“The demands of the publishing business are a fetish that must not be allowed to keep us from trying out new forms.”
The quote comes from Italo Calvino’s Six Memos. I’m reading two of them this week, “Lightness” and “Quickness,” and they are both gorgeous explorations of qualities of literature and writing that Calvino enjoys, or notices in himself, or wants to develop more. Neither term is as simple or frivolous as it may seem on first glance, and I’d like to get into Calvino’s ideas a little bit more, but first we need to talk about that quote, because it’s incredibly important.
As people keep explaining, the emergence of e-publishing and the traction it has gained in the last several years marks a kind of revolution in the relationship between writing and publishing that we haven’t seen in decades, if ever. In a time where only a tiny percentage of literary journals pay for stories and poems, only a fraction of consumer magazines publish literature, and traditional publishing seems more and more steeped in bureaucracy, the fact that writers are able to publish their work independently, and to do so with decreasing stigma, is a wonderful movement toward the empowerment of literary thought and talent.
What it is key to remember, though, is that independent publishing is still, ultimately, part of the publishing business. I say this because if a writer publishes traditionally and is discouraged from breaking out of his or her genre, or trying a new form, it’s fairly clear that whether the publisher or agent or whoever is to blame for imposing restrictions. If a writer is working independently, it’s going to be harder to tell whether reluctance to try a new thing, or pressure to do one particular thing, is in response to the writer’s own voice or his or her perceived publishing rules.
We are exploring a new publishing frontier, and as with any unsettled space, what we will find is what we bring with us. We can make a world with the same shelves and distinctions, or we can reinvent them. Length doesn’t matter anymore—without the dependence on paper signatures or the need for a hardback book to meet a certain length in order to balance text and cover, we can see more novellas, or short stories published as singles—or even epics that would have been too much for a spine to handle. When you don’t have the barrier of a magazine’s or publishing house’s reputation to consider, we could have more experimental fiction. We could see a writer publishing the bizarre along with the traditional as versatile, not uneven.
Many writers are undoubtedly already taking this philosophy to heart without needing me or Calvino or anyone else to remind them. I’ve been noticing a number of online literary magazines asking specifically for the experimental and new. For a lot of us, though, myself included, it’s still so easy to get wrapped up in the publishing fetish (Calvino’s choice of word there is perfect), and it’s important to get the reminder that if we think we can do something well, sooner or later, there will be a need and an audience for our kind of writing.