Friday, May 26, 2006

The state of the American book

The big “do”, as we say in the South of any event that is significant, in the book world just concluded, and guess what? The book world has changed. John Updike says so. It must be true.

A release about Book Expo America from the Associated Press quotes Updike as saying the written word is “supposed to speak for itself and sell itself.”

I reckon if you’re John Updike, you can endorse an attitude like that.

Updike didn’t talk about his own upcoming book during his presentation at Expo, so I won’t either.

But as a poet, I can guarantee you that if you do not get your work out into the public arena, the only people who will buy it are your family members and maybe your very good buddies.

I’ll say it again: American literature has gradually become American entertainment. Mysteries, crime-of-the-week books, celebrity penned muck—those are the dominant categories on a best-seller list at the moment headed by book facilitator James Patterson.

If you think I’m sucking on sour grapes, that’s fine by me. But I don’t rely on my books to survive. Why do you think I stuck with freelance writing for all these years?

Take poetry, for instance (yep, that again). Go into your nearest library and try to talk about poetry with whoever’s in charge. You’ll be lucky if the librarian can identify ten living poets. Go into your nearest bookstore. Try to find a poetry title. Allow extra time if you’ve got anything else to do. Turn on your TV, pick up your newspaper. Pick up one of those glossy women’s magazines—after all, well-educated women, according to the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry in America study are primary readers of poetry. If you’re lucky, you might find some greeting card verse in a magazine like Woman’s World. Most guidelines for topical women’s magazines state emphatically: NO POETRY.

To the seven sisters in glossy women's publishing, I suggest you add some poetry. You are neglecting an important interest in your readership.

So we’ve split the purest most demanding form of writing apart from our mainstream literature. Intellectuals like to expound that your average American can’t understand “serious” poetry.

We got another word for that kind of attitude down “heah.” But I wouldn’t be comfortable sharing it with you.

I’ll concede this: Americans can’t understand it if they can’t find it. And at the moment, foreign owned publishers that dominate American letters and large corporations and small companies as well are doing a fine job of keeping poetry from the American people. The book world is no longer run by those who consider our literature the keeper of our language. It is run by packagers, marketing people and publicists. Bean counters figure in there somewhere.

I challenge anyone to read any of the plentiful articles penned about Book Expo. If you find a quote from a poet, do let me know. (Click on the title of this column for a sample).

Meanwhile, go read a poem. You may actually remember some lines or find yourself inspired. It won’t go from your eyes through your brain into the cerebral center where useless information vaporizes, and that’s where most of what you will find at the front of bookstores and libraries goes.

Finally, it isn’t the idea of reading to be entertained that bothers me. It’s the fact that this is the book industry now, lock, stock, and barrel. You’d think with the diversity buzz word on everyone’s lips, we’d apply that to the written word as well.

Friends don't call me a poetry warrior for nothing.

Hero of the week: Phillip Milano, assistant Metro editor and River Bend Review editor (also columnist and author of I Can’t Believe You Asked That). Phillip ran a poem I wrote about a photo taken by Dan Scanlon, metro writer and RRR writer. He ran it on the front page of the community sections. That may be a first in Jacksonville—for poetry to appear on the front page of anything. I freelance for the TU and Phillip is my editor, but if he hadn’t thought it worthy, he wouldn’t have run it. So I’m singing his praises.

A wilted bouquet to: Jacksonville’s public library foundation (NOT the library, but the private fundraising organization). Why? Poetry was completely omitted from this year’s book festival. James Patterson keynoted.


Sun Singer said...

While the weekly column by Ted Kooser in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) on Sundays does bring us some memorable lines of poetry, it's so little, it's almost laughable.

Literature in general is suffering for lots of reasons, depending on the view of the week about the state of the novel and the smaller state of the poem.

This Sunday, the AJC reviewed four books. Each review takes a lot of space and frequently has a picture. This coverage is fine, but we can't afford it, for it ignores most of the books out there.

I have long complained about the low number (or complete lack of) reviews in the newspapers. The public won't read the books if they don't know about them; and the bookstores won't sell them or promote book signings if the books aren't being reviewed. The AJC could very easily review 10 books per week and, for my money--and perhaps yours--remind people that all the poets aren't dead...poetry is still being written even though, apparently, nobody knows who's writing it.

--Malcolm Campbell
"The Sun Singer"

shann said...

cripes- you are soooo right-

The local James River Writer Festival doesn't list any poets(yet).

Last year we had two 'panels' on poetry, both so-so.

Entertainment is right. I try to talk about the small press books I read: Kelly Link, Steve Almond, Doug Copeland, Sheri Reynolds (for instance) and no one has a clue what I'm talking about.

Kay Day said...

For some reason, a lot of comments are just now showing (I switched to beta, maybe that's why?)

I complain all the time about the book biz. It's gone whole hog over to entertainment.

Totally controlled by a handful of publishing companies; most of them aren't even American.

So we don't have a great influence over our own lit.

best, Kay (and thanks for coming by).