Saturday, November 13, 2010

"Does poetry need paper?"

This is a quote from author Don DeLillo in this month's Prospect Magazine, responding to the rise of electronic publishing. The comment actually referred to language more generally, but poetry itself is a nice place to start in discussing some of the issues raised in the article.

I'm not sure that poetry has ever held the position of being a money-maker. Oxford University Press, for example, axed its poetry list back in 1999, openly admitting that the decision was made on financial grounds. If poetry deserved to be published anywhere, one would think that a university department publishing group would be the place to do it. Nevertheless, university departments are still required to make money, particularly these days, and poetry tends not to - there are just a few publishing houses able to maintain a significant output of poetry, usually subsidised in one way or another from sales in other departments or by a funding body such as the Arts Council England. An article in The Observer a few years ago placed poetry sales nationwide at 890,220, compared to fiction at 45,772,541.

With poetry already under threat within the traditional publishing model, the Internet and e-publishing may be exactly what is needed with its proven ability to effectively market titles peripheral to the mainstream in a variety of media (a phenomenon popularised by Chris Anderson in 2004 as the 'Long Tail'). As an example from my own experience, I've only ever read the poems of Federico GarcĂ­a Lorca in electronic form, via websites. In retrospect there were two advantages to this (albeit, highly subjective): first, since each poem was not bound within a collection of Lorca's other works and essentially isolated on the screen, I would spend more time with a single poem than I would usually do with bound volumes of poetry. Second, because the original poetry is in Spanish, getting hold of the original and the translation (or multiple translations, for that matter) is much easier than hunting down a printed edition with parallel text. Having said that, I would probably favour the experience of a book, particularly if it were presented to the poet's original specifications, but I learnt a great deal about Lorca without ever holding one.

My MP, Chuka Umunna, described society on BBC Radio 4's Any Questions? this weekend as increasingly 'bespoke' - how do politicians communicate with an electorate that may be seeing the world increasingly in black and white as their wants are more and more frequently tailored to suit them? This is probably a direct consequence of the new media - the speed of the information we receive, and the choice. Unfortunately, it could be that this choice itself can only serve to narrow our views, as we seek out the information most agreeable to us. As the Prospect article points out, the new novel, for example, may simply be customised by the individual reader, a more interactive experience that some would argue might give you more of what you want, but less of what you need.

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