Are self-publishers dumb? Don’t answer that.
Recently, the debate has arisen again about genre vs. literary self-publishing (as if there’s some kind of war between the two) with Chris Meadows gloating on Teleread:
Maybe because, I dunno, nobody wants to read them? I read to get away from the real world. I don’t want to read more stories about the real world.
Anyway, I come to wonder: after all these years of sneering at genre’s low-brow nature, is literary fiction about to die off because its writers couldn’t make the same transition to self-publishing that genre’s writers could? That would be pretty amusing in my book.
So, it’s apparently joyful that people might not read literary fiction. And somehow reading well-crafted sentences doesn’t take you away from the real world. Good writing takes you out of the real world – whether it’s a space opera or a family drama. That’s what it is to read a book.
This is why literary writers are reticent about dipping their toes into self-publishing. Because the culture of self-publishing is stupid. Not always, but very often.
A comment on the Passive Voice writes:
Literary fiction writers have a problem. They write well, and their prose flows like honey, but for most readers their books are boring.
Hmmn, if prose “flows like honey” how can it possibly be boring? Good writing isn’t boring.
What people are saying is: there needs to be more explosions. It’s advocating the lowest common denominator. When has this ever been something to be lauded?
Before you call me a snob, I mainly write genre fiction. Weird genre fiction, but books where people are murdered and planets are decimated. Not quiet stories about relationships. But it doesn’t make sense to me to denigrate literary writing, any more than it makes sense for literary writers to denigrate genre. I get that genre fiction writers have been sneered at over the years, so they’re sneering back. But it actually helps out all writers if literary authors are welcomed into the fold. Ironically, self-publishers are acting like a kind of gatekeeper saying: you don’t belong here.
The world of self-publishing seems awfully stuck in a mindset like bad reactionary politics – in which everything is black and white. Genre good, literary bad. Traditional publishing bad, self-publishing good. Gun control bad, gun rights good. I probably shouldn’t even begin to get political, but that’s what people are sounding like. Writing itself is about nuance, so it seems awfully strange that a group of writers should be totally incapable of it.
Obviously, I’m making generalizations as well. There are plenty of self-publishers who write literary fiction, and aren’t dancing on the grave of literary fiction. Another comment on the Passive Voice:
By sneering at literary fiction just as the handful of literary snobs sneer at genre fiction, aren’t we behaving just as misguidedly as the establishment we are trying to change? Why can’t we simply accept that we are part of a vast sea of wonderful words, and that we can now write and read what we want to, without people feeling the need to denigrate each other’s choices?
Professional Critics Matter
All this aside, the reason literary fiction hasn’t been adopted as quickly is because literary writers need bookstore distribution more than genre writers do. Genre writers are much more likely to buy books on the Kindle. You might need to pick up a literary novel and read through it – not just the first 20 pages to see if there’s an action scene hook in the first few pages. 99 cent books are like the new dimestore novel, which were once bought in bulk.
Literary books are also more of an object to be owned than a lot of genre books – and because literary books are harder to read (not boring, more challenging), it makes sense to be able to see well-considered reviews from reputable sources. And though self-publishers might not want to admit it, readers don’t make the best gatekeepers. The evidence of this is in one-star reviews. If the internet has revealed anything, it’s that people will be critical about anything. Read any post online: a picture of puppies playing on grass. How could you possibly criticize that? Scroll down to the comments. Oh.
I was reading the reviews of a friend’s book the other day. The one-star review had this to say -
The author stole the idea from another book, Aftermath, Inc.: Cleaning Up After CSI Goes Home by Gil Reavill published in 2007.
My friend’s book was first published in 2004. It’s getting to the point where Amazon reviews might not be working – and so reviews from reputable sources carry more weight. Is that a gatekeeper? Yes. Is it better than that sub-literate Amazon review? Yes.
A one-star reviewer had this to say about my novel:
The book was nearly as torturous as Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky…and if you have read that book you know it is very slow reading, and hard to make yourself finish it.
The guy is kind of admitting that he’s an idiot (I admit this is a humblebrag, I obviously like being compared to Dostoevsky). This may seem like a different discussion than the above. We all know there are stupid one-star reviewers out there. But it’s part of the same issue: the lowest common denominator is now actually running things! That’s not progress, even if writers now can control their own fate. If writers and readers both are denigrating writers who take chances, then this has the potential to be as confining as any walled-off gate.
So don’t celebrate that people aren’t reading literary fiction, it’s kind of a disaster. People need to be reading more of everything, not less. Even if literary writers have been pricks about self-publishing in the past, we’re all writers. It’s hard to make a living as a writer, it’s hard to write a book. It’s no victory that it’s getting even harder for some of us.