NOT TO SING
Blog #1: What We Want
A recent article in our local newspaper (originally published in the New York Times) has the delicious headline—“The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader.” Its author, Colin Robinson, worries about the state of the “mid-list” books, stating that “longstanding allies of the reader, professionals who have traditionally provided guidance for those picking up a book, are disappearing fast.”
In that light, I’ve been thinking about this new venture of Ovenbird Books. When I began writing “The Circus Train,” I was just coming away from a particularly bad bout of chemotherapy. It would be, I was sure, my valedictory. Yet as I grew stronger, the piece became more optimistic. It felt like nothing I’d ever done before. And I was eager to see it come to fruition through publication. Too long for a magazine; too short for a book. Though the Georgia Review did give it a huge number of pages. Still, did I want to wait the requisite three years to send it out, wait for acceptance, see it through copyediting and typesetting and proofing, etc. No. I wanted it now. Or next to now.
So I decided to see what the new digital technologies could do for me. After all, what did I have to lose? And since I knew I was going to expend the energy on my own book, I decided to invite three other writers to join me in the venture. What I wanted, I realize, was to restore the traditional role of the editor. Not as marketer, or public relations expert, but as someone who selects, believes in, supports. I wanted to establish some standards within the new technologies that might win the trust of readers. Thus the creation of Ovenbird.
And thus the need for the Ovenbird website—a place where we might begin further discussion of books, and craft, and standards, and any other issue readers bring to us. We’d like to mull over the questions raised in Robinson’s article.
At the moment, Ovenbird consists of four books already deemed “too literary” by the publishing world. So that’s what is being offered—a smattering of anecdote, a stab at memoir, but mostly a literary handling of the stuff of our lives. The question I want to ask now is: can a work be “too literary”? I suspect that it can. But also that, even so, there’s something interesting and magical about the way it goes about being too much of a good thing.
Ovenbird wants YOU. We want your “take” on why a writer turns in this direction. And why do you persist in reading what publishers are afraid you’ll turn away from? Please respond to this blog. Help us begin a discussion about the nature of nonfiction, and its particular world. What we hope to establish is an interactive website—a place where we can talk, and ask, and listen. We want to have guest reviewers, and, at times, someone writing a guest blog. Write to us and we may ask you back! Review our books. Post on this page. We do not exist unless you are out there, reading.
Cate Gable writes: A friend querying rangers at Yellowstone Park discovered that one of the most common park injuries is to children whose parents put them on the backs of Bison for photographs! Bison = wild animals, something some folks are evidently ignorant of. Just a head shake—the displacement of a couple hundred pounds—can be deadly. It’s an example of what we might call the Disneyfication of the Wild. I mention this general trend of detachment of consciousness/awareness because I think it may be related to the topic at hand. How can literature be too literary? Perhaps in the same way that some folks can be surprised that a Bison is too Bison-y; folks who have lost track of themselves and their place in the grand scheme of things. Our society is powered by capitalism—so words on the page must be purchasable by a large audience in order to be considered literature (?). But if the audience dwindles, then how does that make the literary-quotient of the product too high? I propose not that literature has gotten too hifalutin, but that the capacity for being fully present in the world—and therefore able to respond to what’s literary—is greatly diminished, in park visitors, publishers and much of the reading public. To your question of editing: we know that most publishing houses have given over and not only outsource this task but also force more of the demands of marketing onto the authors. It’s all a question of financial efficacy. I applaud your Ovenbird Books project, Judith and Sam. May it be the voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Bring back the wildness!”
Sarah Einstein writes: I love this question because I think it speaks so directly to the different reasons writers write and how those reasons shape the final piece. I love both literary and "popular" creative nonfiction--love the generosity of authors who invite me to see the world from inside themselves and who, in doing so, make being a singular person a less lonely experience. But literary CNF is always, it seems to me, more intimate because I am invited to see not only what the author has done or witnessed, but also how they make sense of it. I'm invited to watch the author come to understanding on the page. And that is a lovely gift to be offered.
ryder s. ziebarth writes: Judith, I met you about a year ago to date, at last year's AWP in Boston. You may or may not remember I asked you for the copy of text you held in your hands and had just read to the Flash Nonfiction panel audience. I asked you to autograph it, and you looked surprised. But you did, and I still have it. A few weeks later, I was to place in a Brevity Mystery and Memory contest I entered.I am off to Vermont College of Fine Arts in June to begin a Masters program in Creative Nonfiction, and I am already pondering a thesis on concise literary styles and the differences between prose poetry and flash. But maybe a better question to pose and answer is the one you posited. Can work be too literary -- for today's readership? I look forward to reading this blog, reading Slow Farm and The Circus Train (which I just bought, here) and thank you for putting your press and your wonderful work online.
An independent press dedicated to the publication of experimental literary nonfiction