Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Whither The Author-Artiste?

Seth Godin's announcement yesterday that his future works will not be traditionally published seems, to me anyway, to have finally knocked over the "Tipping Point" domino in a chain that's long been poised to open the floodgates of true acceptance and respectability for indie authorship. For authors like Godin, JA Konrath, Steven Covey, and lesser-known indies like me, this is a wonderful development. It's a clear signal that going indie can be a big step in the right direction for any author, established or aspiring, who's got an entrepreneurial spirit and commercial sensibilities. But what about all those other authors, published and aspiring, who are more in tune with art than commerce? How would a Flannery O'Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Camus, Dostoevsky or Salinger fare in this brave new world of indie authorship? Not too well, I suspect.

These are authors of seminal literature which has inspired whole generations of writers, thinkers and artists, and their works will continue to inspire thought and action for generations to come. Yet somehow I doubt any of them would've been very excited about, or done very well with, something as worldly and mundane as author platform. And this begs the question: where, and how, is the important and challenging literature of tomorrow to be discovered and brought to the public's attention? Will it be lost to the ages for want of a Twitter account and Amazon Rush?

I'm not saying the rise of indie authorship has somehow created this problem. If anything, indie authorship has opened a door of opportunity for those few authors of literary fiction and philosophical or metaphysical nonfiction who are also web savvy and/or highly motivated to get their work out to the world. After all, it's not as if mainstream presses have been clamoring for more edgy, unclassifiable, non-commercial manuscripts. Trade publishing in the United States hasn't been primarily about enlarging the canon of quality American literature for quite some time.

While there have always been passionate and compassionate editors, agents and others willing to champion this or that "great" book, regardless of its apparent commercial potential, these have increasingly been diminished to the role of mere voices in the wilderness. Because the publishing business is, first and foremost, a business, and there's nothing wrong, illegal, or unethical about that. A book that doesn't look like a substantial moneymaker isn't likely to be picked up by a big, mainstream house. Small, independent presses can bridge the gap between art and commerce to some extent, but those presses have to turn a profit to survive too. Great reviews and a slew of doctoral theses based on a given book won't pay the rent.

I've turned this over in my head again and again, but there are no easy answers. Plenty of people have gone through the exercise of sending some literary classic or other to a mainstream house or agent under a different title just to get it rejected and then knowingly blog about the generalized cluelessness of trade publishing (and in so doing, entirely overlook the fact that publishers are engaged in a for-profit business), but this exercise barely pays lip service to the larger issue. If we agree as a culture that important, if non-commercial, literature deserves wide exposure, study and discussion, who's supposed to foot the bill for getting it out there in front of eyeballs?

Indie authors like me who've worked long and hard to master platform and publishing skills may feel some righteous indignation at the notion of our artier, less business-savvy counterparts getting somewhat of a free ride when it comes to the labor involved in indie authorship, but we should try to get past this tit-for-tat mentality and look at the big picture. I know all kinds of things about self-publishing, trade publishing, setting up and maintaining an author platform, and the business side of indie authorship, and I'm a pretty good writer of entertaining little novels and instructional nonfiction, too. But I'm no Salinger, O'Connor, Dostoevsky, Garcia Marquez or Camus, and I never will be.

Is it better for the culture at large if the only new authors to achieve any meaningful level of exposure or acclaim are like me, succeeding largely for reasons having at least as much (if not more) to do with our business and marketing skills than our writerly gifts? I'm thinking, no. I have come up with some ideas to address the problem, but it's a woefully short list. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments area.

1. Introductory self-publishing, author platform and publishing business courses should be added to the core curriculum of all creative writing degree programs; many students in such programs may have no intention of ever self-publishing, but these subject areas are so commonplace in the publishing world of today that to be ignorant of them is indicative of an incomplete education.

2. The National Endowment for the Arts has grants on offer each year, but admittedly, they're limited to pretty specific categories and putting together an acceptable grant proposal is scarcely easier than setting up and maintaining an author blog and Twitter account.

3. Anyone who's mastered a crucial publishing or author platform skill like podcasting, ebook creation, book cover design or the like should share the wealth of those skills by providing some free instruction to their fellow writers in the form of how-to videos, articles, or podcasts.

4. Any author or publishing pro who's in a position to give wider exposure to a deserving non-commercial manuscript, book or story should do whatever they can to lend a hand to the writer in need.

Remember: it was probably some classic of literature, not a NY Times Bestseller, that originally inspired you to become a writer in the first place. Let's all do what we can to give that same gift of meaning and inspiration to future generations of writers, thinkers and artists everywhere.


Anonymous said...

Long-time lurker here, April (and I've appreciated your posts at TeleRead). Enjoyed this post because it struck a chord with me. I'm not saying that I'm the next Marquez or anything, but my writing is definitely in of a "literary" sort, and every time I've considered various self-promotional efforts, I've always foundered upon the hard rock of this fact.

Also I'm not particularly skilled at self-promotion and marketing. I could get better at it, but it feels like taking time and effort away from writing.

But I need to get better at it. Somewhere between the antics of Tao Lin and the staid literary journals that 6 people read there must be a place where a literary writer can find a self-created niche.

PV Lundqvist said...

Emerson, my alma mater, offers publishing courses along with creative writing.

Knowing the business you're trying to enter only makes sense, even if you never bind a book yourself.

Michelle D. Argyle said...

I absolutely love this post and your viewpoints on this. This is something that hits very close to home to a friend of mine, and to me as well, in a way. I am an indie author, but so far with only one book which is quite marketable. However, I blog over at The Literary Lab, and we have many literary writers over there whom this pertains to directly. I'm sending an email your way to see if you'd be willing to do a guest post for us about this? Even if it would be reposting this post? I think our readers need to see this up close and personal.

Anonymous said...

First, I'd like to agree with everything courtmerrigan said. Every word of that describes me.

Second, while I agree with the majority of the points you've made and with the general thrust of the article, I have to take exception with this:

"...knowingly blog about the generalized cluelessness of trade publishing (and in so doing, entirely overlook the fact that publishers are engaged in a for-profit business)."

While it's (almost tautologically) true that publishers need to make a living or die, it's also true that Catcher in the Rye has sold over 65 million copies, and after sixty years, is still selling a quarter-million copies a year. That's a lot of rent.

I think it's undeniable that any system which routinely rejects such works is broken, and is not functioning in the best interests of writers, readers, or publishers. I also think that this has been the case for many, many years.

April L. Hamilton said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, all.

Levi - how many copies of The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies and most other great classics would sell each year if they weren't required reading in school and expected to be stocked by any library worth its brick and lumber? Regarding first year sales of such books when they were originally published, they often received an early boost of intrigue due to controversy and being banned in various quarters, then received another boost upon receiving prestigious awards (such as Lord of the Flies receiving the Nobel Prize in Lit). Also, with the printed word still providing a major source of entertainment in those days (as opposed to today's world of video games, apps, the internet, video on demand and the like), competition for eyeballs wasn't what it is now.

As for Catcher, it's kind of a special case since it particularly appeals to disgruntled teens; "Nine Stories", "Raise High the Roofbeam Carpenters and Seymour, and Introduction", and "Franny and Zooey" probably wouldn't fare so well in popular culture if they weren't required reading for many students, either.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these literary greats don't *deserve* the acclaim and attention they've received over the years. I'm just saying that, were they to be written for the first time *today*, they wouldn't be likely to get publishing contracts and if they did, wouldn't be likely to sell well.

Zoe Winters said...

"Great literature" never inspired me to become a writer. I was in Jr. High. R.L. Stine (the author of the Goosebumps series) inspired me to become a writer.

As I got a little older, the authors who inspired me still were not "great literature" but were authors who wrote books I loved in the genres I read.

I guess this is why so many authors are trying to write the "Great American Novel", they have some idea in their head of what "great literature" should be about, and they try to mimic it.

But most of the "great literature" throughout history was not considered "great literature" at the time. It was for the common people of the day.

My interest is in telling a good, entertaining story. I think literary fiction has it's place, but if someone is only "trying to be literary" it seems like a form of artistic masturbation.

Just my 2 cents.

Also, those weren't "snarky quote marks", I guess I'm trying to indicate that "great literature" is fairly subjective. What is great to one person isn't great to another. And what is great culturally is often a matter of a bunch of people running around trying to look smarter rather than reading what they actually enjoy reading.

I know many people DO enjoy reading great literary classics or whatever, but if that was what "most" readers loved, Literary fiction would comprise most of the NYT list.

I guess the attitude that there is "great fiction" then there is "commercial crap" is unfair.

And I know you didn't say that, but there is the implication that some writers are artists, and others are sell-outs. But if what someone truly "loves" is commercial fiction, then they would be selling out if they wrote literary because they would be writing according to someone else's idea of what is worth their time.

April L. Hamilton said...


"but there is the implication that some writers are artists, and others are sell-outs"

Not at all. I write commercial fiction, and I'm not calling myself (nor anyone else who writes commercial fiction) a sell-out. I'm just trying to point out that literature which doesn't have wide, commercial appeal but *does* have cultural merit is being pretty much cut out of the publishing equation these days.

One of my favorite books of all time is Nine Stories, but there's no way that book would be published if it were being submitted to agents and publishers today. And if it were self-published, it wouldn't be moving like gangbusters either because Salinger was a notorious recluse.

The question I'm trying to raise here has nothing to do with which is "better", commercial vs. literary fic. Neither is better, each has its place and purpose. The question at hand is this: is the culture being cheated out of the Nine Stories of tomorrow due to the current climate in trade publishing, which is very commercial-fic centric? And if so, what, if anything, can be done to address this problem?

I *do* think it's a problem, because I *do* think my life and plenty of others' have been greatly enriched by books like Nine Stories---the likes of which aren't reaching the general public to any significant extent these days.

April L. Hamilton said...

Zoe -
One more thing I'd like to add, after re-reading your comment...

You emphasize the aspect of which books are "loved". There are plenty of books I feel were important in my education and development as a human being, but which I would never say I "loved". That's kind of the whole point of my post - that popular acceptance and acclaim is not the only measure of a given piece of literature's worth.

A cinematic analog would be the movie Shindler's List. I did not enjoy watching that film, and I never want to see it again. But it's an important film, one that informed me in a way that all the black and white photos and journalistic accounts of the Holocaust never could, and I'm glad I forced myself to sit through it. One day, I'll force my kids to sit through it too, when they're old enough.

Some books are like that; you don't love, or even particularly *enjoy* reading them (that's why so many of them are called "challenging"). But they make you think, they make you reconsider cherished beliefs, they make you understand another person or event or group or historical time period a little better, or a little more accurately.

It's the rare 15 year old who would select Beowulf, The Plague, or The Rime of the Ancient Mariner to read of her own volition, because they're not fun, they're not sexy, they're not funny, and they're not generally "entertaining" in the way a Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, JK Rowling or Stephen King book is. But that doesn't mean there's no value in those works, or that most young adults wouldn't benefit in some way from exposure to those books and others like them.

Zoe Winters said...

I agree with what you're saying. Thanks for clarifying.

Robert Nagle said...

Good post.

You may find this interesting to hear that I persuaded the 85 year old writer Jack Matthews to go digital despite his previous reservations. Once the light bulb turned on, he began to think, how many, how soon?

The difference between today and yesterday is that writers are more involved with the production process (and to a lesser extent the marketing). This really wasn't easy to do when you were dealing with print objects.

The sellout vs. art for arts sake dichotomy is a familiar one. I think a writer needs to impose limits on much time he spends on promoting one book or even the author brand.

On the other hand, one of my literary projects is something I could be adding to over my lifetime. In a way, promoting the project is promoting the author brand.

speaking of emerson publishing program, I gave a guest lecture to a graduate class in 2006. It was remarkable because the students hadn't really heard of ebooks/epub/xml. I remember I imparted 2 bits of wisdom: (I pontificate a lot, so watch out!)

1. Back when I was in graduate school for creative writing, I received lots of advice about publishing and career advancement. It probably was useful at the time, but 15 years later all of the information was useless.

2. In graduate school I was warned about literary rejection. But today I hardly face rejection at all; the problem is no longer rejection but indifference. Editors are no longer gatekeepers (and that is good really), but are more involved in trying to attract writers to their publishing ventures.

April L. Hamilton said...

Stuart -
Borders is a special case; even though Createspace can get your book listed in the Ingram and Baker & Taylor catalogs, Borders maintains its own, internal catalog of titles drawn from those and other wholesale catalogs. To get your book listed with Borders, you have to get one of Borders' purchasers to add your book to Borders' internal catalog.

But given what a sinking ship Borders seems to be these days, I wouldn't sweat it. ;')

The Review Review said...

Another thing to add to your list: Federal subsidies for working writers!!!