Saturday, December 20, 2008

publishing: permaculture vs. slash-and-burn

I've been having follow-up thoughts to our creative co-op. (If you don't know what I'm talking about please read this post.)

I've been thinking about what's wrong with publishing. It seems pretty clear that one of the biggest particular problems is the sale-or-return model on shipped books. (For some thoughts on the subject, see Richard Curtis's familiar essay. See also the HarperStudio blog, The 26th Story; I particularly like this interview with Dan Menaker. I'm sure there are better ones out there but today I don't have time to ferret them out. If you do, or have them handily bookmarked, please let me know and I'll add the links.)

Behind this practise, first promulgated during the Depression, lies the notion of the world and its resources as inexhaustible: The books don't sell? No worries. Just strip the covers and throw them away. Wood pulp is cheap. Story is cheap. The world is an expanding frontier: use up a patch, then move on. In other words, modern (I use the word loosely) publishing is built on a slash-and-burn mentality. We need to move to something sustainable, a publishing permaculture.

I am, of course, talking about much more than simply physical ecology.

Warning: I am about to use the A word.

It's not fashionable to admit this (oh, well) but for me, a novel--published in letterpress limited edition, spat out by POD, or snatched from the air by Whispernet--is Art. A novel is art when it is beautiful, appealing, of more than ordinary substance and cultural longevity, when it speaks to us across time. Perhaps it helps shape or at least articulate our culture. A novel, to me, is not disposable. It is lasting. The notion of disposable fiction, disposable in the what-it-means-to-us sense, of instant books, is foolish, dangerous, and unsustainable. Instant agriculture leads to bankruptcy of the soil; instant books leads to bankruptcy of culture.

Now that I've finally worked that out (these things take me a while but I can, as they say, see through a brick wall in time), I have some notions about our creative co-op.

It seems fairly clear that most co-opites want a book from the hand of more than one author, a collaborative effort--some have suggested a collection, or anthology of some kind. On the other hand, I don't think many of us would argue that novels sell better than short stories. It seems like an impasse. But what happens if we look at the notion of 'novel' and try to figure out what it is about that kind of book that sells. I think it's the long, coherent story arc with sympathetic characters, a world to get lost in, told in chapters. I don't think the chapters have to necessarily be created by the same hand, or even in the same medium.

So what if we took a time-honoured story, a magnificient tale, like the Iliad (which itself was probably created by several people) and remade it? Someone would have to be the director of the project. S/he would lay out the story arc and divide into a number of chapters. (TBD--perhaps 24, the customary number of Books in the original.) Each chapter would then be assigned to a novelist, or screenwriter, or cartoonist, or photographer, or poet, or short story writer, or lyricist, who would then write her or his chunk of the tale in his or her preferred format. Each chapter could be illustrated further by paintings and/or photography and/or short poems in the margins. We could have further chapters set in the Iliad metaverse available on the web: music, animated short film, Twitter feeds, whatever. Every month we could release a chapter free on the web and ask readers/listeners/viewers to guess who wrote/draw/composed it. We would get a dozen viewpoints on an integrated, proven, thrilling story. And because so many others have tried their hand at this tale before (I love Christopher Logue's All Day Permanent Red; I delighted in Brad Pitt epitomising the rage of Achilles in Troy; my guess is there's a ton of musical retellings out there, too), the opportunities for mashup vids would be almost endless.

Is any of this practical? I don't know. Can we do it anyway? That's up to us.

(I'll be posting the relevant chunk of this in the comments section of the deadline post in order to keep all the ideas in one place. So if you have ideas for the coop--and I really hope you do--please post them there.)

p.s. For those who like statistics, this post is my 300th post on this blog

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