A Dialogue with Jeffrey Di Leo
Carla M. Wilson
I recently had the pleasure of corresponding with writer/editor/publisher/Dean/Executive Director/professor Jeffrey Di Leo in order to ask him some questions about his latest book Turning the Page: Book Culture in the Digital Age – Essays, Reflections, Interventions (Texas Review Press, 2014). A collection of 54 essays, Turning the Page spans a period (2006 – 2013), during which Di Leo wrote his column, “Page 2,” for American Book Review, the journal of which he became sole editor and publisher in 2006. The book takes us through history in reverse, beginning with “Robots in the Stacks” (2013), an open-minded essay on the digitization of libraries, and ending with “Strange Loops,” a review of the late Raymond Federman’s Aunt Rachel’s Fur: A Novel Improvised in Sad Laughter, published by Fiction Collective Two (FC2) in 2001. According to Di Leo, FC2 “deserves commendation for having the courage and conviction to continue to publish challenging and progressive fiction in a publishing climate driven more by marketability than literary innovation” (p. 204), a philosophy similar to, we might conclude, ABR’s own. In between, Di Leo includes reviews of other notable writers’ works such as Harold Jaffe, Jonathan Baumbach, Marjorie Perloff, and Stanley Fish, along with various other “Page 2” essays, providing an enlightened view in retrospect, of the contemporary state of writing and book culture.
Di Leo’s essays are not only informative and captivating, but also necessary reading for writers, editors, publishers and scholars engaged in the literary community, as he examines current problems in the humanities and how they intersect with book and publishing culture. Anyone interested in the history of literary reviews, traditional or experimental publishing; any willing participant, seasoned or new to book culture will benefit from Di Leo’s brilliant and insightful essays, reflections, and interventions in Turning the Page.
Carla Wilson: The Literary Community has seen a shift between the early days of experimental publishing and today. How would you describe the shift?
Jeffrey Di Leo: In the early days of experimental publishing, there was a certain cache in the literary community for writing and writers who broke the rules and did things differently. To be an experimental writer, was sort of a badge of honor and something to be celebrated. Today, however, there is a different feeling about this type of writing and publishing in the literary community. Writers increasingly seem to want to distance themselves from the notion that anything about their writing is “experimental.” Even experimental writing pioneer Raymond Federman sought to distance himself from the term “experimental” in association with his writing later in his career.
“Experimental” began as a positive attribute for writing but has recently become associated more with failed writing rather than successful. I think part of the reason for this is a maturation in our vocabulary to describe writing that was formerly characterized as “experimental.” Terms such as “metafiction,” “postmodern,” or Federman’s favorite, “surfiction,” came to be used as replacements for the more generic term “experimental.”
For some, this is a good thing. Being to able to associate literary experimentation with a clear vocabulary obviates the need to affiliate it with the term “experiment.” For others, though, our sense of exploration and discovery of new vistas for writing gets lost when one already knows the map of it before it is even written. Terms like “postmodern” placed on writing can be more of a burden and constraint than a benefit and a freedom.
Perhaps a return to experiment in publishing is needed, especially now that we have more venues than ever for publishing writing. More the feeling of the unexpected through writing than its opposite. My colleague, Sir Warren Motte and I, are putting together an issue of ABR on the topic of “Experimental Writing, Then and Now.” Our hope is to get a better pulse on its past, present, and future. I’m looking forward to working on it with him and finding ways to reawaken our sense of the un- or under-expected in writing that early experimental writing was so successful in awakening.
CW: On page 20 you write: “Better books are not necessarily books that better meet the expectations of readers. One could argue that better books are ones that do not meet reader expectations or challenge them.” Can you explain what you mean?
JD: The context for this line was the notion that we can make better books if we are able to learn more about reading habits and behavior through data mining online reader behavior. As we know, anytime anyone reads a book online there is the potential for collecting data on reading behavior. Bringing all of this data together and using it to produce books that better meet reader’s expectations rather than undermine them is one of the dreams of corporate publishing.
Big publishing aims to produce books that are in Roland Barthes’s terms “readerly” rather than “writerly.” In many ways, the line between corporate and experimental publishing can be drawn through this distinction. Most of the books you see in the airport or are best-sellers online share the characteristic of being “readerly,” namely, meeting our reading expectations. The degree to which they undermine them and challenge our aesthetic values is the degree to which they begin to cross over into the writerly realm. For me, the most exciting writing is and has always been the writerly kind. This is why I said, in contradistinction to the aims of corporate publishing, better books are ones that do not meet our expectations or challenge them.
CW: Why/how is the creative process still important to writing books?
JD: The creative process is destroyed when it begins to be tempered by the corporate process. The more we allow accountants and marketing departments tell us what we should be writing and publishing, the more we sacrifice the creative process. Writing for corporate publishing involves producing works that will sell many copies and appeal to a large audience. While some folks can still exercise creative freedom under this corporate constraint, others cannot. Balancing artistic freedom with mass appeal is difficult. The best example of a success story here comes from the music world.
Bruce Springsteen was not meeting the sales expectations of his big label record company when he first started his recording career. His first two albums were artistically successful but commercially a failure. So, he decided to take a different approach on his third album. Instead of telling long, complicated stories with his lyrics a la Bob Dylan, he decided to strip the songs in his new album down to their lyrical core and rock out. The idea was that simpler songs would sell more. He was right. Born to Run made him a rock star—almost overnight.
CW: How much more far-reaching is digital media than print? Is a larger audience necessarily better than a niche audience?
JD: If the audience for digital and print media were a Venn diagram, print would be a small circle that is two-thirds within the much larger circle of digital media and one-third outside it. There is a group of folks who have no interest in digital media. They are a niche audience like the folks who still insist on buying vinyl records rather than downloading music. Neither audience is better or worse than the other. What is unique today is the audience divide regarding media.
Twenty-five years ago it was folks who borrowed their books from the library versus those who bought them in a bookstore; or, folks who only bought used books versus those who only bought them new. The gap though between the two audiences was not as large as it is now. The digital audience is a global and massive one, whereas the print audience is a disappearing one and small in comparison to its digital counterpart. To get a better sense of this, recall that twenty-five years ago many newspapers reviewed books, and some even published book review supplements on Sunday. With the fall of print news media to the internet, so too have the number of print venues for book reviews. Same with bookstores: even if we wanted to learn about new books by walking into a bookstore and browsing shelves, the choices are far fewer than twenty-five or even ten years ago. Point is that we learn about new books increasingly now through digital media. Should we then be surprised that this is increasingly becoming the primary medium for purchasing and reading them?
CW: Have you found young people to be more receptive to digital media than say, those born before 1980?
JD: Definitely. And the closer the birth-date to the new millennium, the higher the receptivity. For those born in the new millennium, print media is a relic of the past. Books and newspapers are for old people. But, more importantly, why would one even turn to them if there is juice in their mobile device and WIFI? By the same token, why would we ride a horse to the mall if we have a car?
The question about digital versus print audience and which is better is more a question about the demographics. If one wants to reach young people today, the internet is the primary vehicle. If one wants to reach older, if not old, folks, then print is a good means, but by no means the only means. As the years go by not only does it become more difficult to get print materials, it also becomes more of a cost issue. Why would one pay for a newspaper or magazine subscription when one can go to the internet for similar material often at little or no cost?
CW: In my day-job at a university there is a good deal of focus on data in order to analyze enrollment numbers of students. The hope is that the data analysis will shed light on and improve student enrollments. How important IS data-mining with regard to book sales, even if mining tends to be an invasion of privacy?
JD: Data-mining for the corporate publishing world, especially the textbook industry, is the future. If the market is all, as the neoliberal paradigm insists, then data-mining is its window to the market. For the neoliberal, there is no such thing as privacy as its goal is total publicity or transparency. Or, perhaps more modestly stated, if violating privacy allows corporations to increase their bottom line, then neoliberalism supports this invasion of privacy.
In the case of using our private reading behavior and habits to generate Big Data for the publishing corporation’s marketing and sales divisions, we are just beginning to see the depths of privacy invasion possible. The notion that books are reading you (rather than you reading them) is perhaps the new credo of the digital publishing revolution. There definitely is a parallel between neoliberalism in higher education and neoliberalism in publishing, particularly in the hopes of using Big Data to forward the aims of neoliberalism. Needless to say, I have been and continue to be a vocal opponent to both forms of neoliberalism.
CW: What is your opinion of the self-publishing industry in terms of its effect on publishing culture overall? How has the literary community’s opinion changed, if at all, toward self-publishing vs. small-press publishing?
JD: The nature and scope of self-publishing has changed drastically over the past five years. In short, it went from being dwarfed by traditional publishing and being in its shadow to now completely dominating the publishing world. In 2002, just over 200,000 traditional titles were published. Ten years later, this number rose to just over 300,000 titles. This represents approximately a 40% increase in traditional publishing over a ten-year period. However, compared to the rise in non-traditional publishing, which includes self-publishing, this rise is paltry.
In 2002, approximately 33,000 non-traditional titles were published, whereas by 2010, this number had risen to nearly 4 million titles. It is not hard to conclude from this that the scope of self-publishing versus traditional publishing has changed drastically. As small-press publishing is still a subset of traditional publishing, this can be read as bad news for small presses. Why? Rather than mess with a small-press, more and more people are opting to self-publish their work. Not only is it faster, it also allows the author more control over the products and profits of the publication process.
In spite of this, the literary communities’ attitude toward this shift has not kept up with the shift in numbers. If self-publishing is the largest component of the publishing world, for the literary community, it is not the most prestigious. The image of self-publishing for the literary community is still a negative one compared to the image of traditional publishing. However, over the next ten years, I expect this image to change, especially if some high profile writers reject corporate or traditional publishing in favor of self-publishing. Imagine, for example, if Thomas Pynchon chose henceforth to self-publish his work. Would anyone claim that he was any less a great writer? While acts of resistance like this could change the image of self-publishing more quickly, the image is going to change over time nonetheless.
CW: Given the state of the book publishing culture and the increasing popularity of e-books, what do you think is driving the need or demand for book publishing today?
JD: Sad as it may sound, I think that a large part of the demand in book publishing today is simply based on cost and access. All things being equal, people would rather pay less for a book than more. Also, if one can simply sit in their easy-chair and download their book of choice, rather than trek out to their local bookstore to get it or wait for it to be delivered to their home by Amazon, they will go with the more accessible option. And if it ease of access also costs them less, then the inclination is even stronger.
When one factors data-mining into this scenario, the picture starts to become more complete. Soon we will not even need to make a decision to download to our e-reader our books of choice as these decisions will be calculated though data generated by our book reading (or viewing) habits and our buying behavior. The brave new world of the book industry will favor not just on-demand books (ask and ye shall receive immediately), but rather like the morning newspaper that awaited you regardless of the weather each morning, you shall receive with your morning coffee the latest books that you need to read. Not want, but need. Big data can determine your needs better than you, right? After all, it does not need a cup of coffee to get its (search) engine going!
CW: What is, in your opinion the outlook for the future of American Literature?
JD: “American” literature is quickly becoming a nostalgic item. The America of the nineteenth century that spawned a “unique” national literature is about as far from the twenty-first century moment as the epic literature of Greece and Rome stood from the American literature of the nineteenth-century. The issue is not just a changing sense of what is (and is not) America and American, it is also the changing nature of book and reading technology.
Marshall McLuhan, Walter Ong, and others suggest that changes in technologies of the word affect literary production if not our consciousness in general were on to something. I think we are radically experiencing this today when the world or the globe seems more like our home than the artificial and contested borders of “America” or our neighborhood. The new global order is an exciting time to be a writer and a reader. The idea that all literature produced in America is always already world literature has more traction today than the older idea that linked American literature to a person or place that was distinctly “American” or “America.” ABR has done a couple of issues recently challenging the notion of “American literature” and has found itself becoming of necessity much more cosmopolitan in its scope.
CW: What do you envision as the future of the book review as we know it?
JD: There is something very basic about the desire to share one’s thoughts on what we have read. The fact that anyone can now go onto Amazon and write a review of a book that they have read or blog about books that they like or dislike makes book reviewing much more democratic than at any time in history.
If the old knock on book reviewing was that it was under the thumb of the book industry, then the new knock is that everyone now can be or is a book reviewer. If the aim of the former was to get people to buy books, then the aim of the latter is simply self-expression. I envision more and more voices entering the conversation about books through reviews. I also expect that these reviews will be increasingly shorter and more direct in their commentary. Thumbs up or thumbs down is the future of book reviewing. Not the long-winded and sophisticated reviewing of the New York Review of Books, but rather the gut reaction of the movie critic raising or lowering a digit or the unsubstantiated five-star review system.
On the one hand, the future of the book review as a writing genre is stronger now than ever. More voices. More diversity of opinion. More venues. On the other hand, while there is more information on books now than ever, it is becoming increasingly difficult to get “good” or “reliable” information. How do we know these reviews are without bias? How do we know that the person has even read the book? What makes them qualified to review it? Why should we even “trust” book reviews given that the only qualification to write them is often merely desire?
Perhaps though none of this really matters in the brave new world of books if the ones you need to read are pre-determined based on your reading and purchasing habits. Why read reviews when you yourself are being reviewed daily through data-mining? Big Data will be able to compute your review of a book better than any third-party could ever do. No need to read book reviews in the future. Your view of the books can simply be computed in advance of your reading them. The personalized book review is not as far-fetched as it may sound or far-off as it may seem. You are getting a taste of it when “suggested” or “recommended” titles based on your viewing and purchasing habits appear in your Amazon account.
Jeffrey Di Leo is Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English and Philosophy at the University of Houston-Victoria. He is editor and founder of the critical theory journal symplokē, editor and publisher of the American Book Review, and Executive Director of the Society for Critical Exchange. He resides in Victoria, TX.
Carla M. Wilson writes book reviews, essays, fiction, and poetry in her time off. Her first collection of experimental fiction, Impossible Conversations: Imaginary Interviews with World-Famous Artists, was recently published by Black Scat Books. She has also published work in Talking Writing, Fiction International, Poetry International, and various other print and online journals. She lives in San Diego, CA.