Friday, September 30, 2011

Uncanny Valley Podcast: Episode 1

In tonight's Uncanny Podcast: Starburst Flavor Morphers Reviewed, Ice Cream Cusses, Mike hates whichever Office character you are, and a brief performance of Candra Kolodziej's story from Uncanny Valley 0001, "Hair and Teeth in Summertime."

Uncanny Podcast by Uncanny Valley Magazine

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Look What We're Reading

Today was a sick day in the Uncanny Valley household. Both Mike and I have an awful flu that has left us in bed most of the day. Little did we know how much the day would improve!

Six boxes of 'em. We're no longer in preorder, folks; you can get yours right now.


Saturday, September 24, 2011

Uncanny Valley 0001 is here

Uncanny Valley issue 0001 is now available for preorder. If you order it now ($14 with free shipping) then we will mail it to you as soon as the issues, which we ordered from the printer a week ago, are in our hot little hands. Oh, and after we draw on them a little. (You'll find out.)

You should check out the preorder page to see who we've got and what they gave us. It's been a real pleasure working with these writers over the last year. Some of them you already know, and others will perhaps be as new and exciting for you to discover as they were for us. Issue 0001 showcases powerful, ambitious, and wildly entertaining stuff from a wide range of talents, and we're confident that if you come to it with an open heart, you will find something to love.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Read this, maybe

If you like my posts about video games, you will probably like Tim Rogers' giant essays about video games much more, and you will maybe especially like his new essay on the evils of The Sims Social. You may not enjoy his hilarious new website layout so much, but then maybe you don't love the twinkly stars on HTMLGIANT either. Is this a trend? I kind of hope so. Maybe a post about that later.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book review: What I found in two of Dennis Cooper's

Tracy and I got library cards on Saturday. We had been meaning to do it for a week. The Iowa City library (there is only one, apart from the university's, which in all fairness like half the city's population is using) is a nice building and I might take a page from Tim's book and review the library sometime. The library cards themselves are an outlandish yellow that defies comparison, like police tape baked into a lemon pie. One side is completely blank -- meaning totally yellow, the sort of yellow that reflects onto your skin, which then reflects it back, if you're as white as I am -- and the other side has my name.

The library's collection is pretty solid. I actually felt like the comics section was a bit thin (probably because those really circulate: even as librarians grow their comics collections, more kids come to take them away) but the fiction area takes up most of the first floor and as a result I found at least a little work from everyone I looked for. They only had Blood and Guts in High School as far as Acker goes, which is the only Acker book I've read, but they had Ablutions and several Percivel Everett books and several David Markson books (I started with The Last Novel because it seemed like the wrong thing to do; and it still seems that way now, fifty pages in).

They had several Dennis Cooper books. I went with Closer and God Jr. They had The Sluts, but I didn't feel up to borrowing that one on my first visit to the library, even if they do have a self-checkout for people who can't look the fresh-faced young checkout girls in the eye while borrowing whatever filth it is they want to borrow.

I like Closer. You can Google it to find out what the book is about. I am here to review the things I found in this library copy of Closer. On the blank backside of the last page in one of the chapters there is a dark red crusty thing sort of stuck there. It's in the shape of a sideways apostrophe. I think it might be some blood-infused snot or some crayon wax. It might be food; I'm not sure. It's in the bottom-right quadrant of the page. Sometimes you want to read this sort of thing as an insult but this one is so hapless. I don't know what to make of it really.

This library apparently tapes down French flaps really snugly so you're not even sure they were ever there. Then if there aren't French flaps they put the transparent tape down on the inside cover where the flaps would be if there were flaps. Under some of this tape on the inside back cover there's this single blue dot of ball point pen ink. The library put it there. This one does look intentional just because they taped over it, but I don't think it was.

The star of the book, in terms of library patron leavings, the star of the book is definitely a two-page spread featuring some sort of weird payload in the fold at the spine. A sufficiently thin item, no matter how weird, is invisible in a book until you open to the right page. When I turned to these particular pages I saw what looked like a bunch of red eraser shavings in the spine. But I don't think they're eraser shavings. They look more organic. My next thought was pot, which probably tells you how much pot I have personally handled in my life. (About enough to confuse it with bits of eraser.) It would fit with the book. Are those "really sweet buds" I've heard so much about a shade of red? I couldn't figure out what they smelled like so I spent like four minutes smelling it. Results: Inconclusive.

God Jr. is in many ways the less conventional book (it culminates in a probably-hallucinated video game adventure, which is way more incredible than whatever you're thinking) but it had the more typical entries into the genre. You can tell right away from the edges of the book that it's had something spelled on it. The question -- and I was in suspense about this for most of God Jr. -- was what that "something" was.

Come page 158, I found out: it was coffee. It's always the exact same shade of brown. The paper you spill it on doesn't really seem to matter. (I spilled some on the cover of my APA Style Guide the other day and it came up nice without fucking up the pages except on the bottom edge of the book, which I now sort of hide because the guide is actually company property and I feel like a jerk.) As you flip back from page 158 the coffee stain comes into focus. It surrounds the text -- is actually weirdly careful to avoid staining the actual reading area of the page.

The mystery of this stain is that when you finish the book and turn the last page over to confirm it's really over, it turns out not to be coffee. Understand that I worked at a library for years: I know what a coffee-stained book looks like. There are no variations. The pages even wrinkle in the exact same way, often taking a specific shape such that they tend to stick together even when the sugar is gone. This stain has a shit-colored powder crusted on it. I don't know what it is. I guess the simplest explanation is coffee grounds. We might also consider some grandmother's ashes.

Five stars.

This will be an ongoing series.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

It's Sunday, ChillTFO: I'm Going Home For A Wee Bit...

Writing Is Not Selfish

I wrote a post previously--almost a year ago--about how reading isn't selfless that I thought this post was going to be a companion piece to. It is not. But you may read that post anyway. (It concerns, in part, NaNoWriMo and editors whining about the selfish droves of writers who take the time of dwindling, martyred readers--so it might be appropriate, as we are not too far now from NaNoWriMo Eve.)

This post is, instead, about how we were eating lunch with coworkers the other day, and Mike committed a faux pas. He said, aloud, that he was shopping a novel. He made it very clear to a group of people who are not writers that he had both written a novel and considered it viable for reading. Reading by publishers, yes, but obviously, if his efforts to publish succeeded, he could rightly consider it viable for them, regular people, to read as well (though he did not say that). And I thought, Who does that? I thought, Doesn't he know how selfish this is? I thought, How are they supposed to respond. This is annoying for them.

And, who put that there? Who said talking about your writing or your writing career to strangers was a faux pas? Who said that we can't talk about writing as work, hobby, or both? Do I get annoyed when someone talks about filling cavities for a living, though I did not go to dentistry school and probably can't bring much to the conversation? Do I get annoyed when somebody talks about knitting a hat, though I do not knit and rarely wear hats?

But do I get annoyed when people talk about their writing projects and aspirations? I do, a little. I think, Why disclose something like that? I think, Who here do you think cares except you? I think, What do you want me to do about it? An admission of having a project, of working toward a goal that can only be realized when somebody gives up their time and effort to champion it, facilitate it, read it, respond to it--I imagine myself put upon by it. I imagine that I am being somehow recruited.

This is a spectacular ungenerousity.

The problem with doing one's work in a community that is insular, like writing--one in which writers aren't just the producers of writing but the teachers, readers, editors, and publishers of writing--is that it is hard to feel like someone else's public declarations of intent to write are meant to share, rather than to self-promote. Writing is, after all, the most solitary act in the list above. It (usually) involves only one person. A writer writes in isolation from the input of others--we must be able to do this, at least--so if we can't handle the isolation that is having a project in the works, if we can't finish our work without soliciting the participation, through conversation, of someone else. . . . There's a judgment there. The judgment, I think, is that talking about writing is necessarily asking about writing. To talk about your writing is to have a motive, to want something in return: feedback, input, attention, help.

I have immense trouble talking to other writers, even, about my writing. In all honesty, I rarely get asked. I think a lot of people don't know I write because of how little I talk about it. Or they know I write but they don't know what my "deal" is as a writer the way they know Mike's "deal"--there's the fear, perhaps, that they'll insult, or assume wrongly. Or they don't feel like I consider myself a writer in the same way. Or they don't want to ask because they've asked before and I gave them a terrible answer. I am frequently writing from premises that are deeply embarrassing to talk about--I don't mean embarrassing as in "personal" or "nerdy" or "taboo," but embarrassing as in, "Who would spend time on that?" I write from concept, but once I'm in a concept I pretty much abandon any sense of larger purpose and just write whatever the first few words I've written lead me toward. My stories are often vague and atmospheric but carefully plotted. I am a person who loves sweetness, earnestness, sincerity, and my characters are usually dear. I write about a lot of young girls and "man-children." So most of the time I am writing a vaguely conceptual story whose commitment to its logic (however flawed) is unflagging and contains very dear characters and hinges on overtly sweet interactions.

But I love my stories. Of course I hate them too, sometimes. Loathe them and myself for writing them. But I must love them--why else would I write them.

I want to be able to commit to this--just enough to be honest, to say, "I am writing a novel about a man who sails to Alaska to apprentice under a woman he believes to be the greatest psychic in the world," or "I am working on a series of short stories culled from, but not allegorical to, memorable moments of games in the Final Fantasy series" without also saying with my body language, tone, or even my words 1) "I am sorry to mention this," 2) "I know this is not interesting," so 3) "Don't worry, I don't expect anyone to want to read them, or for them to even be good." The truth is I do expect them to be good--once I've worked on them enough to call them finished--and I don't want to talk about it to get feedback, input, help, or attention. I just want to write them. I want to acknowledge my work with some degree of dignity. I don't--because I'm worried people will think what I think when someone tells me about their work. I worry that being a writer, and to advertise myself as one, is to present myself as selfish.

It's hard not to believe that anyone talking about their writing is not doing so because they want something in return.

The truth is, the principle that writers are selfish may be espoused primarily by people who think they're doing the world a favor by reading and/or printing that writing. But the prejudice is either enforced or weakened by how writers choose to talk about their work. If we can't talk about our writing as work or pleasure, but only as an artistic calling or a principled pursuit, as market fodder or as exemplary "craft," the way we do in cover letters and queries, there's little we can do but sound selfish. Our writing isn't a gift to the world any more than somebody's decision to read our writing is (reading, too, is much more honestly framed as either work or pleasure).

I think most of us know that--feel it pretty acutely, in fact. We can still talk about it like it matters to us. Because it does.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Scramble Your Words

About a month and a half ago, I pasted the entire text of my MFA thesis (a book of poetry) into this Text Scrambler.

I had already done a concordance with my manuscript, several times, and found it really helpful. The scramble was helpful in a similar way. It's strange because much of the original spacing and line breaks were preserved, but the words were completely recombined. I got crazy and amazing combinations that turned my own writing into something new and strange to me. Examples I think are cool: "I potbelly," "the silvered," "& my all/plaid," "Ocean out," "were plucked black over him, "raised our dolphin in celebration,""my skinny is porn," etc. Those aren't phrases I would necessarily write, but they capture the sense and the scope and the mood of the book in a way I certainly didn't expect. I saved the scramble in a Word file and I'm actually working on making some totally new poems from some of the phrasing I found in it.

I initially hoped using the Text Scramble would give me some ideas for a new title, but what I ended up getting was a weird and awesome jumble that made me look at the language used in my book (my own language!) in a completely different way.

If you're feeling stuck with a story, poem, or with a manuscript, give it a try.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Notes on Demon's Souls

These days I am primarily interested in two types of games: ambitious ones that attempt to tell a story, and games designed to feel like the acquisition of an art.

Most games are, in theory, designed to do at least the latter. The pleasure of playing a good game is that it feels as if you are mastering a skill. It feels as if the skill was difficult to master, and it feels as if there are meaningful rewards for demonstrating mastery. This is what life would be like if it were better designed. One day you would decide to master the art of ninjitsu, and then within a couple weeks you would be effortlessly slaying ninja left and right with your various weapons and ninpo. In real life I spent seven years formally studying writing and do not have, as yet, a published book. That is reasonable, that is normal, but I like the video game way better.

And there is this: when you have a full-time job like a real adult, you don't have a lot of dramatic triumphs. Mostly you try to manage your energy and interest effectively such that your average quality of work is high. Mostly you try to keep all the chemicals in balance.

The games I find myself liking now are also those that screw with the chemicals. The ones that become a job in themselves, but that job doesn't matter. All this is to say, I recently bought Demon's Souls for $20 at Target. We were also buying a bookshelf. Some of our books are now on the shelf, which makes me feel good. Maybe one of your books is on that shelf, if you have written and published a book.

Maybe the most surprising part of buying Demon's Souls was getting carded. The cashier asked me for ID as if this were normal, and as if I weren't clearly a 25-year-old man with a rather full beard. Demon's Souls is rated M for Mature, which is something I never worried about even when I was too young to legally buy an M game. So it was a shock. I think she thought I was annoyed? I wasn't: I was delighted. It was so weird. I handed her my license. She probably thought I must be a pretty lame guy to own a game called Demon's Souls, which I guess is probably true.

So the idea of Demon's Souls is basically that you are playing a hack-and-slash dungeon crawler where death is so constant that you don't so much try to avoid it as try to save it for the right time. Whenever you kill a guy, you get some souls from him. (I don't know why he has several souls; I haven't paid a lot of attention to the story.) These are currency as well as your means to leveling up. When you die, you lose all your souls: but, if you can get back to where you died before you die again, you'll get the souls back, and you'll also have probably double the souls because you had to kill a lot of guys on the way there. But, because this is where you died last time, odds are quite strong that you'll die here or very close by. So you'll lose all your souls, and it's a lot of souls now, but you can get them back, if only you can make it to that same spot again. And if you do, guess what's going to happen.

If it sounds a little bit like trench warfare then that suggests you are paying attention.

The art you master while playing Demon's Souls is basically the art of having the patience to play Demon's Souls, which is actually maybe a skill more applicable to real life than most. Have I improved recently as an editor of test materials? And if I have, does it have anything to do with my newfound ability to wait patiently for a guy to charge me, deflect him with my shield, and calmly move in for the kill? They say anything is possible and I don't have a good reason to doubt it.

Admittedly the game is clumsy. You die if you fall a long way, which makes it unfortunate that it's so easy to just sort of walk or roll off any given precipice if you look away for even a second. The combat basically consists of blocking attacks, rolling away from attacks, and then responding with your own attacks, healing regularly (assuming you can find the necessary items) because no matter how good you are at blocking and rolling someone is eventually going to hit you, and once he starts his friend will probably take a shot too.

There are a lot of interesting things about the game design-wise, and maybe we'll talk about them, but for now I'm mainly thinking about the fact that for all its goofiness I find it maybe twice as successful as BioWare's much more ostensibly artistic and narrative-driven Mass Effect 2. The latter is a good game (though I'm surprised how many people don't seem to realize that its endgame sucks), but it tries to solve the problem of telling a story the way games generally do, which is to throw a lot of words and cinematics at a medium that doesn't really need them. BioWare's version of "Dialog Tree" is pretty much the best implementation out there, but the fact remains that the most interactive sequences in the game -- the shooting -- only tell one story: you run through a corridor until you see some stuff that looks like cover, you duck behind the cover, and then you shoot the dudes that coincidentally appear behind their own bits of cover. And that's a stupid story.

The story of Demon's Souls is the story of learning how to survive in a hostile environment. It's the story of what I do in a game that arguably doesn't want me to play it. It's the story of coming up against a problem and either solving the problem or dying both suddenly and horribly. It is the story of a world and a player. (And, in something I might write about later, it is also the story of how players interact with each other as they learn about a lonely world.)

A little bit of atmosphere goes a lot further than language or cinema ever can in games, and Demon's Souls is hobbled by its low production values but they make up for it with smarts and a healthy respect for their own game's limitations. When you first install the game, it makes you adjust its own brightness until you can barely see one object on the screen and cannot see the other at all. It does this not to help you see the game better, but to blind you: the world of Demon's Souls, properly installed, is dark, mysterious, and menacing. You often see only a few feet in all directions. There is often an ambush waiting for you just outside your field of vision.

It has a certain lunatic conviction rare among games. The opening sequence is goofy, ridiculous, overwrought, and in places sort of painfully stupid. It is also -- thanks in large part to the game's excellent minimalist-maximalist unhinged, somehow very retro score -- more effective than the self-serious RPGs out there.

The first boss you face takes some time to reach. You have to navigate a castle on several levels, pull several switches, and open a large gate. When you do successfully open the gate, you see a very brief cinema wherein a massive spear launches out of the gate's darkness and wedges itself at a sharp angle in the stone steps outside the gate. What threw that, you wonder? You'll have to go in and see.

I don't want to spoil the surprise, but the truth is I barely saw the boss myself. I know it bristled with spears. I know it slowly surrounded me. I know its body and the body of its offspring glistened. I know that now, even in death, it haunts me: the dank chamber where it lived, through which I travel daily, is slick with some hideous bodily slime from the creature: its blood, mucus, urine, other, or all. Whatever it was, that thing made me feel real revulsion.

You see a lot of people talking about how games need to move beyond shooting and stabbing and so on. And certainly I would like to see them branch out. But every medium is better at some things and worse at others. They twist what they have and they shape it to make the art they want to make. Demon's Souls is a weird, goofy creature, but in its shameless game-ness it seems more effective as an art than most of the art-games out there.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

H, I, J, K, L, M, and N (C is for Celluloid)

No, I didn't forget (parts A and B here). I did, however, get busy with school. Fortunately, because I have a rather long commute to Salem, I was still able to go through some of my now-recovered iTunes library.

Look, in the 1970s, there was this label, Celluloid Records. They released some pretty diverse stuff, from no-wave to rap and plenty of stops in between. They were French, but located in New York; I probably don't need to say any more. Here's more: Bill Laswell was their house producer. You know Bill Laswell, right? He produced everyone from White Zombie to Bootsy Collins to Swans. Oh, and he also produced and played bass on Herbie Hancock's biggest hit, "Rockit"

(I prefer HeadHunters, but that's me.)

Celluloid released Stiff Little Fingers's "Inflammable Material," too (through some agreement they had with Rough Trade). Oh, "Suspect Device"

And James Chance, in one of his many incarnations. Not this, but still, this:

But if you're still not digging it, they also put out a few Fela Kuti albums. "Zombie" was one.

And Richard Lloyd. I think it really misses the shrillness of Tom Verlaine on guitar and vox. Still, "Alchemy"

But, partly because of the Laswell connection, they're probably best known as Material's label. No idea why this youtube poster chose a bunch of covers that are not of the single in question (pretty good taste, though), but here's Laswell's Material and Nona Hendryx with "Busting Out."

The 70s were just obsessed with busting out, coming out, going out. Somebody else would know why.

Celluloid also put out stuff from Suicide, Tuxedomoon, Can, and the Golden Palominos, but they didn't fit, alphabetically. Oh well.

As always, there will be more, just not right away.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Friday Night Dance Party

Man it's been forever since I did one of these.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lately I have been trying a thing

I'm the kind of person who stresses out if he doesn't do exactly what he's supposed to do on any given day, especially if there's no actual moral imperative anywhere in sight: this is a problem for someone who writes because writing is mostly amoral and yet there are always ten thousand things I feel I should definitely be doing. I should be publishing more stuff, I should be writing more stuff, I should be reading more stuff (reading especially: I've read a lot over the last seven years, but much of it was required, so it never felt quite real, and now I always feel behind). Probably I am attracted to this stuff partly because I can make myself so miserable with it. That's what we all need, right? A little more misery.

Recently I've tried something that's helped me out a lot, though: I treat my "reading time" and "writing time" as interchangeable. Every night when I come home, it doesn't matter if I spend the night reading my current book, writing my own book, or going back and forth. Whatever I feel excited about doing, that's what I need to do. In practice, it usually ends up being a mix of both.

Reading and writing are always connected, but explicitly putting them together into the same time slots seems liberating in a number of ways. I remember I used to often feel, when I was reading something really good, that I had an idea I wanted to go write down. I didn't usually do it, though: I kept reading because that was The Plan. And sometimes when I was writing I would hit a dead spot that made me want to go read instead, but I wouldn't do it because now was writing time. This way is better. I also appreciate the feeling of closeness I get with what I'm reading when I can bring it into such a direct relationship with my writing. Right now I am reading Peter Markus' We Make Mud (about which more later) and I really love just letting it breathe into my own writing.

I think that ultimately this strategy is shifting more time into the reading category, which is probably healthy for me. I'm doing less writing in a word-count sense, but I think what I'm getting from each session is more dense, rich, surprising, and alive: certainly it feels that way to me. And experience tells me that as long as I'm being honest with myself about how the writing feels, the reading experience will take care of itself.

Curious if this is something other people do, or if it's more common to cordone reading time and writing time the way I have generally done in the past.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

I Also Started Writing a More Serious Post, about Fish Tacos and Jonathan Lethem

Friday night someone broke into the office where I work and made off with several laptops, including mine. Now, while I wait for a replacement, I have to write my brilliant tweets on notebook paper and fold them away to plug into the internet when I get home. It is a bizarre thing to do, like skywriting poetry or spelling out the opening of a story with bisected hot dogs. The feel of the writing doesn't match the medium, I mean. Today was the first day I tried it, and I promptly lost the scrap of paper, and now someone in my building has probably taken up a folded slip from the floor and read "Can this email truly contain the secret to creamy, light mac & cheese?" and "3x the tuna, 3x the tuna water." I have broken the boundaries of Twitter and tweeted as directly as possible at a custodian or a maintenance person or, more probably, to no one.

This Not Poetry, By Emily Dickinson Or Anyone Else

I love poetry.  I spend way too much money on it.  I have at least 500 dollars worth of poetry in my room right now (about 50 books, some were free, some were $30, this is an average of $10 a book, plus about 20 chapbooks which I'm not even figuring (what can I say, I'm a poet and not good at math)) and at least another 50-100 books of poetry in storage.  So this whole BlazeVOX, nobody buys poetry thing, doesn't really fly with me.  Anyone who's ever got an MFA in poetry has spent a few hundred dollars on it.  Anyone I consider a "poet" has spent about a thousand dollars on poetry.  Most of my professors obviously spent well over $2000 on poetry.  I spend a shit ton on it with very little regret for my purchases.  There's a lot of good poetry out there for sale.  There are some people making really beautiful books out there.  Buy some of it.  Here's my faves right now:

Making beautiful handmade books, Small Fires Press is run by Friedrich Kerkseick, a University of Alabama Book Arts MFA alumni.   They sound really expensive, but when you consider that every page is letter pressed and even the paper is made by hand, it's a great purchase.  You own a piece of art, not overpriced shit.  Think about this: if you had to make the paper you were printing a poem on, would you even print your own poem?

Just pick one.  They'll all make you squirm for one reason or another.

I read this book right before I moved to Portland and Goddamnit, I fucking miss this book.  It's one of the ones in storage.  Pick this up.  It's ten years before it's time and somehow managed to win a prize.

They feel really good in your hands.  Like really good.  Letter pressed covers.  Unique designs.  Sleep's Powers and A Plate Of Chicken are highly recommended by me.

Do I even need to tell you why?  For one, they don't charge for submissions...

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

And now for something completely different: Cosplay babies.

Guys, it is not all frowns and serious faces here at the blawg. It is also pictures of babies pretending to be super heroes. (If you haven't read the blog before, you have no way of knowing this is a long-running feature, and one of our regulars' favorites.) Let's get started with one of our most excellent costumed babies:

This baby is the hulk. He said we wouldn't like him when he was angry, but he doesn't look very angry, does he? The limp-wristed gesture of the left hand suggests a young man at piece with himself. The best detail of the costume is the plastic hulk eyebrows (a feature the costume's creators apparently judged more essential than the classic Hulk hands or Hulk nipples) and the worst is the little purple pants, which are far too long. Did his ankles burst the cuffs while his massive baby-Hulk thighs failed to even strain the seams? Implausible at best!

The BlazeVOX Mess & What it Opens for Discussion

I should begin by saying that I have no emotional involvement or personal stake in the BlazeVOX fiasco apart from the fact that they were the publisher of my friend Evan Lavender-Smith's book From Old Notebooks, which is a very good book. I'm upset about what the recent damage to BlazeVOX's reputation might do to Evan's reputation, and I'm upset about how the writers who have been caught up in this mess have been made to feel about themselves and their writing. This post will try to do several things. First, for those who don't know about what happened, I'm going to briefly explain it. Then I'm going to discuss some of the issues it raises for me as a writer, editor, and publisher.

1. BlazeVOX asked some writers to pay for their own publication.

The small press BlazeVOX, primarily a poetry press, has been sending provisional acceptance letters to a good number of writers for the last two years. These letters asked the writers to finance their own publication by giving the press a "donation" of $250. This was meant to help the press manage the expense of $2000 dollars associated with publishing a book (more on that number in a second). If the writers weren't willing to pay, then they could publish an ebook with BlazeVOX, but not a print book.

Practices like this are generally frowned on for a number of reasons, but I think the key issues are these: 1) There were two tiers of writers: those who had to pay, and those who did not. For instance, my friend Evan did not have to pay, and in fact did not even know about this practice. Unfortunately, public knowledge of the practice will now have negative effects on Evan's reputation (unless we as a community make the wise decision not to count it against him, and I hope that we will). 2) As Matt Bell has said in several places, it's extremely important for publishers to remember the power imbalance between themselves and writers. Putting writers in the position of paying for publication or watching what might feel like the opportunity of a lifetime disappear is unfair to those writers -- especially because the policy was a secret, revealed to (some) writers only in the moment of acceptance.

2. As is usually the case when presses ask for financial help from writers, the numbers didn't work.

You see a lot of people justify the practice of charging for submissions on the grounds that it makes good business sense. We've discussed this before; the fact is that it doesn't. Assuming you charge reasonable rates, you simply can't make enough money on submissions to make up for the loss of free time. Small press publishers generally make a lot more per hour in their day jobs than they can possibly make per hour of reading submissions from a pay-for-play slush pile. (We can go over the math on this one again in the comments if you'd like; you can play at home, though, by multiplying the number of stories you can read all the way through in an hour by the highest charge you feel comfortable applying to submissions minus the cut Submishmash or Paypal will ask, then comparing that to your hourly wage: the results might surprise you).

In the case of BlazeVOX, the argument was weaker than usual. Publisher Geoffrey Gatza claimed that it cost $2000 per book, and yet only asked for $250 per book from writers, with the stated aim of publishing 15 books under this model. Multiply 15 by $2000 and you get $30,000. Multiply $250 by 15 and you get $3,750. Subtract the latter from the former and you get a deficit of $26,250. If these were the real costs of publishing a book, asking people to put up $250 in order to "help" would be financially ludicrous: every time someone said yes, you would be losing $1750.

It's no great shock that the numbers don't work. My experience tells me that most of the time, when a small press talks about being financially "realistic," they are in fact most likely to be living in a fantasy: one where literature pays for itself without its publisher doing the hard work of selling it to readers. They want to be "publishers" without doing the hard work of publishing. And they are very, very bad at math. (Consider Flatmancrooked, a small press that debuted with big talk of paying writers for their work, started to take paid submissions for a Special Slushpile, and then quietly disappeared. The special slush was defended as a shrewd business move, which made it not at all shocking when the business disappeared.)

3. With a little cynicism, the numbers made more sense.

Gatza's numbers were so unreasonable that it was difficult to believe he could have misunderstood them that badly. Surely he wouldn't be secretly pushing a deal that was actually financially injurious to him and his press. And, indeed, it appears highly likely that he wasn't.

Consider this: BlazeVOX has very few expenses. They use the online print-on-demand service CreateSpace, which essentially eliminates overhead. In CreateSpace, you upload your book's files and then the book is printed every time someone orders it. The printer takes its fee out of the book's sale price. Each sale, then, is inherently profitable. They also design their own books (or, in Evan's case and probably others, the authors provide the design) and spend nothing at all on advertising or promotion (Evan purchased and mailed out his own review copies, building the reasonable amount of buzz From Old Notebooks achieved on his own dime and effort). Any book requires a little money to get it going, but it was difficult to imagine how Gatza could spend $2000 on the production of a book under such circumstances, and easy to see how $250 might even be profitable.

Gatza has since clarified that the $2000 figure does include the value he places on his own time as a designer, promoter, and publisher generally. Given how vague he has chosen to be about his numbers (and occasionally dishonest: his numbers in terms of the number of submissions he received this year have fluctuated wildly), I don't think it's unreasonable for us to do a little speculation and conclude that the publication of a book under this model would be profitable for Gatza, even before a single book was sold to a single reader. Indeed, it's hard to see how it wouldn't be profitable.

We might further speculate that the number of people who have come forward as having received the provisional acceptance and request for donation from Gatza since the news broke is not consistent with his having "only" offered the deal to 30 people, that the acceptance in fact looks like a spam letter, and that BlazeVOX has likely subsidized itself on the backs of hard-working writers without any intent to make the necessary effort to sell the books of those writers.

4. The arguments of BlazeVOX's defenders reveal how little thought they have put into the role of a publisher in the literary community of writers and readers.

There are several arguments used to defend the practices of BlazeVOX, and none of them even begin to persuade. They do, however, helpfully illustrate several points on which small press thinking seems painfully fuzzy.

Gatza's defenders most frequently resorted to the claim that he had "done so much for poetry." I genuinely don't understand this claim. If I take $250 dollars from you for the privilege of uploading a PDF to CreateSpace and not refusing the money of anyone who happens to actively pursue your book, having done no work at all to promote said book, what exactly would you say I've done for you or your poetry? I've gotten the prestige associated with being a publisher, I've got your money, I've got the money from your book's sale, and you have -- at best -- the ability to tell people I published your book. A fact that will become significantly less interesting to most people when it comes out that you paid me for the privilege. You can call this a lot of things, but I think we'd be stretching to say it's really a service.

Others pointed out that the sort of intellectually challenging work BlazeVOX published was not known for making a great deal of money -- a point on which Gatza himself has been especially petulant. ("I believe that you are misinformed about how well a book of poetry does in the markets today and what it costs to get a book into production.") Under the circumstances, they argue, it's not unreasonable to ask writers to shoulder some share of the expense of producing and promoting a book. This makes me wonder if these people know what publishing and writing are, on the most basic level.

When I write a novel, I spend hours and hours and hours and hours on the task. I put to use my seven years of formal education as a fiction writer. I put to use the hours and hours of time I have spent reading. And then there is the time used in the writing itself. I am an unusually fast writer and a novel will generally take me about 1.5 years to draft to the point where I am interested in letting a publisher see it (with another .5 years hopefully being devoted to collaborative editing and revision with the editor[s] of that press). I'm not sure what that translates to in hours, but it's definitely in the hundreds. In other words, when the book is done, I've done my job. That's the end of my obligations. And it's worth noting that if Gatza values his time to the point where typesetting some poetry in an InDesign document and uploading the resulting PDF to CreateSpace is worth $2,000 dollars, then surely the time I've invested in producing the novel is worth tens of thousands. (In neither case is the market setting our price: BlazeVOX and its defenders proceed from the assumption that the market is not interested as a rule and barely worth engaging.)

The publisher's responsibility is to bring some combination of money, editorial skill, and promotional ability to the table. If you aren't providing a reasonably attractive combination of these things, you aren't a publisher, at least as I understand the term. BlazeVOX chose not to market their books, and so lost out on opportunities (consider the relative popularity of From Old Notebooks after a very small promotional push from its author). They chose to ask writers to finance their own publication. And, according to its own defenders, BlazeVOX offered no editorial guidance at all. So in what sense would you call them a publisher? They are a website. They are a brand. But they do not really publish in any meaningful sense of the word.

Neither do a great number of small presses. We'll talk in a moment about what these small presses actually do.

Those who place great emphasis on the difficulty of making money on poetry in today's market often continue by pointing out that Gatza is in a difficult financial position. He has depended on this argument himself from the beginning of this discussion. This sounds like an extremely good reason for Gatza not to publish books. Writing benefits tremendously from the fact that it requires only negligible resources of its participants: a writing implement, a bit of light, and a medium for storage. Publishing does not enjoy the same low barrier to entry. Even in the days of print-on-demand publishing, you simply shouldn't be a publisher of printed materials unless you have a little money to burn. It would be irresponsible to start a business if you couldn't afford to pay your employees, and you aren't a hero if you start a press without the money to take care of your books. Lionizing this sort of poor decision-making is a good way of declaring that we don't want readers. Who wants to read material produced under such conditions?

This is not to suggest that writers should not contribute their own resources in order to help their books succeed: just as a publisher should be, by definition, someone who uses his or her resources to promote good writing, a writer should be, by definition, someone who uses his or her own resources to create writing worthy of promotion. This suggests that a good writer will naturally want to promote his or her own work. But we know that there are many writers who are very bad at this, and while I don't blame publishers for preferring to work with gregarious literary salespeople, nor can I take seriously anyone who claims to care only for the quality of the work who does not allow for the possibility of publishing the sort of shy, quiet, sales-incompetent person who often creates the most exciting art.

As Tracy pointed out to me in conversation, the BlazeVOX structure exactly reverses what any reasonable person should agree are the burdens in the relationship of publisher and writer: in this model, writers are expected to have the money to finance their own publication even though writing should be something available to all classes of people. The publisher, meanwhile, is responsible only for existing and silently doing its work, even though publication properly requires funding! This is an absurd, perverse outcome that diminishes everyone involved.

Still another class of BlazeVOX defender is the literary defeatist, who always appears in these moments to defend yet another measure that exploits writers by insisting that given the state of the market for literary writing, said exploitation is inevitable. These people are historically ignorant in that their argument implies that the market was once better, when the case is the opposite: more people are now reading more books than ever before, and there are more people who list their profession as author than there have ever been before. Publishing has historically been financially lucrative for writers where they wrote work with popular appeal or where they found a wealthy patron; the small press, having written off the possibility of appealing to readers, must rationally seek wealthy patrons; the defeatists refuse to do so and then express shock at the inevitable outcome. But, more to the point, if publication is really so hopeless -- if writers must actually pay hundreds of dollars to print the products of their labors, and if these books will be ignored completely, and if no one will ever read them or derive enjoyment, then why should these writers publish in the first place? What exactly is the point? If it's about the writing, then write, and post it to the Internet for free. Format it for Kindle and give it away. If it's really that bad out there, if publishing must inherently be both exploitative and pointless, then let's just not do it.

5. There is a good argument to be made that writers who believe their work is not marketable should pay for their own work's production far more often.

Most indie presses behave as if they plan to be profitable ventures, both for themselves and their writers. Most of them do not actually do anything to make this happen. Some of the presses should restructure their operations such that profiting on writing becomes a conceivable outcome of their publishing. Others should take more seriously their unspoken premise -- that their favorite writing simply cannot find a paying audience -- and consider what that implies for their operations. And the same is true for writers. Some of us should reconsider the idea that we are impossible to market. Others of us should ask themselves why they keep taking a product to market when they do not believe they are wanted there.

The stigma of self-publishing is silly. If I believe in a book to the point where I believe it's worth my time to write the book and revise it and edit it and publish it, then why shouldn't I believe it's worth my own money to see it in print? If I choose to spend my money in this way, then isn't that only further proof that I believe in my product?

The main problem with self-publishing is that it is too easy if you have the money -- or, in the age of POD, even if you don't. It's much harder to get someone else to endorse your work publicly. To read the book and then to say that it is good. Finding someone willing to do this with your novel is close to impossible. The achievement should be worth something even if that person doesn't have the money to invest in helping you print your book. So, in other words, it would make perfect sense for more small presses to serve mainly as gatekeepers: to provide their good name and reputation to books that were known publicly to be financed by their authors. Writers might even provide this service to each other without the involvement of other presses. Experienced writers might even serve as editors and mentors for younger, fresher writers, and then agree to help promote the new book -- this last model is one I find especially attractive, and one that will make more and more sense as eBooks become ubiquitous. I am not arguing that writers should never pay for the production of their own books. In fact, I suspect that they should be doing it more often.

In practice, this would only make explicit what is already happening implicitly in many small presses, which are notorious for serving as a back-scratching system wherein writer-editors finance the publication of each other's work. It's rarely as direct as critics seem to believe (you won't find a lot of people that literally mutually publish) but the back-scratching network does exist (you will find triangles, squares, hexagons, or more complicated networks that might as well be built on secret handshakes) and that it is not only common but actively encouraged for writers to buy their way into these networks with a mixture of social capital and money. The process would be simplified considerably, and become far less sketchy, if we stopped looking for complicated ways to pay for each other's books and started to simply pay for our own, utilizing the same promotional networks we currently call presses not as a way of legitimizing our relationships but as a natural extension.

To be clear, I believe that small presses could sell more books if they committed to a few relatively straightforward alterations in their practices -- alterations that would begin publishing with a stricter focus on merit and end with the conviction that their products were actually worth buying. We should focus more on being great writers and editors and trust that better products will result in more sales. (Because believe me: We could be doing so much better.) But the only thing wrong with the back-scratching community of presses is the way we use it to create the illusion that we are doing something market-oriented or in any way responsive to external pressures. When you publish with a small press, you are generally making the judgment that you know better than the market: that your book should exist whether or not it can pay for itself. And that is a fine judgment. That is one I often agree with, in some sense, though I think that the more honest answer is often that we simply do not feel like working hard enough to make something good enough to sell.

Anyway, there don't seem to be many good reasons for hiding behind a press like BlazeVOX. If you want to show the market the error of its ways, publish your own book. Find some friends who will talk it up to their friends. See what happens. This is really what the small presses are doing most of the time anyway.

6. Writers and publishers alike need to think more carefully about what they hope to accomplish.

If you choose to be a publisher, it should be because you believe in something and want to use your resources (time, money, charisma) to help more people see it. Publishing books simply to make them exist, without hope of getting them into the hands of actual readers, is a terrible waste of a life. If avant garde poetry isn't selling as much as you want it to, you can print it anyway and accept the losses without complaining, you can print it anyway and try to sell in spite of the odds, or you can publish better avant garde poetry. Any other response is masturbatory.

If you are a writer who writes things nobody will pay for, you need to remember that the size of the world's population means that a book that only appealed to 1 in 1000 people could still be a bestseller with the right promotion. You need to ask yourself what the odds are that you are so smart and so special that you are writing something no one will understand because it is good rather than because it is not very good. (The odds are not very high. Most people who believe this are lying to themselves.) If you think your book is good but you don't think that it will be an easy seller and you don't have the time or the money or the charisma to sell it to people against the odds, then you can publish it anyway and shut up about how hard it is out there (this was your decision) or you can give it away for free online. There are no other options that make any sense.

Or you can write alone in a room. You can love the writing for itself. That would make sense.

Sadly, there is never any point in publishing alone in a room. If you are a publisher, then you need to get out there and do the work required to promote your books. Otherwise you are not a publisher. Don't tell me how hard it is out there for poets. Become a better publisher of poets. Become a better poet.

I write every day though it makes me very little money because I have asked myself if I would stop if there were no money. I would not. I publish because I have asked myself if I would stop if there were no readers and my answer was yes: I would stop. Do you ask yourself often why you are doing what you are doing? And if not, how do you expect to ever become happy? I am a person who struggles often with depression. I am most days pretty happy anyway.