Monday, March 8, 2010

Democracy of Art

Happy International Women’s Day, which I’m doing nothing about for the first time in I can’t remember how long. Very strange. (The photo is from an IWD protest in San Antonio, organized by a multiethnic coalition. Why can't we have that? They've been doing it for 20 years. Read about it.)

On my way back from Montreal, where I spoke at an excellent panel and a queer workshop organized by Tadamon, QTEAM and other very well-organized Palestine solidarity groups, I was thinking about my little self-publishing venture.

Someone was saying at a party the other night that they never go to movies any more because they have a friend that can download every movie as soon as it comes out.

My friend’s boyfriend said, “Well soon there won’t be any movies to see any more, since no one is willing to pay to see them. Only big Hollywood blockbusters will get made; no one else will be able to get any financing.”

I thought about that.

“Or maybe,” I suggested, “filmmaking will become more a labor of love, and more interesting stuff will get made because people’s ideas won’t be being stifled by the commercial gate-keeping establishment.”

My friends, who are young counterculture types, quickly agreed.

“But,” objected an older friend, “artists should be able to make a living from their art, and not be forced to slave away at meaningless jobs. In other countries, art is state subsidized.”

I’m sure a lot of great art is subsidized, but I can’t help wondering how much great art is also stopped at the door, even in those progressive European countries we love to compare ourselves to. One of the amazing things about the process of seeking agents and publishers is accumulating proof that “good” and “bad” are subjective categories. How can one reputable agent say she “loves loves loves” my main character (but she can’t do anything with it right now) while another rejects the manuscript sight unseen? One feminist publisher says, “We found it very well written and well researched, but we feel we cannot adequately market it,” and recommends another publisher who responds tersely, “We do not want to publish it.”

Nothing can make you go so quickly from Cloud 9 to the Slough of Despond (boy, a Pilgrim’s Progress reference – not something I ever thought I’d use – must be all those years rereading Little Women).

So what do I do with all those homilies about “The way to get published is to write well?” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read that assertion. Here are a few examples:

“Good writing LEAPS out at editors (or interns) who sift through stacks of unsolicited articles.”

“Publishing is changing — all entertainment media is changing — but good writing tends to find a home.”

“As Micole Sudberg, Assistant Editor, Tor Books says, "...the best way to get your manuscript looked at is to write well."

Okay, so if my manuscript hasn’t found a home, that means it didn’t LEAP off the page, right? Or does it mean, as a friend of mine wrote on his blog, that “the editor … is crabby and hung over when it rises to the top of her to-read list”?

We have the same arguments about the radio show I work on, Women’s Magazine. Some people say it’s terrible, some people say it’s the best thing on the station. We are constantly talking about how to improve our “quality,” but the fact is that we don’t agree on what is good quality. There are certain things that most of us agree aren’t good, and fewer things that we all agree are good, but there’s a huge range in between that depends on what we’re interested in.

What might happen to the art world if we removed the emotional highs and lows that come from that quest for external validation? Sure, it would probably mean that you wasted a few minutes looking at something that should never have seen the light of day. But you might also find a diamond that a bunch of editors and agents mistook for a lump of coal. It would democratize the art world, and some of its denizens don’t want that. We’re taught not to value publication in journals that print all submissions, or books that are self-published. But some of those categories are starting to blur. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between “self-publishing,” which I heard described the other day as a form of the newly fashionable “DIY,” and “vanity press” which still has a really negative connotation. But why do we assume that a person who paid to have their book published is doing it for “vanity,” while the person who got paid to do it isn’t? Aren’t both doing it because they believe they have something to say?

A friend of mine who’s been taking art classes for the last several years just gave a show for her 60th birthday. She sold her paintings and drawings, nearly all of plants or flowers, to her friends, and the proceeds went to a relocation fund for a friend who is about to get out prison. By the time I got there, nearly everything had been bought up. Now I don’t know, maybe if she had submitted her work to a gallery, they would have said, “Oh yes, these are exactly what we’re looking for.” But they also might have said, “Sorry, not good enough.”

A movie that has just come out, Budrus, which is winning awards all over the place, includes a couple minutes of footage that I shot in Palestine. This is the third film I’ve sold footage to. Although the money I’ve made is negligible (and I always donate it to Palestine, as my opinion is that the footage belongs to them), it’s way more than I’ve ever made from writing. And yet I know that my camera work is not very good and I believe my writing is not bad.

So what’s the lesson of that? I suppose it proves that utility might count more than aesthetic quality. Or perhaps it’s that art that is collective can make the best of material that isn’t that “good” by itself, that art, like many other things, is more than the sum of its parts.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Kate, I don't mind being held responsible for the crabby editor comment. Another thing I said in that post is that a novel gains a certain weight simply by passing the "gating" process (agent, editor, publisher), which I think is true (and valuable) for people who want to read but don't want to slog through stacks and stacks of poorly executed work in order to find those diamonds in the rough you referred to.

    An agent whose blog I started to follow about a month ago, Nathan Bransford, posted a screed titled Don't Believe the E-book Skeptics, which seems to be a topic that's got him pretty exercised this month. One of the assertions he makes (and which I've heard argued before) is that 'peer review' sites will provide a new, socially networked sort of gating that is (reflecting your formulation) more democratic. I'll quote NB: "Already there are sites like Goodreads and Shelfari cropping up that allow people to swap reviews and recommendations about books. People increasingly find new books through blogs, forums, and heck, hearing from an author directly. It was never really possible before for authors to reach their audience directly - now it's a piece of cake."

    You and Nathan may be right. But it's hard for me to swallow the concept that the many excellent recommendations I get from friends and acquaintances isn't in significant part jump-started by that agent/editor/publisher gating process, and the professional reviewers that steer readers from the pages of (similarly gated) newspapers and magazines. Maybe all that means is that I'm looking backward from where we are while you and Nathan are looking forward. I guess we'll see...