It must be admitted that good novels are somewhat compromised by bad ones, and that the field, at large, suffers discredit from overcrowding.
— Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”
It is the beginning of a new semester of my graduate program in Creative Writing and I came across this quote as I began the reading for my American Naturalism literature class. It seemed like he could have written it today about today’s conversation about writing and self-publishing.
There are a lot of books being published today. Amazon bears a responsibility for that — it is now easier than ever for an author to share their work with an audience. I was sitting in a train station on Friday afternoon, shamelessly eavesdropping on a young woman’s conversation, where she explained to her companion that she had published a book and sold five copies of it — she was certain that it was all to her parents’ friends, but she was thrilled nonetheless. Five people had purchased her work, but this was as big of a goal as she had for herself. For perhaps the first time, we have a broad amateur market with easy access to an audience. We sell ebooks for a dollar — sometimes even less, to a global marketplace that has learned to expect poor editing for a cheaper price. I’ve heard others tell me that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book, no matter who the author is.
Wouldn’t Henry James be delighted at such sentiments?
There have always been vanity presses. Even Jane Austen’s family volunteered to offset the publishing costs of her first novels. Many, many well-polished and mature manuscripts still face failure at the traditional publishing houses, who are now owned by fewer companies than they ever have been. As with most of the cultural products in our world, our choices are becoming simultaneously fewer and greater at the same time — there are fewer people professionally producing unique books, but many more amateurs with the ability to bring us their creative vision. We’ve seen the same experience with music, as Youtube and independent music distributors like Jamendo, Bandcamp and others have enabled more musicians than ever to share their art with the world. (Read more.)
Being the populist that I am, I can’t help but appreciate that it’s easier than ever for creative art to find its way in the world. I want the truly creative artist to not be dependent on taste monitors at publishing houses and recording studios deciding what will be financially viable for them and making that available to us as a culture. We’ve seen what that creates with the music stations of the United States, which play a increasingly small selection of songs. Much of what gets published is published with the same idea — repeat the same formula that’s already out there, because it’s likely to win you money. Find an author that was an amazing success, then publish more of her work. Discover authors who are already selling, who already have their cross-marketed platform, who have already been successful — it’s a significantly less risky strategy than taking a chance on someone that no one has ever heard of.
I can’t really even blame the publishers for these decisions, when I hear readers say that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book. You have to sell a lot of copies of that book before you can pay your staff. And with the market prices now starting to be driven by retailers like Amazon, who are demanding to set the price of books even lower, it’s become more difficult than ever to stay in business as a publisher. We may well see a market entirely created by the “amateurs” soon if giants like Amazon manage to make professional publishing houses unprofitable.
What would Henry James think of that?
I have to admit that there have been times in my writing life, when I am frustrated with the work that I am doing, where it becomes impossible to see the point of it all. This is in part because of how much work there is out there — even this blog often feels like I am writing into the abyss. If audience is the goal, then that is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve when there are so many different places for audiences to go. We could argue about an increasingly short attention span as well — I know far too many people who won’t even read beyond the title of an article on Facebook. The web has its own share of the guilt — so many things that are produced for the Internet are for link capital and provide very little new content. If I had a dollar for every article that begins, ‘You Won’t Believe…” or “10 Things That….”, I would not be worried about some day trying to make some money off of my writing.
I admit that I have a certain fondness for Henry James. He was a modernist, in a changing era. He was writing about psychology and feminism, as he watched the traditional gender roles that he grew up with change as his world crossed over into the 20th century. Although his work has aged over the last century, his books still feel modern — and you get the sense of a man trying to understand the people around him. Later in “The Art of Fiction,” James writes that the novel, unlike other literary forms, should compete with real life — that it should engage in a type of trompe l’oeil verisimilitude. I like that idea a lot, this idea that literature should struggle to feel real. Even when the characters are in fantastical situations, they should feel real and true. If I could just wrangle my characters into that, then I could be happy enough, published or not.