Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Why publish in the first place?

It's too bad Lia Purpura comes off as such a humorless scold in this letter, because if she hadn't I might be more sympathetic to her argument.

To back up for a second, yesterday Sean Lovelace posted at HTMLGiant about what I guess has developed into a minor shit storm: Fugue Magazine's "Play" issue published a number of writers with footnotes added to their work without permission. The footnotes were written by Michael Martone, who never saw the works he footnoted and had no role in choosing where the footnotes were placed. The writers were not told that these footnotes would be added, they weren't shown any galleys, and now Fugue is feigning surprise that this has upset anyone, or they are genuinely surprised -- I can't decide which is more likely. 

So as I say, I wish Lia Purpura's aggrieved letter on the subject were less prissy and self-righteous, because there are legitimate reasons to be angry about this. Fugue probably would have been wise to warn people, to give galleys, though honestly I think the surprise of the way it did happen is sort of delightful and I would hate to miss out on it. However, reading Purpura's letter mainly had the effect of clarifying for me what publishing is about for me, because her approach seems so ver wrongheaded. It's worth reading the letter in full, but I'll excerpt here the parts that are relevant to my argument:
When I sent you my essay for the special issue on “play,” I entered into a good faith relationship with Fugue and its editors: I sent the previously unpublished piece to you on time, without errors, ready to receive any editorial comments offered, and I assumed that your editorial process would proceed as expected. In other words, in any editorial relationship I’ve known, an editor, at the most basic level, solicits and accepts work, organizes it, and attends to proofs and correspondence. What I received from Fugue, instead, was unprecedented tampering in the form of  added “footnotes” representing another author’s work embedded in mine. It’s clear, from speaking with other authors whose work was similarly treated, that none of us were consulted. 
The "good faith relationship" described here seems to leave extremely little agency for the editors: you curate the work, you alter it slightly if at all and only with the permission of the author, and then you arrange it in a book, i.e., put the pieces in order in a series of discrete, bubble-wrapped recreations of the Word Documents from whence they came. The editors aren't even allowed to put the words in relationship to each other in any visually interesting ways: they just pile the pieces on top of each other, bind it with some glue, and call it a day.
You sent no proofs, did not let me know about the plan for Michael Martone’s essay (to publish it in fragments, as footnotes inserted into others’ work) and thus I had no chance to express whether I was comfortable with this arrangement. Had I known about it, I absolutely would have declined. “Seeding” another’s work in mine without prior approval is an absolute breach of the assumed writer-editor relationship; embedding another’s work in mine is a form of colonization: using a thing for your own purposes. Most egregious is this: you’ve made the experience of reading my essay into the form of reading I fight against (in the classroom and as a writer and thinker) and hate most: the distracted skimming that constitutes so much of our daily reading life. The footnotes distract, pitch a reader out of the moment as I’ve constructed it, mimic the internet’s incessant pop ups or CNN’s running news tape, refer to another writer’s work (or to his project which then intercepts mine – much like someone taking a cell phone call in the middle of a live conversation), and thoroughly messes with both the boundaries of my piece and the reader’s experience of my piece.
I could say a lot about her overwrought use of the extremely loaded term "colonization," which strikes me as a massive overreaction, but I would probably say something impolite. We'll stick to the point: not only does this author feel entitled to protection from the words of others, she clearly needs to be protected from the world as a whole. It's not enough that they publish her work, Fugue has to avoid even symbolic acknowledgment of all the forces that will inevitably interfere with it on some level: she's already upset that you might accidentally hear someone else say something or see an image while you're supposed to be devoting yourself to her words, and this is just making that insecurity that much worse.

This letter was especially interesting to me because we are finally going to have the money to start printing Uncanny Valley, and I am thinking about how to design it, and every now and then I have a pretty radical idea about how to present a given contributor's text, and I wonder if they would be okay with that. But, to be honest, I don't plan to ask their permission, exactly: I plan to send them galleys, and to give them a chance to object, but I sure hope they won't be as childish about it as is Purpura about it. As an editor, I expect a lot of deference when it comes to deciding how to package and present my authors' work.

For instance, if I think a certain font is best for a story, and I make the story that font, I will think it is pretty stupid for the author to say, "Dude, I am pissed about that font. Put it back in Times New Roman." If I want a certain piece to have different margins than the others, I want to be able to do that. And if I want an illustration in there and I go to the trouble of finding or buying or making the illustration and putting it in, I hope the author will be wise enough to shut up and accept the illustration, even if he or she doesn't like it that much.

It is widely accepted that editors can and will change our writing in a number of rather important ways. We don't usually put two different writers' words on the same page, and we definitely don't link them with the visual device of a footnote very often, but we do arrange them in a sequence, and surely this sequence changes the words, and yet if say Tim Dicks tells me that he doesn't want his story after Brian Oliu's but he is still okay with it coming before Roxane Gay's, I will drive to his home and throttle him. These sorts of changes are so common as to be essentially invisible, so common that we would likely perceive any author's objections as illegitimate. So it can't be that editors are not allowed to change the text: they already do.

I have a rule when I decide to work with a magazine: any changes they suggest, I will do my absolute best to accomodate. If I can take their edit exactly as they provide it, I will do so. If I can't stand the edit, I will do my best to provide an alternative designed to accomplish the same goal. I do this because I believe that trusting editors improves writing. I do it because if I trust them enough to design the container for my text, I should trust them with the text itself. I do it because I wouldn't publish with someone if I didn't want them to change my writing, to make it better. If it were already perfect in its little Word document, I would leave it there. I publish a piece because it is not perfect, because it needs to be improved, because I think the process of publication will improve it.

This suggests a very active role for the publisher, a role I think few publishers take as seriously as they should. Generally speaking, editors do approach the process much as Purpura would have them: they interfere with the text as little as possible, essentially paste in the Word doc, maybe correct the spelling, and call it a day. This is not a very interesting or rewarding interaction.

Again, Purpura's argument should probably be stronger. This is more interference than you could call strictly normal, and the fact that she was never shown galleys or otherwise consulted makes Fugue's decisions more questionable. I can't see the essay to know for sure, but my sense is that the footnotes are probably clearly not hers (after all, they appear throughout the magazine, that seems like a strong clue). But I can absolutely understand that she might not see it that way, and I want to empathize. But it's just so hard to agree with someone who writes paragraphs like these:
I would ask that your reprint this letter, which is even more important to me than having my essay reprinted with corrections, though that, too, would be an appropriate response. 
Most importantly, I request that you review your editorial ethics and consider ways of asserting substance over surface, depths over gimmicks, and that you let your readers know, in an open letter, that you understand the problem you created and that you pledge to behave more responsibly in the future.
The tone here rather grates, doesn't it.

I don't know. Ultimately whether Fugue was right or wrong isn't that important to me. The principle here is this: If you don't want your work changed, why do you publish with other people? If you need total control, why not self-publish?

I publish to have my work changed, improved, handled by others. I want their stink on it. I want their buy-in. I want whatever they can bring. I'm sort of mystified by people who don't feel the same, I'll admit.

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