An Interview with John Lavin: Part Two
Susan Maiermoul’s interview with The Lonely Crowd editor continues.
SMM: There’s been a squall of commentary on ‘supply and demand’ and the suggestion that there simply isn’t enough reading going on to support the amount of writing being published. Is there too much writing? Is that part of the difficulty of getting a journal to the level of return on investment that it can support itself, pay for printing, pay writers and editors?
JL: No, I think it’s fantastic how many talented new writers are out there. And a talented writer is almost always a talented reader. I do think that perhaps there is a problem of people becoming so used to magazines and journals being free these days that they don’t necessarily expect to have to pay to read a new story or poem. I don’t think they have the same problem with buying a novel or a collection by an individual author – or at least not to the same degree – but I do think there may be a perception that there’s so much free stuff out there that it’s not worth buying a journal. So I think it’s important for a new journal to have a recognisable ethos, tone and aesthetic. And for it to have high production values. For it to be as desirable an object as possible. That’s why each volume of The Lonely Crowd is quite a sizable, permanent looking thing. And why we use high quality paper and always have a photo essay and extra little details like the frontispiece. To make the new literature housed within its pages totally inseparable from the object that you hold in your hand.
SMM: Re: great writers being great readers— In ‘The Art of Agenting: An Interview With Chris Parris-Lamb’ of The Gernert Company, Parris-Lamb remarks, ‘Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.’
JL: Being a good reader is hard work. I’ve been an avid reader almost all my life but if I’m honest I only feel like I’ve read the great works of literature with anything like the correct amount of rigour in the past few years. I remember reading The Waste Land at university and liking it but being completely bamboozled by it at the same time. Ulysses the same. But those books don’t seem like that to me at all now, they seem wonderfully rich and complex but not in a particularly daunting way, and that’s certainly because I’ve learnt to be a better reader. Education didn’t really give me that (although I went to quite a bad school!) – other authors discussing their approach to composition did. Nabokov especially. He writes wonderfully well about his approach to the creative process while pretending to discuss the work of other authors! And his saying you need to read a book five times in order to understand it – that really shocked and alarmed me at the time, but I think it’s quite true now.
Books like that… The Waste Land, Ulysses or indeed Nabokov’s Pale Fire – they obviously aren’t really works that you can approach without an awareness of the history of literature, because they are so innately caught up in the conversation of literature.
SMM: My favorite remarks on this come from an exchange on the Poetry Foundation website. The poet Eileen Myles responded to a commenter regarding what may have been a cheap shot at a writer she feels passionately about. She answered, ‘There’s a failure to read here I think. I’m sure you have not read his work with courage or attention. To read Wieners you have to some extent have patience with your own moment to moment feelings. Are there poetry readers’ male or female who find that kind of undefended reading threatening.’
JL: Well, yes, I agree. For one thing there’s no place for pot shots. Criticism, for me should be analytical and well reasoned. Absolutely – don’t like a book, but if you want to say that in a public forum, then show the author the courtesy of explaining why with due diligence and rigour.
And yes, it’s been said before but I think it’s very difficult to be a good writer without first being a good reader. Maybe some authors, blessed with immeasurable talent might be able to get away with it to an extent but essentially if you are a writer then books are your medium, so it seems fairly insensible to not know how they work.
SMM: When Jonathan Lee interviewed him, Parris-Lamb answered the question this way:
‘Great writers are as rare as heart surgeons— maybe even rarer; I don’t actually know anything about heart surgeons. But I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to behind these initiatives is this notion that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.’
JL: Yes, clearly that whole attitude of thinking it’s just something you can knock out in your spare time is beyond annoying. And of course when the people who think like that do write a novel in their spare time it’s nearly always chick lit, fantasy or some unbelievably sub-par take on Dick Francis.
However, I do feel that given the right set of circumstances anyone has the potential to write a very good novel. (I tend to agree with Parris-Lamb that in order to write a truly great novel you do need to have an abundance of talent that not everyone is in possession of). But I do think most people can be good readers and good writers, I really do. It’s just hard work is all. Writing isn’t an easy thing to do at all – the comparison with a heart surgeon seems particularly apt. And for me, in the UK at least, then creative writing and indeed creativity… it’s just not encouraged at school (or in state schools in any case), and so the only children who attend state schools and that go on to follow artistic career paths, are largely the ones whose parents have encouraged them to do so. That was the case with me anyway. That’s a terrible tragedy and indictment of UK education policy in my opinion.
SMM: Megan M. Garr, editor of the lit journal Versal and the author of two books, critiques what she names as ‘model of the writer-artist, supported by the nation-state for the good of society. In this model literature is not subject to the demand of economies. Supply and demand, gross domestic product, business models, sales figures, key performance indicators— these things have nothing to do with the writing on the page.’
Garr describes the small press conundrum in her essay ‘Hold the Damn Door Open: Idealism is No Currency’, as, ‘large swaths of free labor acting in sum as a middleman between external funding sources (government, arts foundations, Kickstarter, Visa) … the economic fact of today’s lit-mag economy is that no matter how good a magazine’s ‘unique selling point’ (USP), a combination of poor sector dynamics and skewed business models will keep it— will keep most of us— in a constant battle with funding, bills, and insufficient sales.’
JL: Yes, yes, I very much agree. How to change all of that, that’s the question! How to make people view literature as something essential to our lives, rather than just something for those who can afford it?
And yet, having said that, as Fiction Editor at Wales Arts Review, I work almost entirely for free and as Editor of The Lonely Crowd I spend my own money to make it happen! And why? I suppose because I might not be able to do these things that I love and believe are important otherwise. But also because I do genuinely believe that each of these two initiatives will continue to blossom and that they themselves are perhaps even agents of change. I think both publications are things that Wales maybe hasn’t quite had before. I think that Welsh culture really needed a regular, critical voice quite urgently and I think that Wales Arts Review, if it continues to be able to carry on working the way that it does, can be that voice for a long time to come. As for The Lonely Crowd, as I say, I think it’s vitally important that Wales has more literary journals (and publishers for that matter).
SMM: Garr says the publishing model breaks down because of what she calls ‘Our Economic Oxymoron’:
‘1. Literature transcends economy.
2. We should be paid for our work.
Much of the dialogue out there implies that we deserve to be paid, but that we’re too important to be bothered with the real economy of all of it.’
JL: Which brings us back to your earlier question, back to the issue of payment: that’s why I think it’s important that The Lonely Crowd pays writers, even if £20 or a free subscription is more of a token than something that can help put food on the table as it were. At least it says that we believe that writers must be paid for their work. If you look at that furore last year, with regard to some UK literary festivals not paying their authors – well, I thought that was quite astonishing really, and a sign of quite how dire things have become. Because, clearly these are mainly cash rich events with corporate sponsorship.
SMM: Something doesn’t add up, really.
JL: To have the finances and to then make the decision to not pay your authors displays a quite extraordinary attitude. It appears to be saying that authors ought not to be paid. I mean so far, when I’ve had launch events I haven’t been able to pay the authors to read because I’m putting my own finances into the magazine to such an extent and paying for venue hire etc., so I simply don’t have the finances to do that. And also the events are all free to the public. But I’m always very upfront about that, and it’s something that I hope will be a short term thing until the magazine becomes more well established. For now, hopefully creating a good environment with like minded authors and an attentive audience is a kind of payment. But if I had corporate sponsorship and if I was charging quite high ticket prices… if that was the case and I didn’t pay the authors… well I just can’t understand that at all. It’s simply wrong.
SMM: Many literary projects are becoming web based. In spite of the personal financial cost to you, do you foresee remaining a print based journal? Is it important to you/ your vision of the significance of The Lonely Crowd in the developing literary scene?
JL: Yes, it was very important for me to be print based because I simply think that print is the best medium in which to read fiction and poetry. I think the digitalisation of newspapers and cultural journals is a largely fantastic and either way clearly irreversible development, however, I think the recent decision of Waterstones to stop selling Kindle e-books in the majority of their stores is indicative of customers’ attachment to physical books.
SMM: You want to be true to the roots of the lit community, to the tradition of the book.
JL: One prosaic reason is that I do think that reading a 340-page literary anthology is much easier on the eyes than it is on a laptop or other device, especially when we all work so much on computers now anyway. But it’s more than that, it is the physical sensation of holding a book in your hands, it’s the sense of the book as object representing something more than the sum of its parts. Also, to go back to Cork again, I met Declan Meade (founder of The Stinging Fly), very briefly while I was there and one of the things I remember him saying was, ‘I believe in print’. It’s something that I already felt myself, but to hear a publisher and editor that I respected so much say that, and to see the success that he was having and continues to have with that outlook, was and is genuinely inspiring.
SMM: Let me ask this from a slightly different angle, rather than opposing print and digital. Isn’t there something about print— and the subsequent object, the book or other— that requires an attitude toward, and a level of, editing and production quite starkly different from on line only publications?
Doesn’t a story in a print publication convey an entirely different level of investment and commitment, certainly from the publisher and editor? Because there’s no production cost increase online there’s always room for another story and another point of view, but that’s not true of a print publication. It’s an aspect that can cut both ways.
JL: Well, I suppose that is ultimately true, although having been involved with online literary journals so much – and with there being an online dimension to The Lonely Crowd – I can’t entirely agree with this. I think that the only way for an online magazine to be worth it’s salt is to have the same exacting standards as it would do if it were in print. (Of course this is not to say that all online magazines do this).
I don’t think it would be true to say that there is always room for another story online (I think in a sense this line of thinking applies more to criticism, which is simultaneously liberated and, in some cases, downgraded by the internet). In terms of The Lonely Crowd’s online pieces, these are high quality pieces that could easily be included in the print version but which haven’t made the cut due to the number of high quality pieces we receive. And I think it’s important to still make an online story as aesthetically special as possible – hence each piece on The Lonely Crowd is accompanied by a photograph by Jo Mazelis (while with Wales Arts Review’s ‘Story Retold’ and ‘Fiction Map of Wales’ series’ – each story comes accompanied by a specially commissioned artwork by Dean Lewis).
However, I suppose, thinking about the aesthetics of online publishing always made me hanker for the aesthetics of print publishing. And of course, it’s just a fact that every poet or writer of fiction would rather be published in a book rather than online.
SMM: Which brings us round again to this art of curating and editing, and it makes me think of Roberto Calasso, the founder of the great Italian publishing house Adelphi Edizioni. Calasso, like you, is a serious writer. In his book The Art of the Publisher, he argues the serial aspect of publishing makes the editor/ founder/ publisher an author in a different sense – the creator of a series. When that creative work is done in the best way, authors want their work to be brought forward by the series, writers see value in the imprimatur. Returning to the event of your first two books, do you have an ambition to be that sort of ‘author’?
JL: I agree with this very much. I think it would also be true to say – although I haven’t quite thought about it in those terms before – that I do have ambitions to be an editor and publisher in the sense of being an author. I do want both The Lonely Crowd and its publishing wing to have an instantly recognisable aesthetic and to be somewhere authors want to be seen. Another journal I really admire is Areté, because it is quite idiosyncratic and so obviously edited by Craig Raine. It occupies its own space, not anyone else’s and that’s something that I would love for the Crowd to do. And then another Press that I find incredibly inspirational is – and who doesn’t? – Cuala. The design that went into those books, combined with the incredible literature contained within makes them so much more than the sum of their parts. The presentation of those books, I suppose especially the Yeats ones – gives them added power.
I want the design of the books to have that same level of symbiosis between content and object as a Cuala Press volume. It’s a tall order but we’ll fail trying!
SMM: Are you influenced at all by your experiences of the larger culture scene? In addition to your fiction, you write an astonishing number of reviews! I was thinking of you the other day when I was reading How To Write About Music, a great book from the publishers of the 33 1/3 series. Casey Jarman, managing editor of The Believer, discusses the impact of instant deadlines and the loss of things like the advance release copy to the music press:
When you’re under that kind of deadline pressure, as a writer, I think it’s much harder to write something personal and meaningful and structurally sound, so readers often get something half-cooked or something that pretty much repeats the safe status quo opinion that’s floating around out there. The democratization of this stuff is a lot better than the old “gatekeeper” system in so many ways, but I think serious criticism is really struggling right now, because even the stalwart voices have the ability to see what everyone else is saying, and we wind up in a weird feedback loop…
This is where questions about digital vs print publishing have had a profound impact on culture. It’s not so much one over the other, as the kind of influence rapid media has on the reading public, on publishers, and on writers themselves. Do you think the ubiquitous hi speed publishing of the web has pressured writers to write more quickly, to hit more deadlines, to publish more quantity?
JL: Yes, I do agree wholeheartedly with this. I occasionally write music reviews for Wales Arts Review and I’ve experienced this first hand. If you want to have a relevant music review now, then you have to write them so quickly… The Guardian had a review of the new Radiohead album finished the same day for instance… practically the same hour. I’m a great fan of Alexis Petridis but even he can’t write a particularly insightful or penetrative review in that time, in my opinion. I’ve written reviews of albums and only noticed certain important aspects of the record, weeks, even months later. Your first impression of something is a gut one – it’s not really a critical one and I think, of course, that criticism is vital for fostering a fertile cultural environment. At the moment, in the UK, there isn’t a lot of great music criticism anymore, asides from The Quietus, sometimes The Guardian and of course, I’m biased, but also Craig Austin in Wales Arts Review. But the music press doesn’t exist anymore and I genuinely think that’s a catastrophe… it’s no coincidence that’s there been no exciting new youth music movement since the Melody Maker and Select went under, and since NME became entirely irrelevant about ten years ago or more.
SMM: Is there a lot to be optimistic about in the deluge? Does great writing float to the top on a sea of mediocrity? Or does the demand for content and its subsequent homogenizing of taste drown the demand for intelligence, nuance, passion?
JL: I feel like this is maybe more true of British indie music than British publishing – there are a lot of exciting authors around at the moment, and of course Eimear McBride is a case of great writing floating to the top. However, it took a fantastic indie publisher like Galley Beggar to publish A Girl is a Half-formed Thing and it’s companies like that that inspire me. Of course, it shouldn’t have taken all that time for Eimear McBride to be published, it’s madness! But I suppose to an extent it has been ever thus. In any case, The Lonely Crowd and The Lonely Press intend to be an important independent voice that champions great writers which probably wouldn’t be taken up by a big publisher initially. And to shape culture by doing it of course. Galley Beggar helped to shape contemporary culture by publishing Eimear McBride and I think that’s really exciting. I think that’s got to be the aim.
Susan Maiermoul won the Sean O’ Faolain Prize in 2014. Her year long series Magnetic appears monthly on her website maiermoul.com where you can also find her 2014 visual project on New York. Her story in this issue is excerpted from a novel in progress, a reimagining of Andre Breton’s Nadja.
You can read part one of the interview here and buy the new issue here.
Words © Susan Maiermoul & John Lavin, 2016. Photo of John Lavin © Jo Mazelis, 2016. Photo of ‘A Spring Evening with The Lonely Crowd’ © Michou Burckett St. Laurent, 2016.