Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Writer's Good News Bad News Blues

A Writer's Good News Bad News Blues

The good news is that anybody can publish a novel. The bad news is that anybody can publish a novel. Discuss.

I've been contemplating whether to expend my breath on a topic that is already so swollen with hot air it explodes every time it’s broached. However the topic has generally been examined by the cool, analytical eyes of the industry pundits, whose interest is in creating headline op-eds with brash predictions and “I told you sos”, rather than the “content creators” themselves. To those that continue to inform us that the “content” industry has been turned upside down and is suffering an embarrassing case of itching, burning entropy I say: Thanks. I think we’ve got that.

(Note: For this writer, reading about the business of writing is an evil distraction and time suck that, if allowed to mushroom, can lead to a dangerous evaporation of the creative juices. Writing about the business of writing is much, much worse.)

For the novelists, the self-publishing explosion is a topic supercharged with emotion from both those that feel that publishing a novel should be a privilege, as well as those that argue that publishing should be an unalienable right. On one side, the emotion wells up from a literary culture that was brought up to believe that getting published was a mark of distinction, an accomplishment, a reward of recognition for commitment, dedication and hard work, and thus an invitation to the show. On the other side, cheap/free self-publishing is a triumph of democracy that has torn down the wall imposed by the self-appointed arbiters of taste, allowing imaginative folks to test their storytelling and writing talents on the reading market mano a mano.

Both sides are right, of course. And while the industry-watchers examine the economics of the new content creation and distribution model, others are wondering what the impact ot free e-publishing, free e-books, fanfict etc. etc. has on the job, and the psyche, of the novelist.
I remember my Mom trying to explain communism to me. She said that if all the doctors in the country get paid exactly the same thing, none of them will be motivated to cure diseases. In other words if there’s no money, or recognition in coming up with a cure, then why bother trying?
If a writer’s novel doesn’t have to be better than the next one on the slush pile to get published, why bother trying to write the better novel? Or your personal best novel? Many publishers take on novels that they were dead certain would never make a bestseller list, (which these days can easily be bought) in the interest of pushing the envelope of the art form. Will they continue to do that? Can they afford to do that? Or will they just stick with the tried and true Shades of Thrones and tell the Faulkners, Updikes, Plaths and those that continue to test limits to go self-publish and see what happens? As in “get back to me when you sell 500 books.”

The self-publishing conundrum for the trained, experienced and/or professional writer goes beyond the basic motivation to write the best kick-ass novel they can possibly write in hopes of getting published. Just a cursory look at Amazon or Goodreads illustrates how difficult it must be for readers to differentiate, on the surface, between novels written by working professionals and others schooled in the craft versus novels written by amateurs. In other words you still can't tell a book by it's cover. Or e-cover. But inside it could be like night and day.

So while the playing field may appear to have been democratically leveled, allowing writers of varying experience, skill and talent to compete for the same reviews, the same readers, regardless of genre, it is anything but level. The explosion of "anything goes" novels, ebook and print, has buried every genre - romance, western, sci-fi, paranormal, lit fiction, chick lit etc. etc. - in almost illegible, incomprehensible junk. And the only way to determine what is worth reading is to actually read some of it.

So what, right? What's the sour grapes hoity-toity novelist going to say when told that he/she can take Dickens, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Clemens and Flaubert, along with Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and our more current masters of the craft and shove them up his/her puckered up, snobby, judgmental asshole? It's not like pulp fiction, grocery store romances and dime store novels are anything new. But the homemade variety is.

Perhaps the industry needs to establish some sort of rating system or seal of approval that at least acknowledges a level of quality within a genre, so that readers that enjoy C-grade sci-fi know where to get it, and those that want some AAA historical fiction to give to their crotchety pipe-sucking father-in-law can easily track it down. Doesn’t matter if it’s self published, indie-published or published by a major. At least then the readers can navigate through the chaos, and the writers have a clear target audience to go after and, more importantly, a reason to give each novel a best shot.

Of course that's a ridiculously stupid idea, but I can't help feeling that simply accepting the status-quo is going to somehow backfire on everybody: publishers, writers, readers, reviewers... we all sense that something is not quite right with this picture but nobody can put their finger on what it is. The inevitable conclusion that getting published is no longer a mark of distinction or accomplishment, or a reward of recognition for commitment, dedication and hard work, or an invitation to anything except Amazon, and that unless you're trying to win a Pulitzer, Man-Booker, National Book Award or the Nobel Prize, there is simply no reason to try harder... the whole business still has me scratching my head.

And from now on I promise to do my damndest not to think about and, God forbid, should you find me writing about it again take me out and shoot me, please!

- Blockhead, June 2, 2013

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