NEW POP LIT: You’ve studied military history. Can military strategy be applied to the fields of literature and publishing?
SAM STEVENS: While I don’t like to draw comparisons to war into other fields out of respect for the military, broadly speaking there are some general lessons you can draw from the military profession. My father taught me a lot about discipline and focus from his career in the service. Another lesson I drew from my father as a retired officer is empathy, something we don’t normally associate with the often rough and tumble world of the military, but it’s crucial for anyone in a leadership capacity. Writing fiction is, in my humble opinion, about trying to understand people better. Stories let us discuss things in a way that’s inappropriate or too blunt for an essay. You learn far more about male-female relationships from reading The Sun Also Rises than you do reading some dating advice blog, or the importance of charity from A Christmas Carol than a moral tract. That is, if you’re willing to pay attention. To get back to the question at hand, there are lessons you can draw from the military—discipline, bravery, empathy, leadership—but these aren’t lessons exclusive to that profession. I’m sure there are a great many combat veterans who would rather not have leaned those lessons in such a traumatic and harrowing way. At the same time, I am eternally grateful for my father’s military background. I don’t think I’d be the writer or the person I’d be today without it. To get back to your broader question, there are definitely lessons you can draw from military history for literature and publishing, just like any other historical subject.
NPL: Would you say it’s easier to be attacking or defending a status quo?
STEVENS: Interesting question. I’d like to say attacking, but realistically defending an established institution is much easier. You have years of potential capital and legacy to use against your attackers, and can easily smear them. In a broader sense though, American culture’s idea of rebelling against the establishment has become very lopsided. We have many people out there fighting against what they see as the big evil establishment when they represent that very entity—or a version of it at least—I think back to a piece you published on N+1 a while back, what drew me to your journal in the first place.
In terms of the publishing world, it’s very easy to attack as an outsider. I love the indie publishing revolution, but we need to be careful about ghettoizing ourselves. If New York looked at writers as valuable business partners, and not disposable employees, things would be different.
NPL: What are the chief weak points of publishing’s “Big Five”?
STEVENS: The Big Five are another case of a bloated, too big to fail set of companies. They’ve also given the idea of a publishing house a bad name through shoddy business practices. Even though in the days of the Lost Generation, while it still took a while for a new writer like Hemingway or Fitzgerald to gain attention in New York, there were hundreds of medium and small-sized presses for a writer to turn to. Scribner’s was just Scribner’s. Now, all of those presses are a part of much bigger companies responsible to distant shareholders. Publishers have always had business interests and profit motives, of course. It’s just that in the last twenty years the sheer scale of this arrangement presents problems. Taking a risk on a controversial or different author might hurt the value of Random House or Hachette’s sales, so it’s easier to churn out the new trend. Many now-indie writers who used to work with the Big Five talk about how the New York houses have gotten rid of their older, experienced editors in favor of hiring lower-cost English or creative writing graduates. Good businesses stay flexible. There’s a thing I read a while ago that said that the railroad companies thought they were in the railroad business, not the transport business, and that’s when the car overtook them. Now, I don’t think it translates perfectly onto the publishing business because literature is a completely different animal. Big publishing is just really out of touch with the American public. Fewer people read, and if they do it’s whatever new fad genre has taken root. Tell me the last time you heard a friend get excited over one of New York’s literary darlings like Jonathan Franzen or Toni Morrison (the kind that don’t read lit blogs)? If you run in academic or northeastern Brahmin circles, maybe.
Back in the “real world,” it’s different. Unfortunately a lot of people would just rather turn on the television than have to put all that work into reading a book. The author-reader relationship is just that, a relationship. There are a lot of great, new talents coming out of this indie boom. Sometimes I wonder if there’s an audience out there willing to sit down and get into a book with the same dedication an author puts into writing one.
NPL: ISIS is pure evil, of course, but they seem to have revolutionized the use of social media, infecting people with their ideology; behaving like a virus. Are there lessons to be learned there by agents of literary change? Tactics to be applied?
STEVENS: My main area of research in my “day job” as a history student is insurgencies, with a specific focus on the Cold War in and related decolonization/Marxist insurgent groups in that era. Historically, ISIS is nothing new when it comes to insurgent/terrorist organizations. For the literary world, there are definitely some parallels you can draw from these groups. Attacking and shifting the political culture was something that the Viet Cong or Algerian FLN amorphous, decentralized groups did well against their highly centralized, bureaucratic opponents. About ten years ago, Col. Thomas X. Hammes came out with a book called The Sling and the Stone, where he goes into this. His basic argument is that insurgencies are all about political change; the military aspects are a final effort after long attempts at a political solution to a political problem. One of his comments is that physical control of an area is meaningless if you don’t have the people’s “hearts and minds.” I’d like to think that’s the case for the Big Five; they might have all the capital, but what are they doing with it? Nothing too interesting.
In the literary world, our problems are not as high stakes as say the situations in Algeria, Vietnam, or Rhodesia by any means (thankfully). Publications like New Piop Lit can learn from this “guerrilla” method. Playing a long game, not trying to beat the big NY houses at their game, but playing a completely different one are great lessons to draw on. This ties in your earlier question about the Big Fives weakness; they don’t adapt particularly well and are slaves to what sells well, even though they have no idea what will sell big until it does. I think Frank Herbert’s Dune had something like 60 rejections. Can you imagine that? But it happened. It’s a matter of waiting and finding the right people to pick up on the change. Every few years there’s some new article about the “death of the novel,” and something that proves the novel isn’t “dead.” You can find interviews with David Foster Wallace from the nineties where they comment on this death that never comes. Now, is it possible that the age of the blockbuster novel (that isn’t written for children like Hunger Games) is over? Maybe. It’s hard to say right now.
NPL: Do you think analytics– such as used in baseball– or data-mining and such will ever be applied to the literary game, whether in the business end or the artistic side?
STEVENS: Amazon already uses analytics to sort through products, and I’m sure the smarter corporate publishers look at sales data and analytics. As for the artistic side, writing based on what sells isn’t what I’m out to do, personally. That’s a feature of the indie publishing scene and a dominant force within it. Now, hack genre writing has always been around, much of it doesn’t survive. Just as there’s elitism from the MFA/NYC crowd about certain genre features, there’s an element of philistinism from the inverse. I will be the first one to tell you the way American high schools teach literature is problematic. That does not mean we ought to toss out the American literary canon because the method of delivery is flawed. Another aspect of our information age is the desire to quantify everything. It’s not all bad, for sure, but reduces our humanity; emotions become chemical impulses, we have “human resource” departments (think about that phrase a minute), etc. If someone wants to make money, they should go into the stock market or petro-chemical industry, not writing stories. I don’t think I’d be able to write something for the money, even with a guarantee that it would sell. There’s no fun in it.
NPL: Are we seeing the beginnings of a new free speech movement in the culture, even in the universities– or is that our imagination?
STEVENS: Yes, I tend to think so. Political correctness focuses on increasingly more irrelevant issues. I saw some article about how using “they” would end sexism in the English language. Playing into the frame some, English is one of the least gendered languages, compared to French or Spanish. Even German is gendered.
Really though, the whole premise is absurd and how out of touch the speech controls are. You live in a de-industrialized city. I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that pronouns don’t matter much to someone whose job was sent overseas. I think it’s that kind of desperation that makes people not care about the “right” thing to say.
There’s definitely a shift in the zeitgeist. It’s just a very long battle. It’s not just “liberals” who limit free speech, you also have major corporations–the same ones mainstream conservatism loves to defend–love to push the same message. People are losing faith in old media, though, which is a good sign. In the short term, I expect more pushback against free speech, but it in the long term independent media is set to overtake the old corporate structure.
Samuel Stevens is the author of the military espionage novel Phoenix Operator. He lives in Maryland and blogs at his website on books, military history, and Modernism.
Link to his book: Phoenix Operator
Link to his site: https://samueljstevenswriter.wordpress.com/