30,000 a year. Many literary writers make their living as teachers. In my lifetime literary writing has never been a legitimate career choice. I feel very fortunate that I’m cobbling together something resembling a living from my creative pursuits. But if I was interested in real money I’d go to business school or open a convenience store.

This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that we’re confusing the conversation. Journalists are having the conversation about how to make a living. Mass market paperback writers and business writers are having this conversation. But literary novelists are doing what they’ve been doing for a long time: keeping expenses low, applying for grants, picking up scraps, stealing, struggling toward tenure or operating in an entirely different field like medicine or law.

DD: I’ve been thinking a lot about this and just wanted to try and conclude by making sure I’d connected all this to the topic at hand—the future of the book.

It wasn’t my intention to take the conversation in tangential directions, but to suggest that all of these issues are connected—that the future of the book industry, and the related media and cultural worlds, are to me, very much all tied together with the future of literary fiction.

I definitely believe that print has a future, that people have a passion for books and for reading, and that the potential exists right now for creative people to build new and exciting models for publishing. FiveChapters and The Rumpus exist because of this moment, and certainly others will follow down this path. It’s an exciting time in many ways, because when much is in flux, much is possible.

But as the recent tumult in the publishing world has shown, the upheaval that has already rocked the music, magazine and newspaper worlds, as well as film, has arrived full force in the land of books.

What can we learn from what happened in the music and media world? The lesson I take is that when revenues contract dramatically, the most interesting (and usually least commercial) work is the first to get cut. And as we all know, literary fiction, other than a handful of established stars, and the handful of breakout writers each year, doesn’t sell particularly well. If a literary novel sells 15,000 copies in hardcover, that can be a lot.

In the music world, major labels stripped their rosters of “prestige” acts, interesting bands that didn’t cost that much for the labels to have, but lent the label credibility and maybe encouraged others to sign with them, a band like Luna, for example.

That’s my fear for what happens to the book. Randomly, I am on the Simon and Schuster page, so I’m just looking at their new releases, which includes a novel by Jeffrey Rotter, among others. I’ve read and liked a lot of the books, but my guess is that none of them makes the best-seller list. Maybe even that none of them sells 10,000 copies. And that as Simon and Schuster and their corporate ownership decide what to cut back on, they’ll do less of books like that and spend all their time on the Laura Bush memoir.

Where do all those other novels go? One possibility: A lot of new indie presses emerge and take those books on, just as new bands (and lots of career artists) have landed on indie labels.

It’s an exciting idea, with this caveat: books sell a whole lot fewer copies than CDs, and authors don’t make much money on the road. Say the Jeffrey Rotter book, which I really loved, sold 5,000 copies with the sales, distribution and publicity weight of Simon and Schuster behind it. Can we assume it gets anywhere near that on an indie? Say it sells what the average title on Coffee House, or Two Dollar Press, or Akashic sells. Does that generate enough money to keep the presses going? What does it do to advances? Would enough indie presses emerge to publish all these books? Does it set up a terribly fragmented culture in which the major houses publish essentially nothing but best sellers, commercial nonfiction and crap, and all the interesting fiction gets relegated to the margins?

I also don’t think we can strip the economic angle away: I hate the idea of a world in which great authors can’t make enough of a living to have a house, to raise a family.

To me, this future is a little scary, as much as it is a little exciting. But if I was a novelist, either established or aspiring, I’d be a little nervous. Nervous first that my books wouldn’t find a home that gave them a chance to be read in the culture, writ large. And just as seriously, that if novels do end up on small presses, that it says something sad about the role that literature plays overall in the culture. It’s going to be a most interesting time…

 


CAROLINE PICARD is the Founding Director of The Green Lantern Gallery & Press, a Co-Editor for the literary podcast The Parlor (theparlorreads.com). Her work has been published in a handful of publications including the Phildelphia Independant, NewCity, Lumpen, AREA Chicago, the Chicago Art Journal Review, and Proximity Magazine.


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