So my fellow blogger Elly Zupko made a post recently that put forth some impassioned-but-not-unreasonable arguments that the policy of many book review blogs to refuse consideration of self-published works might just possibly be worth a second thought. Elly is herself an independently-published author, whose first novel The War Master’s Daughter was recently brought forth into the world and is seeking its intended audience; she will be the first to admit that this was a plea out of self-interest at least as much as anything else. As occasionally happens amid the chaotic tides of the Web, the post picked up some unexpected momentum, and it turns out that some of the folks in the book-reviewing regions of Outer Blogistan were less than pleased to find an upstart asking, with insufficient demureness, for a seat at the table. So it came to pass that Elly awoke one day last week to find that a small but nontrivial portion of the Internet had been dropped on her head.
Now, Elly is a friend and a sometime colleague, which is why she gets the relaxed-and-groovy first-name treatment here; but, full disclosure aside, I find myself more inclined than not to be sympathetic to her cause here. While a few words in her post may have been impolitic – a point she concedes with no small grace in her followup – even this might be understandable given the frustration self-published authors can face in being taken seriously. While it’s true that writers who self-publish have too often been the exemplars of neither art nor decorum, anyone who finds themselves judged out of hand, over and over, by the worst examples of the group they represent has some leeway, I think, to be intemperate once in a while about it.
But this shines a light on something creators don’t talk about much – or, at least, a thing we don’t speak of enough openly. This is the truth that the real heart of almost every creator is that of the six-year-old who first dared to say “Look at my drawing” or “Listen to my song” or “Read my story.” If you want to understand an artist, understand this first: that the eager child saying “Come look what I made” is the persona whose needs fuel everything else. So much else about our temperaments – our neuroses, our carefully-built defenses, our deep sorrows, our half-secret dreams and fears – are bound up in this, or are responses to it or deflections of it or constructions to keep it from harm. This, I’m convinced, is the thing that drives us hardest to do both great and stupid things – our hidden strength, our fatal vulnerability.
And as a culture, we are mightily conflicted about this. We’re happy to award accolades and renown to those we think worthy of them, but we’re also heavily suspicious af anyone who seems to want those things too badly. We want our artists to have paid their dues. And, especially in America, where we have a nearly psychotic reaction to the idea that anyone might possibly be getting something they don’t deserve, we want to know they’ve struggled before we’re willing to give them the time of day.
For a very long time, traditional (or legacy) publishing models, along with all the other much-needed services they provided for authors, served as a useful way of ensuring that this struggle and dues-paying had happened. Writing advice is full to bursting with the idea (subtextual or otherwise) that the submission-and-rejection cycle is Good For You, that it builds character, that it makes you appropriately tough and resilient – as if “toughness” and the ability to choke down disappointment, over and over again, were as vital to the art of storytelling as the skill of writing well-crafted prose. (And then of course we’re surprised when our famous authors turn out to be callous and aloof and misanthropic.) We marvel at how many times Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was turned down before leaping onto the bestseller lists – but I think we like it better that way than if the first set of eyes on it had seen its brilliance right away. And I think we like Jo Rowling better when we imagine her almost crushed by despair before success and fortune found her.
Do I need to point out here that this is a little nuts?
Let me be clear: I am happy to be a cheerleader for legacy publishers. My bookshelves creak under the strain of the wonderful things they have brought into my life. In the last few years of convention-going, I’ve started to hear a lot of noise about how it’s time for the old traditional houses to die already, and I could move the orbits of suns with the rolling of my eyes at that. The business side of art isn’t Thunderdome, where only one can be left standing and the other must fall. And, to be frank, the idea that almost everyone’s work can improve by way of the long editorial process legacy publishers provide doesn’t come from nowhere. Nor does it take a long look at, say, Night Travels of the Elven Vampire to get a sense of exactly what the slushpile is meant to sift out of the market. Not to mention that the scale and scope of what traditional publishing is able to accomplish in terms of publicity, distribution, and packaging is far beyond what individuals are likely to be capable of on their own. Honestly, come the time when I finish one of my works-in-progress, should some legacy house show up on my doorstep and say, “We hear you have made a book. Please, let us give you money, that we may put it in everyone’s local Barnes & Noble,” let me tell you how fast I’d jump.
But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. The gruelling, supposedly character-building submission-and-rejection process is the only way the average writer has a chance of publication going that route, and the odds are long. I know that my inner six-year-old is unlikely to survive that cycle unbroken; having read some of Elly’s thoughts at the time she was talking to agents and doing all the other things a new author is supposed to do with The War Master’s Daughter, I have to suspect she was arriving at a similar place by the time she decided to independently publish her work. To a lot of people, the idea that we would choose to forego the heartbreak and stress of the traditional route is a sign all by itself that we are unworthy of seeing print. The old saw is that “anyone who can be discouraged from writing, should be” – once again, as if admitting to the desire to avoid pain and despair makes us unfit for admission to the club, and as if the act of completing a long and complex work was not itself a demonstration of “fortitude.”
The upside is that we now live in a time when the barrier between a manuscript and a publication-ready artifact is much lower than it was even five or ten years ago, placing book creation on a ground that’s starting to come level with music in terms of being accessible to independent creators. There are tradeoffs, to be sure: the audience of a novelist analogue to a garage band is (almost) never going to be on a par with what legacy publishing can make happen – in much the same way that the garage band doesn’t expect to be playing stadia or opening for the Stones. But with a realistic tempering of rock-star ambitions, this is very good news for eager inner six-year-olds everywhere. And if the writer is good, and thorough, and diligent, and as serious about the craft and process of design and packaging as legacy professionals are, the result can be just about indistinguishable from a book shepherded by a “traditional” house. And I think that, among other things, this means that we are seeing the start of an age when it can no longer be assumed that “independently-published” is a signal that a book is the kind of awful, slush-substrata dreck that vanity publishers have been infamous for fleecing desperate writers into wrapping a cover around.
None of this, of course, obligates book review blogs to take up any sort of material they don’t want to. Certainly the average reader winnows the otherwise-unscalable TBR pile with any number of criteria, of varying rationality and arbitrariness: no technothrillers, no vampires, nothing with a dragon or a spaceship on the cover. And everyone misses out on something that way, but there are, after all, only so many hours in the week.
But I have a suspicion that the day is not far off when the field of criticism, amateur and otherwise, is going to have to take a hard look at its assumptions regarding self-published and independently-produced work. Because if that’s the only reason for waving Elly’s book aside, then it’s also necessary to reject Wil Wheaton and Lawrence Watt-Evans and Doyle and Macdonald on the same terms. And if the mitigating factor is that those witers earned name and cred elsewhere, that Elly Zupko is a wanna-be, well, there’s a saying in showbiz: You gotta be a wanna-be before you can be a be. That Internet reviewers don’t want to welcome a flood of crappy, careless work is one thing, and absolutely understandable; to take up the cause of keeping wanna-bes in their place, of making sure that inner six-year-olds are given their proper measure of correction and disappointment, is quite another, and I’m not confident everyone out there knows the difference.
…So – you may well ask – all that said, how’s the book? Well, my copy just arrived this week, so I’ll have to let you know when I get to it, which will be after my book group reread of The Player of Games and one or two other things. I know that Elly’s a young writer and finding her voice yet, and The War Master’s Daughter is a first novel. On the other hand, Clive Barker was young, too, when he was scribbling out his magnificent plays and short stories while on the dole in London; Patricia McKillip was young when she wrote the breathtaking Riddle-Master books that disassembled Tolkien to his component parts and put them together again into something just as numinous and rich and strange. And I also know that Elly is a careful wordsmith who has an editor’s eye, and can put together ten sentences of English prose without making me want to cringe once, which is more than I can say about a lot of what shows up on the bestseller racks. My guess is that she does just fine here, and that the next one will be even better.
(And while this post was cooking over the last few days, I see she’s put up another of her own, which touches on some relevant terms of art, and has a nicely elegant Venn-overlap with some of what I’ve been rambling about here.)