Red Hen’s 16th Anniversary Luncheon was way back on November 7th. We had three featured speakers: Christopher Rice, Toi Derricotte, and Ishmael Reed. Toi and Ishmael both gave excellent readings of excellent poems. For more than a few people, however, the highlight of the event was Christopher Rice, who gave an incisive, rousing speech about what the “dramatic and continued contraction of the publishing industry” means for writers. Wry, graceful, and warm, Rice implored his audience to “forge the bonds of fellowship necessary to shatter the widespread lie that we are irrelevant.” He made a lot of fans that day. Without further ado, then, and with the permission of the author, here are Christopher Rice’s “Red Hen Luncheon Remarks.”
These days, the question writers and publishers face each morning is whether or not the dramatic and continued contraction of the publishing industry means that society has lost all use for us. I believe the answer is complicated, but all writers believe all answers are complicated, so what else is new?
Let me first remark on a few realities of the business which I can no longer ignore. The erosion of the mid-list among mainstream publishers has exiled large numbers of minority writers and practitioners of literary fiction from the sometimes glamorous, but always infuriating, world of New York publishing. In a cruel mirroring of the widening gulf between rich and poor in this country, writers who once sustained their career by selling modest numbers of their meditative, daring but not necessarily commercial novels now find themselves on the chopping block while Janet Evanovich receives an advance in excess of $43 million for three books.
As a result of this trend, the definition of what mainstream publishers no longer consider commercial seems to expand by the day, a great, violent storm that swallows varied realms of human experience and casts them to the winds. Is your protagonist a lesbian? Well, if she’s got a heavy bi-side, a violent streak and a dragon tattoo, she’ll probably make the cut. But if she’s just a pure lesbian….Well, try submitting your manuscript in a few weeks, once the editor you’re submitting it to is confident that she’ll still have a job in six months. Or make her the tart-tongued sister to a straight white male. Or get rid of her all together. After all, do you want people to accuse you of writing a lesbian novel, as soon as they all finish arguing about what a lesbian novel actually is?
If I sound bitter, it’s because I am afraid. That sacred space that mainstream publishers used to create, a safe and not-so secret garden watered by the profits of the top bestsellers at each house, a place where risk could take root and blossom – that sacred space is almost gone. But rising, proudly, to claim that territory are independent publishers like Red Hen Press. While this new and precious position, brought about as it was by a great financial crisis and a sudden and dramatic transition into a digital age, is not necessarily one the folks at Red Hen would have asked for, I hope we can join together in applauding the skill and ingenuity they have marshaled to deal with its challenges.
Regardless of where you stand politically, I believe the losses suffered by the Democrats this past Tuesday constitute the fate of a political party that has alienated it’s poets. While President Obama spoke with great power and true eloquence during his campaign, nowhere among his current risk-averse speech writers is there a true artist willing to step forward and give passionate literary voice to Progressive ideals. Where is the wordsmith who will give elegance and urgency to the belief that a financial crisis is not the time for government to abandon its people? Where is the speech writer who will give a human rhythm to the belief that to pathologize the financial hardships of unemployed people during a recession constitutes a failure of humanity? I submit to you that the individuals with the talent and the bravery to accomplish both of those tasks may well be sitting in this room.
So, let me return to my original question. Has society truly lost all use for us? My complicated answer. Most people believe they don’t need a poet, an essayist or a novelist – not in any pressing or measurable way. And they’re dead wrong. Our relegation to the sidelines, our dismissal in most areas of popular culture, may well create a situation of such intense need for that which we provide that our phones sometimes begin to ring off the hook just as we’re getting ready to throw in the towel on this cruel, uncertain writer’s life. But in the meantime, let us writers overcome our solitary, nomadic natures, our unnecessary and self destructive pre-occupation with the difference between what is literary and what is genre. Let us forge the bonds of fellowship necessary to shatter the widespread lie that we are irrelevant. That we are culturally homeless and hopelessly fringe.
At the outset of my career, I benefited enormously from the power of a famous literary last name. My first two novels were lavished with media attention. Much of it had nothing to do with the content of the work and most of it not was not what anyone would call deserved. But in my later books, including the one I will read briefly from today, I departed from the appealing and easily digestible recipe of my first two popular novels. I left behind the Gothic atmosphere that facilitated easy jacket copy references to that other writer whose last name is Rice. And I attempted to move beyond that most marketable of narratives about the gay male experience. Specifically, that the hardships and oppression gay men face entitle them to prolonged and intense sexual congress with gorgeous and previously unattainable straight studs.
With my third novel, Light Before Day, I decided to take a risk. I told my publisher I couldn’t write the sequel to my previous novel that I had promised them. Instead, I was going to write a noir detective novel set in Los Angeles, told entirely from the first-person point of view of a gay man with a drug problem. If they screamed, they did it too far away for me to hear.
And so I wrote the book. And they published the book. And if you look at it all in a certain way, you could say I was punished. It didn’t sell as well. It received almost no review attention. Large numbers of my readers turned against it and made their positions crystal clear on Amazon.com. But there was one thing that mattered more than any of those things.
I liked the book. I followed the most valuable piece of advice on writing my mother has ever given me. Write the book you want to read. Not the book that you think is significant, or the most likely to win awards. Or the most likely to get you a seat on a private plane. Write the book you want to read. And this option must always be available to writers, somewhere, somehow. And Red Hen Press ensures that is the case for many valuable writers. And I am honored that they have honored me here today.
With that said, allow me to read a short passage from Light Before Day. You may not like it, but I do.
- Christopher Rice