The System Is Rigged: The Millions Interviews Leland Cheuk

I first met Leland Cheuk when he read for Dead Rabbits -- a reading series I co-host in New York City. Thoughtful, charismatic, and passionate about his work and the work of others, he immediately struck me as someone thinking on multiple planes about art and its role within the world. His writing operates in the same way; The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is at once heartwarming and wrenching, examining heritage, immigrant life, and injustice in America with bite and comedic verve. After publishing his first two books, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog Books, 2016), he’s now moving into publishing. I talked with Leland over the course of a few days via email, discussing his new endeavor, 7.13 Books, the state of modern publishing, and issues of inclusivity, diversity, and more. The Millions: So, tell me about the mission of 7.13 Books. As we both know, there’s a wealth of small presses in the world now. What separates 7.13 from them? What unites it with them? Leland Cheuk: Yes, there are a ton of great small presses out there. In terms of what 7.13 is about, the authors are going to play a big role in determining what the press represents as a brand. The books will be bold, impeccably written. They’ll look great. And there will be no good literary reason why the books aren’t mainstream and award-winning. Their existence as small press titles will be an indictment on the tired traditional publishing model offered by the Big Five publishers, who in reality have been out of the business of publishing literature for years, maybe decades. Three-hundred thousand books each year are published from the Big Five and maybe a few hundred are what any reader would consider literature. An argument can be made that the big houses are really in the business of publishing cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and adult coloring pads. For authors publishing with 7.13, they’ll be getting no bullshit. I won’t make promises I can’t keep. I’ll set clear expectations about what the press can and can’t do. The books get lots of editorial attention from me, and I give the author tons of control and input over every aspect of the book, from the cover design to the marketing and publicity. TM: I’m interested in knowing about the final straw in relation to 7.13 Books. What pushed you towards developing the press? LC: Like most writers who’ve been at it for 10, 15, 20 years, I felt I had done almost everything possible to get a book published. I’d done the work, gone to top residencies, signed with agents, and had close calls at big houses. But nothing happened. And nothing happened because the numbers are so daunting. Tens of thousands of qualified writers for a couple hundred deals. Every year, it seems like everyone is talking about the same two dozen or so titles as the big literary hits. The system is as rigged as the global economy. My books only exist because of the kindness of a few people willing to lose time and money on my title. The publication offers for both my books came on July 13. A bone marrow transplant successfully engrafted and saved my life on July 13. That’s why the press is named 7.13. Once I made those connections about my life as an author and the acts of radical kindness (from my anonymous stem cell donor to the small press publishers who took a chance on me) that made that life possible, I decided I had to do something to give back. We all need to do something to keep the business of literature alive. You host a reading series. Some people do podcasts. I read for a literary journal (Newfound) as well. Go to readings. Buy books. Support writers. Not every author understands that. You rarely hear about big-time authors doing stuff like this. Teaching is not enough. Hanging out in your literary echo chamber of fawning critics, editors, agents, and other successful authors is not enough. Tens of thousands of writers are doing great work and they’re getting zero. They need a hand up. TM: It can be hard, though -- what you’re saying. Running a reading series, or editing a small-time journal, whatever you do. How do you keep doing it? And for what? Also, to that end -- Kevin Nguyen had a great piece about #booktwitter and the sort of performative white "wokeness" that comes with, say, simply reading a book by a writer of color. There’s a lot to be doing that isn’t just reading, is all. Just reading isn’t enough. LC: It really isn’t enough! We need to be pushing books on friends, family, and strangers in the same way that we talk about TV shows. We shouldn’t even be keeping books in our private libraries. We should be giving them to others. Your Kindle should encourage you to send the book you just read to 10 other people if you liked it. Conversely, #booktwitter should be able to say when a book sucks. I know writing books is hard, but when nearly every book is a “OMG, so good!” and every review says “this is a must-read, tour-de-force,” we’ve just become part of this big, corporate book PR machine. I’m of the mind that authors should be banned from doing book reviews, and that the National Book Critics Circle should be an organization of professional book reviewers only. I know newspapers are slashing book reviews altogether, but we need independent-minded folks questioning the literary art form at all times. This “All Books Matter” mentality that Kevin Nguyen wrote about is contributing to a certain amount of stagnation of literature. Imagine if Alan Sepinwall was also a famed TV showrunner or if A.O. Scott was a renowned filmmaker. How would we trust that their reviews weren’t just propping up a friend of a friend? Then aesthetically, all upcoming screenwriters and filmmakers would be rushing to emulate their aesthetic. That’s where we are in the book industry today, where readers just get wave upon wave of what came before. TM: On another note, your story of fighting myelodysplastic syndrome is harrowing and inspiring, as is your piece in Salon about the process of beating it while trying to get published. How has your story informed your foray into publishing? How does it continue to inform your writing? LC: I hope I’m beating it. I seem to be okay, knock on wood. I think the experience just made me realize how self-absorbed I was before. More than ever, especially since the recent election, we need to take action and give. I think about the nurses who were collecting my stool samples and feeding me ice chips during chemo. I think about my wife, who stopped her life to become my caretaker. There are all these people lifting you up everyday. It’s the same for your writing and my writing. Think of all those people at your book launch. You and the Dead Rabbits Reading Series were there for me when my novel came out. I’m writing some nonfiction around this idea. I don’t know where it’s going, but I hope there’s a book in there somewhere. TM: Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am without dozens of people who have done both the biggest and smallest of things. How are you approaching writing about such a (I can’t imagine) powerful, life-altering event, especially as someone so used to writing fiction? LC: It’s hard. I guess the simple answer is I try to write about myself like I’m a character in a novel. But the deeper, truer answer is that I just imagine that my audience is my loved ones and the book is the message I would leave them if my health takes a turn for the worse. TM: That’s a beautiful, sorrowful sentiment. Now, the publishing world, as we both know, is often frustratingly stagnant and, at the same time, ever-changing. It responds to pertinent issues at the same time as it perpetuates certain wrongs. Just when I see one thing that’s worth celebrating, I see another that’s worth calling out. What are your thoughts on the publishing world at large? How has publishing your own work altered or confirmed any views you’ve had on the whole wide mess of it, from the Big Five to the indies? LC: Oh lord. How long do you have? [Laughs.] I’ve never been so bored with mainstream literary publishing. There’s an aesthetic sameness to most of the list titles. Naturalism is king. Identity is queen. And the family is the castle. And the castle is, for some reason, often located on the Upper West Side, Upstate New York, Montauk, or the Hamptons. I don’t see risk-taking. I see lots of opportunism. Great work still gets published. This year, I loved Paul Beatty’s hilarious and irreverent The Sellout, Colson Whitehead’s grimly imaginative The Underground Railroad, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s quietly incendiary We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Yaa Gyasi’s expansive, yet concise Homegoing, and Alexander Weinstein’s Black Mirror-esque Children of the New World. But honestly, I read a lot of the fiction that critics and book publicity people fawn over and just shrug. There’s a lot of meh-ness in the indie world too. But there’s no excuse for Big Five publishing companies dropping huge advances on meh books. TM: What do you think accounts for both big/indie meh-ness, to use your term? I know we each have our own ideas about what constitutes a good book. LC: Yeah, I shouldn’t put it in terms of good versus bad or meh versus un-meh. It’s more the lack of boundary-pushing on the form. I’m not a huge consumer of experimental fiction, but when I buy a book or when I’m reading submissions for 7.13, I want to be reading something I haven’t read before. And the older you get, the more you’ve read, so the bar for originality and newness gets higher and higher. I freely admit that I have snobbish tendencies. The general mediocrity at the big houses comes from what plagues the economy as a whole. It’s this short-term, winner-takes-all economic model that doesn’t allow for more books to be successful. Right now, they’re giving huge advances at the top and making those books successful to carry the business. For that author, it’s wonderful and terrific and we all root for and envy his or her success. For hundreds of other authors, they’re screwed because no one in the house, from editorial on down to sales and marketing, cares about their books. It’s just like Hollywood. Everyone sees Age of Ultron, The Force Awakens, and Superman v. Batman. But are those films for everyone? Not really. They’re being crammed down our throats for the sake of the bottom line. The publishing industry is a billion-dollar industry. If they can’t put out a few hundred successful literary books a year out of 300,000, what good are they? On the indie side, there are just so many presses and so many books. Of course, there’s going to be meh-ness. There are a lot of indie authors publishing pretty good first books that would’ve gone to big houses 15 years ago when they were more interested in growing an author’s career. Now it’s just churn and burn, up and out, and you get one chance to blow. TM: The indie world especially has made large strides towards inclusivity. I think of presses like Emily Books and Dorothy and countless others, or some of my favorite journals, like Apogee or Luther Hughes's new journal, Shade (among like so, so many more) -- what is 7.13 Books doing to be an inclusive press? And, further, I’m interested to know your thoughts about the responsibility of presses and journals and readers on this matter. LC: We’ll only be publishing a couple of books a year, but over time, I hope we’ll have good balance in terms of gender, ethnicity, and aesthetics. When I first opened for submissions, I noticed that the writers submitting were rather…blanco. So I put some feelers out on Twitter and the subs got more diverse. An eclectic list on all levels is the second thing I’m thinking about when I go through the slush. But finding writing that I really like is still the first. Everyone loves to talk about inequity for women and POCs, but an inequity no one wants to talk about is that 80 percent of mainstream literary fiction deals are sold to women. Eighty-four percent of editors are women. It’s extremely difficult to sell a male perspective right now. Recently, an agent said he brought that up on Twitter and was trolled to death. The authors I grew up enjoying like Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Vonnegut, or Thomas Pynchon, would probably be relegated to small presses today. It’s a complex issue. Yes, men historically are more frequently reviewed and win more of the big awards. But if you’re a male author trying to break into literary fiction, you’re shooting for one of maybe two dozen deals each year. I’m going to try for a 50/50 gender-balanced list, which, frankly, is radical by today’s standards. TM: That is a deeply unpopular opinion. Don’t you think that the publishing world needed that shift, to a majority of female editors, among other things? At least to counteract what was once (and still often is, come awards season) a white-male dominated industry? But yes -- the complexity of that issue can be difficult to discuss honestly. You don’t fight for fairness with inequity. But, I mean, what’s interesting to me -- I’ve been co-running this reading series for almost three years and as we’ve grown older our submission queue and our lineups have by nature become more diverse. Like, we’re in New York City. It’s come to the point where if I see a reading with an all-white bill, it’s like -- it’s not that you’re not looking hard enough, it’s just that you’re not looking at all. To me, the issue of “solving the diversity problem” or whatever it’s labeled as can’t be entirely a numbers game. Maybe it has to be, I don’t know. But also, I think about ensuring the inclusivity of spaces -- appreciation, generosity, feeling, listening. LC: Thorny issue, for sure. The numbers don’t lie, though. And there are reasons for them. More women read. But 80/20? Unlikely. I agree with you on not making it a numbers game. It’s helpful to know the numbers, but for me, it comes back to the issue of that aesthetic sameness. For 7.13, I’m hoping every book will be different from what’s out there already. A writer can get to that difference any number of ways. It could be sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and/or form and use of language. Frankly, I get excited as a publisher when it’s all of the above. I recently read a submission that I just wanted right away. It was written by Farooq Ahmed (remember that name, because he’s going to be huge if he can find a NYC agent and editor with guts). The novel was named Kansastan, and it was set in a dystopic America where Kansas is a Muslim state. The main character was a crippled boy living in the minaret of a mosque and tending to goats. And the Christian Missourians are coming for them. It was absolutely enthralling, written in this Old Testament voice that echoed early Cormac McCarthy with all these allusions to Islamic lore and the Quran. The author hadn’t done an agent search yet, so I let the manuscript go. But that’s the type of book I want to do at 7.13 and that’s the way I want to approach the diversity issue -- from all possible angles. TM: That sounds wonderfully epic. It’s frustrating you had to add that caveat, the whole if he can find an agent and editor thing. That process is just, well, as someone going through it -- it has its moments where you feel like you’ve made it and then those moments where you feel so low, so far down. LC: I know plenty of well-published, acclaimed authors without agents. Both my books were published without one. An agent is a nice-to-have. You can’t make a living wage from your writing without one, but there are, like, 100 American writers total making a living wage from their books alone, and one of them is James Patterson. I tell writers not to sweat the agent search and do their thing. Send out queries like you’re going to the gym. Structurally, something in the traditional editor-agent-author troika needs to change. The transactional model is just not working. Not enough agents are making decent money and authors aren’t making any money at all. I can see a future where the big houses acquire dozens of small presses at a time to bypass the agent thing completely, leaving agents to add value by providing publicity services and career management. TM: You’re fairly active on social media. Which is cool. How has social media altered the book world since you started writing? I want the good and bad. And the in-between. LC: I think social media is great. It’s a way for writers to connect. I’ve often said that writing is not a vocation or avocation, it’s an identification. And social media gives writers a chance to identify themselves so that they can be found by other literature lovers. And social media requires excellent, concise writing. I do think it’s absolutely ridiculous the way Roxane Gay and other authors (usually female) with big platforms get trolled. I also think it’s absolutely absurd the way aspiring or emerging writers flood famous authors with likes when they tweet that they’ve fed their cat or had a good meal. Mr. or Ms. Famous Author isn’t going to blurb your book because you hearted his/her book tour photo. Social media tools don’t help users manage their dignity well. Perhaps a Dignity Warning should be the next thing on Mark Zuckerberg’s to-do list. LM: [Lauhgs.] Yeah. And though the hive mind quality of Twitter is not news, it’s one of those places where there’s this beautiful sense of community, of sharing, juxtaposed with this self-consciousness about what it means to belong, or what it takes to simply belong. I mean, Leland, the amount of times I’ve drafted and re-drafted a basic tweet. It can feel like the curated self at times. LC: But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? We should always be curating our words for an audience. I’m very much pro-social media. Sometimes it’s tiring and tiresome. Sometimes it’s hard to filter what’s real and true. But I feel like the work to be part of a living literary community is ultimately worth it.

Do Not Tell Me This Is Not Beautiful: On the Collaborative Art of Words and Images

When Walker Evans accompanied James Agee on an assignment for Fortune in 1936, the two came to a certain realization that the bounds of magazine journalism would not permit a full portrayal of the Woods, the Gudgers, and the Ricketts -- three families of poor white tenant farmers. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men grew out of that realization. Evans’s portraits of these families sit at the very front of the book, head-on shots of weathered faces, dark eyes, freckles, cheekbones. They are without text, without description. Agee’s prose flows out of and after these photos in deep contrast. It is luminous, cosmic, rhetorical, poetic. Tragic and lyrical, dense. It is direct. It speaks to the reader; it says care for these people, please. No one bought this book. It floundered and flopped until resurrected in the years after Agee’s untimely death. In 2007, the contemporary poet and photo historian John Wood published a book of photos and poems titled Endurance and Suffering: Narratives of Disease in the 19th Century. The photos are of the various patients of renowned 19th-century dermatologist George Henry Fox, photographed by O.G. Mason. They are horrifying. Psoriasis that plasters over the skin of a bearded man. An American man covered in 40 tumors, some kind of sarcoma that slowly whittled him to death. A young girl with scabies, her hands across her breast, praying in some kind of half-light. Wood uncovered these photos and writes in a tender, probing, honest way about each of them. A poem accompanies each photo, and some deal explicitly with the visceral reaction of seeing the photo, simply -- that moment before empathy comes, if it ever does. The poem that accompanies the photo of the American man with sarcoma begins, “What happened here?” It is told innocently, as if Wood wrote with a hand covering his eyes, some small slit through which he could barely see. The opening stanza of the poem about the young girl with scabies is defiant, reminiscent of Agee’s earnest and passionate defense of the divinity apparent in all humanity: “Forget medical history. / Imagine she was stung / While robbing a hive of honey. / Such beauty should be sung / Into pastoral poetry.” Similarly, the opening line of a poem about a 19-year-old girl with a severe case of elephantiasis, her legs swelled and pillowed and bloated, are simple, moving, haunting: “Do not say to me that she is not beautiful.” However, like the then-experimental project of Evans and Agee, Wood’s book, published by Galerie Vevais, a German photography publisher, did not receive the critical recognition it deserved, especially in the United States, where Wood, the founder of the MFA program at McNeese State and the two-time winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, tried to publish it but failed. No American publisher wanted it, he says, in an interview with 21st Editions. Why, though? In the same interview with 21st Editions, Wood asserts that the photographs of Fox’s patients repelled even him, the poet, stating, “I had long known those photographs that inspired the poems in Endurance and Suffering, but they repelled me, and I couldn’t understand why anyone but a historian of medicine would even look at them. But one of them, the naked girl with elephantiasis, stayed in my head like some cruel story, the sort you’ve heard, hate to recall, and would never tell someone you love.” But it took time, and effort, and the slow dwelling on and carrying of things before that first line--– do not say to me that she is not beautiful -- came to Wood in an honest way. Readers do not have to sit with that. No one is requiring us to. So we come to photos that repel us, and we turn the page, put our hands in front of our eyes, leave no slit through which we can allow some word or image of something-that-could-be-beautiful seep into our being. Evans’s photos occupy that same landscape. His tenant farmers do not shy away from the lens. They stare through the page, and their hurt immediately pushes the pressure points of human guilt and responsibility. Now, though, the Midwest-based small publisher, Coffee House Press, is releasing a novel, House of Coates, by Brad Zellar, assisted by Alec Soth, who The Guardian in 2010 compared to both Walker Evans and Stephen Shore, placing Soth in a tradition of American open-road portraiture photography. What makes House of Coates interesting is its claim to fiction, and what that means and how that places it in the context of photography and prose collaborations. Centering on a few days in the life of a homeless drifter, Lester B. Morrison, the short novel is written with a certain authority, at times expounding the values of the drifting life, and the photographs are grainy film ones of simple things, simple homes, snow banks and sunsets, roadside diners, and clutters of abandoned trash. The photos serve as a sort of image map, and they are supposedly, for the sake of the work, taken by Morrison himself, grounding the reader in the true context of the story. There is the sense of stumbling upon a scrapbook, something collected and only important because we hold it in our hands. What adds to the mystique of the novel is the constant, recurring notion that Lester Morrison actually exists -- not merely in the fictional world, but in the actual one. House of Coates was first published by Soth’s photography-based publishing house, Little Brown Mushroom, which specializes in one-of-a-kind, limited-run art books. After its release, a Minnesota Public Radio article articulated the mystery of Lester Morrison. In the article, Soth states that he is not, as some readers attest, Lester Morrison, but the answer is still vague and generously unclear. Both Soth and Zellar claim to know Lester in a deeply nuanced way. They claim to know the results of a psychiatric test he took in 2009. And they claim, on the Little Brown Mushroom website, that the photos in House of Coatex were sent from Lester to them in a duct-taped shoebox. But Lester, by all accounts, is a now-gone mystery, and his presence, fictional or not, only exists in the pages of House of Coates, and in many ways, whether Lester exists is not the question at large. The true issue is why he matters. And, too, why all the Lesters of the world matter. Zellar knows this. In a 2012 Minnesota Post interview, he says, “Because the Lesters of the world tend to be largely inaccessible and tremendously unreliable characters, I had to make my own version of his story.” Soth’s photos (it is my belief that they are Soth’s) contribute to that continual duality between the real and fictional Lester, for in this work he abandons his normal beauty-in-the-banal style of portraiture, eliminating the human face from the frame, putting a fictional eye behind the viewfinder. It serves to suspend belief at times. It is the literary shaky-cam, the found image. And though the story is haunting and lovely and artful, it is not repelling in the same way that Fox’s medical patients were. If we are put off by it, we can hide behind the fiction. If we are willing to hear the story of a man we might be willing to forget or never encounter in the first place, then we sit with the story, and the photos, and the romantic prose, and we allow it to encompass us in our own time, allow the real to merge with the surreal until we are unsure but still empathetic, held in the white space between fiction and nonfiction but at least at some semblance of ease with that suspended state. The aim of House of Coates is similar to the aims of both Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and Endurance and Suffering -- to tell the story of the never-told, to delve into the underworld of society and come out with something human, tender, heartfelt. And, like these two other works, House of Coates is still considered an experimental work, despite the fact that we are a society of the image. The compiled image. The moving image. The flashing image, the pixelated one. In a letter to the reader of the galley copy of House of Coates, Christopher Fischbach, the publisher of Coffee House Press, discusses how the original edition of the work, published by Little Brown Mushroom, was collected, not read. It was presented as a spiral-bound and limited-edition art book, and not circulated widely. It was a cherished thing. It was not passed along, given out, read, written over, read again. Fischbach says, in this letter, that House of Coates “deserves better.” Because of the story it aims to tell, and how it tells it, because of the hunting down of the never told and the taking stock of the never seen, it does. In the same way that Agee and Evans deserved better upon their initial publication. In the same way that John Wood deserved better upon his attempt at publication. Despite this, House of Coates won’t garner a great deal of national attention, though it is a jewel of a book, a ghostly one. Zellar’s prose is authoritative and incantatory and gripping. But what is more telling is that this collaborative medium between prose and photography, poetry and photography, also deserves a more established home in the spectrum of the literary world, and I worry that it will not get there, because some might not find it necessary, because others might find it too much. But consider the reliance on the photographic image in Rachel Kushner’s dynamic and powerful novel The Flamethrowers, or the scene from Don DeLillo’s White Noise where Murray and Jack stand at the most photographed barn in America, and Murray states, “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.” If that is the aim of the writer -- to keep an image circulating in the consciousness of the reader, long after the sentence has ended -- then it still must be the aim of the photographer, indeed, the aim of all artists at large. Murray’s questions at the end of that scene are the universal questions of artistry, of why photographers choose to photograph an object, a person, why writers chose to pick away at a story: “What was the barn like before it was photographed?...What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?” The writer and the photographer are not at any sort of odds. One form does not negate the other. They are both probing the world behind the limitations of their instruments, and, perhaps more importantly, behind the limitations of their individual ability for compassion, empathy, and tenderness. To place both forms of artistry within the same bound book allows for the engagement of multiple senses and for the opportunity of more catharsis, more movement, more truth. It sounds floozy, doesn’t it? But take out Evans’s photos from Let Us Now Praise Famous Men and you have a young earnest man trying so hard to make us feel what he feels. We might dismiss Agee so quickly without Evans’s careful eye. But without Agee, Evans’s photos might only be human, and never divine. House of Coates seems to be one small step in the direction that allows for a renewed attempt in combining the art of writing with the art of photography in a fulfilled literary sense. Not in the same sense as, for example, Jack Kerouac’s famed introduction to Robert Frank's The Americans, but rather as something more dynamic, reliant on the other. The photos in House of Coates reinforce the potential reality of the story, allowing us to probe if we want to, but giving us permission to suspend belief if we feel we must. In that sense, we, as readers, are secure. The hope, though, is that we sit just a little longer, each time, in whatever reality we find ourselves, and then a little longer still, until we are affirmed in some kind of beauty, whether it be in the turn of a line or the movement of syntax or the freckle on a high cheekbone or a grain of color layered upon film, or in those things combined, pointing them to a fellow reader, a friend, saying, asserting: do not tell me that this is not beautiful.