[It occurred to me this morning that I forgot a perhaps important part of the disclosure in the first post about this. Not only do I know several people who have been published by BlazeVOX, but the NewLights and BlazeVOX list of authors overlap slightly. This has since been amended in part 1 as well.]
Over the summer and now into the fall (soon, closer every chilly morning) I’ve been reading The Nature of the Book, by Adrian Johns (University of Chicago Press, 1998). It’s a work on the history of printing, focusing specifically on printing in early modern London, from roughly 1500-1800. It describes how printing, as an idea and as a practice, was constructed in that time and place, how the players involved (authors, printers, binders, booksellers, the state, the crown) actively created the discourse surrounding and fueling the new craft. The book demonstrates how everything that we take for granted about printed books (their fixity, their reliability, etc.) were not always givens and had to be developed over time through a complex array of discussions and the implementation of various regulatory practices, both informal and formal. It’s a very interesting book.
The reason that I mention it is because the BlazeVOX controversy is, essentially, exactly the same historical process being described in the book—this time happening in and around small press publishing, here and now. This process has been going on for a long time, outside of the current BlazeVOX discussion, but its recent intensity, coupled with my current reading, has finally made the process visible to my often belated perception of such things.
The parallels between the functioning of the small press world, bound together now by digital media, and the public discourse of early modern London (and other European and colonial cities & countries) are many. Blogs are the equivalents of early pamphlets: short, printed texts about current subjects, distributed widely and cheaply. And the comments section of the blogs and social media sites are the equivalents of the coffeehouse or tavern. And the stakes here are real, just as they were then, even though they are being played for outside of any legal system. The financially precarious world of bookmaking and selling in early modern London was based largely on reputation, and by extension of that, credit. The reputation of a major small press publisher of innovative poetry is being contested now. And in this world in this time, the reputation of a press remains one of the most valuable things that it can possess.
In McLuhanish terms, the “global village” inaugurated by the new media of the mid-twentieth century is being hybridized, through contemporary digital media, with the rowdy city of the “typographic man.”
The BlazeVOX controversy is a spontaneous, collective, public disciplining of the small press world, particularly of the publishers. [My hope is that it will help us change our practices for the better. I think it will.] Small press publishing, especially publishing focusing on avant-garde poetry/fiction/non-fiction, has been, historically, a practice almost entirely regulated by social (not legal) norms and interactions, often unspoken and intuited through “regular” social interactions. Almost entirely—the US government did get involved in prosecuting some publishers (City Lights, Grove) for obscenity. But those cases were in a sense not just about small press publishing, as they had bearing on the entire literary community in the US and other countries. But for the most part, the practices of small press publishing have been constructed outside of any official legal setting. And because of that they have been very unruly, uneven, haphazard, criminal at their worst, heroic at their best—messy. Wonderfully messy.
We have found ourselves in the midst of a particularly messy part right now. I’m sure that the fiery parts of this controversy are over, and many people will want to forget about it (if they even wanted to pay attention in the first place), but I want to continue this series of posts in the hope that something productive can be elaborated out of this “crisis.” What that something is, I’m not sure. But I do believe this is an important process and discussion. And I imagine the NewLights contribution to it being just as uneven and haphazard, undisciplined, as the discourse in the community as a whole. And I don’t want to pretend that NewLights is outside of this discourse either. Because we are all in this together.