Number Two: Caleb J. Ross and Pablo D’Stair:
Three dialogues on literature
NOTE: This dialogue is presented over the next four weeks in a style
of “progressive fragments.” The exact order of inquiry and response as
presented is not the order of inquiry and response as it happened
between the two dialogue partners. Therefore, ‘Statements’ and
‘Responses’ from one week may not be directly addressed by both parties
until subsequent weeks.
It is the hope of both parties that the spaces between these
responses allow readers the time and opportunity to more fully and
experientially engage with the propositions, for themselves, rather than
looking at the dialogue as a closed circuit.
CHRIS RHATIGAN: There's definitely room for publishers in this new
era of ebooks. There's probably more of a need for good gatekeepers than
there was before because it's so damn easy to get your material out
Notice I said good gatekeepers -- the recent Trestle Press scandal
(NOTE: Trestle is an independent press that used copyrighted material
for their covers without obtaining proper permission from the artists
among other offences) is the most obvious example of a bad gatekeeper.
(Although Trestle also accidentally published several excellent books.)
But there are plenty of other smaller concerns doing a beautiful job
(Snubnose Press, Blasted Heath, Pulp Metal Fiction) and getting quality
indie lit out to the people's -- I've discovered many new authors
through these ventures.
Also, the small houses tend to a better job at editing, creating
slick cover art, and formatting than writers do on their own. Sure,
there are cats such as Nigel Bird out there who can, as the musicians
say, play all the instruments, but there are many others, like myself,
who need a little extra talent to make it happen.
I also edit the online crime fiction zine All Due Respect, and I
consider myself a good gatekeeper. All Due Respect has a narrow focus --
we publish tightly constructed, gritty crime fiction and nothing else.
The audience knows they can show up at the site and get a kick ass story
no matter whose name is on the byline.
PABLO D’STAIR: What do e-books have to do with it? I mean, I dig
ebooks, but having run several presses and offshoots myself, I must say
it takes zero money to start up a print press and more or less the same
work as an e-press (or to self-release, in either fashion). Do you see
such a differentiation between e-presses and print presses? Or, for that
matter, between e-presses and the multitude of ways electronic material
has been available for a good long while?
I mean, we now have palatable e-devices, which has “allowed for the
presses” but it has also allowed for wider access of “non press”
electronic material, as well. What’s the point, I guess I’m asking, of
an e-press? To you, not in general.
Covers and design: I see this as one of the worst poisons getting in
the way of literature, today (entertainment or otherwise) and I’ve noted
an almost obsessive turn on the part of small presses toward “slickness”
“blurbing” “stylising” almost as though now that some of the
difficulties of getting content out have been brought down, writers
themselves need some new, arbitrary thing to “distinguish quality from
I find it appalling, I’ll be honest (but I’m not getting at you,
pardon my venom). Slick cover art harmless, great, but you don’t really
think it matters, do you? Or that a press (big or small) that has access
to things to handle this end better has any better handle on quality? I
think many people think so and it’s become a new, far more baffling,
form of “self gatekeeping” than ever existed before.
CR: No, I don’t really see much of a difference between e-presses and
small print presses. The only difference is that more people are getting
in the game with e-presses, so, at the very least, it appears that most
people consider it easier than starting a small print press.
On what the point of an e-press is, I still say cover and design
(although I have some other reasons below). Ultimately, the cover
doesn’t matter much. But maybe you attract a few more readers that way,
and what’s the downside? Formatting, however, makes a huge difference.
Especially early on with ebooks, many self-pubbed pieces looked
simply awful—paragraphs weren’t indented, random lines of white space,
table of contents wasn’t hyperlinked —it makes it far more difficult to
get lost in a book if you’re focusing on that crap.
I guess it’s a matter of understanding the role of e-presses—and how
limited it is. Here’s what I got when I worked with Jason Michel and
Pulp Metal Fiction: good cover art, good formatting, some editing,
someone I trust to bounce ideas off of, and someone with a stake in
promoting the book. Plus people who read Pulp Metal Magazine know
roughly what they’re getting with this book. PMF and I are splitting the
“massive, massive profits” (cough cough) 60-40 in my favour. Seems like
a good deal.
So, to me at least, e-presses make a difference, but only at the
margins. Certainly it’s easy enough to self-publish now and, if I like
the writer’s work in the first place, I don’t care if the cover art
sucks or if there are a few proofing errors. (Bad formatting, though,
would still annoy me.)
CR:I must admit that skeptical of any idea I have that doesn't
include a crime. If there's no crime, I immediately think, “Is this
actually a story? Or is it just a bunch of characters, setting, and
style?” So I try to find the story within those confines. Usually
there's a crime at the centre that drives things, and I'm using that to
talk about something else -- whether it's addiction, frustration,
obsession, apathy. I see crime (and surreal elements) as ideal vehicles
for story, but maybe it's a crutch.
Now there are some writers who can get away with not telling a story
-- they're so good at what they do that it doesn't matter. I don't
consider myself one of those writers. Maybe one day, but not now.
PD:Haha, I used to be exactly the same—if there wasn’t a crime,
murder, some transgression, I couldn’t get an idea to click. But, taking
up from an earlier statement, what is the beef with “a bunch of
characters, setting, and style?” I ask because I think you are painting
with a broad brush, that even crime and noir thrive on those things,
plot being kept to a minimum.
Certainly very little sits around making claim to quality due to
plot, primarily—even Conan Doyle, Highsmith. as great as the plots were,
the “thing” is setting, style, and character (atmosphere).
Because I’m right with you about crime/surreal. But it’s as simple as
“character steals something, has to deal with it” no real thought needs
to go in to ‘what he stole’ or ‘why’. Wouldn’t it be more true to what I
think you’re getting at to suggest plot “prompts” but character, style,
setting, atmosphere “drive”?
CR: That’s a fair distinction, and I have crossed over to that way of
thinking more these days. I read a couple of James Patterson books a
while back—they were clear examples of what can go wrong with going too
genre. Yeah, a lot of events went down in those books, but the
characters and the writing were incredibly dull.
When I say “a bunch of characters, setting, and style,” I’m not
saying there’s anything wrong with that on its own merits—some writers
pull that off beautifully. What I am saying is that I like to keep my
writing focused on story. Yes, those other elements drive (or, at a
minimum, shape) what happens, but those events are still important.
When I read submissions for All Due Respect, I usually take a break
at the end of page two and ask myself the questions, “What’s happened so
far? What’s this story about?” If I have to think about it for more than
a few seconds or, even worse, I don’t have an answer, it’s probably not
going to make the cut.
The only way it would make the cut is if it’s simply incredible in
other ways. Someone like Kieran Shea could write a diner menu and it
would be completely riveting, but I don’t have that same kind of
confidence in my own writing or, for that matter, most people’s writing.