Thursday, April 27, 2006

The university press and original fiction

In January this year we took note of the establishment of the Mainstay Press, a high-powered and intellectually motivated publishing company. Well, now things are moving.

Visit the Mainstay web site and you will find details of the company's first five books, with one a month to come well into 2007.

Two of the books listed are by Tony Christini, these being the first two volumes in his Homefront trilogy of novels. The two novels are overtly political works of fiction, exploring the 'private and public ramifications of militant U.S. policy.'

Directly relevant to all this is a short essay that Tony Christini has published online, entitled The University Press and Original Fiction. In this essay, he argues that university presses have a duty -- I don't think that's too strong a word -- to publish works of fiction which are notably uncommercial, because of their serious nature and purpose, and which also, ideally, constitute a cultural critique.

'Doesn't it appear to anyone (Tony asks) to be the slightest bit irresponsible for all the university presses combined, several years now into the Iraq War, let alone the prolonged build-up, to not have published even a single (as far as I'm aware) culturally critical novel about the Iraq War?'

Well, ahem, actually, Tony, no. It doesn't seem at all irresponsible to me. Rather the reverse.

As it happens, I ran a university press for a number of years. I can't say that I ever sat down and wrote out, or even thought out, a mission statement for that press (and perhaps that was irresponsible); but if I had, I doubt whether it would have included a duty to publish fiction, of any kind. Furthermore, if I had come to the conclusion that the publication schedule should include fiction, whether serious, culturally critical, or any other kind, I doubt that I could have carried the university decision-making bodies along with me.

The precise aims of any given university press will be determined by the university of which it is a part. But they will normally include, and concentrate upon, the dissemination of research. In the past, such presses might reasonably have been expected to expend more than they brought in, and this would have been regarded as a legitimate call on the university purse. But not, I suspect any more. Certainly not in the UK. Today any press will be expected, I think, to wipe its own nose, if not come up with a handsome contribution to the university's coffers.

And besides. What's all this about 'serious fiction'? All fiction, I would submit, is serious. The people who write it take it seriously -- if they expect it to be any good, and to see the light of day -- even if they are writing what Tony Christini refers to as 'fluff or worse'. And where, I enquire politely, are the intellectual arguments which demonstrate that 'serious fiction', as commonly defined, makes a more valuable contribution to society than 'fluff or worse'? I know of none. Assertions, yes. But proof, no.

No. I dare say that there are some university presses which already publish fiction (Oxford, I believe, is one). But personally I think that this argument for university presses to get into the fiction business on any scale is a non-starter. And while it might have been arguable thirty or forty years ago, times have surely changed. Today, even the most 'serious' stuff -- of minority interest -- can be put before the public at minimum cost. By the author himself if necessary. And, as someone who has seen the sales figures for both a good many university press books and some self-published ones, I can tell you that a self-published book stands just as much chance in the marketplace as one from a university press -- despite the inherent 'prestige' of the latter. This is, admittedly a pretty slim chance; but it's no less promising.

Anyway, you'll just have to read Tony Christini's article yourself and see what you think. But if you're the author of a piece of 'serious' fiction, I wouldn't hold your breath in the hope that university presses are shortly going to offer you a contract..

8 comments:

EmmaD said...

I suppose the press associated with a university that has novelists on the staff teaching creative writing degrees should consider publishing their work, just as it would consider publishing work by any other member of staff. Practice-based research is still research: universities routinely give space to an exhibition curated by one of the visual arts lecturers, or a recital by a singer which is part of his or her PhD submission.

I do only mean consider publishing, though. Many of the American university presses are much bigger and musclier animals than almost any UK one, (with exception of OUP and CUP). It could be argued (though I'm not arguing) that US presses do have a duty to publish important non-commercial and research-based work - including fiction - as long as it doesn't ruin them. After all, as the P&L link showed, all publishers know they will have books that lose money, even if they wish they wouldn't. But to impose such a duty on UK presses to do the same would probably sink most of them for good.

Of course it's perfectly possible that no one's yet written a really good novel on this topic. Unless you're Orwell, strong political feeling is no guarantee of strong writing.

Finn Harvor said...

I began reading this post inclined to agree that university presses had absolutely no business publishing fiction, but moderated my opinion somewhat after reading emmad's comment; I can see the logic -- even the obligation -- of publishing what these days is referred to as practice-based research (the kind of phraseology that is too common in academe, but I digress). However, having said all this, that still begs the question raised in your post: ie., what *is* serious fiction?

Tony Christini said...

What is serious music? What is serious sociology? Serious historical work? Serious sculpture? What are serious plays? What is serious fiction? These are all questions normally addressed in universities and elsewhere and they necessarily remain open-ended amidst frequently drawn conclusions.

Regarding fiction and other forms of literature, serious work may be highly comedic obviously, also popular.... It may even be technically greatly flawed in many ways yet important for what it represents otherwise as a cultural artifact.

Of course, not infrequently what is considered unaccomplished and unaesthetic at one time may later be seen in an entirely opposite light, and vice versa. The same is true in many other fields where evolving or de-evolving ideological views, etc, can affect greatly what is understood as serious, or otherwise worthy of publication....

I'm afraid it misses the point to say that it's possible no one has written a quality culturally critical novel about the Iraq War. First of all, it's highly possible that someone has. Second, in my view, universities have, yes, a duty to encourage, solicit, and produce such novels and other types of work on matters of war and other cultural issues of gravest concern, not least. To my knowledge, not only have no such novels been published, none has been solicited. In any event, I know they've been written. A number of academics and others have even judged them highly.

It also misses the point to argue that universities shouldn't publish "serious fiction" if there's no "proof" it's "more valuable" than what may be viewed as less serious fiction. Are university published history texts "more valuable" than popular commercially published ones? Can it be proved? Should universities no longer publish history books? Why more valuable? Such works can offer sometimes different and sometimes additional value that can be quite important in a variety of ways and fields.

Of course, some serious fiction, and art generally, is quite popular and profitable. Why should universities cut themselves off from a potential revenue stream? Regardless, societies that subsidize things like missile research and not novel publishing are headed off the deep end. It can't be proved of course, as with many of the most important things that people work on in the university and in the rest of life all.

Finn Harvor said...

Tony: Your point is well taken but still begs the question of what, exactly, serious fiction is. I assume you mean good writing with a high purpose. But already this definition is problematical.

I'm not sure why it is you're focussing on university presses in particular. I understand your argument that they have a duty to publish certain kinds of work (although, as was pointed out in the original post by Michael, traditionally they've avoided fiction). But why not start a campaign to ask large publishing houses to do that as well? After all, in recent years they have established policies that make it impossible for a writer without a high-powered agent to even get their attention.

Tony Christini said...

Finn: I can't beg a question, so to speak, that I'm not answering. It's not up to me to define what fiction universities should publish or even what they should call it, no matter what my preferences, values, and views are.

Most, maybe all, universities have mission statements that they are bound by, and in these mission statements there is almost always or always a reference about meeting both individual and public needs, benefiting individuals and the public in various ways. Those are the sorts of novels that universities should publish – call them what you like. And those decisions should be made more or less by the university community in conjunction with the public it serves. The creative writing faculty should have a lot of say in what gets published because they are the ones primarily charged with producing such work.

So there is no begging of any questions. This is how publishing in universities is normally done, or, in my view, ought to be done. The people involved are responsible for making decisions that meet broad university and public criteria and whatever other criteria within that range that they might find justified. There cannot be and should not be any one answer, for a wide variety of reasons: universities' needs and resources differ, publics differ, faculties and individuals opinions and talents differ…. These things are worked out in discussion and practice related to some of the overarching criteria I've mentioned. There's no master sheet or master definition to go by, nor should there be. Interpretations of what should be published, where, when, and how much should be and can only be diverse – as is only healthy and reasonable.

In my view, universities are more or less violating their mission statements or charters in not doing this. Plus, they should do it for their own sake as well, to strengthen and support their various faculties.

As for corporations, their legal obligations are different. Legally, they are bound to make money, not serve the public. They are perfectly free to rot the teeth of the public, as many do. This is why I would rather work to abolish corporations than to reform them. Sure, they should be encouraged to publish fiction that better serves the public, but the structural constraints are such that less junk fiction is likely to come out of university presses than corporate ones, if only the university presses would start publishing more fiction, or in many cases any at all.

Remember, corporations are already publishing a lot of fiction (and nonfiction), and universities are already publishing a lot of nonfiction but not a lot or any original fiction. Thus the greatest imbalance currently, really blatant and grievous, is the lack of original fiction being published by universities, institutions that have far more of an obligation to do so than corporations, and that are structurally more capable of producing needed work.

Finn Harvor said...

"Remember, corporations are already publishing a lot of fiction (and nonfiction)"

Yes they are. But these days they're publishing work almost exclusively by writers who have "established" (i.e., high-profile) agents. What this has created is a situation that is particularly hard on emerging writers. And in the past few years the trend has been to strongly emphasize non-fiction over fiction. The alternative you describe (of university presses significantly increasing the amount of fiction they publish and doing this on a consistent basis) will for the most part only help writers who work for the universities in question. You can correct me if I'm wrong here, but isn't that how the situation will play out in reality?

p.s. Just for the record: I'm not against political fiction. In fact, I'm strongly in favour of it if it's well done.

Tony Christini said...

Any serious intellectual or creative community will remain open to work from anywhere, including the publication of it. What happens "in reality" depends on what universities and their presses are pressured to do.

For whatever reason, I happened to be thinking of universities when I wrote my comments. And as I've noted, in various ways the opportunity for change seems to me to be greater there than with established corporate publishers. Sure corporate publishers should be pressured to change. Good luck! You can see what we at Mainstay have done, been forced to do -- start our own press....

Expanded university presses, reformed corporate presses, entirely new presses...all needed.

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