Literary Value Measured by Mode of Publishing: An Intelligent Assessment/Rebuttal by Michael Anania

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8 October 2011

This is one of those long-form pieces accessible online that I think is worth your while.  At Triquarterly, poet Michael Anania describes the sometimes-absurd ways in which academic institutions attempt to assess the “value” of a potential faculty member’s publications, based on who is publishing their work and how:

At one absurdly comic point, an administrator at my own university drew up a long list of literary magazines and presses which he sent out to people he thought of as experts in the field.  He asked that they review the list and assign numerical values to each of the magazines and presses based on literary merit and stature.  His plan was to multiply the number of poems, stories, lines or words—I was never quite sure which—by the “quality rating number,” then add the results and get a number that would represent the writer’s  achievement.  The plan was never put into effect because the chosen experts, those, at least, who didn’t simply laugh and throw his letter and list in the trash, sent their letters and lists to me, either as a not-so-gentle jab at my department or with the presumably flattering suggestion that I would be the person most qualified to assign the ratings.

Anania focuses on the perspective of academic hiring committees, and on scholarly and poetry publishing, but I think his discussion here pertains to an “at-large” view on a writer’s “value” and “success” as well:

Fiction that makes its way into quality paperbacks or Penguin paperbacks can retain its commercially conferred value, while fiction that moves into mass-market paperback tends to lose value.  In this strange form of what might otherwise be called thought, some commerce is good but too much commerce is bad or at least less good. Lingering here is the notion that the more commercial something looks, the more valuable it is, unless that look is wholly commercial and thus lowbrow, all of which is more than a bit distressing since universities are supposedly places where ideas of value are hashed out independent of corporate influence […]

In regards to the publication of scholarly monographs, i.e. the economic evolution in this area of publishing:

The question is: are these drab, expensive monographs less good than their fancied-up predecessors?  And now that scholarly, as well as literary, publishing is moving to electronic, rather than paper, media, will it be less valuable?  Less tenurable? […]

(The word “tenurable” here is, I think, rather brilliant and somewhat chilling.)

Anania also celebrates the excellence of small indie presses and debunks the notion that small and nimble means of lesser merit or value.

The increase in the numbers and variety of poets writing and publishing has been met by an increase in the number of small poetry presses.  This essentially positive literary development creates new areas for the kinds of misunderstanding that are generated in tenure and promotions committees.  Is a press with a name that is unfamiliar to committee members or located far away from Manhattan respectable?  That is to say, does it represent a judgment a committee can rely on?  Does it represent any editorial judgment at all? […]

Here are some of the tangles you get into if you confuse commercial publishing with literary value.  For years Marvin Bell had Atheneum as his publisher.  He changed to Copper Canyon, a non-profit small press.  Did his value as a poet decrease?  Charles Wright went from Wesleyan, where he published for twenty years, to Farrar Straus, so presumably he became a better, more consequential poet […] Lucille Clifton went from Random House to BOA.  A similar decline?  Gwendolyn Brooks left her New York publishers for Broadside in Detroit, though with that change her career seems to have soared […] (Anania goes on in this vein to cite many other poets whose publishing trajectories have shifted with the times, nimbly, and for the ultimate good/value of the poet’s career.)

In regards to the flux-y moment we are in, where we can’t quite decide if print is still at the peak of the prestige pyramid, Anania writes:

To choose one combination of technical adaptations over another as having a lock on literary value is simply silly.

And finally — here, here:

One last thing—and it’s the darkest recess of the “publisher” question.  There is, if only implicitly, an invasion of academic and aesthetic freedom involved here.  Large, commercial publishers and glossy magazines do not necessarily represent higher judgments of literary merit.  In the short term, they might offer access to larger audiences.  What they do represent—you could argue “enforce”—is a fairly limited set of social and aesthetic choices.  Saying that you should publish in the New Yorker is not merely a wish for greater success for you but an insistence that you become a different kind of poet, that you change your subject matter, your poetics, and your voice in order to find a shiny place among the hotel and jewelry ads.  Saying that you should publish with Knopf has the same effect.  I would be happy if on your own terms you were swooped up by either or both, but not if you tried to remodel yourself and your work to suit what you imagine they want.

I myself get excited about more indie presses popping up; smart and creative folks reclaiming literary publishing as a vocation, a passion, a deep commitment to the life of each book that is acquired and launched into a reading world that truly needs these books.  Every business must survive, yes; and I hope all the new small presses sit down and study the economics of the thing and consider how everyone can make a decent living in the long run, how each project has the potential for profit and growth.  I also hope that perceptions and judgments about literary value and success evolve in stride.

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