Time to Be Blatantly Honest

There’s an interesting discussion at Frank Daniels’ review of No Mad by Sam Moffie. The review is scathingly critical and some of Moffie’s fans have come to his defense. I added the – perhaps unwise – comment that you could only like Sam Moffie’s book if you didn’t really care about “good” writing. Frank was called an “elitist” for not liking what “average” people will like.

A commenter said:

I read the book and loved it! A book the average person can enjoy. This review is just one of many examples of why those from the self titled publishing elite are out of touch with what the real people want to read.

As ridiculous as the notion of “self-publishing elite” may be, he’s actually sort of onto something. Because I am, at heart, a snob. Why you’d ever want to hold “average” as a badge of honor is entirely beyond me. The trouble is that most people think this way – most book buyers are reading books that I find virtually unreadable.  I just don’t care about writing that doesn’t try to create something that hasn’t already existed in the past. My heroes are Philip K. Dick, Kerouac, Harry Crews, Dostoevsky. You know, innovators. What so interests me about self-publishing is that it allows for further innovation. In 2009 writers like P.K. Dick and Harry Crews may never have gotten a book deal. So my interest is finding those writers who break the mold – not those writers who are successful at fitting the mold.

I’ll report when Boyd Morrison gets a book deal at Simon and Schuster for his Da Vinci Code-esque book, The Ark, because it’s an important development. I haven’t read The Ark so I can’t comment on what it’s like, but generally, a book that is not breaking new ground does not interest me all that much. The trouble is the vast majority of the reading public does not think this way. The most popular books are bland, sentimental, and/or unchallenging. What’s troubling is that it’s hard enough for a writer to find an audience with readers who just want a remake of something else, let alone self-publishing a book, where it’s even harder to find an audience.

Times like this I feel I shouldn’t be the editor of this site. It’s a nice lofty goal to try to legitimize self-publishing so that more innovative writing can cut through the clutter, but most self-published writers and readers are interested in mainstream-style writing, so perhaps that should be the audience for this site. Can an editor who thinks Koontz is a bad writer really identify the next Koontz?

Well, yes. In a way reviewing for this site has made me a lot less critical. I’m reading stuff I’d never read otherwise, and though I’d never read Koontz in my spare time, I still can identify when someone has achieved what they set out to do – I can understand and appreciate a page turner. I mean, I loved The Da Vinci Code. Yes, really. I’m just not in favor of 1000 Da Vinci Code knock-offs. The Da Vinci Code is actually kind of innovative in its way.

But I do think it’s kind of dangerous if all books become pulp page turners and all movies become “Transformers 2.” I know what I’m doing here – insulting anyone who only reads supermarket-style fiction as reading “lesser” work. What can I tell you, I find mainstream American culture pretty deeply disappointing. The tragedy with where the book industry is heading is – like the movie industry – they’re going for sure-fire remakes, rather than testing new ground.

But when you break it down, the mainstream is giving people what they want. Millions of people went to see “GI Joe.” That’s not really cultural progress. One of the reasons I’m so attracted to self-publishing is because it is a form of progress – potentially giving voice to those who have been drowned out by an increasingly-dumbed down mainstream. But as time goes on and all readers want is “bad” writing (I think you can tell the difference between Pynchon and Koontz without me pointing it out) then I might just be in the wrong line of work.

This is a long way of saying that I think that this site would do very well to have another voice on this site of someone who is both a fierce self-publishing advocate and someone who loves/aspires to the mainstream. It might make the site more well-balanced and help further self-publishing’s possibilities.  Let me know if you’re interested.

  • >>>This is a long way of saying that I think that this site would do very well to have another voice on this site of someone who is both a fierce self-publishing advocate and someone who loves/aspires to the mainstream.

    Oh god why? The mainstream has a jillion advocates. I’m not interested in the mainstream. I don’t think anyone who advocates direct publishing should be, either.

  • That was self-titled publishing elite, NOT self-publishing elite. There is no such thing as the latter. We self-pubbers are not elite; we’re the dregs of publishing, scorned by all, considered to be unfit to be reviewed beside the PUBLISHING ELITE. Those are the big publishers who leave dozens of typos in famous author works since they don’t really care. Typos won’t stop people from buying the big name authors. Trite plots and poor writing won’t stop people from buying the big name authors.

    The self-pubbers have been branded as trash by know-nothings. I see it all the time on Absolute Write. A person who self publishes is the scum of the earth.

    Personally, I’m tired of people yammering and re-yammering what they have been told. Whether it be in regard to self-pubbers or health care death panels.

  • It’s really interesting that you bring up death panels because the health care debate has factored into writing this post – but I really don’t want to get political here. It’s just a general sense of the devolution of discourse in the past couple weeks that has made me more than a little cynical about American culture.

    It’s true that there’s already enough media out there trumping up mainstream fiction, but given it’s such a significant wing of self-publishing, maybe it should be represented. I’ve said here that only when more literary fiction comes out of the ranks of self-publishing will it rise out of the cultural gutter. This isn’t entirely true. If self-publishers of mainstream writing are able to bypass the traditional system this is going to help self-publishing’s prospects as well.

  • I would love to see self-publishing advocates stop identifying themselves by a vague business term that requires a defensive explanation and that the average reader doesn’t care about, and just evangelize quality, unheralded work, regardless of the publisher’s (or author’s) name.

    Dropping the elitist martyr attitude would help, too.
    Communities built around a common enemy aren’t usually sustainable, but those built around a common passion are.

  • The average reader might not, but the average writer does – and they comprise a huge base of readers. You’re right though – obsession about the self-publishing label is a self-fulfilling prophecy and it should be dropped in favor of just trumping up good work. That’s slowly happening, but in setting up this site it’s been necessary to address past preconceptions.

    What if the “common passion” is about a common enemy? That’s a real question. I do think there’s something inherently political to the self-publishing debate: it’s anti-corporate, anti-greed. If more people saw it from that standpoint they might be more sympathetic.

  • Didn’t mean to be political with the “death panels” reference. I’m just talking about those who label things for which they have no knowledge.

  • Now, this is me and my opinion, but I’ve always found this whole argument fairly silly. This may come from years of living with Montreal hipsters, who were all big on noise music, which nobody in their right mind actually “enjoys”, but they all loved fronting about it and making it. To totally mix my genres on this one, I can quote Shakespeare – noise music “is a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance”. Anyway, they liked this music mostly, I could only assume, because it’s so damn hard to like it, and therefore by liking it, they could feel superior to more people.

    Now, lest that cause you to think that I’m a reverse lit-snob, let me say that Philip K. Dick, Kerouac, and Dostoevsky are three of my favorite writers as well, and my favorite book is Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar- a book that most people haven’t heard of, that totally confounds most people who attempt it (the terms “boring”, and “makes no sense” are often bandied about), and that’s considered groundbreaking, brilliant, and absolutely classic by anyone who actually is able to read it cover to cover. So I know all about the joy that comes from loving an obscure and difficult work.

    So I have lit cred, I promise. But I also enjoy trash, and books written for kids, and bestsellers. And I think its fine that other people do too. I read the Amazon excerpt of No Mad, and found it astonishingly unreadable, but if people are enjoying it I don’t think they’re lesser readers in any way. They just like different things than I do. All kinds of people who I completely respect enjoy books and movies and sports that would make me cry if I was forced to consume them. But it’s fine. People need to lighten up about whether what they like is superior to what other people like. Because if they don’t, they’re just being hipsters, and nobody likes hipsters, including other hipsters.

    It is important to underline my point with a comic, featuring a hipster. It is my all-time favorite comic because it was what allowed me to let go of looking down on people who did not, like me, read Crime and Punishment, twice, when they were twelve. http://www.dieselsweeties.com/archive.php?s=861

  • Great comment, Erin. To clarify: I declared myself a snob, but I’m a meta-snob, in that I get really annoyed with snobs as well. People who hold up indie as inherently better, or if it’s unreadable/unlistenable, it must be good. I’m hardly an experimental writer. Neither were PK Dick or Kerouac, really – they’re intensely readable. I totally appreciate a page-turner, but I appreciate more a page-turner that’s breaking new ground. I don’t totally agree with not calling out the crap as crap, though. If we’re not careful, we could end up like “Idiocracy.”

  • @Henry: I don’t think the “punk” segment of self-publishers are the norm, nor the majority. Most self-publishers these days are just looking for any path into the “corporate” fold, and it’s becoming a legitimate farm system/proving ground for traditional agents and editors to scout new talent.

    I think the anti-corporate writers (and readers) you’re referring to are those being targeted by the likes of Cursor, Quartet, et al.

  • Guy, this is exactly why I think the site may need another voice.

  • @Henry: I am a huge fan of any designation that includes “meta.”

    Clearly if something is amazing to read and really unique and/or interesting, it wins. It’s the 97% (precisely) of writing that doesn’t fall into that category that I stubbornly resist ranking. Or, well…that isn’t completely accurate. I am an editor, after all, and I can tell when people don’t know what they’re doing and are overusing dangling modifiers and exclamation points or have forgotten to include an antagonist. But…all that is the subject of a whole other post. For the time being, I’m a meta-snob too.

  • @Henry: Perhaps. I’d rather see it reflect your sensibilities more clearly than trying to broaden its appeal with another voice, unless that voice had its own unique sensibilities, too. The last thing we need, though, is another “mainstream” review site, self-published or otherwise.

  • Um, don’t feel bad or defensive. I tried to read “No Mad,” and it’s pretty awful. And I have a fair tolerance for fiction of all sorts.

    Writing should grip you in some way, grab a piece of the times and the human psyche and weave a compelling set of dramatic arcs that excite, interest, or seduce you.

    “The Da Vinci Code” worked because it boiled a stew of religion, pseudo-intellectualism, action, conspiracy, and pure lunacy that tasted great for a good portion of the book — sort of like In ‘n Out Burger, really good fast food. I succumb to that every once in a while, and it can taste soooo good.

    But usually, I like a diet that’s a little less fatty and a little more virtuous.

    I also like to cook for others, but I prefer to prepare something that shows off my cooking skills a bit.

    OK, done with the analogy, except to say that as long as you, Henry, have your wits about you, you’re perfectly capable of running this deli.

  • In my own opinion, obsession about the self-publishing is more likely a selfish ambition. Take note of the word “obsession”. There’s no prob with self-publishing as long as the goal of your writing is self-less. If you think your idea is a gift to humanity, then go publish your self development books.

  • Great post, and I’m right with you.

    The picture in the first paragraph — is that a real book? Just looking at it made me throw up in my mouth a little. With my little press and my hand-bound books, I’m just trying to tell the stories that come to me. They’re not challenging literary experiments — I feel I have to earn the right to address readers by being entertaining, and then they’ll listen to what I have to say — but producing books this way and teaching others that they can do this and it’s okay is somewhat of a movement, and I must admit that I feel let down or hindered with every daVinci copy or practically-fanfic-lesbian-vampire-elf story that comes out.

    Of course there’s room for everything in this world, and taste is a moveable feast, but indie publishing is starting to look very same-y, and that doesn’t reflect what I’m trying to do. It’s not a “me-too” opportunity to just re-tell the stories I’ve liked, but a chance to tell the stories I wish were out there.

    So I like that you’re standing for the possibility of what self-publishing could be at its best. If criticism is in any way useful, it’s when it has this quality, of measuring against the ideal, against the stated aspirations of a thing, on its own terms (and not necessarily the critic’s). In other words, I’m depending on your cultivated sense of taste; without that, this site would merely feature press releases.

    It stings, seeing the weaknesses of some indie-pub titles getting called out here on established literary grounds, but this is part of the art’s maturation.

    Unless you hate one of my books, of course, in which case you’re a horrible lesbian demon from N’ggoth’xx.

  • Frank Daniels

    I propose that, if these ‘average’ readers are willing to prop up self-pubbed books they find to be written for them, they arent actually average at all. Barring some incredible oversight (which can’t ever possibly happen) ‘average’ self-pubbed books are the books that were rejected by a publishing industry that prides itself on appealing to average. That’s their bread and butter, after all. Which must mean that these rejected ‘average’ books can only truly appeal to the sub-par who falsely believe they are themselves…average.

    @Erin, Henry: In the spirit of indie snobbery, I give you two handy flow-charts that will help you and all other metas in deciphering Good Music, and the weeding out of Corporate Bullshit. http://www.cracked.com/funny-1677-indie-music/

    Yes, I just linked you to Cracked. I’m still 13 at heart.

  • From another meta-snob — I recommend disregarding those who defend a poorly written book. They are not your audience. Nor mine. I like Matthew Stadler’s idea that Publishing = Creating a Public (see my blog entry at http://brentrobison.blogspot.com/2009/07/publishing-creating-public.html ). The very idea of an “average” or “mainstream” audience is undermining and disempowering. Build the readership that is your own. And Henry, you’re doing that with this site. I respect your balanced commentaries and feel no need for blandifying the spice here. In fact, I’d be really disappointed to see it veer that direction, because it’s your stand for literary quality that keeps me connected to you. And Frank, I’ll say it again — thanks for the honesty!

  • Gosh, this was an interesting post and interesting follow-up discussion. I’m new to the “indie” world. This is the first site about self-publishing where I’ve seen at attempt to differentiate among the wide range of writers who choose this route. I’ll be back.

  • One of the reasons that self publishing is important is that it is an open system unlike the closed system of ‘elite publishing’ (aka New York Publishing). That means that it absolutely has to and must accept the bad with the good. That doesn’t mean you have to like it or promote it or anything else but you also must absolutely NOT be intolerant of it.

    The whole point of self publishing is that it is just fine for AN Ominous to publish ‘The 666th variation on the Da Vinci Code.’ And it is just as OK for only three people to like it or buy it.

    But that also means that a site that is avowedly promoting self publishing must be encouraging to all – even when it knows that the product will be bad. Because guess what? Sometimes people are wrong. And who are we or anyone else to stand in judgment anyway? All that is a long way of getting around to advising you that the way to go about this is to say ‘I/We think xyz is bad’ instead of saying ‘xyz IS bad.’

    Finally, what is involved in being a counterweight? I might be interested if I could squeeze it in. I read absolutely ANYTHING and usually like mainstream better than innovative.

  • Frank, that Cracked link is amazing. That is all very important information to have. I’m envisioning a MadLibs-esque name-your-indie-band game…

  • Frank Daniels

    Couldnt disagree with you more, Owen (unless I got drunk first. I could definitely disagree with you more at that point.) To say that shitty writing must be accepted in self-publishing is about as flawed an argument as one could make. Not saying that the self-pub companies need to start doing quality control before they ‘allow’ bad writers to self-publish, but to suggest that it must be worded as opinion (“I THINK this book sucks ass”) as opposed to fact, as every other book reviewer does when writing a review of a book, traditionally published or otherwise, is to lower the bar of critical thinking across the board. A review of anything is obviously based on opinion. We arent talking about the geographic location of a place after all. Nobody would try to claim that Austrlaia is located just north of Ibiza in the Gulf of Tonkin and then call it an opinion. But to have to limit ourselves as reviewers and critical thinkers merely because the books being reviewed here are self-published is to lower the standards of good taste and writing across the board. I think the standard need only be that if one os going to trash or praise a book, then one needs to give example from the text as to why it is good or bad writing. This is critical thinking 101.

  • Steven Reynolds

    I’m not sure what all the fuss is about, really. Frank Daniels wrote a scathing review of a novel he hated, and a few people disagreed with him. Just because one of them aligned himself with “the average reader” doesn’t mean he speaks for the mainstream and that everyone else is, by implication, elitist. Who the hell is “Greg” anyway? For all we know, it could be Sam Moffie. In any case, we’re all elitists in one sense: we know what we like, and we like to defend it.

    Arguments about “good writing” and “bad writing” are pointless unless the participants are willing to articulate their standards. Henry has gone some way towards this by highlighting his preference for innovation over competent duplication. Frank Daniels did this, too, (even if indirectly) by backing up his dislike for “No Mad” with detailed examples – this is the benefit of a site like SPR that allows longer reviews. It might help if all contributing reviewers (including me) wrote 100 words or so about our literary values, and Henry permanently posted these on the site. What makes a book good for us? What makes a book bad? A review is always subjective, but subjective and groundless are not the same thing. If readers understand the grounds on which criticism or praise is being levelled at a novel, it can help. There’s no point in just saying, “I value good writing” – you need to define what “good” means to you.

  • Randall Radic

    I don’t see what the problem is. Frank Daniels is certainly entitled to his opinion about any book. Unless he’s God, slumming for some reason, that’s all it is — his opinion. One bad book review does not make or break a book. Remember the old adage? “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” Frank was honest. Cool! Tell the defenders of the faith(ful) to write their own reviews, praising it to the high heavens. In fact, I suspect that all the controversy will do nothing but increase the author’s sales. There’s another old adage, which I happen to agree with up to a point. “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.”

  • The problem isn’t regarding one bad review, it’s a general sense of what becomes popular in the current climate, and what I deem “good” is further out on the fringes. So I wondered if this site should give voice to the majority of self-publishers who are looking for commercial acceptance. It’s not as though I haven’t covered those stories here though – I think any kind of self-publishing success is good news regardless. I appreciate the comments telling me to keep the same perspective.

  • The mainstream also provides expemental, quirky and literary work. I think it is strange to laud self-publishing but populist super-hit, but ignore the full range of the small, medium, independent commerical presses, and branded imprints–many of who are producing books that are challenging and of an excellent quality. I am reading severl ARCs from Atria right now that have a quality and innovation that I can say none of the approximately 100 self-PODs I have read even comes near to. And they are technically impecable. We do self-published authors no favors by constrcuting straw men for their benefit.

  • Agree – but no one’s saying that mainstream publishing is all crap. I’m talking about straight commercial fiction. I mean, I talk about Pynchon in this article, and he’s mainstream published, so I would never be one to say that mainstream=bad, self-publishing=good. Because I’d be a dope. I actually think I could be a mainstream writer too – in the way the Chuck Palahniuk is mainstream (in my wildest fantasies). That kind of writing is covered here, I think. But supermarket-style commercial fiction is another thing and doesn’t interest me nearly as much. Come to think of it, this whole discussion revolved around a review of No Mad, which is not really supermarket-style commercial fiction, so maybe the site doesn’t need to change anything.