Note to Pushcart’s Bill Henderson – Get the Lead Out of the Future

Don Quixote with Lead PencilThere is, or used to be, a Lead Pencil Club, led by the founder of The Pushcart Press, a man named Bill Henderson (not yours truly).

The Pushcart Press was a reaction to an increasingly conglomerated publishing industry, once proudly independent houses now driven by bottom line pressure from their corporate parents. I cheered the idea, still do. I admired the David v. Goliath spirit of the enterprise, and loved what it did for writers not commercially hot enough to be considered widely publishable.

Cover - Lead Pencil ClubBut some years later, I came across a bitterly ironic tirade, by Pushcart’s Bill Henderson, in his manifesto essay collection, The Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club: Second Thoughts on the Electronic Revolution. The aim of the “club” was to launch a genuinely paranoid counter-attack on the Internet and, by extrapolation, the Future.

I say counter-attack, because Henderson and his contributors sincerely felt themselves (and all of us) to be under attack––by those same entities, the Internet and the Future. Their collective attitude toward the Internet ranged from abject horror to cold hatred. Henderson himself seemed to be particularly alarmed by the notion that we were headed for an information dictatorship under Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

I remembered his hair-on-fire essay when a post on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog sent me to a consideration of this year’s Pushcart Prize anthology in Luna Park. In it, Luna Park‘s editor Travis Kurowski respectfully marvels at the same tendency I saw in Henderson’s raw display of fretful anger. He’s particularly concerned with how it affects the Pushcart Prize’s selection process. Here’s Kurowski:

“The problem was the severe limitation of the anthology’s scope, an anthology ostensibly offering up the ‘Best of the Small Presses.’ This is a shortcoming most significantly represented by Henderson’s disparagement of any and all online and electronic publishing venues.” (Only one online publication was chosen from for the 2012 anthology, and probably over Henderson’s dead body.)

He goes on to quote from Henderson’s introduction:

“I have long railed against the e-book and instant Internet publication as damaging to writers. Instant anything is dangerous—great writing takes time. You should long to be as good as John Milton and Reynolds Price, not just barf into the electronic void.”

The extreme rhetoric and almost childish misrepresentation of what Internet publication has become (and is becoming) took me right back to what had repelled me in the manifesto. Stuff like this–and bear in mind, it was 1996, so Google hadn’t even happened yet:

“We have been informed by the [international electronics] industry that the march of computers and assorted gadgetry into every home, business, school, library, and pocket is ‘Inevitable.’ Microsoft’s Bill Gates and his pals tell us we can’t fight back because in the very near future everything will be digital. If you aren’t hooked up by now, your children will be illiterate and your business will be bankrupt. Worse yet, you will be cut off from the Internet and therefore from the rest of the world. In short, you will be branded a PONA (Person Of No Account, in cyberspeak)… Since the victory of gadgetry is ‘Inevitable,’ you might as well come along quietly and let us smother you in speed and convenience, says the digital mafia.”

Whew! In short, he saw us all as victims. Our oppressors were “electronic wizards.” The Info Highway was paving us over. And so on.

The Lead Pencil Club, like the Pushcart Press, was about returning to basics, where true creativity and real freedom, not just the corporate inspired illusion of same, might be possible. Yet it seemed inspired not by vision, but by fear, indignation, and the smoldering resentment of writers who felt obsolete and shoved aside by something they didn’t understand,

The writing and thinking here was melodramatically Luddite in spirit and word. The Future was not simply wrongheaded, it was evil–a deliberate plot to subjugate us, perpetrated by techno-overloards with minds smarter and more powerful than ours. The ideas were expressed with the same panicked vehemence I’ve noticed in other, quite brilliant friends, masterful thinkers reduced to utter incompetence by the personal computer. It’s always the same. Rather than, “I’m having a problem,” the response is: “This is an abomination and cannot stand.”

Personally, I love ideas that push history in the right direction, like The Pushcart Press. I’m particularly hostile to the kind of reactionary thought that misrepresents major developments in order to drive us back into the past. Simply put, I can’t talk to those whose public stance is fear of the future. Fear is an emotion, and can’t be reasoned with. If the Lead Pencil Club believes the great looming horror of the future is the “information revolution” (“Turn it off. Take an ax to it!”), well, I’m sorry, this is where I put on my noise canceling headphones and resume listening to the apolcalypse.

I mean, if the work is good, who cares what means a writer uses to write and publish it? James Thurber banged it out on an Underwood “Standard” No. 6. Milton dictated Paradise Lost. Should I really care which particular tool Joyce used to write Ulysses? I am a writer, and not at all precious about it. I’ll write on anything, with whatever implement is at hand.

Thanks to the “electronic revolution,” independent publishing is evolving in a way that will ultimate serve deserving authors well (much like the original Pushcart Press). This is a good thing. The more available tools for writing, publishing, and reading, the better I like it. And certainly, those still wishing to scratch their novels on the wall of a cave are welcome to do so. (My advice: just don’t let it hit your agent’s desk that way.)

Here’s my plea to Henderson and futurephobes everywhere: fear what you will, but please don’t try to impede the rest of us from moving forward––which, as Kurowski points out, is exactly what Henderson is doing. He and the Pushcart Prize occupy a place of unique influence in today’s literary bazaar. By excluding from consideration any work published in an electronic journal, he is disqualifying, sight unseen, a lot of good writing from sharing the Pushcart platform along with the other “best” writing of the year. He won’t even look at it. This is not good for contemporary writing.

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