Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Literature versus trash and other myths of the modern age

The Reading Experience provides a link to an article in the St Louis Post-Dispatch. The article is by one Daniel Stolar, and it describes the hard times which he experienced while trying to arouse interest in his book of short stories, The Middle of the Night. (The book was published by Picador in the USA.)

Now.... As far as possible in this blog, I try to avoid anything which might be thought of as ad hominem criticism. So I will try, in this particular post, not to write anything which might be thought of as a comment on, and especially not an attack on, Mr Stolar personally; he evidently has enough on his mind already. Instead, I will use his article as the starting point for posing a number of questions, to which I will then provide answers, together with some comments.

But first, what does Stolar have to say?

It turns out that Stolar's book (a collection of eight short stories, mostly set in his home town of St Louis) was published about a year ago. After initial interest from his agent, editor, and publicist, it turned out that the publisher was not going to organise a major author tour or get him on the Oprah Winfrey show, so he set out to drum up his own publicity in his home town. And he was quite successful. He got himself interviewed by lots of newspapers, contacted everybody he could think of, and then, to his apparent amazement, discovered that local bookshops weren't remotely interested in him. Or his book. All they were interested in was organising publicity for the forthcoming Harry Potter.

Stolar himself now seems fairly resigned to this state of affairs, but he nevertheless tells the story as if the reception that he and his book were given was somehow surprising, and also, somehow, inappropriate; because, as he points out, the book was published by a major New York firm. And he was a local boy. His parents were quite well known in the city.

Ah well.

Here are the questions and comments which this situation brings to my mind. They are couched, as far as possible, in general terms and, to repeat, are not intended to reflect directly upon Mr Stolar.

Point 1:

It is not unusual to find that authors are surprised and upset when no one takes any notice of their newly published book. But why are they surprised? And do they have any sensible reason for being upset?

Answers: Authors are surprised by this kind of reception only if they know next to nothing about the book business. And I am surprised -- well, no, not surprised, but disappointed -- disappointed that any young writer could possibly be dumb enough to imagine that anybody would take any notice. Such a reaction can only be based on a profound ignorance of the facts.

Here in England we have over 2,000 new books published every week. Every week! Of these, about 10% are fiction. That's 200 novels (plus a few collections of short stories) every week. Or roughly 30 a day. Newspapers review about 10% of these. Maybe. Is it surprising that no one takes any notice?

As for being upset.... Again, this can only be the result of ignorance, or an amazingly high (and unjustified) opinion of one's own importance in the general scheme of things. Booksellers, believe it or not, have a business to run. They have a payroll to meet at the end of the week. They have mortgages to pay and children to feed. Of course the bookseller is going to concentrate on Harry Potter! Hellfire, the UK paperback edition of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out on 21 June this year, and it sold 1.7m copies on that day alone! Yes, 1.7 million. That will go a long way towards helping to pay quite a lot of mortgages, not to mention buying burgers and fish fingers for the kids. But a book of short stories from a literary publisher? Oh, please. You cannot be serious.

Point 2:

It is common to find that literary authors look down on what sells and dismiss it as 'puerile', 'worthless' and 'trash'. How do they come to believe such things? And are their views justified?

Answers: It is, regrettably, abundantly clear why literary authors come to believe that there is a distinction between 'good books' on the one hand and 'worthless trash' on the other.

They believe this because they have mostly taken degrees in English literature. And for three or four years they have sat and listened to lecturers propounding these half-baked ideas. And because the students have never understood that the main purpose of education is to learn how to question and test the value of what you are told, they have accepted their lecturers' arguments without, apparently, a moment's thought.

Judging by the evidence on the internet, Eng. Lit. graduates emerge from university not so much educated as damaged. They venture out into the real world, blinking furiously from the light, and reveal to us all that they suffer from three major delusions. They are deluded about (a) the nature of literature, (b) the function of publishers and booksellers, and (c) the extent of their own talent as a writer.

A modicum of thought on the part of Eng. Lit. students and graduates would reveal that much of what passes for the received wisdom in Eng. Lit. is, to put it as politely as possible, a load of old balls. It is intellectual snobbery of the worst possible kind, without any sound foundation. (If you want more detailed argument, see chapter 5 of my book The Truth about Writing.)

And how does it come about, you may reasonably ask, that the Eng. Lit. lecturers come to be teaching all these things? Well, because it's a lot easier to go along with the established party line than it is to question it. If you're a lecturer/professor in say, a liberal-arts college somewhere in the mid-west, or the UK midlands equivalent, it's a lot more profitable to sit deadly still than to start rocking the boat. If you just do the safe thing -- teach what everybody else teaches, and publish a paper on the number of commas in Wordsworth from time to time -- then no one will question your tenure. But if you start to wonder whether there is any point to your existence at all, and the existence of many more like you, then all of a sudden you're going to become very unpopular indeed.

Point 3:

What should writers do in order to avoid the kind of heartache which arises when you publish a book and no one takes a blind bit of notice?

Answer: If you are thinking of writing a book, it would surely be a good idea to learn a little bit about the modern book trade. Read the Bookseller for a year or two, or Publishers Weekly if you're an American. Read a few books on the business. That's what books are for! They encapsulate forty years of experience into a couple of hundred pages. Jason Epstein's Book Business is a classic example.

If you, dear reader, take the time to find out a bit about the book business, in advance of writing your book, will probably save yourself a great deal of time and trouble. For a start, you will very quickly realise that there's no money in it; that your chances of being reviewed in any major journal are somewhere between slim and zero, and Slim just left town; and that reviews do not necessarily translate into sales, or anything else of much value.

If you must write short stories, or a novel, put the damn thing on the internet, for free. If it's any good, in terms of producing emotion in the reader, word will spread fast enough, you can be sure of that -- ask Cory Doctorow. And if you can find 50,000 readers or so, and prove that you’ve entertained them, then you won’t have to go looking for a publisher, because a whole gang of them will undoubtedly come rushing up the path to your door.

But please, please, don't bleat to me about what a crime it is that bookshops won't stock your literary masterpiece.


Anonymous said...

"If you are thinking of writing a book, it would surely be a good idea to learn a little bit about the modern book trade."

Actually, if you are thinking of writing a book, it would be best to ignore the modern book trade altogether. It isn't interested in writing, only "product."

As to your figures showing how many books are published in relation to those reviewed: What kind of incompetence on the part of the "book trade" is this? Any other "business" so unable to bring notice to its product would be run out of business.

--Daniel Green

Anonymous said...

In reply to one poster, writing IS product. The art and craft of writing is SUPPOSED to entertain, to make people think, to take them out of their humdrum existence and put them SOMEWHERE ELSE. Over the past 60 years modern 'literature' especially in the US has degenerated to mean 'inaccessible'. No wonder 'literary' writers whine.

Simon Haynes said...

My BA includes an eng lit component, but my major was creative writing. For three years I handed in blood-drenched horror stories, outer space quests and parodies of various fantasy books, but still managed to pass the course. The funniest part is that I chose to take all the night-time courses so I could have each day off, and the night-time courses were packed with mature-age students with a very literary bent. Many were even more earnest than the school-leavers you saw during daytime hours.
Part of the CW tutes involved reading your latest piece aloud so that students could voice their opinions. That was fun.

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