Jared Bland, the editor at the Globe & Mail, recently asked what I thought was the biggest danger to emerging writers. Without hesitation I said, “Self-publishing.” He threw back his head and laughed and said it was the best answer he’d heard to date.
And, just as quickly, I thought — oh dear, here come the nasty letters.
This has always been a touchy subject, and I suspect it will be an even more contentious one now that the Writers Union of Canada is voting on whether to allow self-published writers into the union.
Jonathan Bennett has written an interesting blog on the subject. In it he says, “self-publishing deletes an essential component in the writing of important literary work: time. If no one shelves a rejected novel anymore (indeed, if there no longer is such a thing as a rejected novel), if small presses all die because the do-it-yourself-craze makes them redundant, the world will have fewer great, even half-decent, works of literature. And we already have so few.”
I agree with Jonathan. And I know some people will say this is easy for me to say, publishing as I do with a large publishing house, getting nominated for awards and being a best-seller and all. Don’t I give a tinker’s cuss for the plight of the struggling artist?? (Think of John Cleese here and that bit about sitting around on your spotty behinds. Snort.)
But it hasn’t always been that way. I was rejected for years, and then I published a bit and then was rejected again and didn’t publish for a long while and then I published again and I might or might not ever publish another book. That’s the writer’s life. I think Philip Roth had it right when he told a young writer, “I would quit while you’re ahead. Really. It’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and you write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.” Although, as I’ve said elsewhere, he had me a ‘torture’.
There are no short cuts, I’m afraid. I’m grateful I didn’t publish any of my early work. It was, frankly, pretty terrible, and people with excellent judgment told me so, although I didn’t much like it at the time. Only the space of years and what I’ve learned about writing since has taught me to look at the work objectively and see how dreadful it was. Had self-publishing been an option, however, I probably would have done it, filled with hubris and the desperation to publish as I was.
I would have sent my brilliant darlings out into the world, where they doubtless would have been smashed beneath the heel of an uncaring public and, broken-hearted, I doubt I would have kept on. Oh, I might have kept writing in my journals, might even have started a wee blog, but I do not think I would have stuck my face back in the publishing fan. Even with the support of good publishers and objective (by which I mean not-paid-by-me and therefore willing to be brutally honest) editors, publishing is a rough business. To go into the coliseum as an untried, unarmored youth, carrying a sword made of twigs rather than tempered steel, is suicide.
How many writers with the talent necessary to write fine books will publish too soon, before they’re ready, and be crushed or utterly ignored, which is much like being crushed? How many fine books will not be written as a result?
But the companies making money on the desperation of unpublished writers will go on making money, while small literary presses, which are the life blood of emerging writers, may very well go under.
You know, I spend a good deal of time with people trying to stay sober. When they first show up in those church basements where we hang out, they are desperate, and they want twenty years of sobriety and they want it NOW. I remember feeling like that myself. But someone takes them aside and tells them that the only way to get that twenty years – and the wisdom and clarity that comes with those years – is to do it one day at a time. You can’t rush it. If you do, the quality of your sobriety will suffer, and ultimately, you may not stay sober at all.
Publishing’s a lot like that.