A foot in both: An interview with Blake Butler

At NCUR earlier this year, I presented a paper on the importance of small press in the age of audience fragmentation with the goal of introducing non-small press readers to a new literary culture. In preparation for that, I interviewed small-press culture-makers like Molly Gaudry of the Lit Pub and Laura Moriarty of Small Press Distribution. One interview that didn’t make it into the presentation because of time constraints was an email interview Blake Butler was gracious enough to participate in. Thanks again, Blake!

Frances E. Dinger: As a writer and reader of small press books, do you feel small press titles are ignored by contests, academia, etc.? Why?

Blake Butler: Certainly, in regards to the major contests. I feel like a lot of the circuits are made of people who are underread. The selections are usually made up of a very limited and safe range of work. Work that happens to be small press or unusual usually reads like something that could have been on a big press and just wasn’t. At the same time, awards are boring. People who compete for them and are worried about them and value them are boring. Write because you write. If someone wants to hand you a prize, take it if you want it. I wish the worship of these prizes, which really only are valuable for the money attached to them, and perhaps a small flare of booksales, and maybe a small wave of press, would disappear.
Academia seems different because it shifts so much based on who is teaching. I know a lot of people who teach a lot of interesting/weird/small press what have you stuff. It gets in where it gets in.

FD: Internet has increased access to not only information but also publishing tools, which seems to have allowed many new small presses to enter the scene. Depending on who you ask, some people laud small press as an area where minority voices can be represented and experimental fiction can have freedom to push the boundaries of form, others say it is creating audience fragmentation and is flooding the market to the extreme. Do you find either of these characterizations to be true and to what degree?

BB: Probably some of both. It seems like anyone who really wants to publish a book now can do it, and within a relatively short period of time. That creates a really wide field of work, which sometimes is undercooked, and sometimes is interesting for being undercooked, and sometimes, just as with things that take much longer, are interesting or uninteresting for other reasons. I do feel like there’s so much that the phase of something coming and going is way shorter than ever, like the book is out and then the next day is here, but that also has positive and negative effects. Again, it goes back to why are you doing this? If you are worrying so much about who when where why what will acknowledge and draw up on your book, then you are going to lose focus from the real thing: to make interesting art. And it shouldn’t stop you from trying, on the other end, to do what you can to get it out there, because I think people too quickly give up sometimes on “I made this, now it exists, end of story.” It’s a fine line, and one no one can master.

FD: Critics of small press express concern that there isn’t enough “editorial review” and so anyone with some time to spend sending out their manuscripts can get published. Do you find any truth to this criticism? When politics rise up in small press (writers getting published because of who they know), is that any different than the politics of large press publishing?

BB: Sure, I’ve read a lot of watered down garbage. But like I said above, that has a variety of effects. It’s still pretty easy to find the things you are more interested in, and to weed out the stuff that doesn’t move you. I don’t understand the want to control the floodgates: let it come, who cares. I think politics is alive in all the fields, though in small press land it’s more like, I know this person and he or she is cool so we’re doing his or her book because we think it’s good, whereas in the larger press land it’s like, this person is doing something, has ways to get in touch with us, has a market, we like the book etc. I don’t think very many people are publishing books anywhere that they aren’t behind pretty solidly, for whatever reasons.

FD: When you began publishing on small presses, did you intend to move to a large press eventually?

BB: I started off trying to do big press. I got an agent early on and I always wanted to write and sell a novel. I wrote seven novels all rejected before I gave up and started sending my work out myself to small presses, and in the process found what I really wanted to write. I had to write a lot of crap and throw it out to make anything I am glad exists. I am thankful there weren’t so many small presses when I started trying, back in 2004 or whatever, which makes me wonder if people doing that now will one day wish they hadn’t. Actually ending up on a big press after all the backwards trying was a great boon, and I am thankful for it, and kind of can’t believe I got there by simply doing what I wanted to the extreme.

FD: How did your experience with Calamari & Featherproof differ from working with Harper Perennial?

BB: The major difference was HP has the ability to put a lot more time and money into promoting and building the book. Both Calamari and Featherproof are pretty much run by one man alone, and both of them are amazing artists themselves, and break their backs for what they put out. But they are doing it at cost, and with what time they have when they aren’t trying to make a living. With Harper, people get paid to promote me, and to work to make my book come alive. My editor at Harper was so diligent and amazing and there was no difference in that at the end of the day I got to put out the book I wanted, just as I had with the small presses. I am grateful for all of the experiences.

FD: You had two books come out on Harper Perennial last year, this year you already had a book come out on Lazy Fascist and have one forthcoming on Tyrant Books. Do you plan to go back to a large press? What do you think are the advantages of being a writer who can work in both worlds?

BB: The Tyrant book was one I actually contracted right before the Harper deal, so it’s been kind of waiting since then, and the Lazy Fascist thing was for a book I don’t think anyone else in the world would have published, for content reasons. Harper Perennial has my next manuscript already, for a long book I probably spent longer writing than anything I’ve done thus far, and I hope to do many many more books with them in the future. At the same time, I do like doing small press stuff at the same time, as it moves quicker and I think not all things are meant for the big press arena. I tend to write a lot, and some books just fit better with the small press to me, and I like being able to have a foot in both, because I can’t seem to stop, though I do imagine it will slow down as I get older and pressing buttons seems more and more hellish.

FD: From your perspective, what is the state of the writer and the writing community right now? Schizophrenic, inclusive, clique-ish?

BB: It’s whatever you want it to be.

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