Monday, August 15, 2011

Guest Post: Nice to Meet You; We're the Artless Dodges Press by Tom Maven

You know the joke: six writers, one designer, and a couple of their supportive friends walk into a bar in Cleveland. They each order a drink and after the bartender brings them he says, “Pardon me, but I couldn’t help but notice that you all look really, really depressed.” The writers and the designer reply, “We’re artists. All we have is our art, but nobody can be bothered to even consider it.” The bartender says, “Oh,” and looks around nervously. The supportive friends say, “Don’t worry, we’re paying.”

For several years out of college, that joke was our lives. We were writing and re-writing, critiquing each others‘ work, keeping pieces in the mail. Despite these efforts and a few small success, however, we weren’t getting anywhere: none of our novels were getting picked up, hardly any of our stories were selling, and the ones that were weren’t selling anywhere worth mentioning. We had no illusions that the path we’d chosen would be easy, or that success would come beating down our door. We knew that trying to hack it as writers meant years of rejection and plenty of disappointment. Even still, we found ourselves needled by a persistent and growing suspicion that the pieces we sent were being returned unread, weren’t even being considered: that we were being dismissed out of hand. Maybe it was just frustrated paranoia, but we couldn’t shake the feeling that there was some other game going on behind the closed doors at those magazines and publishing houses, some secret handshake we didn’t know, some password we hadn’t said.

This is not a paranoid diatribe about some suspected shadow conspiracy; it’s not even a self-glorifying rant about how unappreciated we are, or how much the publishing world owes us. It is, however, a small potshot against the myth that hard work will bring success, that quality will bring acclaim, that people get what they deserve. The fact of the matter is, there is another game going on behind those closed doors: for us, the focus is and always has been on the work, the words, the quality of the prose; we’d spent so much time talking about the work, in fact, that we naively failed to recognize the obvious fact that the publishing industry is an industry-focused agency that deals in fiction and not, as we all thought (without quite really realizing it), a fiction-focused agency dealing in industry. We thought that being a writer meant writing, and thought that good fiction would get - in fact, deserved to get - recognized. We held this belief so thoroughly that we didn’t see that artistry is beside the point: that these institutions only publish what is going to make them money. And ninety-nine times out of one hundred that means television tie-ins and pop teen lit, means hot-button genre fiction and Oprah-friendly “serious” fiction.

So where did that leave us? The stuff we were writing didn’t fit any of those marketing blocks. We found ourselves asking questions like, how did Camus’ publisher market The Stranger? How did Milan Kundera first get noticed? It seemed to us that the kind of philosophically-driven, existential and literary fiction we were writing might simply be out of place in a market dominated by Harry Potter and the Twilight saga, by Dan Brown and Nora Roberts. Maybe there was no way to pitch a Kafka-esque travelogue to a publisher or agent hoping to represent the next Stephen King. We were more than ever losing faith in the prospect of ever getting anywhere. More than that, we were all going broke.

Faced with the situation as we saw it, it seemed to us that we had three choices: we could 1) change our style, our focus and our aesthetic, and write what we could pitch, 2) give up writing, or 3) we could just goddamned do it ourselves.

It’s not a new idea: punk bands have been doing it since the 70s, promoting shows in basements with homemade flyers, recording demos on their own equipment, selling tapes and LPs out of the trunks of their cars. Now there are digital means to achieve the same ends, both for music and for fiction, but the idea is the same. The punk DIY ethos holds that no one is going to do it for you, that you can’t expect them to, that if you want something done for yourself then you should do it yourself, and not wait for permission or support from the powers that be. We knew that we could bang our heads against the same walls for the next decade and end up back in the same bar, with our novels in our desk drawers and with the same supportive friends buying our drinks and the same gloomy outlook. We’d had enough of that.

This isn’t about trying to jump ahead, to get away with not paying your dues. This is about refusing to play a game with one set of perceived rules and another set of actual rules, about a publishing industry more and more defined not by the search for quality but rather by the search for marketability. This is about the belief that good writing will find readers, and that readers will seek out good writing. And it’s about standing on your own feet and trying to do something. So this is us saying it’s nice to meet you, we’re The Artless Dodges Press. Since 2009 we’ve been bringing you some of the best that Cleveland has to offer. Please visit us online, check out our titles, read an excerpt. We promise that what we have to offer is unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else.

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