The Rumpus Interview with Richard Russo

By

It’s no accident that Pulitzer Prize–winner Richard Russo has a big, infectious laugh. The sixty-five-year-old novelist’s trademark humor and empathy fill his books, masterpieces of lower-middle class naturalism like Empire Falls and Bridge of Sighs. Even his more serious novels contain some good jokes along with their ambitious literary questions, but in the texture of his writing you can sense something else, too. Beneath the fiction there’s a tougher sensibility, a sharper edge—the moral outrage that comes from being raised in a postindustrial mill town like Gloversville, New York. You can tell that Russo has a quiet, uncompromising dedication to telling the truth and that sometimes, maybe because of that character trait, he gets into arguments. But you can tell he’d rather laugh about it, and maybe buy his adversary a drink or two, try to find something in common; he’d rather make something else—peace, jokes, art—than war.

He doesn’t even want to fight with Amazon, although he’s publicly denounced their feud with Hachette, voicing his concern over the bullying tactics of unrestrained capitalism. He also doesn’t want to fight with indie authors. Far from it. As one of three vice presidents of the Authors Guild (along with Judy Blume and James Shapiro), he wants to find ways to build a community for all writers. After more than a century, Russo says, the Authors Guild is reimagining its mission. All writers—traditionally and independently published, Amazon authors and recent MFA graduates, hobbyists and professionals—are invited to unite under the banner of the Authors Guild. The only requirement beyond being a writer and paying ninety dollars for the first year’s dues? Say you love literature, that you’re committed to books in all their forms, that you support other writers, whatever their stylistic quirks, genre choices, or artistic ambitions. Say that you believe books are different than other goods you can buy and sell and trade and steal.

For Russo, books matter because they shape the culture and teach us empathy and tell us stories and thousands of other reasons. Say the words. Then act like you mean them.

***

The Rumpus: The Authors’ League of America formed in 1912, and split into the Dramatists Guild of America and the Authors Guild in 1921. Can you give me a brief overview of what the Authors Guild does and why it matters?

beautiful-book-covers-16-1Richard Russo: It’s a good time to ask the question. Right now the Guild is reimagining itself for the digital age. It’s always defended copyright and it will continue to do so. Intellectual property is, after all, property. The guild will continue to argue for better contracts, too. One of our most popular features—one that gets people to join, especially unagented writers—is that once you’re a member, our legal staff will look at your book contract and keep you from signing something predatory. We’re going to keep those features. But we want to grow the membership. We want to do things that the Guild wouldn’t have done thirty years ago. We want to defend the writing life. We want to protect the entire ecosystem—Amazon, Barnes and Noble, independent bookstores, print books, ebooks, big publishers, small publishers, libraries.

Rumpus: In your open letter on the Amazon–Hachette dispute, you point out that the Authors Guild isn’t “anti-Amazon, anti-ebook, or anti-indie publishing,” but you have been critical of Amazon’s tactics as they try to negotiate more favorable prices from the big publishers. Can you talk about that for a minute?

Russo: We’ve been spending a lot of time in various dust-ups with Amazon because they are endangering publishing’s ecosystem in ways that we don’t have to rehash here. But they’re not the first people to endanger the ecosystem. There was a time when Barnes and Noble and Borders targeted independent bookstores and opened their big box stores right across the street. They took advantage of their tremendous market power in other ways, too. The guild wants to make sure that things don’t get completely out of balance in a way that hurts all writers, all readers, literature itself.

Rumpus: But do you believe in a deeper, more existential threat to literature in the form of any monopoly that doesn’t recognize books as different and more special than “garden tools and diapers and flat-screen TVs”? Is this dispute, at its heart, about more than books—is it about the way art is bought and sold?

 Russo: In my most recent letter on the Authors Guild website, the last thing I wrote was, the rest of us seem to agree at least on one thing, that books are special, which is another way of saying that art is special. It’s not just a commodity. I said, “If we’re wrong about that, if we’re wrong about Amazon, and they too believe that books are special, if they too believe that art and literature and culture is worth defending, then why not say the words?” We want Jeff Bezos to say, “We share your beliefs, we’re all in this together.” Yet even that simple statement—which would mean so much—hasn’t come. We’ve heard nothing. Just silence.

Rumpus: You didn’t join the Authors Guild until 2012. You said the “light switch in your cave finally got tripped.” What made you decide to join?

Russo: My daughter, Emily, is an independent bookseller. She worked at a great bookstore in western Massachusetts called the Odyssey Bookshop. It was November, and she’d just heard about the Amazon app that encouraged buyers to go into local bookstores and price titles by scanning barcodes. It struck me as particularly cruel. The owner of a bookstore is paying his rent and his taxes. Amazon was using the owner’s space for a showroom. It was so cynical, so predatory. It was targeted at people like my own daughter. It’s personal in a couple of different ways. First, I care about my daughter. I care about her profession. I care about my own profession, too, my writing life and other people’s writing lives.

Rumpus: Even if the Guild has advocated for writers in one form or another for over 100 years, people in today’s “MFA vs. NYC” culture might not know much about it, or they might think that the Guild protects big publishers over the interests of working writers. Some authors have even taken Amazon’s side in the dispute with Hachette. What would you say to people like that?

Russo: It’s true. A lot of things these days are playing at a volume of eight when they should be playing at a volume of four. Writers who publish independently and writers who publish in the traditional system have taken sides. The rhetoric has been unfortunate. Both sides have taken a bad beating over this. For the Guild, we’ve stated in clear, unequivocal terms that we have nothing against self-published writers or the platform they publish on. We understand that Amazon has given them a home. We certainly don’t hold them in contempt. On the other hand, a lot of indie writers seem to think we’re spoiled brats or idiots who defend our publishers even as they take advantage of us. If we can cool the rhetoric, I think we’d find we have a lot in common. There may be things we’re never going to agree on. But what we agree on is probably more important than what we don’t. That’s where we need to go next. We need to find some common ground. We need to find ways to work together. Or, if we can’t work together, it’s time to stop calling each other names. It seems like that’s happening. People on both sides are reaching out. We can do things in numbers that we can’t do individually.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about emerging writers. According to The Program Era by Mark McGurl, MFA programs in creative writing grew 673 percent between 1975 and 2004. If you include undergraduate programs in creative writing, the number of creative writing programs in the US jumps from 350 to 720. Each of these programs produces new talents. How does the Authors Guild plan to build relationships with these emerging writers, many of whom will publish—especially at first—with small- and medium-size publishing houses?

41q6C4mctRLRusso: We’ve come to understand that the Authors Guild needs to do a better job of providing community. Especially to writers coming up into a world where there isn’t as much opportunity in traditional publishing. When I was at the AWP conference in Seattle this year, I spent the entire time talking to writers finishing up an MFA. Those folks all said the same thing: That once they left their writing community at the university, they found that there was no community to replace it. The Guild that we’re reimagining would fill that void. Instead of being only a New York operation, we’d have lots of things going on in different regions. Making sure we have a way to introduce writers to the world. Making sure that those talents have continued access to the rest of us. So we’re working hard coming up with new programs that will provide that sense of community to a group of writers who are despairing out there in a world of smaller advances and smaller support. We want to defend all writers and all formats. We want writers who are doing well to keep doing well, sure. But we want to lend a special hand to those writers who seem to be getting hit the hardest. Some of those are writers coming out of MFA programs.

Rumpus: Can you tell me about some of the new programs the Guild wants to start, or are the details still under wraps?

Russo: We’re still working, of course, but social gatherings are a big piece. We want writers to have more access to one another. We want them to be able to talk shop. In some cases these would just be opportunities for writers to hang out and for up-and-coming writers to get to know established writers in a social setting. We might also organize them by affinity group—a children’s writers’ group or a poets’ group or a science fiction group.

In addition to that, we’d like to have targeted gatherings designed to introduce younger writers to established authors and their readers. I’m very hot on the idea of a literary introduction series. A regular feature—maybe at someplace like the Rumpus—wherein a well-known writer, by way of a review or conversation, introduces a writer who is tremendously talented but doesn’t have a name yet. We’re also looking at doing things like that with your local NPR station, for instance. We’d like to do forums on YouTube or Google Hangouts. You take a topic, like how to organize a book tour, something like that, and have a roundtable discussion with a group of experienced writers. All of this stuff would be geared toward writers who feel adrift and alone in an increasingly hostile publishing world.

Rumpus: Can you talk a bit about exactly how the publishing world has grown more unsympathetic to emerging writers? What kinds of challenges do you see writers facing that maybe you didn’t have to deal with when you were coming up?

4.1.2Russo: All of the jobs you used to have as a writer that you didn’t want but had anyway—something to put bread and beer on the table while you were writing your book—even those jobs are drying up. Writers have a world of problems out there. They did a survey in the United Kingdom where they determined that authors’ incomes had collapsed by twenty-nine percent across the board within the last decade. Traditional publishers are not offering the kinds of advances they used to. I’m not sure why. I suspect most publishers are part of large conglomerates. There’s pressure from the top down for the book business to be profitable. It’s not a large-margin business. Digitization has played its role too. It forces down prices. Not to mention people on the Internet love free shit! Things are cheap on the Internet, things are free, and smart people can figure out how to steal what isn’t. The music industry has been decimated by exactly the same forces. It’s not just writers. The music industry, the art industry, the film industry, what they have in common is creative people at the center.

Rumpus: This all sounds fairly bleak. Do you have a lot of hope for the future of publishing? Do you believe the ecosystem we’ve been talking about will continue to thrive and, as new writers come up, they’ll find ways to work within the constraints of the new system? That the writing life will (for lack of a better expression) live on?

Russo: I think there is! I’m hopeful. Some days are better than others. But I am cautiously hopeful. I should qualify the dire portrait I just painted. Not all books and not all writers are impacted in the same way. It’s particularly difficult for literary writers and nonfiction writers. The genres, on the other hand, are alive and doing great. On Monday, I’m going to be in Westchester talking at the American Book Association meeting. We’re going to discuss the resurgence of independent bookstores. They were dying off left and right for a while, but the situation stabilized a couple of years ago. People are opening independent bookstores. The ones that have survived seem to be stronger for it, smarter for it. They’ve become more creative, more inventive. They’re teaching what they’ve learned to other entrepreneurs. Similarly, the death of the printed book was predicted long ago, and it, too, seems to have stabilized. Ebooks are here to stay, but print books are here to stay, too. We should be talking about how we can foster both and not jeopardize either.

***

Featured image by Elena Seibert.


Ben Pfeiffer's writing has appeared in the LA Review of Books, the Paris Review Daily, The Brooklyn Rail, and the Kansas City Star. Visit him at benpaulpfeiffer.com. More from this author →