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Published: Mon Oct 22 2018
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Online 2018 Class Politics
On Bibliodiversity

I am no theorist, nor even a man who thinks well about philosophy, politics, or social policy in their broader avatars. My testimony, then, is only that of a writer devoted for the most part to “minor” genres.

There I stood at the top of a small local mountain in rural Vermont, where I live, the snow deep, brilliant, crossed only by tracks of deer and coyote. I was seventy-four years old, and had just sold my thirteenth book of poems to an independent publisher, its editor/director the most sensitive and competent I’ve known.

There was some satisfaction in that, but just then another project announced itself to me: a book of essays on certain people and landscapes of Vermont, and of a place in remote Maine where my family has had a fishing camp for four generations.

Many of those people would be well over a hundred if they still lived, men and women so attuned to their backwoods environments that in memory I still find it hard to tell in their cases where human nature ends and actual nature takes over.

Their culture and particularly their narrative skills have all but disappeared now, none of them left a written account of those lives and times, yet they had meant so much to me as man and artist that I felt I owed them a tribute.

An evil voice asked, Who will publish a book like that?

A better voice replied, It’s what you want to write, so write it!

As it happens, a certain small New York house has since that morning published the book in question. This is a “niche” publisher, one that caters to readers with similar enthusiasms to mine—canoeing, fishing, hiking, hunting. There appear to be enough of those readers that the house can survive on sales alone.

To most publishers of poetry, non-academic literary criticism, personal essay and short fiction, however, government support is increasingly crucial, and here’s the rub: the American hagiography of—The Market. Despite the fact that unfettered U.S. capitalism lately produced disastrous effects at home and worldwide, an article of Market Faith is that if it sells in plenty, then it must be valuable. (By that measure, of course, we should have everything to say about bear-baiting in Elizabethan England, and little about—oh, I don’t know: King Lear?) Recent efforts, especially from the Republican party, to stifle the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, crucial supporters of work that does not meet the market standard of value, are therefore unrelenting.

Given the Latin etymology of the word, with its emphases on saving and together, it strikes me as bizarre that the congregants in this faith regard themselves as “conservatives.”

As I stood on my snowy eminence, I remembered doing so on other hills when I lived just a bit farther south. From there, my prospect today would be onto out-of-scale new houses…or else much older ones, lived in by single families for generation upon generation but now belonging to relocated suburbanites, who have entirely altered them and their surroundings. These newcomers seem oddly intent on transforming what they fled to into what they fled from.

In a word, downriver from me a demographic revolution has occurred, native families—the ones so brilliantly limned by Robert Frost—forced out, consumerist culture imported, along with such notions as that no real town can endure without a five star restaurant, and so on.

This is conservatism, this sundering of community and tradition?

A warning about the extinction of upper New England’s hill people may have less glamour than an elegy on the indigenous people, say, of the Amazon basin; and yet the juggernaut of The Market and of Globalization is assaultive of both.

Where am I going with such apparent divagation? Well, the social transmogrification to which I’ve alluded in Frost’s territory (and in the Latin-American rain forest) makes a lot of money for certain non-local entrepreneurs. Similarly, if one looks at the best seller list of the NY Times, one finds it dominated by what we call page-turners, books that have scant regard for felicities of style or intricacy of narrative but seek, in effect, to ape the pace, dazzle and formulaic quality of television, film, and now the so-called social networks and video games—in a word, books which, to the delight of large interests, sell in a hurry and in large numbers. As with real estate, what makes the most money becomes what’s most important_._

And yet some of us keep insisting on writing and reading the “minor” genres, on the related urgency of language both precise and lyrical; we go on living, at least metaphorically, in precious and vulnerable little houses, which may be razed or ‘refashioned’ when the global market’s juggernaut reaches them, as surely it must.

With respect to writers and readers of American poetry, for example, these little houses have been and become more and more the sort of little publishing houses that I have stuck with throughout my long career—with one disastrous exception: I once sold a collection of poems to a big New York house, whose parent company, I subsequently learned, had only eight percent of its assets in publishing as we once knew it; the corporation, or so I was told by my excellent editor there, actually had much more invested in food for pets than in poets.

My book sold well by my measure . . . but not nearly well enough to avoid rather quick consignment to a shredder; the pages I’d labored on were then turned into paper towel (another of the company’s investments). That fine editor got fired, precisely for taking too many books like mine. The executive officers wanted an 18 percent return, and neither I nor my poetic fellows would be contributing much to that.

I’ve never had such an experience with a small press . . . and yet, as I have hinted, these presses are heavily dependent on financial support not only from individuals of means but also from state and federal governments. It’s not hard to imagine what may become of them if the dismantlers of such support for the arts prevail.

Of course it behooves these publishers, along with their writers and readers, to pressure political representatives for support of our less commercially viable arts all over the world. But I suspect, to make an analogy, that, if my remark about bear-baiting and Shakespeare holds, so today the poet, the essayist, the short fictionist all appeal to constituencies whose political power is paltry when stacked up against The Market or Globalization or—what is for us the same thing—the producers of those page-turners.

Do I sound like a pessimist? I am.

Now it may well be that our future lies in the world of cybernetics: online publishing, electronic books, Google, what have you? I am all but innocent of that world, my own computer, for example, serving me solely as a very high quality typewriter and a machine for sending and receiving e-mail. So I can scarcely offer a cultivated opinion one way or another on such a matter. It does, though, feel to me that the cyberization of publishing is, in the end, another aspect of the market juggernaut I began by lamenting. No time to slow down and prize an author for her creative and intellectual endowments: let’s just get her “stuff” out there, digest it as quickly as possible, then cast it aside.

I’m out of my depth here, yes. Still, I can’t help fretting that if literature’s future is dependent on rampant technology, whose greater harm or benefit to humanity has never been publicly debated in any serious way, and if I live long enough, I’ll miss the feel of an actual book in my hands, the capacity physically to turn its pages—back as well as forth—and will be restricted to fondling and savoring favorite old volumes as they regard me, melancholically, from their shelves. I already miss the tiny Woodsville Bookstore across the river in New Hampshire, from which I used to buy all my reading materials, and with whose cheerful and literate proprietor I shared tips on new authors; the likes of amazon.com and other Internet retailers forced such a shoestring operation into nonentity as if overnight.

As I stand and look out from any local promontory, it is all too easy to imagine an immense, garish and costly modern structure standing in the vista, like some grand Pulp Fiction House or Tech Leviathan looming over the crumbling small houses and shops of my actual, my metaphorical, my spiritual village.

Sydney Lea is the author of twenty-four books: a novel, five volumes of personal essays, three of critical essays, and fifteen poetry collections, including the forthcoming What Shines (Four Way Books, 2024). A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and winner of the Poets’ Prize, he is founding editor of New England Review. He served as Vermont’s poet laureate from 2011 to 2015, and in 2021, he received the state’s most prestigious arts distinction: the Governor’s Award for Excellence. (updated 4/2023)

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