Interview with Dave Daley and Stephen Elliot

March 30, 2010

posted by Caroline Picard

I was asked to do the following interview for MAKE Magazine a while back. The interview is published in its entirety here. That said, you can read a clip from it below.

Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dave Daley and Stephen Elliott, who each participate in both print and online media. Dave Daley has worked as an editor for a number of publications, including The Journal News in White Plaines, NY, Details Magazine and McSweeney’s. In each instance he has developed different strategies to publish short fiction in the printed form, and when he began doing this at The Journal News, he published the only regular newspaper fiction series in the country. Currently, Daley has started a fiction blog, FiveChapters, where he has published over 125 stories; each story is divided into five parts and published over the course of a workweek.

Stephen Elliott, is an author in San Francisco with six original books under his belt, including Jones Inn (Boneyard Press, 1998), Looking Forward To It: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying About It and Love the American Electoral Process (Picador, 2004), Happy Baby (McSweeny’s & MacAdam/Cage, 2004), My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up (Cleis Press, 2006). His latest book The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir of Moods, Masochism and Murder was released from Graywolf Press last Fall and has been the recipient of many accolades, including TimeOut New York’s favorite book of 2009. In addition, he publishes The Rumpus, online blog of cultural commentary.

Pairing these individuals, who both wrestle directly with the changing contemporary literary world, was a unique opportunity to explore the shifting landscape of publishing in the age of the Internet. The conversation that follows reflects a larger dialogue concerning the changing model for cultural distribution. We see it in the music world, where indie record labels parallel indie presses, just as the Sonys and Universals parallel the Houghtons of the publishing world. Of course this leaves everyone—authors, publishers, agents, and critics –in a suspended panic as they wait to see what the future has in store. While this conversation is not about defining that future, it does sort through a number of subtle distinctions, problems, and hopes that are prevalent in the business of writing.

Caroline Picard: People have referred to your (Dave’s) site, FiveChapters, as a kind of hyper-modern Dickensian serial, in which you simultaneously borrow an old form (the serial) and apply it to modern technology—do you think this has an impact on the kinds of work that you publish? Do you think this approach (online publishing) will change the tendencies of contemporary fiction? Does one write stories differently depending on the form of publication?

Dave Daley: First, thank you for that very generous description of the site. I like to think of FiveChapters as taking a 19th century form and transferring it to a 21st century technology. But really, I started the site because I was horrified by what people—myself included—were reading online. My idea was to make it just as easy to read great fiction online as it is to go see if there has been another Parker Posey sighting at Whole Foods.

At the outset, I was more concerned with how the Internet affected the way we read, rather than the way we write. (Although, of course, one naturally follows the other.)

The short story, to me, seemed just as relevant a form as ever—perhaps more so, as attention-spans tighten. You’d think it would be the perfect form for this time. But as technology changed our reading habits, I’d argue a large percentage of our reading became distilled down into what fits on one computer screen, on what can be read during a five-minute break at our desks. FiveChapters was my way of trying to sneak the short story into an online world.

These stories weren’t written for the web, they weren’t even, in most cases, written as traditional serials with cliffhangers. Unlike Slate’s experiment with Walter Kirn and hyperlinked fiction, these stories don’t utilize the outside web at all. It’s where the readers are, so it’s where I’m publishing. These could just as easily be newspaper serials, or published in The Atlantic, or in a lit journal—if that’s where the readers were.

FiveChapters is simply designed—there’s no advertising, nothing that slows you down. Each part is on one page, so there’s not a lot of clicking. It is not fancy. But that’s because it is designed to be a place to read.

To me what the Internet does at its best—it gives a multiplicity of smart voices a platform they never had before. A great book critic, in the past, needed to pay 20 years of newspaper dues before having a chance to be the book editor at a paper. Now, start your own site, and if you are good, you’re likely to be discovered, and in turn, sometimes given old media opportunities.
This feels like a good segue and jumping-off point for Stephen, who has done such a good job of collecting the best of the web, and adding brilliant original voices to The Rumpus—turning novelists into book and film writers. I think of that great Katie Crouch review of her ex-s novel, which would have never found a home in the offline media world.

Stephen Elliott: I certainly agree with Dave that the majority of what people are reading online is just awful. I think there’s a lot of room to smarten things up. That’s why I started The Rumpus. I think there’s lot of people killing time in their office job and they go to sites that are frequently updated, like Gawker and the Huffington Post or Slate and Salon or blogs. And most of the content they find is just terrible. And worse, it’s all about the same things. Salon will be analyzing Obama’s walk (does Obama walk like a Republican? Our posture expert spills the beans!) or Slate (is Obama’s dog a liberal? Our canine expert gets the full woof!).

At The Rumpus we are publishing content that’s specifically for the Internet. Our reader is basically someone who might enjoy The Believer or The New York Review of Books when they’re offline, but want something shorter, but still a little challenging, when they’re online.

There is a lot of good writing online, but it’s hard to find an online magazine that’s frequently updated with good writing about culture, as opposed to “pop culture” and by “pop culture” I don’t mean popular culture but mass-produced culture. I go into this more detail on The Rumpus.I think a reason there aren’t more good online magazines (there are lots of good blogs) is that it’s still really early for Internet magazines.

CP:
With so many magazines calling it quits and publishing houses laying people off, what is your perception of the future of publishing – Stephen, from the perspective of an author selling books in print and having worked with a range of publishers, and Dave, from the perspective of an editor? What is the relationship between corporate and independent modes of representation? I feel like talking this way might point back to the question of developing the Internet as a venue for culture, while also redefining the function of print media.

SE:
I don’t know about the future of the publishing, but one thing I think is important is to segment what we’re talking about here. The future of celebrity memoirs and ghost written novels is not relevant to the future of literary publishing. The people most worried right now are the people publishing vampire books, the people that make a lot of money. But literary writers have never been well paid, and they never will be. Smaller literary presses will continue to come and go. They are acts of love, sustained by affection and enthusiasm that run a natural course. The books that make a million dollars have nothing to do with me. If Random House and Harper Collins were to go away, there would still be plenty of great small presses publishing great books.

So I think you have to have two separate conversations here–one involving publishing deals in the six figures and one involving quality literature. Quality literature, writing and publishing, is going to do fine, I think. And the success of the rest of the book publishing industry I have no opinion on, and I don’t care, either. Though I do hate to see so many awesome bookstores closing.

To go further into your question, corporations are bad for literature and culture in general. There seems to be this idea that we need them, and I don’t fully buy into that. There’s lots of great print media doing great culture coverage. Too many to name. And then there’s People Magazine and the rest of the “guilty pleasures” who are apparently losing readership to Perez Hilton and TMZ.

CP: While the Internet has built-in distribution, distribution is problematic for smaller presses: On the one hand distributors, large and small, are suffering and on the other hand it’s difficult for smaller organizations to get distribution in the first place. This is perhaps a bold and maybe even ridiculous question, but what is the future of the physical book? How does that compare with the future of medium of online publishing?

DD: This is definitely where it circles back around to money, and Stephen and I might come at this from slightly different places here. I think celebrity memoirs are relevant in this way: they help pay the advances that go to literary novelists. I have never worked in book publishing, but my sense of it has always been that Random House and Harper Collins make their money on the cheesy fiction and the self-help books and the celebrity silliness, and then some of that money helps to underwrite auctions for things like Reif Larson’s book or other young novelists or even when Knopf or Viking publishes a “career” novelist like a Robert Cohen or Stewart O’Nan.

The O’Nans and Cohens of the world deserve to get paid well, deserve to be able to make a living as a writer. If it takes two years to finish a book, a $100,000 advance isn’t necessarily that much, and yet I don’t think either of them has ever earned it back to the extent to where they get royalties. Literary fiction is in many ways underwritten by big these corporations—and the media still takes its cues from that. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

The paradox here is that an independent press, in many ways, throws literary fiction to the whims of the market. And I don’t think the market can support it. Once or twice a year there is a breakout, an Eggers or a Zadie or a Bee Season or an Everything is Illuminated. Most literary fiction, even the wonderfully reviewed, sells very little. Now, off of a big press, if writers get used to much smaller advances, less marketing, and don’t mind working at night after a day job, that’s one thing. Younger writers might be OK with that. The mid-career novelist, on book four, not pretty enough for the Details profile, etc., with a mortgage and two kids? I don’t know if it works as well for him or her.

And while it is possible that a new and more interesting indie model arises from this,—I think of Graywolf as a house which has taken on many of those acclaimed, mid-career novelists, most recently J Robert Lennon–there’s a distribution question too. I went into an amazing bookstore yesterday, City Lights, looking for his new one, and it wasn’t there. The question of how the artist gets paid in the Internet era—how the editor gets paid, how investigative reporters get paid—seems to me to be one of the really important questions as we move forward.

SE: I’m going to totally disagree with Dave here. There’s this idea that these large publishing companies are going to pass on their profits from the garbage they publish and use it to pay legitimate authors, and I just don’t believe that at all. It might work out that way sometimes, but I don’t think Random House or Harper Collins ever intentionally lose money on something they think is good. If O’Nan is still getting $100,000 advances, and I hope he is, he is a member of an extreme minority, a statistical anomaly so rare as to be irrelevant.

For every good author that received an advance big enough to live off on their second or third books, I can name you ten that didn’t. Peter Rock, Peter Orner, Michelle Tea, Eileen Myles, just to name a couple of major authors off the top of my head that are not being paid close to six figures for books that take them years to write. The publishing houses would rather pay $100,000 for a first novel (when you’re lucky, and I’ve never once been lucky), then they half that, by the third book you’re lucky to get $25,000, though your third book is almost always better than your first.

Publishing houses aren’t putting money from celebrity memoirs into publishing good literature. They’re putting it into publishing more celebrity memoirs. Literature is not funded by the propagation of trash anymore than the The Wire was funded by Temptation Island.

The vast majority of literary writers always have, and always will, write for much less money than they’re worth to society. O’Nan is a very good writer, and I applaud every writer that gets paid. But it’s not the model. Ever since quality publishing houses merged with mega-corps they’ve paid authors as little as they can get away with. They only pay you more when they have to, not because the latest O.J. bio is flying off the shelf. I would go a step further, I would say that celebrity memoirs are bad for books because they lower the value of books, and they destroy the brands of the person publishing those books.

If the publisher considers what they’re publishing to be trash, then they shouldn’t publish it. And I think the publishers know a lot of these books are trash. They wouldn’t read them. Publishing shouldn’t be cynical. If someone truly believes in a book, then fine. But don’t tell me you had to publish it to fund great literature, because that is a lie.

CP: To me this begs the question, how is culture consumed? And does this affect the future of The Book? Is online publishing more democratic? Does it serve a wider audience? It seems like you both use the Internet as a kind of tool or platform to assert aesthetic judgment (whether in the selection of stories, links to other sites or cultural reflection)—providing a filtration system of sorts; this could be a kind of service, right? But what does it do for the audience?

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