On Being Publishd by Brian Joseph Davis
When I first met Publishr team member Ami Greko, I had just finished doing a reading from the pastry counter of McNally Jackson in New York. The reason I was perched above a Plexiglas display full of tarts was that my laptop’s audio-out line was not long enough to reach the bookstore’s PA system from the podium. The situation was kind of Kraftwerk meets Gordon Ramsey but in the end it worked. Why did my reading need a laptop? I was playing excerpts from radio play adaptations of short fiction from my newest book. A couple of weeks later, Ami asked me to consider submitting a project to Publishr.
More than a good anecdote that introduces two of the people you’ll be hearing from over the next several months, the above serves to illustrate my unique career intersections and the halfway place publishing now finds itself in. While I’ve been damn lucky in having two relatively stable occupations in the last decade —one in media art and one as a published writer of fiction— my two careers have barely overlapped.
The distribution channels of digital art and music operate at global speed, but the apparatus that creates and markets literary fiction is only now stepping out of business models from the 1950s. That discrepancy has meant that the closest my careers have come to crossing over has been my involvement with Joyland, a short fiction website that I founded along with author Emily Schultz. Working with the Internet’s inherent nature—it’s internationally accessible but regional in content—Joyland is edited in 8 different regions and cities across North America. In our first two years we’ve posted some great work, toured a lot, and met incredibly talented and cool people, including a few now working on Publishr.
Publishing is ready to embrace networked brainpower. Fiction writers, however, have been slow to warm to it. The reason may lie in the fact that writing is intensely asocial and reading is, likewise, a very isolated, meditative experience. Both states of being are massively rewarding in and of themselves but it takes publishing to connect the two. As editor Angus Cameron once had to admonish JD Salinger, “Do you want this book published or just printed?”
Good publishing has always been a collaborative effort that readies the book for the public— from editors who love the work enough to change it, to bookstores that know their customers’ tastes. Publishr’s project represents a chance to toss some dice at new technology while at the same time working within the principles of classic publishing: smart people making a book as good as it can be.
The goal is to create an e-publication that uses the best of current technology. Could this lead to a nicely made limited edition print book? The idea has been floated around, and I hope that is one of the results.
My instinct says that a digital-first book can prime demand for that most durable and perfect of analog storage mediums: the bound book. My experience backs this up. In working at a cooperative independent record label for two years I saw a similar upending of format economics when the compact disc turned into a coaster and vinyl came back as the archival format of choice for serious music lovers.
So what about that 360K chunk of data that I’ve offered up as a test subject for this project? It’s a novel called The Incompetents. The synopsis reads:
Dunning is an art school dropout and lifer intern who has $300,000 in stolen grant money in his hands and two choices. If he gives it back to the arts foundation he used to work for, he’ll implicate himself in a decades long fraud that goes back to the cold war. If Dunning redistributes the money to its rightful owners he’ll risk changing into one of the wealthy, paternalistic monsters he despises. Before he can decide, Dunning also has to survive his ex-boss, Kruger, who is cleaning up loose ends, any way he can.
The Incompetents is part neo noir, part art essay, and a wholly original view of high culture from the bottom up.
Harold Pinter wrote that one of his plays began in his mind with the word “Dark.” It was, he figured out, an answer to a question about a woman’s hair color. The Incompetents began last year when I saw the names Dunning and Kruger.
They’re great names, and I knew instantly I wanted to write about them. The names are also attached to an interesting cognitive bias regarding one’s inflated estimation of abilities, which suggested a great dynamic for dramatic incidents. While I hope I don’t become an example of that bias, writing is still all about endless stages of risk.
One of those risks is the moment of going public with your writing. In traditional publishing that wouldn’t be for sometime yet. This isn’t publishing, this is publshng, and while both words are a lot alike, one is a little quicker.
Since now is as good a time as any to start, let me end this post with a work note to the Publishr team members.
I’ll be handing in a new draft by Friday. Major changes include strengthening Nila’s motivation for taking the job, and clarifying the jumps between the narrative and the intertexts. I’m also toying with giving the narrator a pet pig in the final section but maybe I’ll sleep on that.
* * *
Brian Joseph Davis is the author of Portable Altamont, a collection that garnered praise from Spin for its “elegant, wise-ass rush of truth, hiding riotous social commentary in slanderous jokes.” Slate called his novel I, Tania, “The book of your fever dreams.” He’s the co-founder of Joyland, a hub for short fiction and his latest book, Ronald Reagan My Father, is longlisted for the Frank O’Connor Prize for Short Fiction.
Davis’ writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Ubu Web, Drunken Boat and The Utne.
His music and radio productions have been acclaimed by Wired, Pitchfork, Salon, and LA Weekly, which wrote, “Davis has an amazing head for aural experiments that are smart on paper and fascinating in execution.”
* * *
What our team members have to say:
Ami Greko: Any manuscript that starts off with a lion mauling is okay by me. And good news for vegetarians, this one continues to get better after that point.
Babette Ross: An entertaining and suspenseful adventure where life meets art. I throughly enjoyed the manuscript.
Matthew Patin: A funny, entertaining look at high culture and the incompetents within its ranks, written by a talented, way-more-than-just-competent author.
Brett Sandusky: The more I read the manuscript, the more I talked to team members about it, and really, the more I communicated with Brian directly, I realized that this was indeed our project. Everything is right, here. We have an author-experimenter, a team that is behind a manuscript, and much enthusiasm all around. You can never downplay the importance of enthusiasm.
Matthew Diener: A Modest Proposal for … The Incompetents
I’ve been reading The Incompetents and am enjoying it immensely. Yes, it needs some editorial work, but it is a real page turner, fun to read, and a fascinating commentary on the art world, the grant process, and creativity vs. talent. Its weaknesses can surely be cleaned up, and I expect that readers are going to discover it and be happy they read it.
In many ways this project is so “META” that it boggles the mind. A novel by an artist and published writer about the art world, the intricate processes involved in the grant writing and acceptance process, and fraudulent grants—including one about a novel about writing fraudulent grants—being published by a group of accomplished industry professionals who are banding together by choice and attempting to show the potential of their “art” while opening up the intricate processes involved in publication, all without the benefit of the grant money that is at the heart of the novel, which is titled, of course, The Incompetents.
Given all this, our project could easily become a case of taking ourselves too seriously, or become too arch as we attempt to replicate the humor so present in the manuscript and try to have “fun” with this project.
There is a third path, one that I hope we can embrace instead: This whole project is about art, and we, my friends and co-conspirators, we publishing professionals who are too often kept behind the scenes so the spotlight can shine on authors, we are the performance artists in this installation. Embrace the performance!
And one question: Why not The Millionaire? (If it worked for John Irving with The World According to Garp …)