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The Past Is Not Even Past

ISSUE:  Spring 2013

“I wish publishing was advanced enough to use colored ink,” William Faulkner wrote in 1929 to his editor, Ben Wasson, regarding their disagreement over how to distinguish between time periods in the stream-of-consciousness opening of The Sound and the Fury. Wasson believed that the numerous time periods in the first section of the novel were too confusing for the reader, and he added extra spaces to signal chronological shifts. Faulkner refused to accept that approach—he argued for different colors to mark the eight time periods in operation.

His request for colors was denied.

“I’ll just have to save the idea until publishing grows up,” Faulkner said.

In 2012, more than eighty years later, the industry finally came of age—at least for well-heeled readers. For $345, one could have purchased the Folio Society’s two-volume, slipcased, limited edition of Faulkner’s Compson family saga, bound in vermilion goatskin and printed in fourteen colors. Yes, fourteen. The two scholars who consulted on the project—Noel Polk and Stephen M. Ross—found even more time periods than the author himself had tallied.

Since the 1,480 copies of the Folio edition sold out quickly, discussions are underway for a digital edition. Presumably, that edition will be made widely available, as there is no collector’s market for e-books.

Until recent years, e-readers were no better suited to the affordable rendering of multicolored book pages than the massive printing presses that they have started to drive out of business. Now tablet devices are rapidly maturing in features and functionality, disrupting the publishing and bookselling industries. The transition seems at times as much biological as technological. For a new generation to grow up, a former one is always displaced.

In this issue, we have called upon innovative thinkers to write about where literature is headed as a field and business. We wanted essays that were well reasoned, however speculative in nature. We wanted them to be aggressive, even edgy, yet fair and defendable not just on their merits but their facts. Toward that end, we open with a thought-provoking lead essay by Richard Nash.

With his diverse background at the nexus of independent publishing and digital technology, Nash embodies the voices of both the insider and outsider, admitting his affection for the book as a physical object while praising the new opportunities abundant in digital publishing. He advances the idea of the printed book not as a cultural artifact in need of special protection, but as a perfectly evolved tool well aligned with its intended use. “The book is not counter-technology,” he writes, “it is the apotheosis of technology—just like the wheel or the chair.” It is not the book that must be changed fundamentally, Nash argues, but the publishing industry itself.

The traditional model of editorial gate-keepers, sizable advances against future royalties, and unsold remaindered books is inefficient and unsustainable—serving authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers poorly. And yet Nash is not worried about the survival of the book, in part because of the opportunities that he believes are inherent in technology. “Book culture is in far less peril than many choose to assume, for the notion of an imperiled book culture assumes that book culture is a beast far more refined, rarified, and fragile than it actually is,” Nash concludes. “By defining books as against technology, we deny our true selves, we deny the power of the book.”

The fate of the author in the digital age is explored in the second piece in our portfolio on publishing. Drawing upon the collective wisdom of industry leaders at Atavist, Byliner, Electric Literature, the New York Times, and Writers House, this free-flowing interview discusses the new publishing landscape where global online booksellers and nimble startups have morphed into publishers, opportunities for self-publication are boundless, and the transfer of risk and responsibility to the author is markedly increasing. Like Nash’s essay, their discussion is encouraging in terms of what can be done with the presentation and consumption of the written word, especially long-form narrative, but it likewise makes clear that the old economic models no longer apply.

For those who look upon the empowerment of the author as a democratic breakthrough, we offer a cautionary tale about the proliferation of the fake memoir. Kevin Young mounts a forceful case about the damage done to the memoir as a literary form—and to the idea of truth itself—by fabulists such as James Frey and Margaret Seltzer. In his autopsy of fake memoirs, he finds a disturbing and pervasive tendency toward racial stereotyping that would rarely survive editorial review or reader criticism in a work of fiction but, as a memoir, receives a pass by virtue of its supposed factualness. With a poet’s keen eye for language, Young delivers an essential, corrective essay.

Around the time that Faulkner was writing his early masterpieces, VQR was established at the University of Virginia. The magazine would later publish him as both rose in literary standing. For this special issue, we have turned to another acclaimed Southern writer, Richard Bausch, to serve as our guest fiction editor. We are pleased to announce that he has become a VQR Contributing Editor, too.

Bausch has brought together five acclaimed writers—Percival Everett, Randall Kenan, Bobbie Ann Mason, Danzy Senna, and Elizabeth Strout—to assemble a remarkable suite of stories. These writers were not given any instructions in terms of subject matter, but interesting patterns naturally emerged in and between their works, especially motifs of doubles and twins, the co-opting of another’s identity, and the buried secrets of childhood. These stories remind us that Faulkner was right: “The Past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

There is no shortage of excellence in the remainder of the issue. From Dana Gioia’s groundbreaking essay on Robert Frost, to Alice Munro’s reflections on her life and work, to international reporting from across the globe, we have sought out works that speak to literature’s true business—namely, to illuminate the world and enrich the reader’s experience. 


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