Every Ship Is a Passenger Too: On Publishing Today

By Chris MolnarMarch 15, 2024

Every Ship Is a Passenger Too: On Publishing Today
SAY THERE IS a young writer. She sees books in the library, in school, at home, at friends’ houses, in her local bookstore, has seen them her whole life. Covers mysterious or enticing, photographs and drawings describing untold worlds within. They represent solidity, a direct path from the picture books that wallpaper the comforting but psychedelic haze of childhood to a sanctioned pastime that just so happens to be the most immediate conduit to history, the self, the other, the illicit, the unknown, that which disrupts the status quo. Maybe it was how she was raised, or just how she was wired—the words stuck with her, struck her, filling her with fear and pleasure, taking on strange shapes in her mind, the shape of words, the shapes of what they represent, the shape of truth. Truth not found in every book but, every now and then, in a favorite title, a favorite passage.

Because of this, it isn’t enough to simply read. Her story—the singularity of her life, her mind—isn’t in any of the books she’s read. The meaningful things she’s seen, learned, knows, the trauma she’s endured and needs to write in order to expel. To write: What could be more natural? The one art requiring nothing but a determined mind and a pen. So she does, every day, going to college, graduate school, taking classes, all with the goal in mind of clarifying her words, making them obey her, to evoke feelings like her favorite books did as a child, but new ones, her own dark and spreading forest of thought, with burbling or ominous brooks, unnamed animals, bewitching shadows, magic spots deeply felt and seen, a personal world of metaphor and language. To tell her own truth in such a way that the words in her are formed beautifully and can be understood by anyone who wishes to hear her.

She has worked hard to do things the correct way, even went to one of those graduate schools blamed for smoothing out writers and turning them into a product. She has no illusions; if her idiosyncratic self is to be heard, if her concerns are to be taken seriously, to be published she must learn the rules, must find connections. She lives as far away from New York, as far away from the cultural center, as you can get, near the water in a little house with her parents, and without a social entrée, school is a must. There she finds professors she loves and who love her work. They share what they’ve learned and she takes notes, she corresponds. Despite all the forces conspiring against her, she keeps her aesthetic vision intact, her voice unlike any other. It’s clear, but it does not obey the rules of narrative, those patterns and tics shared by most books you see on the shelf. To get on the shelf, she realizes, isn’t a matter of going to the right schools or doing the right things. It’s a matter of writing the stories that are in demand.

What drives this demand? she wonders. There isn’t anything wrong with the young people she knows who have books published. Many of them are her friends, honest and well-meaning people whom she has spent many hours with, learning from, talking books, drinking until unremembered confessions were made. It doesn’t seem like these people’s books were necessarily smoothed out by a graduate program—if they even went to one! Their natural voices just happened to tell a story that publishers in charge wanted to amplify. Not necessarily what sells, mind you. Literary books are all a bit of a commercial afterthought anyway. There’s a greater narrative these big publishers are writing, one that, even after all her schooling and work, seems more opaque than ever. A national narrative determined at the top, unwritten and seen only by implication, responsible, she thinks, for the lack of books that interest her. So, our young writer occupies herself with other things: work, parties, music, friends. Embracing life in a way that maybe contributes to a few too many hangovers, a few less pages. But she is a writer and a reader above all, and so these thoughts remain.

It seems the other young writers who are getting published by the big publishers have a bit more of a romantic view of the world. A narrative view. A simpler view. It does make sense that it would be easier to sell these stories. Where the trouble is familiar, the plot uplifting, the words simple and small. Things our young writer can’t do even when she tries. She shares the background of her peers, the education; if anything, she is better read and more eloquent, although comparing such things can be tricky. Suffice to say, she can feel herself being sorted aside, regardless of worth, and while she believes in herself, and is clear-sighted enough to be stoic, is enough of a hard, self-negating worker to let that wash off, it still hurts inside, just a little, to know that her dream is at best deferred.

Those who publish their books seem to have some kind of elite cultural connection and/or the inner ability, the desire to make a commercial product—that is, one that matches the description of what the editors want. The editors themselves are the same—they have some elite cultural connection and/or the desire to make a commercial product that matches the desire of those in charge, of their peers. And there’s money too, of course, the way it allows for the time to devote to this unremunerative pursuit. But it has always been this way in some form or another. Even if one other young author would publish something speaking to our young writer, the desire to write might lessen. But no. That burning need, inborn since her youngest years, only grows stronger, along with a little bit of bitterness, of cynicism. After long days at work, at a poorly paid publisher where she edits other people’s texts, where she barely got the job at all, years of diligent work reading and learning how to write and edit for a fiercely competitive job where she can’t even choose the texts, only to work with the ones the much older acquiring editors selected, her love of writing put to work powering other people’s writing—then, she writes.

She does like the job, she’ll admit. Even if it doesn’t pay well, even if she doesn’t have real control, there is serious prestige, prestige she didn’t even know existed or could be attained in her little town thousands of miles away, where it rains all the time and life is slow, and her days go by quickly, happily. Even if sometimes she ruminates about her own writing and how she wishes she could spend more time on it, dreams of an editor who would fight for her. Living in the world of letters is still a dream, she reminds herself, and if it doesn’t have the exact contours of her original dream, who is to say that this wasn’t what she was meant to do? She reminds herself that Toni Morrison was an editor at Random House until she was in her fifties. And that, in her preface to Beloved, she wrote of quitting that “it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what ‘free’ could possibly mean to women.” She will always need to write. And you can’t “need” to publish. Publishing happens or it doesn’t.

Not to dwell on that. Can’t dwell too much on imagination anymore, or what it may bring. The imagination that brought her here. The imagination is pressed into those twilight hours after work, hard-won hours. These are the hours that matter. The longer she lives in the world of letters, the more she finds the twilight books, little publishers who print on demand and go to the post office to mail the things they love to each other. They’re not perfect, or even really her style (it’s simply a set of smaller communities of writers, with different things you have to do to get noticed within them, maybe not a romantic view but a harsh one, harsher than her own, or not a simplistic tone but scholarly, more scholarly than her own), but on principle she feels allegiance.

And yet, there’s even less attention paid to these independent presses, academic university presses, nonprofit presses. And her writing is just as different to them as to the mainstream; she’s not an alt-tweeter, or professor, or spokesperson for any of the unheard voices or groups that are currently being lifted up. She’s just her, a singular entity—that’s why she’s a writer! If she could marshal people together, she’d make films, grand historical epics. If she was part of a literary scene, she would be a different person altogether. Someone who could overlook the conniving, the falsity she sees everywhere. Go into a bookstore and find truth off the new arrivals table; it’s not easy, it doesn’t even matter, it’s punching down, no one reads these books anyway, a few thousand copies of the buzziest literary product sold at best.

Enough with the rant. She’s fine, she tells herself. She’s happy. Really. Just getting older and the writing is building up. Can she even be called “our young writer” anymore? She’s found a few like-minded friends. She reads at readings. She’s part of the literary world as much as she can be, publishing a little magazine, little books, spreading the word about writers she finds whom she believes in, who she thinks should publish books too. Other writers know who she is. But will her ship come in? What would this ship even look like? Are some people born to be ships and others to be passengers? Is it fate? Is she a ship? The dark ocean she sees ahead, full of black water and unknown land, where she as ship will be responsible for the fate of her terrified passengers—is it even navigable? If she lives a life of metaphor like this, is her life a work of art anyway? Who would even want to be one of these writers, all these poor people she interacts with every day, writing their simplistic or arcane texts that will almost to a name be forgotten, are already forgotten, were never known? Why not be a ship? A proud prow tearing through water, powerful unknown creatures swimming alongside, her fellow ships, an armada of little editors and publishers, inseparable allies through the night.

And every ship is a passenger too, remember. In the dreamworld of the arts, every inanimate thing is animate, every object contains the entire world, millions of years of history and future and feeling. As she writes her story, which is ultimately her life, it can look like anything she wants. The more she thinks about it, the greater the possibilities. The more she’s cast out, the more she must innovate. The more she will be unique, the more her voice will be untamed. Whatever she is, whoever. She has lived for literature from the beginning and so literature will be her; her indomitable will shall make it so. Our young writer, still unpublished, is the essence of the word itself. Any of her books that may, that will come, be published, read—a footnote.


Featured image: Birger Carlstedt, Counterpoint, 1962, is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 by Amos Rex.

LARB Contributor

Chris Molnar is co-founder and publisher of Archway Editions, as well as co-founder of the Writer’s Block bookshop in Las Vegas.


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