Sunday, June 28, 2009
LGBTQ Pride/Stonewall at 40: 1969-2009
Now, 10 years later, we're 40 years out from Stonewall, many of the things we mulled over, that C and I and others have discussed for so long, have continued apace. In 2003, the Supreme Court, in its Lawrence v. Texas ruling, struck down all laws criminalizing same sexual activity, dealing a death blow to what underpinned a wide array of anti-gay laws across the country. In addition to civil protections at the state level, 6 states--Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont--will now permit same-sex marriage, New York and the District of Columbia will or aim to recognize same-sex marriages conducted in other states, while a few others including New Jersey, have civil unions. HIV/AIDS treatments have improved to the point that most PWAs can live full and active lives. Today not only have a wide array of people have elected to live openly as LGBTQs, but now people come out at even younger ages and are constantly reshaping what it means to be an out LGBTQ person. Many same-sex and transgender couples are raising children all over the country, and gay families can be found in every part of the United States. Alongside this, key elements and aspects of LGBTQ life have not only entered but are reshaping the public discourse. There are even a 24-hour LGBTQ cable TV channel, Logo, and countless online venues by and about LGBTQ people, and while gay stereotypes persist, they are now counterbalanced, to a great degree, by realistic depictions of LGBTQ people, in all our diversity, in the media. In fact, in 2009, many of the right-wing's anti-gay bludgeons have been blunted; ideas drawn from the pioneering erait's nothing to find LGBTQ courses even at the smallest colleges and universities, and the gay-marriage scare no longer holds the sway it did, despite the success of Prop 8. LGBTQ movements are now global; while Western LGBTQ discourses and ways of living have spread across the globe, distinctive local approaches to equality for LGBTQ people and attempts to end homophobic and transphobic discrimination have also arisen, often in conversation with what has come from outside.
Exhibition sign, "1969: The Year of Gay Liberation," at the New York Public Library Schwartzman Research Branch, NYC
Yet many challenges remain. At the federal level with regard to civil and equal rights, we could from some perspectives still be in 1969. Despite the election of a new-generation Democratic president, Barack Obama, who received overwhelming support from LGBTQ people, we not only have STILL the abomination known the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed by our last Democratic president, Bill Clinton, as federal law, but the Obama administration recently defended it with a vigor and viciousness (comparing LGBTQs to pedophiles and incest participants) that would have made even Ronald Reagan blanch. We still have the dreadful, failed Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy, enacted by Clinton, on the books, and while Obama pens mash notes to military personnel whose lives and careers continue to be destroyed by DADT, he refuses to take executive action or use his bully pulpit to repeal it. A number of states still do not have comprehensive civil protections for LGBTQ people, meaning that you can still be denied a job or fired, prevented from renting an apartment, or even lose your children, if you are thought to be gay. In 2009. The Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), still has yet to be passed by the Democratic-controlled Congress, and Obama, when that happens, has said he will sign it. (Who knows either way?) At the federal level, we still get a lot of window-dressing and scraps, and are expected not to ask for much and be glad for the little we get. No thanks!
(A national march for full equal rights for LGBTQ people is being planned for October 11, 2009, in DC. Will you participate?)
In addition, HIV/AIDS, while now even more manageable than in 1999, continue to disproportionately impact LGBTQs of color, especially black men, and effective prevention efforts have reached a roadblock in the US. Many high-profile LGBTQs have come out, including some very noteworthy people of color, yet a great many continue to remain in the closet and a discourse in defense of the closet or invisibility, as a new form of identity/identification, has now arisen in backlash to outness and public visibility. As I wrote some months ago, verbal and physical attacks on LGBTQ youth, and people in general, have risen in the last few years, and although we have federal hate crime legislation, the problem of bullying of gay youth and police indifference to LGBTQ attacks continues. The emphasis on marriage equality has to some degree overshadowed the broader issue of full, equal civil rights and protections.
One issue that perhaps is of less concern to some but always strikes me is the fragmentation and atomization of LGBTQs that has occurred with our mainstreaming; alongside this I would identify the privatization and corporatization of LGBTQ life, an aspect of the creeping neoliberalization of this society that has been underway for decades. In addition, the mainstream LGBTQ leadership and many major LGBTQ organizations remain too white and too focused on upper-middle-class concerns.
I mourn the loss of gay bookstores, gay bars, gay and lesbian and trans and queer institutions; part of this is nostalgia, but part of this is also a recognition that as far as we've gotten, we still need some of these institutions, perhaps more than we realize. To give just one example, once upon a time I knew I could find the poetry books of queer colleagues at A Different Light (where I first met poet Emanuel Xavier), at Private Visions (where acclaimed artist Glenn Ligon discovered a cache of photographs that served as the basis for several art projects), at the Oscar Wilde Bookshop (where I never met with particularly friendly service, but more than once found books I was seeking. Just last week, I went to five different bookstores in New York City, and not a single one had any the books of a handful of queer poets I know; I felt like I did back in the late 1980s, when I would go to the huge Waterstone's on Newbury Street and press them to order books by LGBTQ writers that I knew were on the bookshelf just around the corner at the Glad Day Bookshop on Boylston, where I worked, just so that they'd be more widely available. This is only one example, but I would ask how far Hollywood has come, for example, and whether we can't see the necessity of queer film festivals, queer-themed and focused theaters, LGBTQ-friendly schools, hospitals, and so on. I'm not arguing for segregation or separation, but wondering what we lose when we surrender what we've created and fail to be vigilant.
Finally I would ask, in echo of the gay men and women I came to know when I first came out, in the mid-1980s, people who were forgers and products of the Gay Liberation ethos born out of Stonewall, we enter and become part of the mainstream, but at what cost? What ultimately do we achieve and how does this affect the communities that we've built and developed? Is there a place for those achievements along the way, or do they enter either the museum or the halls of oblivion?
Protestor at Weinstein Hall demonstration for the rights of gay people on the NYU campus, 1970 (Photograph by Diana Davies, Diana Davies Papers), NY Public Library Schwartzman Research Branch, "1969: The Year of Gay Liberation" exhibit
But things will continue to improve, I'm sure. It's amazing to think that the surviving original participants in the Stonewall Riots, and LGBTQ people of their generation, are in their 60s and 70s, while a new generation of LGBTQ people emerges into a very different world made possible, to a tremendous degree, by the events that proceeded and occurred during the Stonewall era, the subsequent push for gay liberation and equality, and the battles in the 1980s to defeat the HIV/AIDS pandemic and extend the gains of the 1970s. For those of us in our 40s and early 50s who have survived the terrible years of the pandemic (and I've written on here before about how it seemed, at a certain point during the late 1980s and early 1990s, that half the gay men I knew from those years were wiped out), today's changes may be striking--gay marriage in Iowa before New York!--and yet at the same time feel inevitable; society was already changing despite the several waves of right-wing backlashes that we witnessed under Reagan-Bush I and Bush II. Where we are now is to a result of the hard and sustained work of liberation and equality, not just for LGBTQ people, but for black people, women, the poor, and all people in the society, that began long before but took concrete, revolutionary form among LGBTQs at the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village in 1969.
Many changes remain, but we are a lot further along that we were in 1969, when I was 4, or 1979, when I was a teenager, or 1989, shortly after I'd graduated from college. I'm looking forward to seeing where we're going to be 5 and 10 years down the road!
Gay Liberation exhibit poster, NYPL
Saturday, June 27, 2009
Poem: Poem for the Rooftops of Iran
"Poem for the Rooftops of Iran"
Friday, June 26, 2009
Michael Jackson + Farrah Fawcett, RIP
A little after we arrived at the SMH, the Museum Store's attendant told us that Michael Jackson had died. Neither C nor I could believe it; to recite a commonplace, I still cannot. I could probably spend 20 blog posts on how Michael Jackson and his family have impacted my life, but I'll just touch on a few moments. First, I grew up listening to the Jackson 5 and one of the most vivid memories of childhood was singing their songs and practicing the routines of their dances in the basement of my grandparent's house with my cousins, spinning around to the record player crooning "ABC, as easy as 1-2-3" or "Stop! The love you save may be your own...." I remember not being allowed to see Ben, the movie about rats (which is probably rats don't terrify me today), but singing "Ben" the song and being carried up into a cloud by Michael Jackson's voice. If I think about truly exciting moments in my childhood, one of them would have to be going to see the Jackson Five in performance in St. Louis, when I was about 9 or so. I think I yelled and sang and wept with joy through the whole event. Then there was The Wiz, a critical and box-office failure that I have always secretly imagined was a touchstone for a generation of black gay men; Diana Ross (Stephanie Mills had been in the stage version) and Michael Jackson together, skipping around those immense, funky sets and reprising a story that had been the star vehicle for Judy Garland? In 8th grade, Michael Jackson's Off the Wall came out, and I developed a serious crush on him. I don't think I've ever gotten over what he did to his face and body--and yes, C and I watched the Oprah special where he not only claimed he had suffered from vitiligo, but pounded his chest and said, "I love black people, Oprah!" (Of course he had had his skin chemically peeled, his features altered by surgeons' hands, his hair sewn into place, but really, that wasn't the point anymore.) Those songs from Off the Wall marked his independence from his family, his personal and aesthetic autonomy, and the beginning of his individual superstardom, which would be approached, though never matched, by only one of his siblings, another of my favorites, Janet. Off the Wall was also one of the records I remember dying to buy, with my own saved up money, and I probably listened to the LP so many times that my parents, great music lovers both of them, probably were ready to holler. Thriller was the better album, more jam-packed with hits, but it appeared when I was moving beyond my Michael Jackson-love phase, and more into rock music, punk, and early hiphop, but I bought it and still can listen to the whole album, especially "Wanna Be Starting Something" or "P.Y.T. (Pretty Young Thing)" or "Billy Jean," and barely stop myself from jumping up and dancing.
From that point onwards, I sort of took Michael Jackson as he came, though less rather than more: the high points were the records and some of the songs and videos, the low points the increasingly bizarre (to me) lives he created for himself, from his marriage to Lisa Marie Presley and public kiss with her (which still makes me cringe whenever I see it) to endless surgeries, to the up-and-down and then fading sales, to the pedophilic scandals, to the circumstances surrounding his three children (Prince Michael I, Paris Michael, and Prince Michael II a/k/a Blanket). I would be lying if I said that I wasn't riveted by some of this stuff; I watched the Martin Bashir documentary in horror, and snarked at Jackson's outrageousness while admitting that despite it all, I still loved his music and all the craziness he whipped up around himself. I was thinking just a few weeks ago that I probably wouldn't ever go see him perform again, as controversies raged around his upcoming tour, but now the question has been settled for me. All the obituaries will mention that he was one of the greatest performers of the modern era, an incomparable showman, a racial pioneer (in many ways), a figure of tremendous international influence, a great philanthropist, and a musician of almost inestimable talent, who knew how to create hits like most people breathe. Almost all contemporary American and international popular music bears his DNA. But he was also someone who shaped the inner lives and dreams of millions, including me, and for that I'll always be grateful.
Here's a brief video I took of the spontaneous celebration last night in front of the Apollo Theater in Harlem:
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Soccer Shocker: USA 2-0 Spain, Confederations Cup
In addition, Spain, the European champion, had won 15 straight games and run up a 35-game undefeated streak. Yet 19-year-old New Jersey native and sensation Jozy Altidore's (above, center, Martin Meissner/Associated Press) goal in the 27th minute, coupled with excellent defense and Tim Howard's impenetrable goalkeeping, brought a US victory. Clint Dempsey added an insurance goal in the 74th minute.
The US will play either Brazil, to whom they lost 3-0 in their second match of play, or host South Africa, but in a sense they have already won the biggest match of the tournament, and one of the most important in US soccer history. Let's hope they can carry this winning style of play into the final and also into next year's World Cup.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
New iPhone 3GS + Video: New York 5 Train
I love Apple's products. I love(d) the phone. I love(d) it even more after the iPhone App store debuted. I didn't and don't love the service, which is prone to disappearing ("No Service") in various portions of the 3rd City, such as the university's parking lot, Sheridan Road as it curves from Evanston into Chicago, near Humboldt Park, on Lake Shore Drive at various points before you reach Michigan Avenue, etc. It also flickers in ghostly fashion in Jersey City near Jersey Street, not far from the old, iconic Colgate sign, which makes me wonder if that relic is radioactive, or if something else is breaking the signal.
No rants today, though, because as of Friday I will be continuing on with this same carrier, unless Congress finds a spine and breaks the service carrier monopoly policies, for two more years. I ordered and got the new iPhone 3G S. Almost as soon as I read about it online, I coveted one. The primary reasons were the improved speed, the possibility of better and more consistent phone connections when I'm in Chicago, and, above all, the video camera. The video camera! As J's Theater readers know, I am a terrible photographer but inveterate photomane. I love snapping pictures. I especially love snapping digital pictures (though I will not ever get rid of our 35 mm camera.) And I really enjoy taking video clips. My RAZR did not have one, and the first generation and even original 3G didn't either. So now instead of regularly carrying 2 (or even 3) cameras, as I'm wont to do, I will only have to carry 1, which also happens to be a phone, a DJ, a library, a clock and stopwatch, a news aggregator, a musical instrument, a computer, a....
Here's my second iPhone 3G S video, from last Friday, on the 5 train. I groaned when these artistes boarded the car, because they were following another charmer who claimed to have served in Iraq, but their playing was a rousing accompaniment up to 42nd Street.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Protests in Iran + Twitter-Aid to the Pro-Reformers
For most of the years that Mohammad Khatami, who now stands behind the leading reform candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi [photo above, tonbak.wordpress.com], was president (1997-2005), I was under the misimpression that the country's establishment would embrace the political and social liberalization that his initial election augured. While the public rhetoric during Khatami's tenure continued to point towards liberalization and he made repeated overtures towards the West, the clerics remained firmly in control. Yet I also recall that during Khatami's second term, even Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei supposedly was willing to make a deal with the US, yet after the Bush administration rejected the cleric's offer, infamously labeling Iran one member (end?) of the "Axis of Evil," the Iranian regime tightened its line, externally and internally, and has been resolutely firm--at least from what I can tell--ever since. This approach has coincided with the election, and now alleged re-election, of the extremely politically and religiously conservative Ahmadinejad and with the change from the Bush administration to Obama and his team.
The leadup to the election seemed to harken a shift in terms of Iran's politics, or at least this is how I viewed the openness and public nature of the debate between the contrasting candidates and their supporters (Mousavi and Karroubi on the reformist side; Ahmadinejad and Rezaie on the conservative side). But perhaps this was all through the lens of the Western media. I cannot say, but it appeared to be more vibrant than I remembered back in 2005. Then came the vote, and...what looks increasingly like a coup to ensure Ahmadinejad and the ruling ideology stayed in office. Up through today I've read all sorts of analyses of the election last week, and many suggest that there were serious irregularities in the vote tallies. What struck me on the evening of the vote was how quickly Khamenei declared Ahmadinejad the winner, and how dismissive Ahmadinejad's comments were towards Mousavi, Karroubi, and even Rezaie and their supporters. It was as if he knew he had the election in the bag and that his opponents, defeated, would simply accept it as given.
Instead, what the entire world has seen is an ongoing protest, throughout Iran, with massive rallies at first, mostly peaceful on the protesters' part, that have now turned into bloodbaths as the regime cracks down with ravenous brutality to impose its will and order. Yesterday, after following the advice I posted below, and while keeping an eye on the pipe repair here at the house, I was following the #iranelection thread on Twitter. I've followed a number of blogs, news reports (on HuffingtonPost.com especially), and so on, and the Twitter feeds proved an enlightening complement. Many of the posts were repetitive, some led to bad links, others felt like disinfo, but there were quite a few that were giving up to date reports on the state of things, not just in Tehran, but from what I could tell, in some other cities in Iran as well. A number of the tweets led to horrifying YouTube clips; in addition to the now iconic and tragic video of 27 year old Neda Agha Soltan's murder, there were links to attacks on a wide array of protesters, including a clip of the security forces (Basiji? I don't know) torturing one man, another of two wounded students being dragged into a university hallway, where one died, and protesters encountering live ammunition. (The tallies of those killed so far have varied considerably.) Other tweets have focused on the general strike(s), protests by Iranians and others outside Iran, ways to avoid the security apparatus's e-clampdown, links to other pro-reformist (and pro-government) sites, and so on. Just following these tweets and observing the role that Twitter, Facebook and other sites, along with the more widespread SMS technology, are playing, has been fascinating. Once these technologies enter the picture and become more diffuse, not only the Iranian government, but no government will be able to respond as it had in the past.
How will things end? I have no idea. Despite Ahmadinejad's more measured language and near apology this weekend, the clerics' line as of today is even more rigid; Ayatollah Khamenei's sermon on Friday was as firm as a guillotine, as if to assert not only that he wasn't going to back down, but that he was in total control. Countless pro-reformers from all strata of Iranian society and domestic journalists have been arrested, and some have disappeared. The regime has also restricted the work of foreign journalists, and has begun verbally attacking foreign governments. The government today announced that there would be no annulment of the election, that fallen protesters' families would be charged for their burials, and so on. Yet major figures like Khatami and Rafsanjani have cast their lot with the reformers, and millions of Iranians, women and men, are refusing to back down. (I am not sure what's really going on with Rafsanjani, how much power he truly wields, and what this will mean for Khamenei's rule, and I'm still trying to sort all these elements out.) The fly has escaped the flybottle and it cannot be returned. If the clerics and Ahmadinejad do somehow remain in power, however, I cannot but imagine that they control has been severely weakened--whether irreparably remains to be seen.
If anyone is on twitter, set your location to Tehran and your time zone to GMT +3.30. "Security" forces are hunting for people blogging about the current abuses of pro-democracy protesters using location/timezone searches. The more people at this location, the more of a logjam it creates for forces trying to shut Iranians' access to the internet down. Please cut & paste & pass it onI did this. Please do it if you can, and take other action to support the pro-reform movement in Iran!
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Shaun El C Leonardo
Self-portrait Icon (1) - performance, 15 min. at P.S.1, Long Island City, NY, 8/6/06. Photos by Jayson Keeling
Shaun El C Leonardo in an interview concerning his LACMA exhibit
Shaun El C Leonardo at Scope Miami 2007
Shaun Leonardo & Kalup Linzy lipsyncing to "Lollypop"
Friday, June 19, 2009
Juneteenth is the oldest known celebration commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States. Dating back to 1865, it was on June 19th that the Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free. Note that this was two and a half years after President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation - which had become official January 1, 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation had little impact on the Texans due to the minimal number of Union troops to enforce the new Executive order. However, with the surrender of General Lee in April of 1865, and the arrival of General Granger’s regiment, the forces were finally strong enough to influence and overcome the resistance.
Image by Andrew Clayton © 2005.
Commencement Day + Life Thus Far + Photos
The end of the school year means my return home, and my unshakeable belief, despite years of contrary evidence, that I'll finally have some (more) time to devote to my creative work. This week, however, has proved that life always has its own plans for us, and this is especially the case when you own a home (or condo, or any other costly piece of real estate for which you're responsible for the upkeep). As I've noted on here before, a great deal--perhaps half--of my time spent at home in New Jersey has coincided with the presence of contractors. This has included the initial renovators and subsequent repairers--the painters, one of whom moved to Hollywood to direct films, another of whom coughed so badly that I thought his lungs would fly out of his mouth as he hovered on a ladder high above the backyard; the electricians, a gaggle that included one who set off sparks as he was installing a light and wondered why I looked ready to call the fire department; the plumbers; the succession of roofers, one of whom went mad and another of whom had the brilliant idea of covering our then-unlined chimney in chicken wire and stucco (we passed on that); a porch builder who promptly vanished from the tri-state area after some of the wood cracked within a week of his installing it; the doormaker-carpenter, the only sane and economic of all the doormaker-carpenters we've dealt with, who'd gone to MIT and produced work worthy of a prize; innumerable hucksters whose mercurial behavior made us wonder how they managed to stay in business at all; and so on--and others unforeseen, like the representatives from the private water contracting company our municipal water company, now privatized, employs. These skillful people not only cracked a 100-year-old water pipe once while deinstalling our water meter, but recracked it while putting it back in! And so now this pipe, which was dripping, is now seeping water, which a series of towels are sopping up. Every day this week, the water company contractor has assured me--promised me--he will show up "after 8 am," though that has meant 11:30 or not at all, if he "forgets." So today, after both C and I called first thing in the morning, I waited, he showed up, we chatted about the state of the pipe, he denounced Jersey City's placement of trees on the sidewalk and galvanized lead, we inspected the curb and learned that 100 years ago, the developers had thought through infrastructure placement quite well, and so now rather than shutting off the entire neighborhood's water supply, they may be able to target their efforts and fix this pipe (replacing it would be the best option). I am sincerely hoping they complete this sooner rather than later (and that, though I had to broach the subject, no lawyers have to get involved), since in adulthood no season ever feels more fleeting than the summer.
When we were packing up things in Chicago, C asked if we could spend a little time having lunch at the nearby beach. For all of my time in that city I've always lived in walking distance of one and, as past photos on here will attest, I've walked and snapped shots of them. My favorite time to visit them is when a heavy fog is blanketing both them and the Lake. We went and sat on a (not so comfortable but convenient) bench on the concrete walkway and observed people lying out on the sand, walking their dogs, dipping into the water, and basically enjoying a break from the drear of weeks of cold mornings and rain, and this got me thinking about how this essential feature of Chicago life is almost never portrayed on film or TV. When movies and TV shows depict contemporary Chicago, we see the skyscrapers, the immense suburban homes and the bungalows, the El, sometimes the (remaining) projects, some of the city's unforgettable cultural and architectural highlights (the Art Institute, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, etc.), the baseball stadia (especially Wrigley Field), various restaurants (i.e., anything having to do with food), and the Lake.
But interestingly enough, rarely do they show the city's beaches that line the Lake for miles, from Rogers Park (Howard and Jarvis Parks) all the way south to the Indiana border (Rainbow Park and Beach). As a result, I imagine that many people, like C., are probably unaware that Chicago, like Los Angeles, New York City, Boston, San Diego, and Miami, just to name some of the more obvious US examples, has pleasant, sandy beaches, real beaches, at its doorstep. (In noting this I'm not suggesting that Lake Michigan is the same as either the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans, or that the sand or beach quality is the same.) Yet I have not met a single native Chicagoan, or anyone who's lived in the city for a while, even those resident far inland to the south, north, or west, who doesn't know about the city's beaches. I also didn't know how extensive or pretty the the beaches were for a good while.
This leads me to ask J's Theater readers, when you think of the cities and towns where they you or have lived, what are some notable aspects or features that everyone who's a native or a longtime resident knows about, but that are never depicted in films or TV shows? What are some of those major hidden elements of the city that might transform how people think about it? Please post a few of these in the comments, and append your name (or a name) in case screenwriters happen upon this blog page (not likely, but you never know).
And to conclude today's entry, a few photos from the last few months.
A late-night snapshot of artist in his studio in Rogers Park
Morse Avenue El (towards Lake Michigan)
Harris Sockel, the literature honors student I supervised, holding the students' cake at the lit honors celebration (part of his thesis topic is highlighted in the lighter frosting to the left: J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. (He also was co-winner of the Best Senior Literature Major award: congratulations, Harris!)
Marvelous poet and scholar Evie Shockley, reading at the university
Election day a few months ago, Jersey City
The ubiquitous signs (in NYC and Chicago)
One of my favorite NYC statues, Gertrude Stein, in Bryant Park
Gray's Papaya in the West Village, recession special (and they were already a great deal)
Thursday, June 18, 2009
Sunday, June 07, 2009
Requiescant in pace "Queen of the Blues" and longtime Chicagoan Koko Taylor, historian and multicultural visionary Ronald Takaki, Buffalo Braves baller extraordinaire and "Iron Man" Randy Smith, actor David Carradine, and eminent foreign policy scholar Ernest May.
I've been wanting to write about the book business, so to speak, for a while, but haven't found the time or energy to do so. (That mental energy has been on the wane for a while.) Instead, I've been culling articles I've come across or that others (Reggie H., Lisa M., Anthony) have forwarded to me about what's been going on with publishing, writing, and such things of late. I had envisioned a grand, synthetic post about the state of publishing, but I realize that's not going to happen, so let me try something more modest.
I'll start with a bit of news, which is that about a month ago, I received the annual royalties for both of the books I've written or co-written, and so, THANK YOU to every single person out there who has ever bought either book, but an especial thanks to those who've bought either of them within the last calendar year. They are rarefied creatures, more poetic than regular reading fare, so I really do appreciate the readership (and the reviews, positive or otherwise, and all who've taught both works, all of it!). I've received royalties for Annotations for several years now; those began appearing after the return period had ended, which followed the first few very good years of fine reviews and a second printing. For those unfamiliar with the term "return period" or the concept, this stretch in a writer's relationship with her publisher occurs when bookstores can and do return your books to the publisher if they're not selling or want more shelf space for other books. The publishers ship the books back and I believe they receive credit for them. (It used to be the case that the chains did this more than small and independent bookstores, though Amazon's and Sam's Club's/Wal-Mart's vast storage facilities may have mitigated this to some extent, at least for books with smaller press runs.)
On an annual royalty statement, returns usually show up as a negative tally against your advance, so if you got a hypothetical $10,000 advance, returns are counted against that advance until you've sold enough books to earn back that $10K. (Thus for the huge advances, say $250K on up, authors have to sell enough books to pay those back before they can start receiving royalties, and often that doesn't happen.) Larger publishers are known to do one of two things to books that are returned in bulk: sell them to a remainder house for a pittance, meaning the publisher gets something on the dollar for them but the author gets zero, or pulp them, in which case the book can go out of print. Remaindered books are the ones you often find online or on a remaindered table at bookstores, and they'll often carry a mark on the bottom edge of the pages to indicate they were remaindered. They also usually sell for a fraction of the original cover price (a $25 new hardcover book can sell at a remaindered price for about $5, meaning that the bookstore selling it could get $4 profit if they paid $1 to pick it up from a remainder house.) New Directions, the small, independent publisher of Annotations, however, has a fairly sterling record of keeping its books in print, and they've neither remaindered nor pulped it. In fact, it has earned back the advance, and so now I am receiving a small but regular trickle of royalties. With Seismosis, published by a very tiny and fairly new publisher, 1913 Press, the situation was a bit different; we didn't receive an advance (as is the case for most poetry books), but it too has sold, and so both my co-author and I received (a very small but welcome) compensation for it this year. I mention all of this because the return policy is one of the worst aspects of the book business, but it is not the only bad one; others include outrageous advances to authors for books that do not sell, publishing too many books, dumbing down books, paying the bookstore chains to feature certain books at the exclusion of others, and above all, steadily conglomerating and expecting outrageous profit margins on a business that was never meant to bring in money like others (software, discount investment houses, luxury goods, etc.). Yet in a way these may be more indicative of the book business of the past--or which is passing--and less of what is unfolding now.
Now I am not the first person to speak about the sickness of the book industry, or its considerable structural, formal, and material changes; there are quite a few books that detail its woes, which have been unfolding before our eyes for the past two decades. Andre Schiffrin's coruscating The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (Verso, 2000), is a classic, but there are others, like Jason Epstein's memoir Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future (W. W. Norton, 2002) or Laura Miller's study Reluctant Capitalists: Booksellers and the Culture of Consumption (University of Chicago, 2007), that launch a raft of insights about the history and contemporary particulars of American (and international) publishing. But even taking these books' many felicities into account, the contemporary publishing situation is so fluid that none of these works fully grasp it. At the structural level, several of the chain bookstores, which had been the bane for so many for at least a decade, are financially teetering, leaving Amazon (and Wal-Mart), a diversified retailer, as the nation's the major bookseller. The distribution has stumbled badly over the last few years. In material terms, print book sales, like sales of almost everything, keep tumbling; sales of audio books, a moneymaker for some presses, have plummeted; and only e-book sales are rising. This last bit of good news ties directly into the rise of Amazon's Kindle, the major e-book reader on the market today, and similar electronic book technologies, like Scribd, Stanza, which I have on my iPhone--the cost of most Kindle texts is far less than publishers charge for hardcover books of any sort. One of the traditional publicity and promotional avenues, the newspaper, is also faltering badly; these days it's not only book reviews sections or even book reviews that are facing extinction, but the very papers in which they appear. So how are publishers--the big publishers, in particular, which is to say the conglomerates that control the vast majority of publishing today--responding? What are they going to do? Will smaller publishers become the standard again? Will print-on-demand finally take off? Will people migrate to electronic books over printed texts, and will those persist, like radios or bicycles, as useful and perhaps quite necessary, but for the most part superseded but still valued technologies?
Lisa Moore, a great small-press publisher (Redbone Press, in at least one of whose books my work has appeared) and correspondent, hipped me to one of the best recent takes I've read (and I've been collecting quite a few of late). It's by Farrar Straus and Giroux Senior Vice President and author Elizabeth Sifton and is "The Long Goodbye? The Book Business and Its Woes," it appeared in the May 20, 2009 edition of the Nation. (I must note that FSG, though part of a huge German-led conglomerate, Holtzbrinck, remains one of the sharpest publishers in the industry.) Sifton anatomizes the situation rather thoroughly and at times wittily, offering such thoughts as:
In America, pubescent vampire novels are selling like crazy to readers of all ages, also memoirs about cats and puppies; classics are still in demand, as are cookbooks about cupcakes, of which there are an amazing number. Books by brand-name writers continue to populate the bestseller lists (though not racking up the numbers they used to). Every week the trade bulletins report hundreds of new books being signed up, sometimes for absurd amounts of money, by dozens of publishers. Self-indulgent excess doesn't go away, then. This exorbitance in the book sector, as in the gigantic financial and housing sectors, has been weakening our culture for decades. Hubristic, ill-considered follies reached notable highs under the Great Deregulator, President Reagan, but to be fair, book publishers then (many still carrying the names of the confident men who had founded them twenty-five, fifty, 100 or 150 years before) were panicking, for they were losing their once dependable base, and Reagan made things worse by cutting federal funding for libraries and other appropriations that had helped to fuel America's postwar advances in literacy and book-based education.
Their ever more powerful agents have successfully decoupled the size of the royalty advances they receive from any estimate of the books' eventual earnings, and routinely assure them that if Knopf or Norton or Morrow fails to earn back the upfront money, it's because their masterpieces were badly published, not because the advances were implausibly high. This is cheering, of course; writers' egos are always shaky, and they tend to forget the sage warning that you should disregard compliments extended by someone whose income derives from your own. Also, they won't acknowledge that literary quality may decline as advances increase; only rarely is a writer liberated into confidence-inspiring freedom by following advice from greedy publishers about Pleasing the Crowd. Willa Cather wasn't the only fine writer who refused advances for being, in her view, unethical, nor was D.H. Lawrence the only one who found them demeaning. The agents have much to answer for.
What now? Publishers are battening down, and chain stores are struggling, having staked so much on nationally merchandised dreck, having committed themselves to imitating the look of the big indies but never quite matching their tighter local focus and skill in "hand selling" genuine books to readers. Anyway, the entire world of American retail business is veering toward obsolescence. Must books now find their way in cyberspace?
This leads Sifton to query what the future not only for publishing, but for reading and books in general will be, particularly in relation to the Internet. (She mentions the lawsuit against Google's unauthorized scanning of copyrighted books, which New Directions, like countless other publishers, was party to.) She has no answers, but is wary, and doesn't trust publishers to do the right thing(s), or perhaps isn't sure if they'll even know what the right thing is until it's too late, despite their self-interest in doing so. She ends the piece by quoting John Locke to make her point, and so the larger question remains: what now?
Lisa went to BEA, and sent back a few links--June 1 and June 3--from Shelf Awareness, a great resource on the publishing trade, and both presented different angles on the BEA. The first gave an overall portrait of a trimmer but livelier convention, with some key changes on display and more attendees than the previous year in LA but fewer than two years before in New York. Media representation, however, rose from around 1,250 to 1,700. (Hmmm.) I hadn't realized that having authors in attendance was formely frowned upon, but the Shelf Awareness writeup suggests that booksellers and readers raved about the opportunities to interact with authors. Lastly, as Lisa noted in an email, this entry gives a fuller context for the Alexie panel.
And then Reggie sent (and I'd come across) yet another take, by Elizabeth Eaves, in Forbes, entitled, "Why Write?" Her ultimate take:
In short, book-writing is a worse-than-ever means to a livelihood, and mass-market renown is disappearing as a concept, fractioning into a million niches. Ultimately the only good reason to write books remains what it probably always was: The compulsion to try to entertain, persuade or make meaning is irresistible, and the process absorbs you like nothing else. If it doesn't, there's no reason to bother.Write because you love, because you surely won't be making money from it from now on (unless you're lucky, Oprah Winfrey picks your book for her club, you tap into some existing or unforeseen market, and...bingo! But I'm back to the games of chance analogy, see?). But again, to the larger question, whither publishing as we knew and know it, or rather, wither...?