We live in a world none of us could have imagined when some intrepid souls took up small press publishing decades ago. We all tried to give the power over an author’s work back to the author. Writers have after all been taking a tremendous beating for about thirty years. At bottom the author is the only cog in publishing that cannot make a living. Literary agents parade around like dozens of popes, each ruling a court the size of Liechtenstein. People quote agents’ and editors’ opinions as sacred information about the future garnered from heaven.
I am a Litvak; I think very conservatively. I am like a turtle when it comes to taking on a new idea. I need to walk around it, sniff it from afar, wrestle with it, and even afterwards take a long walk through the forest and do nothing with it. When Bob Dylan went electric I did it for the same reasons ten years later. I know how much of the new is a short term mindless reaction to the old; I am embarrassed by the small parts of my life I neglected to be careful about that are banality under the guise of a dead fashion.
I fell into small press publishing by accident, like Alice plummeting down a well. Back in the late 50s small presses published the most interesting poets and novelists I knew. Between City Lights Press, Evergreen, and New Directions, the central writers of the time were represented by tiny operations usually run by one or two fanatics. I helped to sell Big Table on the Chicago streets in 1959 because it had major works in it I admired by Kerouac, Dahlberg, Ginsberg, and others including the now famous Naked Lunch.
In those days a maverick could assume he would be attacked by a literary establishment, conduct public literary wars, and by virtue of these debates publicize the champions of both sides of the battle of words. The poets I admired in the 60s were all small press people. Litvak that I am, I did not take up small press publishing until the 80s when I had a clear goal, a visible market, a live scene I ran in parks, a college, libraries and poetic watering places.
I could see from the first that the bane of small presses was their lack of access to distribution. I never set out to do battle with the dragons of the establishment; by the 80s they were themselves fossils and minor clerks nobody took seriously even as enemies of the good and true. The unacknowledged legislators of the world were the makers of movies and comic books, late night television and morning radio hosts.
Books still were and are the best medium for an account of the interior of the human soul; those who were in charge of distributing such works broadly, commercial or small presses, for different reasons were not or could not do so.
Back in 1985 I would have said pretty much what the poet Donald Lev has said to me about computers: they are odious ambassadors to the home of every reductive madhouse that runs this country from the IRS to the CIA. It wasn’t that I had an alternative plan of taking up Chinese science and embracing Chaldean religious ideas.
I had worked for computer operations back in the 50s; they were literally run by the CIA. Now I am using an old CIA tool as a sort of vessel for freedom. I have nothing against the CIA in theory. I just think the interests of the United States were and are not being served by a rogue group autonomous from what is left of the American legal process. I am all for realistic American intelligence agencies living in the world of nations and cults we know.
In Michigan in the 50s the CIA was attempting to produce a definable and authoritative analytic geography of human psychology that it could use for much large purposes than the interests of American foreign policy. They had a computer a block long they were running experiments with. It was eerie to work for these people.
I fell into cyberspace not quite kicking and screaming but certainly by an act of God. I had bought a computer in 1987 because a friend wanted to sell one. It was an adventure I went into out of amusement, the educational games for my son, and the clear advantage of a word processor over a typewriter. I had no millennial ideas about this very aggressively sold product, and in fact kept on typing for two years because I was more at home on the manual keyboard.
Until I met the poet and computer master Paul Sparrow in 1992 by accident at a Centerfold poetry reading I had no notion that a tool developed by the Defense Department and marketed nearly entirely for business proposes could also be a conduit for bringing power over Art and thought back into the hands of its creators. Paul’s ideas were much more wide and deep than merely these concerns; he saw a network of modems as a new way to run a democracy both local and nationally without representatives. A very limited and dramatically less revolutionary version of this tool was advocated two years later by Ross Perot. That year similar notions were advanced by the estimable Newt Gingrich. It shows that the use of machines for communication is a neutral act beyond politics.
Paul was an idealist I admired; I had severe reservations about whether his high notions could be applied to reality. In my view America has embraced for better or worse a kind of tradeoff between the advantages and banes of accepting a society which is classless in which the few have more money and power than the many. Anybody with intelligence, industry, luck and an appetite for wealth and power could rise from the bottom of such a state to the echelons of the elite; the elite itself had no stability in its station but its continued ability to perpetuate its hegemony against all comers.
It did not make taking leisure time to make the realm of their power more beautiful or interesting a very good idea. The presumption that anything but money and power was trivial or even perverse was built into the plutocratic and redemptive nature of the shark infested waters at the top of such a society. In the end it was better than a state in which the top oppressed the bottom in the classical manner. The proof was that people all over the world with societies based on class could not wait to come here.
Paul’s idea that electronic publishing could completely bypass both money and property of the industrial modes while making some sort of living for the author who needed only to produce his book and the publisher who could put the book on his imprint on the Internet in his kitchen while cooking a souffle. All of the problems you have faced with distribution, all the carrying of packages you have told me about, the lugging of books around in cars, the sheer grunt work of the small press caliphs, would be bypassed and vanish like a dream. No author would have to submit to the committee of censors that agents, readers for agents, editors, readers for editors, salesmen and critics who orchestrate the public with an ongoing explication of what they should decide themselves.
No publisher, today constrained to discover a hundred thousand readers hungry to plunk down a few bucks for a tome, would have to do more than find a hundred readers to meet his break even point. He could publish the sort of books that would reach the right two hundred readers.
Paul had envisioned a world in which the potential diversity and singularity of mankind could be offered to all precisely because the economics of the situation were negligible. One did not need a printer, a warehouse, an office, secretaries, salesmen, or anything else than a place to keep one’s computer out of the rain.
Armed with this vision Paul quit his job with a few hundred thousand dollars as severance from the selling of a computer business in which he had been a partner and set about to bring us this intellectual paradise. He was hampered by not knowing the writers on the scene. An African born English citizen without knowledge of our ignorance, he had assumed there were an august set of authors and critics whom he could attract with this idea. He arrived in New York in the reign of Ronald Reagan, a time when the bankruptcy of all levels and provinces of the literary world had reached a nadir lower than even the famed Gilded Age of the 1880s.
Luckily Paul was in good health from running track and young in years; his woes at finding a world which didn’t exist might have otherwise done him physical damage. Paul enlisted me in the cause of this quiet revolution. I knew many artistic people, and was a native. My Litvak intelligence inspired me with much misgiving about the imminence of this literary Pentecost. I had recently been on the other side of the computer revolution. If the paradox that a machine created for war, conquest and control was also a tool for liberty was amusing and intriguing to me, I did not share Paul’s optimism about the imminent revolution of the spirit that the computer would bring us all in the West.
The computer in my view worked best when it emulated certain older tools and did them better. A word processor is superior to a typewriter. Some of the early On Line operations like Prodigy, Genie, CompuServe, even America On Line, were at least potential better than newspapers; at worst they added a dimension to the experience of being lied to by experts.
What is on these conferences and bulletin boards but kitsch and banality one finds everywhere in the old media form? Where is there one intellectual idea or one vessel of beauty that has come to us from the computer world?
Donald Lev recently called me jocularly at various times a Bolshevik and an anarchist for taking some of my electronic publishing positions. It is funny; temperamentally I am at a polar remove from any political extremism in a country where there is almost nothing but diverse attempts to change history and nature beginning with the extermination of the Indians to give the Europeans their lebensraum.
I do follow Prince Kropotkin’s bemused remarks that most human political systems we know are a critique of nature rather than a respectful contract with Creation. Bakunin continually identified Anarchism with nature. For him the very spirit of natural reality was his ally.
The German science we all live by is an attempt to make nature ultimately malleable. In the short run this science can defeat nature in battle after battle if its volatility makes it equally doomed in long wars.
Our German science is the last and most formidable of the various radicalisms that have struggled with nature in our century with great short term success and long term failure. Yet here I am in the middle of this very German science trying to promote the Arts, thought, humanism, in the half imagined world of cyberspace where the atomic substrata of ones and zeros become an artificial kingdom that realizes in magical realms the dream of alchemy.
One of the singular peculiarities of working as an electronic publisher these days is the demographics of age. Those writers who reached maturity before 1950 have a confidence and a generosity of spirit that reflect their feelings that society needs and wants honest writers, and will pay for their wares enough to garner them a living. And as Jefferson has said, freedom is rooted in economic autonomy.
Many of these writers worked for newspapers and magazines and never had a teaching job in their lives. One cannot imagine Ernest Hemingway or Irwin Shaw at a college committee meeting or politicking for tenure. The generation after 1950 have been mainly wimps, party men, flaneurs, opportunists, celebrities, and professors, and necessarily this set is not about to bellow the brave words that will lead us into the future. The image of art in the grant world is one of crocheting and not holding a job. I recently got literature from one of the premier Arts agencies on the brink arguing that Arts should be supported by tax money because it creates thousands of Arts jobs.
I thought that was funny.
Afterwards I realized it pretty much reflects the mind of the people who have been giving out big government grants for twenty five years.
I have received much of this lucre. They thought I was crocheting and was an Affirmative Action employers. I think I’ve given them something that looks as if it can promise stability among the denizens of the bottom, people who are as good as we are. The culture vultures must be tired of that claim. Employees of Arts agencies with Arts jobs hear the same gunshots out of the window as everybody else. I exempt both of us from the charge that we are social redeemers; we are for real in disguise. Most of the others? With Art like this we don’t need narcotics, and with Artists like the ones they admire we don’t need Welfare.
It is logical to ask given our generation of people who largely have nothing major to say about anything and who bend to the fashions of the day because tenure is always at stake: what made the run of American writers from Dreiser and Crane in the 1890s to our own late century cabal including Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thomson, and Lester Bangs so brave?
In between that bunch, Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hammett, Chandler, Farrell and the others? Thomas Jefferson and I say it is because they all had a solid economic base in commercial writing and to have this, reflected many of the primal feelings of a readership large enough to render them exempt from the threats of academic savants and their political correctness. I had to wait until I was retired like Herman Melville from a city job to feel like that.
In a democracy an author must not stray too far from the primal feelings of a readership large enough to support him or he is doomed to be the slave of the arid provincials who run our colleges. To make sure that none suffer this fate, most American authors are as sensational as possible in their novels and criticism. We all like writing dirty. It is just plain physical harsh American reality, no? If it were, we would all be exhausted from pleasure and torture. But even if we don’t like it, we have to do it.
Most of the writers I know, in fact even the ones I don’t know, are suffering a lack of a public because they have lost touch with their natural public in a democracy. The patron of a resident shaman in a monarchy or despotism is a prince: one man. It is a horrible political system for nearly everyone but authors. It produced Shakespeare and Virgil. We have no patrons but a few demented Arts agency social radicals and we really have a better chance to make Art writing dirty than promoting the Rainbow program.
Why don’t we? If there is one thing both the fundamentalists and the Lefties agree on it is the irrelevance or satanic content inherent in the physical world. Both groups are impatient to put all the atoms and people in the universe into line to follow out their totalitarian plans for reality. The world of sensation not only smells bad to them; it is the eternal Satan.
From the Civil War everybody from conservatives like Henry James to Communists like John Dos Passos along with the general public agreed on the same presumptive notions of reality. James is perhaps the best one with whom to demonstrate such a belief because few associate him with nasty notions like populism or communism. In several novels and stories James portrayed America as run by a coarse and depraved plutocracy of power mad sharks, depicted the bottom of the society as powerless, hopeless, and out of control, and suggested that only the people in the middle who could invent themselves in the American chaos were interesting enough to write about without anger or horror. In this James reflects a proper 1776 attitude.
Only those with White skin, male genitalia and a minimal bit of property could vote in the original Constitution; nobody came out of the poorhouse to vote for George Washington. Add to this a belief found in Mark Twain and later Hammett, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and all science fiction that if one had a physical or technical skill one could be the stable and moral hero in a new world; you have pretty much the American popular set of moral, social and political beliefs between 1860 and the present.
As long as authors mirrored those credos they had a public, freedom, honesty, and the ability to create Art. It seems to me this is still the general run of beliefs of the American public. Computers give us another chance to make our case with them.
The right wing leaders in this country may be a bunch of loons, creeps, liars and old whores for all I know; they have been listening to market research people telling them stock phrases that got them elected in a landslide recently because they uttered the phrases: family values, balanced budget, Welfare reform, repeal affirmative Action, quotas and Feminist laws, opportunity not public relief, destroy arts agencies, have small limited government, not the seeming benign tyranny of socialism, and similar agendas.
Whether the politicians elected on the wave of such slogans can or even want to do anything, or plan only to make cosmetic changes while talking the talk as Reagan did, is not the issue for real magicians. As writers and publishers we should be able to recognize our public in these voters. These are the people who listen to Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, and who should have sent Bill and Hilary Clinton back to Arkansas. Are writers so unconnected to our own public that we are not part of it? I don’t think so. We write for graduates of a public school system that is bankrupt. The teachers with their silence or mild dissents made themselves complicitous in a school system geared to pay for the Florida condominium of those doddering didacts who survive it.
If casually they created a perpetual underclass from a generation of children, the bravery and honesty of Art is the last thing they want. They need a beach. W sort of survival can most of them have on the run? Ask Joseph Mengele.
Artists in fact have been working in the maw of all the things our politicians have invented out of vanity like Nimrod. Most live out in the suburbs where their victims will have to rent a car to find and hurt them back. I know say these cars of death are being rented; they have to be afraid to walk the streets in Long Island as far as Smithtown.
Maybe a yacht and radar scans or a moat of alligators and a castle is in order for all of us to protect us from an army of Frankensteins. We might dress like the Frankenstein monster and joining the non readers.
Whatever one thinks of the rightwing dissenters of this age, one cannot reasonably defend the results of big government, moral relativism, lack of family values, affirmative action, all the other bugaboos of our late twentieth century statism any more than Russian authors under Stalin or German one’s under Hitler could make a case for their pious absolutisms.
To the degree that authors we know and do not know make such apologias, or write confessional poems about their eczema or miserable love lives as if they lived politically on an asteroid, they will have a negligible public or worse. Then why does anybody, authors or not, want to do so?
Big government, all its distortions and acts of supposedly benign force has been hyped to our movement, a cause which is the flower of the egalitarian meritocracy in which we all believe as humanists. It is a logical extension of the very civil rights movements crystallized in the Emancipation Proclamation and 14th and 15th Amendment.
No matter how the evidence of our lives contradicts this assertion, most including myself have been slow to criticize this cause because we are afraid that once we retreat even a little on the most distorted social radical elements of this general political humanism, we will be backed into the old world of anti humanist tribal or class ridden racist and religiously bigoted history that characterizes most of what we know of the past of our species. Notably less slow than others to dissent from most of this movement, a Litvak, I am slow and conservative about everything.
What is our movement at this point? If it were really a cause for equality it wouldn’t be defeated again and again by populist voting landslides. Some have moved at least a little bit. Sometimes enough is too much. Most of the people I know haven’t moved at all.
If voters have responded to a catastrophe before authors it damns the authors as being even more dupes than voters usually are. The evidence is before us that many of us supported some part of or all of a social disaster. We have worked in it, lived in it, but we often have refused to acknowledge it. What sex was to the Right in the 50s, criticism of big government is to the Left in the 90s: both a central reality and a taboo.
Most of the people you and I know are bifurcated about big government. They are against the CIA and American imperial action, for Affirmative Action, Feminist agendas, and Welfare. It is all the same thing: statism, tyranny, force. Given this position, the reading public can take no interest in what is in the end sloppy bankrupt thinking as well as dishonest Art.
What most of our reading public wants and has to want is still freedom. It is in their biology like every other hunger. If we exempt causes to which we have a sentimental attachment from a critique of who stands for tyranny, we will be wretched apologists, not Artists, and certainly not democrats.
The fear that the bankrupt social causes of our aging dissenters from the Jurassic Age protect us from worse alternatives is a canard. Nobody is going to bring back the old despotisms. They are inefficient. If a state kills off one man, it has one a slightly smaller market for products and services no sane man needs. A poor man not only has no reason to be loyal to the state; he can’t become one of its victims of local artificial hungers even if he wants to. He can’t afford it.
Money is magic; anybody with a printer and an army can make the world rich. What else happened to the once obese American middle class with their executive non jobs? If the state cannot threaten a customer with death, it is constrained no matter what its ideology to be loose because it has no effective threat against its own populace.
If we ground our humanism in the very direction our 1776 Revolution fought for, lately the voters have demanded but will probably never get any more than leviathan can kill itself, we might get in directions beyond law and even civility a new freedom from tyranny. When I think of my own political opinions I realize they are based on a feeling that Creation is good, that freedom and diversity serve to promote all the virtues of the world.
Radicals march in the direction of the future. I am not running towards anything. I am running away from something. It might be jail, it might be too much comfort. I think I am living in an insane asylum and beset by folly. I probably take a position close to Jefferson and Emerson in anti federalism and a general detachment from all the forces and seductions that would inspire me and others to take up something less that liberty. Jefferson was a slaveowner and Emerson owned railroad stocks.
Were Jefferson to have lived as he wrote, he would have found quickly that the duties of farming alone tired him out to the point where he was a slave to his mode of survival if not to other men.
Nobody has satisfactorily dealt with the means by which humans can provide in modern society more leisure for freedom by a conscious and limited slavery to resident social and economic structures. The tradeoff is clearly to the benefit of the one who can reach this middle ground because it is the dominant culture of the world, and creator of that most equivocal of machines: the computer.
From Twain through Tom Wolfe many writers have been journalists and held down the sort of jobs that helped define American writing as an extension of the realistic and sensational concerns of people who read magazines and newspapers. From 1950 to the present many creative souls have subsisted on college jobs and tenure. Or, if we think of our own friends, adjuncting jobs and lack of tenure. Or if we narrow it to you and me, city jobs and an ability to take the heat and flak of being decades on the battle line.
In all cases, nobody had made a living from the core of their excellence. We must scramble and we are ever aware during the day of the limits of what we dare to say and do because those who rule us have had the power to deprive us of a living wage. Aristotle said that slaves can neither write tragedies nor be their heroes because they are not responsible for their actions. Fear and dread is our mistress if not one of the family.
As Athenian theatre records, even slaves are capable of cunning and connivance to manipulate for themselves a dole of freedom. They differ from nobles in that their freedom is criminal; it has no legitimacy. We are neither nobles nor slaves but what we are responsible for in our lives, all of us, is done at a risk that no Hellenic aristocrat could imagine.
Acting with freedom makes our American mavericks often more interesting than those of other countries. Once a man has decided to be intrepid here, he will be brave anywhere, he will emulate Thoreau or Brigham Young. But we only reap the energies of these armored souls. A man may be lucky enough to inherit an income like Emerson or Henry Adams but in doing so he merely finds himself sitting on a very small rock with a lightless sea stretching from him in all directions.
Once Henry Adams wondered wistfully whether he had any readers at all. He had an income; we must wonder more than wistfully.
It’s worse everywhere else. When I’ve traveled to some of the countries from where your Cross Cultural Communications has brought us some singular poets, often they are fluent in French and English, have spent much of their time in Paris or New York, or in the parts of their capitols which imitate those places, because the indigenous culture is not amenable to the harvest of their talents and vision.
Many of the Artists are caught in a colonial culture and, as Derek Wolcott says, are neither the voices of a provincial slave culture that cannot root itself in the people nor the world of the populace which has been robbed of memory and means of survival but whose lack of native technology dooms it to be the prey of whatever juggernaut with superior inventions happens to come its way.
The prevailing problem and solution of most writers in the world is provincialism. Once reality was elsewhere for writers beyond Paris, London, Berlin or Vienna; now it is nowhere.
Computers change our perception of space and time so that both are modes of taking in an eternal instant. It blurs structure. We are all in the hinterlands but where are the capitols? One can live in Paris, be French and in the hinterlands of some great economic combine possibly based in Malaysia.
If a poet from Ecuador can be sure he does not have a more than minuscule audience in his own country a poet from the West and its capitols notices that the unacknowledged legislators of the world are frequently real estate dealers and Japanese drum machines. Computers threaten to make us all borderland cowboys. Provincialism takes on a new dimension since cyberspace is both a capitol and nowhere.
In the same sense, Western culture which has been battered for two centuries into a world of appetites and comforts is not ready for the machines that provide it with the tools and means to be intellectually free and honest. It is still tethered economically in some contractual middle ground between indentured servitude and the freedom that comes with cunning and natural hunger for liberty. The proof is the pap that one can read in the conferences on the bulletin boards. Generally it is the tabletalk of people who have neither knowledge nor memory of virtue.
If the world is generally heading toward a centralized economic structure, men and women are free to control what information is in their libraries and offer it to others.
This current division of society is very different. One is a slave in material matters; free in books, art, information. It reminds me of the bifurcation of spirit in certain old cults and particularly Hellenistic philosophy. The Greek slaves in the Roman empire maintained they were physically in bondage but their inner life was free.
Such notions inspired the neo Platonism and Manichean dualism from which many Americans in this country have struggled to free themselves. Neo Platonic Dualism can have a deep unity as destructive as consistency. Always what is new is old. What we call new merely has a genius for cosmetics.
For a moment I would like to ask the reader to contemplate this wonderful paradox. Previously most men were denied access to books and information unless they were scribes, priests or nobles. Many nobles remained illiterate and interested in little more than hunting. The historical basis for Materialism and its little friend the computer is the same: the epiphany of a minority who has realizes that one customer is worth ten slaves, and the timeless aim of the majority to depart from the classical patterns of men in bondage.
It has always been that way since the atomism of Democritus and zillions of aeons before; it was so yesterday on the seventh planet of Callisto where under three peach pink moons the giant blue spiders have just discovered pleasure and comfort.
[i:e6c7f212df]February 20, 1995[/i:e6c7f212df]