Monday, April 02, 2012


“Be awful keerful what you wish for” is good advice. I used to say (still say in unguarded moments) everyone should write, everyone’s writing should be accessible. What was I thinking? I was thinking that writing was therapeutic, that when painful adventures happened to you, you could say, “Well, at least this will make a good book some day.” I thought it enriched the culture. Now it’s all different. Some things to think about:

1. Anyone with money can “publish” if you mean by that to put your writing into a physical form (paper book) or even virtual form. (eBooks). Quality has nothing to do with it. Money is the key. The way you’d pay for sex. Which might be good or might be bad.

2. In high end communities, parents pay for their children’s writing to be made into books. (See story in NYTimes.) They are not so willing to pay for writing lessons. Or to publish other children’s books.

3. Among “those who know,” it’s still difficult to make a big case for self-publishing -- they think “vanity press,” but the writing that they value is only what conforms to past expectations anyway. Among “those who are innocent” self-publishing has no stigma but there is no sense of standards to be met.

4. Publishing is no longer a way to make money. Neither are editing, being booksellers, agents or critics. Books no longer have editors but “packagers”. You can make a LOT of money performing or pretending to perform these duties for people who want to be published writers. Does money drive out quality?

5. The need for endless amounts of immersive and/or sexual and/or revelatory writing is massive. The effect is to draw into center stage what used to be kept under the counter. You don’t even need a plain brown wrapper if you’re downloading to a Kindle. The writing gets ever more shocking, more purportedly about closed or fantasy communities -- who can check?

6. It doesn’t take long to figure out that publishing a book is a two-dimensional enterprise. The half that is creative, the artist’s half, is the lowest paid. In fact, the writer may be expected to put up some money as well as heart, soul, and gizzard. The other half is business: a matter of promotion, networking, calling in chips, creating the sizzle, the buzz, the mojo. Why do you think everyone is getting MBA’s instead of English degrees?

7. Nowadays no one knows what good writing is anyway. All the canons have come loose. The styles that used to indicate genre have turned crossover. Poetry line lengths have become slashes because the reading gizmos will change the line length arbitrarily. Political correctness arm-wrestles with authenticity.

8. “Authenticity” is decided by editors and is mostly guided by what THEY think will sell. (They’re often wrong.) If people think the material doesn’t fit what they already “know,” they will scoff and refuse to buy. Most people know Indians that they don’t even know are Indians. Editors know the least of anyone, because they neither meet the readers nor the writers. They sit in an office.

9. Epublishing and promoting means learning tech skills and that changes the content. If the author can edit, format for platform, fit to the gizmo, that takes attention away from the content of the words. Small screens need small sentences. What would Faulkner do? (Hemingway might survive along with Emily Dickinson.) It’s like the scene pattern network TV imposes on video drama to fit between the commercials.

10. Why stick to print words anyway? Why not the photo, the video, the sounds, the graphs? Especially if one is self-publishing and you’re on a gizmo so you don’t have to worry about special type inserts when you switch to Chinese ideograms. But it will get expensive, if only because of copyright fees, unless you’re enough of a global talent to do your own music composing, etc.

11. When did it happen that the author as person became more important than the writing? Authors are reviled and lauded not for their writing but for their personalities, some preferring them squeaking clean, just like the reader, and others yearning for the REALLY bad, iconoclastic, horrifying author. (Please not female, though.) Then there are those to whom a book is a mystery project, wherein one ferrets out the discrepancies between the subject matter and the author, something like the aficionado of Westerns who is always looking for wrong guns and saddles. At least Western aficionados are old-fashioned enough that they usually read the books.

12. The numbers are huge: “Around ten years ago, a survey cited in the New York Times said that 81 percent of Americans thought they had a book in them.” “Bowker projects an increase of 169%, more than two-and three-quarter million sales in the non-traditional publishing sector.” (These quotes from a Los Angeles Review of Books article by Tom Lutz.)

13. And yet my friends tell me it’s hard to find good things to read. There are two huge unexplored opportunities for apps out there: a way to guide people to “their kind of books” and a way to guide writers to “their kind of readers.”

14. Publishers and contests have discovered that they can charge “reading fees” for looking at manuscripts. Most of the “readers” -- who are lesser beings than editors, generally young and broke -- say they never read past the first three pages. Most writers realize a little late that they can easily improve their manuscript by dumping the first chapter.

15. I’m having more fun creating this list than writing a proper blog for the day. In the past few weeks I’ve been struggling hard with my ego because both friends and relatives have said things about me writing that assumed blogging was NOT writing, only a form of “venting.” They think the biggest qualification is exhibitionism and some say they would NEVER be courageous (or tacky) enough to do it. It does not occur to them that long-form blogging is PURE: self-publishing, uncensored or edited except by oneself, and equivalent to a sermon, though you only have to produce a sermon once every seven days. In skill and effort they are equivalent, but a blog post endures and travels. No one sends a note about a sermon heard years ago. No one reads a sermon on other continents in different religious contexts. No one asks whether you think your sermon will “sell.”

16. Which brings up the issue of regional writing. For whatever reason, the people who used to identify themselves as “Montana writers” because books tagged that way sold so well (some of the writers having to move to Montana in order to claim the tag) have mostly disappeared. Maybe they’ve all become environmental writers -- some were halfway there anyway. Some have become feminist writers: “escaping the ranch” and all that. But the Montana Festival of the Book now promotes what I call NPR writers, the kind that flatter the bourgeois class on the left hand side. (No violence, please. We’re mommies.)

I have a feeling there are still some “real” writers down at Kinko’s making copies for their friends’ eyes only. I HOPE. Maybe they're all making vids instead. Is that a bad thing?

1 comment:

Ron Scheer said...

Enjoyed this. Thanks.