Why Wideman’s Here

briefsOur press release said it best: John Edgar Wideman is a literary lion. He has more than 20 traditionally published works to his name and a catalog of accolades — including two Faulkner Awards for Fiction. He has received much critical acclaim in his career and can command significant royalty advances.

But he’s not satisfied with where the traditional publishing model has taken him. He doesn’t know his readers. And too often he’s been left in the shadow of blockbuster titles that get publishers’ attention.

So, for his latest work, Briefs, Stories for the Palm of the Mind, he decided to experiment. He published the book, which goes on sale today, exclusively on Lulu as our inaugural VIP Service client. I talked to him recently about his decision to publish with Lulu, what he makes of the current state of the industry and what his goals are for this project. An edited transcript follows.

On the publishing industry: I’ve been in the business for many decades. I’ve been very lucky. On the other hand, there are a lot of changes in the industry that have affected me personally. I have a very personal distaste for the blockbuster syndrome. I think in movies and books, drinks and food, the blockbuster syndrome is a feature of our social landscape that has gotten out of hand.

Unless you become a blockbuster your book disappears quickly. That’s a pretty unsettling situation. It means also you have no control over your next publication. Unless you rise to the level of a certain number of copies, publishers lose interest in your work.

It becomes not only publish or perish, but sell or perish. The publisher’s list gets shorter and shorter, and that’s destructive of quality and variety. I think the American imagination has been impoverished by the choices that have been offered as a substitute for what was once real selection.

On coming to Lulu: I’ve been thinking about alternatives for a long time. And Lulu seems to represent a very live possibility as the publishing industry mutates. My son works at Lulu, and I’ve had a chance to look over his shoulder and learn about Lulu and Lulu’s ambitions. It was all quite fascinating to me.

I’m very, very attracted to a situation where I have more control over what happens to my book, where I have more control over who I reach. I like the idea of being in charge. I like the idea of being able to speak to people, have a conversation even as the book enters the world.

I also like to think that going with Lulu is almost an environmental choice, a green choice. Instead of being part of a process that overproduces 50,000 copies of a book that sit in a warehouse somewhere, we’re talking about a kind of environmentalism that uses our resources wisely. Give people something good rather than making a promise to stockholders that there’s a blockbuster on the horizon.

On his goals for Lulu:
I hope Lulu will sell a bunch of books, but it’s the readers I want. There’s a funny phenomena. I’ve had tremendous critical success, but not the readers one would think would follow. I’m not crying the blues because of my particular case, but I think that can easily happen.

My books suffer because there’s an African American category and they’re sold on a particular shelf. That shelf can become a kind of prison. Readers get into the habit of going to a shelf and thinking that literature is divided in that way. You miss the opportunity to reach new readers.

The goal for me is always to write a decent book. Success with Lulu means a book that I write gets into many people’s normal information flow. Lulu would give me that kind of personal outreach to an audience. I decided to take some time and energy and give it to this project. If it works for me, I know there are other folks who could profit from this model.

And certainly the public could profit from this model.

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3 Comments

  1. gordon

    I would just like to say that I completely support what Mr. Wideman has written here. It is incredible to have such an auspicious author join Lulu.

    I initially decided to publish with Lulu and was then approached by an agent from a minor house. My excitement got the better of me and I started to work with them. The initial process was very helpful, but as we came closer to the contract signing, I began to have serious concerns. All of the initial suggestions were fantastic and really helped me expand and develop my book well beyond the parameters I had originally had in mind.

    However, I soon realised that they were not at all really interested in the areas that I considered more important. They wanted to sterilise and generalise my work to start with, which would have serious consequences for the whole philosophy and purpose for my first work. They were also going to place it in a highly specialised niche market. The whole process descended into discourses in maximising profits and sales.

    As they became more demanding, I finally realised how powerless I actually was in this process. Other aspects I became aware of was that I would have little to no direct contact with the reader and that the targeted reader market was going to be very narrow; That they could do whatever they wished with my book once the contract was signed; That my work would probably disappear within a relatively short period.

    Of course there are some disadvantages to this route, but they are far outweighed by the demands of the traditional publishing route. So, I have returned to lulu, where none of these issues exist and will never be dazzled by traditional publishing again.

  2. I for one am excited whenever an author of noteriety enters the realm of LULU. Anything or anyone that brings more readers to the site has to be a good thing.
    Good luck with your latest work,
    Will

  3. Lois

    Fittingly enough, John Edgar Wideman has twice won the Faulkner award for fiction. William Faulkner, you will recall, is famous for, among other noteworthy works, As I Lay Dying, a stream-of-consciousness novel which investigates the psychology of a “subnormal” family. In similar vein, Wideman explores the psyche of the protagonists in his latest collection of what has been described as “hip-hop Zen”. The settings for his stories range from Darfur to Manhattan, and from Pittsburgh to Paris.

    The titles of these short stories certainly do not tell “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. An innocuous title such as “Manhole” heads up a tale of racism and violence in “the biggest, baddest apple in the world” (a.k.a. New York, natch). Many of his stories contain characters who are physically challenged, such as “Witness”, which is related from the perspective of an onlooker who, though emotionally aware of, and responsive to, what he perceives in his surroundings, is, nevertheless, physically bound to the confines of a wheelchair. Many of his characters are also emotionally constrained in their outlook on the world – each story is the narrator’s own vision of the world around him or her, telling what he or she sees as through the eye of a single-lens camera.

    His empathetic (though his protagonist denies, in “Wall” that a writer can have such empathy, but is limited to his own focus on the world) portrayal of such characters reveals that, apart from his political awareness, to which he has given voice in sundry articles on such leading figures as Malcolm X, Wideman is keenly aware of social issues as well. His awareness of the plight and sensitivities of others is, in fact, the mainstay of Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind.

    An outstanding characteristic of Wideman’s style is his use of sentence structure, which ranges from his widespread use of enjambment (“Bereaved” consists of a single sentence of ten lines, for example) to short explosive fragments (such as “My, my, Miss May. Oh-blah-dee. Watch out, girl.” in “Party”). The bitter cynicism of “Oh Shit” is counterpoised against the sensitive portrayal of grief in “Witness”: “Art worth a shit these days comes from bums not worth a shit but their shit sells for incredible money and then the shit-faced bums got the nerve to treat everybody like shit.” counterpoised against “Forgive me, Jesus, but look like they grief dancing, like the sidewalk too cold or too hot they had to jump around not to burn up.”

    Miniscule as these stories may be, being small enough to hold on “the palm of the mind,” they are yet capable of packing a powerful punch – all the more so for the seething maelstrom of insidious inner-city living that they portray. The voice of the physically challenged rings out from these pages, as does the unconquerable spirit of the socially dispossessed. A collection that will definitely hold more appeal for the open-minded than for the staid and placid reader, Briefs: Stories for the Palm of the Mind holds anarchic potential for those who enjoy slam dunking their fiction. Cool, bro, cool!

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