Nike Sulway on the changing face of publishing

This interview was first published in an edited form in the May 2017 edition of the Jessie Street National Women’s Library newsletter

Publishing, the production and dissemination of books and the written word has been turned on its head by the digital revolution. I had the opportunity to talk with Dr Nike Sulway, an author and lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Queensland, on her views. Her recently published book, Dying in the First Person (Transit Lounge 2016) is a luminous study of the power of language.

JS: Do you think changes in publishing and the broader digital space, including social media have affected women’s voices: what we write, and what we read?

NS: I think the rise of digital publishing is a curious thing. Some have lauded it as a way for diverse authors to gain access to publishing previously denied by the ‘gatekeepers’ of traditional publishing houses, while others have noted that the internet more generally, and digital publishing as part of that world, replicate and even exacerbate some of the problematic structures of oppression in the non-digital world.

In the world of digital publishing, popularity matters more than quality and, perhaps as a result, marketing and public relations activities have become part of the labour that writers, including women writers, have to do in order not just to be published, but to be heard. This terrifies me in some ways: it’s clear to me that, if having a good marketing plan, a solid author platform, and so on, are the keys to literary success then the voices that will gain traction are not necessarily those with important things to say, but those who can make the most noise.

At the same time, I think that online spaces, and digital publishing, have provided many people who otherwise have not had access to a public platform, or the opportunity to publish and distribute their work, with those opportunities. And communities have grown up around those kinds of enterprises, and in tandem to them. These groups are largely well-intentioned and highly active hothouses of shared information and ideas, collaborative project-building, information sharing, and strategizing for change.

JS: What dangers, if any, do you see for quality, with the rise of self-publishing? Is there still a sense that without the mantle of the publishing house, publications are stigmatised? 

NS: It’s interesting, isn’t it, this idea that self-publishing will lead to a swamping of the marketplace with poor quality work. I think there are two ideas in that anxiety: one about the ‘swamping’ of the market, and the other about quality control.

I do think that there’s still a sense of stigma attached to self-publishing. It doesn’t have the same degree of respect within the writing and publishing world as traditional or mainstream publishing at this stage, with notable exceptions. I do think that access to the tools for self-publishing necessarily leads to the publication of work that is not necessarily well-edited or well-designed. We all know that the relative ease of self-publishing, particularly for digitally savvy westerners with access to the (new) tools of production leads to the publication of works that don’t meet the standards of traditional publishing. (But then, traditional publishing’s standards are neither stable, nor transparent, nor politically neutral. Nor do traditional publishers all share an agreed notion of what ‘good’ writing is.)

The biggest danger I see is one that faces both readers and writers, in different ways…[is that] it becomes increasingly difficult for readers to find the works that will enjoy and be stimulated or challenged by, and in becomes increasingly difficult for writers to connect with their readers and/or to sustain a meaningful career.

A flooded market means that the value of each individual work is at risk of decreasing (on a purely economic level), but the labour of producing an original work of fiction or non-fiction doesn’t change. Perhaps there’s an associated risk that writing, never a great economic prospect for writers, becomes increasingly an activity of the leisured class—those who can afford to spend time writing, and can afford the other more explicit costs of publishing. And that the working and non-working poor and disenfranchised are increasingly cut out of the writing market, rather than empowered to take part in it.

JS: Digital publishing is a minefield of ownership, control and appropriation. The ownership of words is a theme you return to in ‘Dying in the first person’. Do you think writers can translate experiences truly and show us who we are?

The book is very concerned with the relationship between language and lived experience, or reality. There is some sense, I think, in which language can only express what is expressible in language. A tautology, of course! I think that there are truths about what it is to be human that I’m not sure can be expressed in language …. I think language is an extraordinary technology. It can be beautiful and dangerous and powerful and majestic. But it isn’t everything. It can’t do what music does to an audience, to a body. It can’t do what making love does, or holding a newborn, or lying down in a field will do. It can capture, sometimes, some fragment of that experience, and raise an echo in you of your own experiences and dreams. It is harnessed to your imagination, and is part of the way you understand yourself, and the world, and others. But it isn’t all powerful. If we destroyed the world, which we seem determined to do, we couldn’t replace it with language.

I feel strongly that writing, good writing (!), is a process of participating in an ongoing and rather wild conversation that’s been taking place for centuries, with increasing volubility and energy. As writers, we beg, borrow, steal, adapt, collage and comment. So little of what constitutes writing is devoid of connection to the writing that’s come before. And no writing, I think, is devoid of a connection to time and place, culture and society. So I think all writing is a process of what translators refer to as the ‘bringing over’ of a set of images and ideas from one domain to another. The difference in writing is that you don’t bring over a single or cohesive idea or narrative: what you bring over to your side of the river, and construct there, is often mostly constructed of the flotsam and jetsam of what you encountered while swimming. What you got hold of, and what got hold of you.

So appropriation and intertextuality, collage and bricolage, are, I think, the native form of writing. It’s only when it’s done in an insensitive, arrogant, or appropriative way that it becomes problematic.

JS: Your character Ana craves anonymity in her deceptions, ‘to speak without being known’. The internet’s anonymity (be it a gift or a curse) allows people to hide now. Do you think it is liberating? Or like Ana finds, are people are still trapped but now within the limitations of their adopted identify? 

I think, like most aspects of human relationships, the ability to be anonymous can be both liberating, and dangerous. Like most of the things we can do, it’s how and why we do it that matters. Anonymity can be used to mask cruel, cowardly and harmful acts. But it can also be used to protect a vulnerable person from harm. Queer people historically and now often practice a kind of partial anonymity – being ‘in the closet’ – to protect themselves from various threats to their health and wellbeing. At the same time, being in the closet, and I’ve been there, can be incredibly harmful to the self. At the same time, we live in a culture that believes that being out and proud, refusing any form of anonymity or privacy or discretion, is always a good thing. I don’t share that belief. I think that various forms of anonymity can sometimes be a powerful and necessary form of protection, and sometimes used as a weapon.

So, for me, anonymity is neither good nor bad in itself, but is a strategy or tool that can be used, and has been used historically, for both good and bad purposes. To hurt and to protect, to cause harm and to prevent harm.

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