Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Getting Precious About Publishers

A long time ago, the administrator of the Silverfish Books Facebook page published what looks like an open rejection letter and all the poets lost their minds. From the two brief anecdotes offered in that post, it seems Silverfish doesn't want poetry from lazy-ass writers or loud, pretentious perasan poseurs.

However, it's as if Silverfish meant, "Why bookstores shouldn't publish poetry."

I find it sad that after all this time, the knee-jerk response is still strong in the arts community. Many of the dissenters appear to be incensed that it came from Silverfish of all places.

Some of the reactions to that Facebook post were dismaying, and that invitation to a poetry event had that "come here and we'll prove you wrong" vibe I didn't like.

I don't think it would've been taken up.

But the Facebook protests bothered me for a long while.

I hesitate to trot out the term "circle jerk" because many of those involved are light years from being jerks. However, it's hard to look at the local arts scene as a whole and think otherwise.

The tragedy is that it's not intentional. Most times, it's a lot of mutual back-patting, with the hopes that the continuous encouragement, especially in the wake of bad reviews, poor sales or empty chairs at an event, will "keep their spirits up" and "move them along".

"The reviewer might have a point"? "I see how that might be bad for the work"? "Maybe there is something wrong with the presentation"? Not so much.

Prose is hard to sell. Poetry, even more so. People who buy books or attend readings want some ROI for their time and money. However, not every piece of work hits the mark.

If publishers are rejecting poetry because of their business model and their apprehension over the saleability of poetry, what does echoing that achieve, other than provide false comfort to writers and fuel the "anti-establishment" rage machine? Is it really just one party's fault?

I think people put too much stock in their annointed institutions of free speech and the arts. Silverfish has moved to Bangsar Freaking Village II where the rent's like up here and business is tough. You wanna talk to them about championing the arts?

The current venue for a regular poetry-reading event has started implementing some sort of cover charge, fed up over patrons' reluctance to "donate" or buy stuff from there. And some of these patrons are from the old crowd or cheerleaders for the performers.

Never mind the institutions. What does that say about our regard for the arts?

There is a scene, and it has a base and a support system. Growing that base is the challenge, I feel. Because at some point, after a degree of success, some feel satisfied to be where they are and not plan for bigger things - at least, for the moment. So things stall.

In an old article where I allegedly took a dump on a regular prose-reading event, I was also - selfishly, perhaps - trying to sort out why, after all the sessions I've attended, I still felt like an outsider - besides trying to figure out where this little movement would go from its tiny alcove in KL.

From what I can see, it still feels like an open-door private party, albeit one that travels on occasion. But has that spirit of sharing and encouragement been passed on? Any way of finding out if it has?

Maybe the organisers are content with being a regular gathering of like-minded people who inspire the art passively, without overt evangelising. Whether poetry or prose, it feels perturbingly familiar.

I wonder how the novices feel when they're being lined up with more established figures. Do they feel insecure, inadequate, nervous? Or are they even aware that their stuff might be remotely, well, not as good? How many of them consult the senpais in their midst, or do they feel too intimidated to even ask?

Deep in the collective glow of the joy in meeting up and catching up, it's hard for the stalwarts in the game to pick up on things like the apprehensive loner, the nervous wreck, the intimidated kohai. The ones with the courage to ask gets the dibs.

Opening doors is easy; the hard part is getting them to come in, stay and grow. We have a long way to go when it comes to educating people about things we like and believe in.

As a publisher, we never say, "You suck. Don't EVER pick up a pen again." It's usually, "You suck, according to our business model. Try again, or you can find another publisher."

Deep down, some of us DO care. It's just that we are not wagering OUR money, and those who own that money might have other priorities. When a bad bet means five-figure losses and a lot of pulped copies, many would prefer to err on the side of caution.

Picking the chaff from the grain is a tough and imprecise process. Gatekeepers do get it wrong, which is why it's the "fine sieve of time" that ultimately decides what makes something a "classic" or, at least, worthwhile.

It's not as if writers have no other avenues. Self-publishing is now easier, thanks to technology. Do you even need money or the validation of the traditional players these days? The small presses are more helpful in that regard.

So, "Go ahead and self publish your poetry. If it survives 20 years, you're a poet. If not, you're not." Hardly comforting for those who want to make their mark yesterday. But if you have so little faith in the industry, why don't you just let time - and the market - decide?

But keep at it. Even with the help of crusading independent outfits, it'll all be gone if you don't sustain the momentum.

Safest thing is to "keep your day job."


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