Nov 12, 2007

Preaching to the Converted...
OR, Small Press Fair Book Eleven

I have to confess that I wasn't as enthused about attending this edition of the Small Press Fair, considering the dreadful sales that I had in the last two. But still, in the evening prior, I was happy to have found my muse again, and had that "go for broke" enthusiasm with me when I went to the show Saturday morning. I was late getting there as I took longer than expected making "Word of Gord" leaflets, and upon arrival, everything had already been set up... without the organizers even having been there! Plus, I was also nervous when I saw no signs about the fair. The front room of the Trinity-St. Paul Centre was given over for readings all day, therefore there were less than normal numbers of vendors this time, as we were only selling in the one room.

Happily, I ended up selling more than the last two fairs combined (but believe me, that's not saying much), yet still I found sales to be considerably less than I was used to at this venue. I spent a good portion of the day chatting with my neighbour and good friend Gordon Phinn, helping him plug his new chapbook and website, both named "The Word of Gord" with some leaflets I printed the night before. I also spent much time during the day wondering what right I have to be there. I've been coming to the fair for six years, and in most cases, I've sold quite well, perhaps because my publication is obviously different from the majority of what is offered-- novels, chapbooks, and broadsheets. Therefore it stands apart, after customers see table upon table of chapbooks.

And just because I don't publish creative fiction, I still support this independent community with my wallet when I can, and I usually leave with an armload of novels or short stories (but NO poetry) from the fair (this day was no exception). Where the rest of the small press community is concerned, I consider myself to be within and without it. In other words, because I do not publish creative literature (fiction, poetry, etc.), I've never felt to be part of the insular community that has mutually supported one another over the years. That is not to say that I've ever felt unwelcome there, although I often question if this is the right venue for me, as they're selling shoes, and I'm selling hats. But by and large, I do consider these people to be brethren- despite the different things we offer, we're all addressing some need. Either we're finding ways to express ourselves, or to create an avenue of material not properly addressed in the mainstream. One way or another, we're carving out a little corner of this popped culture to call our own.

I've seen a lot of changes at this venue over the eleven fairs I've attended, over the course of six years. At first, ESR was a chalk mark in a rainstorm, being among a small minority offering something other than creative writing or poetry. But over the years, I've seen the emergence of comic books, socio-political humour magazines, fanzines, and even DVD's between the tables of poetry chapbooks.

On Stuart Ross' blog, a lively dialog was begun about the decline of the small press fair (some of the reasons I've cited above), and he's definitely more qualified than most to offer his opinions, as he was the co-founder of the event 20 years ago. He is dead-on with his thoughts about the lack of publicity and fanfare surrounding the event, thereby affecting attendance and sales. While I don't entirely blame the new organizers for this misfortune, (as I know they took over the reigns without any contact information for supplies, etc., and that the Toronto Arts Council funding for this event was dramatically cut) I indeed share his concerns that this fair (his child) is going to die.

But perhaps more troubling is that one Mr. Exclusionary So-and-So responded to his post with bemoaning that so many different kinds of things were now being sold at the fair. All right, but isn't this after all the "small press fair"? God help us if the whole place was filled up with nothing but poetry leaflets about clouds, leaves and kittens. While sure I do other shows during the year in which others with broadsheets of dainty haikus would not attend, I like the fact that this fair is so diverse, and if anything, I think it needs to be bigger to properly accomodate the diversity of what can be offered under the umbrella of "small press".

But also one came away with an elegiac feeling at this fair, as I learned that one of my favourites, "Murderous Signs", had ceased publication. Grant Wilkins' semi-regular litzine, with a quality selection of material, was always a treat at fairs, and even more impressive that he paid his writers for their work, and gave away his publication for free. (In fact, Grant was one of the movers and shakers I praised in my now-classic (?) essay, "Us, Independent Mainstream Pop Culture and the Whole Damned Thing", published in 2003.) In the beginning of his fifteenth and final issue, Grant offered the following explanation for discontinuing this publication (Forgive the long quote, but it's important):

"Ranting and raving in the pages of a litzine about the sterility of what passes for culture in the media, the stupidity of government, the willingness of the media to be spoon-fed "the truth" by whoever happens to be in charge, or the gullibility of the great mass of the public for vacantly accepting this "truth", was and is all very good and very worthy in and of itself. The fundamental problem of course is that in doing so, I'm largely preaching to the converted. The sort of people who pick up litzines like Murderous Signs, who read indie comic books, who go to poetry readings and small press fairs or who listen to campus radio aren't the ones who really need to be knocked about the head with my take on "the truth". These are all the activities an the interests of people who are -at least in some respects- on the fringe of the society, and folks on the fringe -left, right, artistic, lunatic or otherwise- are not the ones whose votes, money and TV remotes drive the empty, commercial of we might laughingly call the cultural life of our civilization."

In a nutshell, Grant proves the very thing that Mr. Exclusionary So-and-So (cited above) ignores by wishing the small press fair would go back to selling nothing but chapbooks about cute bunny rabbits. Regardless of what we're publishing, we're all addressing the need for something not necessarily satisfied by the mainstream. Yet, I only partially agree with Grant's statement about "preaching to the converted". While by and large, the people who attend such events as these are already converted, there is still a considerable number of passersby who haven't yet heard the gospel, and for that matter, may not really be willing to listen to such cultural agenda. They're probably just looking for something entertaining in exchange for whatever dollars they can afford to relinguish. As it gets tougher to eke out a business in a dwindling scene, getting any kind of attention at all is the most we can ask.

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