Unholy Legions

What is the biggest threat facing today’s literary culture? The erosion of imagination beneath the relentless double onslaught of television and film? The rise of an entertainment-industrial complex that has effectively turned books into corporate products? The marketing of demographically appealing fiction and good-looking authors to readers more interested in celebrity than art or ideas? The death of the stand-alone book review?

No, I’m afraid it’s none of the above. As any editorial these days is bound to tell you, the greatest danger is that posed by self-published authors.

To some of you this may come as a surprise. After all, self-published authors have been with us for several hundred years now and they haven’t caused any problems. In fact, they’ve occasionally done some first-rate work, and made lasting contributions to our literary heritage (of course the vast majority of them, like the vast majority of published authors, have simply disappeared). But it is now clear that these wannabe novelists and vain poetasters have gone too far, ventured a step too near the sacred temple of Art. Under our very noses they have been working alone and in darkness to overthrow fragile multinational media conglomerates whose only interest is in making the world a better place for books.

Real books, that is.

It is hard to get a fix on just how desperate the situation is. After all, the names of the self-published don’t appear on the bestseller lists. In fact, it’s hard to even find their efforts at your local bookstore (be it chain or indie). They don’t advertise, and are never reviewed by any major media outlets. Of course they never win literary awards (undoubtedly because they are all so wretched, but also perhaps because there are no literary awards that will accept them for consideration). Usually restricted to extremely limited first printings – just enough to give away copies to family and friends – they don’t even get to suffer the indignity of being remaindered.

But while they may seem harmless, make no mistake: These so-called “authors” are really the almighty legion of evil. Our only defence against them is a strong publishing industry, with highly-trained professional gatekeepers acting as a corporate filter. How else will we ever figure out what to read? Imagine the “horror” (a word that editorialists use freely in this context) of an uncontrolled, unregulated vanity press! Consider the effect such a monster would have on Western Civilization! According to Harper’s magazine the flood of self-publishing on the Internet is bound to “affect American publishing in the worst way and obliterate whatever remains of a genuine book culture.” But perhaps I should let the most recent prophet of doom speak for the rest. Here is Jonathan Heawood writing in the Observer:

So everyone’s got a story to tell? Well, thank God they don’t all get published! . . . All that stands between us and this nightmare vision of total authorship is the publishing industry itself, especially the major houses, trading on their power not to publish. By not publishing a lot of tat each year, they keep the storytelling hordes at bay.

Nightmare vision indeed! Thank God for big publishing! Indeed, let us praise the God that is big publishing! And let Laura Miller, literary editor of Salon.com, lead us in prayer, raising up thanks to the book industry for offering imperiled readers “a bulwark, a sacred shield against the ultimate monstrosity: rampant, unfiltered, unholy slush.”

My satire must end there, simply because there is no way I can overtop Ms. Miller’s paean to the holy, and wholly benevolent, power of corporate publishing. And yet after reading these horror stories, and many, many more like them, I have to admit to more than a little bit of confusion. The sheer magnitude and intensity of vitriol poured upon those who would dare to enter the holy realm of the published seems totally out of proportion with its object. Self-published books are truly the snuff pornography of the publishing world: universally condemned as crude, exploitative, offensive, and even dangerous, while at the same time rarely if ever seen. Indeed, in my researches I was able to find only one recent article, at the Complete Review, that took a responsible look at the subject. And yet the number of editorials attacking self-publishing (along with what has become the sub-genre of mocking the slush pile) continues to grow.

As a critic who has reviewed self-published material, I find most of these articles hysterical, ignorant, and mean-spirited. In the first place, if you’re not going to bother reviewing self-published titles, why waste column inches condemning them in principle? And if you really think self-published authors are all so incompetent and out-of-touch, why not just ignore them? Everybody else does. As the authors (both professional editors) of the Harper’s piece point out, any book “without an editor, marketing, or publicity” is guaranteed to sink like a stone in today’s marketplace. So why get into such a snit over e-books? I suspect the people running Bertelsmann are somewhat less concerned.

The response of our media elites to self-published authors has been nothing short of contemptible. Take another look at the Harper’s piece. Instead of taking an actual example of self-published fiction to task the authors make something up, and offer it as “a prime example of the kind of work” that gets published on the Internet. What is this supposed to prove? That they never even got around to looking at anything actually published online?

In their sneering tirades the critics of self-publishing also have a tendency to lose all hold on reason. Heawood, for example, refers to self-publishing as an “oxymoronic phenomenon,” a phrase “that makes about as much sense as ‘self-marrying’.” For the life of me I can’t figure out what he means. I know that books today have been degraded to the status of corporate products. Indeed this is something I spend a lot of time complaining about (see, for example, “The Death of the Author” and “The New Industrial Art”). But to say that the book as a self-created artifact is a contradiction in terms boggles the mind.

But Heawood does have a point. Labels are very, very important. In particular, the sacred title of “author” must be preserved. Harper’s does its part by mocking the claim of online publisher Xlibris to be able to turn writers into authors. No amount of self-publishing, they stridently declare, can ever do this!

This is something I want to return to, but for the moment I want to comment on something else that’s been bothering me. The point I want to make is this: In both the film and music industries creative independence means something good. So what is it about the book world that makes all of the connotations of independence pejorative? It is, after all, just as difficult for a new author to land a deal with a major publisher as it is for a local band to sign with a big record label or a hot young film student to get the green light to produce even a micro-budget feature. These industries have all erected barriers (the blessed corporate filter) to defend us. But in the case of music and film we ask “defend us from what?” Incompetence? Lack of talent? Hardly. Has anyone ever praised Hollywood’s executive elite for protecting us from independent film? And yet, at least at the very top, many of those executives are the same people who run big publishing.

So why are independent filmmakers and musicians universally saluted by the media as cultural heroes – courageous, dedicated, sincere, original, and clearly the last best hope of art – while the same media sources brand independent authors as shameful, despicable, monstrous, and a danger to art’s existence? Nobody denies that the saxophone player on the streetcorner is a “musician”, or that the student with a digital video recorder but no budget and no distribution deal is a “filmmaker.” In fact, we are likely to consider them a superior kind of musician or filmmaker as compared to whoever won the Grammy this year for Best New Female Vocalist or the director of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. They haven’t “sold out” to the suits. They haven’t compromised their personal vision in order to achieve mainstream success. Why then are independent artists working outside of the music and film industries lionized as a heroic avant-garde, while their brothers- and sisters-in-arms are furiously attacked as a degenerate gang of egotists, suckers, poseurs and losers?

One gets the sense that what’s at work is Freud’s narcissism of small difference. For Freud, the smaller the real difference between two groups of people, the larger it will become in their imagination. Michael Ignatieff applied this theory to the recent fighting in the Balkans, pointing out the necessary corollary that enemies need each other to remind themselves of who they really are. Without hatred of the other, there is no self to adore.

And so the published need to hate the self-published. After all, there are few of them who can’t say “There but for the grace of God (that is, my agent), go I.” Thus the insistence on credentials and labels, no matter how trivial or meaningless they may seem. They help draw the line between the otherwise indistinguishable “us” and “them”. Exactly who it is drawing the line gets less attention. Should the market decide? Arts councils? Is there really a difference between a self-published author and one whose work is published off a Canada Council grant?

Mainstream critics have a vested interest in defending the status quo. Overwhelmed with words, they give thanks for a filter that protects them from all that “abominable, self-exculpating, abusive tosh” (Heawood again). It’s also clear that an industry as pretentious and hierarchical as BookWorld has to spend a lot of time keeping people in their place. (I’ve found you get the same flack for being a book reviewer on the Internet – that is, a mere “monkey with a keyboard” – but that’s another story.)

Meanwhile, think how interesting things would be if just half the critical fury spent attacking self-published authors was lavished instead on the latest National Book Award or Giller Prize winner!

But of course it’s a lot easier to pick on the little guys. And so much funnier too.

Essay first published online March 4, 2002.


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