Literary lion on demand

Author John Edgar Wideman impacts the future of words

John Edgar Wideman, two-time Faulkner-award-winning author—now available on demand.

John Edgar Wideman, two-time Faulkner-award-winning author—now available on demand.

He’s won an O. Henry Award for a short story, been shortlisted for the National Book Award, won two PEN/Faulkner awards for his novels and received a MacArthur “genius grant”—and that’s not the full list. John Edgar Wideman, professor and author, is a distinguished literary lion.

So why is he self-publishing his new short-story collection with print-on-demand company Lulu?

The rise of self-publishing, particularly through print-on-demand companies that sell editing and publicity packages, has been one of the big literary stories of the last decade. On the upside, the democratization of publishing through this new technology (and the companies that make it available to the public, like AuthorHouse, Xlibris, iUniverse and Lulu) means that more small books and first-time authors can get their work out. In these pages, we’ve reviewed a number of first works by local authors that were certainly promising and noteworthy, and that might not otherwise have come to public attention.

But on the downside, it also means a whole lot of books are being published that, frankly, need more work. All too many are amateurish and self-indulgent; even some of the books with potential would be infinitely aided by serious revisions.

That’s certainly not the case with Wideman, though. His new collection, Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind, is microfiction, ultrashort short stories. He’s so certain that self-publishing the collection with Lulu is a good idea that he’s sponsoring a contest for flash fiction; the prize includes publication in future editions of Briefs.

SN&R recently spoke with Wideman by phone from his New York home, where he talked about the new book, self-publishing through print-on-demand and the future of publishing in general.

So, tell me how you ended up with Lulu.

It’s essentially a self-publishing business, so you or I or anyone else who wants to publish a book can do so. The way they work is print-on-demand. They wait for orders, and when somebody orders a book, they are able to print it. It saves all sorts of money.

Now, my son also works for Lulu, and so I was familiar with what they were doing. He was talking about the way they wanted to expand their work. They don’t make money until the author makes money. That makes a big difference. They do offer à la carte pre-publication services. Someone has to send out copies to the SN&R and beat on the desks of people like you.

But why do it now, when you’ve got what most writers consider the holy grail—an established reputation, agents, a publisher?

It has as much to do with the particular project that I was working on and with profit, frankly. I got interested in doing little stories, microfiction. I had done microfiction before, but then I got an assignment from Oprah to do a number of stories. And I got really interested and started reading a number of stories by the Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata.

I became fascinated by the whole process: How you think about it small scale? How do you get all this into a smaller scale?

Then, the outlets for fiction are shrinking. The large magazines don’t publish fiction like they once did. People who used to have a book in their hand now have a phone in their hand. Our attention spans are shrinking, so I began to think about ways to make a story into a small space and keep attention.

A collage of John Edgar Wideman’s covers.

I knew already that it was hard to peddle a book of short stories, I don’t care who you are, even if they come from an established writer. They’re certainly not treated on the marketplaces as being on a par with the novel. Stories are not a big deal. They don’t take off the way a novel does.

So what about little wee stories? What about stories small enough to fit on a screen? Maybe some magazine would publish one a month? Maybe I could put them on buses? Or run them as a crawl on the TV? I was just daydreaming about that.

I knew I would be going against the tradition, as you mention. There’s more and more of a slush pile. If something comes from Random House, say, you’re going to pay closer attention. It’s an old boys’ or old girls’ network, for better or worse.

But I took a chance. I still write with pen and pencil on yellow tablets, but I do get excited about some of my half-baked ideas of what technology might offer, and my son let me know what some of those possibilities are, and it gave me a chance to work with him.

Your first three novels, which have been out of print for a while, are also available on Lulu. But what are the other reasons to go with a print-on-demand self-publishing system?

One of the most valuable properties that traditional houses possess is their backlist, so that if someday someone says, “Oh, Wideman is a great writer,” then they can make some money. Now, that system is very good for the house and not very good for the writer.

The other thing that doesn’t make sense is that pressure of three or four weeks for a book to sell, to—pardon the expression—shit or get off the pot. And that sort of encourages the excesses of publicity and the blockbuster, and feeds into the needs of the chain bookstore, which are more like grocery stores and rely on turnover.

It has nothing to do with art, it has nothing to do with quality and it has nothing to do with the seriousness of literature. Now, that world has been pretty good to me, but it’s not very good for the country, if you want literature to do more than sell soap and tell lies.

And this offers a chance of giving a book something more than six weeks to do or die.

It struck me how much these stories are like prose poems, and we know that poetry needs a much longer period to attract the audience, and by extension, the sales.

I’m glad to hear you say that they read like prose poems. But the thing with the stories is their size. They respond to that change in attention span. I’m also really excited about these stories as a way to access newer media. These stories fit on the screen of a phone. And they can be performed on a screen. We’ve done some sessions with WordTheatre, and they read some of them.

The advantage of the medium is that you have not only words, but you can add music and attach art. That goes along with my daydreams, and you just need to get someone to show you how to do it. Old dogs, new tricks! Maybe I won’t learn them, but it’s fun to try.

The possibilities aren’t maybe endless, but they’re fun. I’ve done work for movies and TV, and it’s a group endeavor. You’re a member of a team writing collaboratively, which is both frightening and odd. The writing can get subsumed.

These stories are a way to reteach people how to read, to reintroduce the skills that are necessary: thought and analysis, and not just page turning. If we can revive that skill with short-short stories, then I’m preparing people for the novels I want to write.

I find that it doesn’t matter how good a novel is, in my view or that of the critical tradition, I still have to break it down into little pieces and show students how finely wrought it is, and then they’re going to read it and enjoy it.

These little pieces—if they’re done well—are keeping the languages of fiction alive.