Sunday, March 15, 2009

It's a Small (Press) Life For Me

A surprising majority of the finest writers of the early Twentieth-Century found their only ready audience in the small bands of readers, usually subscribers, of the "little magazines". These were often kitchen-table affairs, funded on non-existent budgets and the hard-wrought words of dedicated and often neglected artists. The rostrum of publishers, editors,columnists and contributors to these independent periodicals offers an amazing roll-call of the innovatory, diverse and brilliant talent so associated with the writers of that era. To list them all here, while impressive,would be ridiculously space-consuming. I will make do with a representative few: James Joyce,Ford Madox Ford, Kay Boyle,Gertrude Stein, H.D.,Marianne Moore,T.S. Eliot,Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Walsh,Mina Loy, Ezra Pound,Wallace Stevens, Edith Sitwell,Robert McAlmon, D.H. Lawrence,Glenway Wescott and Djuna Barnes.

As with countless wordsmiths before and since,many writers and poets of the '20's had to make do financially,often only scraping by,working day-jobs or accepting hand-outs. T.S. Eliot famously worked for a banking house in London while Kay Boyle was the shop girl for the Parisian retail establishment of Raymond Duncan, Isadora's half-charlatan brother.Across the Atlantic, Marianne Moore was a librarian in New York City and William Carlos Williams a small-town (i.e. poorly paid) doctor.

Eighty or ninety years ago, these small, passionately produced magazines weren't just a romantic, idealistic alternative to the big glossies. For many, publishing works in the always-revolving coterie of arty mags was the only way to get published at all. There were a few "big name" affairs to be found in New York City, Paris and London.They tended to be traditional, stuffy things, exclusive in their outlook and hard to break into.

Groups of artists, sometimes with the help of a moneyed backer or two, more often relying on their own spare change or donations, formed reviews and journals as a method of disseminating their work.They wore many hats while touting the work of themselves, friends and often complete strangers.In their limited way, they served a function similar to that of the Impressionists when they broke free the Academy and its esteemed show, the Salon de Paris,to exhibit without restraint as the Societie Anonyme Cooperative des Artistes Peintres, Sculpteurs, Graveurs. Both came about through a combination of forced circumstances and exceptional avocation.Neither was a cohesive movement at the time;labels came later.

Their writing careers were usually aided with the occasional book deal, often with equally independent publishing set-ups, such as: The Hogarth Press ( created by Leonard and Virginia Woolf), Contact Editions (Robert McAlmon) and the Black Sun Press (Harry and Caresse Crosby).

Literature, no less than any other art form,is a tough world in which to find one's way,or to even stay afloat.For every true star-by which I mean any one widely known outside of company circles--there are hordes of aspiring or working writers piled leagues deep.The difference between an aspiring writer and a working one can be as simple as taking matters into your own hands, i.e. the willingness to act as publisher,editor,agent and anything else that may be required.That is exactly what the aforementioned poets, novelists and essayists did.Many of us , even in a world of vaster choice, continue to do the same.

Today,there are countless outlets and, with a bigger population,more readers to be engaged. The Internet alone has drastically changed how, and who,any one writer can reach. Yet, limiting ourselves to paper editions alone,we still find our selection to be much superior,at least in number,to what Boyle or Eliot had to pick from a mere 80 years ago.Even the big glossies are more numerous in our time.A career can, if one is willing to tow the line of writing to order, in subject and style,be found in penning product for the fancy, still well-read magazines.

For certain of us, myself included,that could never be an option.I am an avid,unashamed reader of a plethora of magazines that I would never write for.I may be a Cosmo girl but I am not a Cosmo writer.The world has enough of those:I would rather lend it my small, eccentric voice than change it to suit others, however gargantuan that audience may be.

Don't misunderstand:I wish to have readers for my writing. If I didn't, I would not be on here nor would I work with the wonderful independent presses that publish my work elsewhere.I would, doubtless, write on the sly,hiding my work in a sewing basket whenever a family member entered the room. No, wait. That is another Austen, Jane.

I simply wish to maintain a level of control over my work that I would be forced to cede if working for glossies.While I am happy and eager to have others edit and critique my writing, I would become demented and austere if unable to be the full mistress of my subject matter; it is mine, not a foreign thing to be dictated and directed by others.

There is a satisfying synchronization to what I do that I believe would diminish if the end-result of my art was writ large rather than small.Every encouraging comment, erudite opinion and insightful appreciation that I have ever gotten has been genuinely received.

My refusal to go mainstream with my artistic and intellectual goods is not born of ego.It is the result of a conscious choice to be sovereign, to be outside yet to be connected to a lasting movement, of creators creating what they choose and helping each other in the endeavor.

"A Small Press Life" will be a regular column on 1000 Follies, appearing at my whim and discretion, naturally!

Photos, Top Row :Mina Loy, Ford Madox Ford.
Middle Row: Djuna Barnes
Bottom Row: James Joyce.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent, beautiful and precise! Just like the lady who wrote it!