He's won an O. Henry Award, been short-listed for the National Book Award, won two PEN/Faulkner honors, 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 this New Yorker self-publishing his new short-story collection with print-on-demand company Lulu?
The rise of self-publishing has been one of the big literary stories of the last decade. On the upside, the democratization of publishing through print-on-demand companies like AuthorHouse, Xlibris and Lulu means that more authors can see their words in print. On the downside, it means a whole lot of books are being published that, frankly, need more work.
That's certainly not the case with Wideman, who was 26 in 1967 when his first novel was published. His new collection, Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind, is microfiction, ultrashort short stories. The author of 20-plus works is so certain that stepping outside of the traditional house model — "giving a book something more than six weeks to do or die" — is a good idea that he recently sponsored a flash fiction contest through Lulu with the prize of publication in future copies of Briefs.
Here, Wideman talks about his new stories, his unusual publishing choice, and the future of the book world.
Indy: So, tell me how you ended up with Lulu.
JW: 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.
Indy: But why do it now, when you've got what most writers consider the holy grail — an established reputation, agents, a publisher?
JW: 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. ... I became fascinated by the whole process: How do 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.
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. ... I knew I would be going against the tradition. ... 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.
Indy: 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?
JW: 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.
Indy: 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.
JW: 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. ... 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.
Note: An expanded version of this article first appeared last month in Sacramento News & Review.