A Book Report from the Zero Income Front
My impression is that, when the average browsing consumer considers the self-published novel, quality is not her concern. By this I mean the question of whether she expects to find quality. We might (it’s been done) correlate types of publishing to shopping venues—take brick and mortar stores as the equivalent of traditional presses and agents; online sellers, a match to CreateSpace, et al.; flea markets and trade shows, the blogosphere. The open-minded would not say categorically, “It’s impossible to find anything good in a store”; “Nothing sold online can be worth anything”; “You’ll never get anything decent at a flea market.” (Love flea markets.)
There is no reason, then, to blanket self-publishing with a sneer of prejudice, as though it were all one thing. Or, taking a different analogy: if you were homeless, and the only roof you could put over your head was a cot at the community shelter, it would be no use your huddling in a corner, telling yourself, “These others are not my class.”
Your sympathies ought to grow in loyalty for being housed where you’re welcome; more so, if the people who had shut you out of their own neighborhood pointed at the shelter and called its residents losers.
The advantage, also, in getting a contract, doesn’t appear to be in marketing, of which the author must shoulder a great deal (this bearing a little hard on the marginalized and rural), but chiefly in a kind of enfranchisement—traditionally published books are eligible to be panel-reviewed for major prizes, and self-published books are not. Traditional publishers hook up writers with professional editors…no small consideration. Editing is tough. It takes time to learn grammar, punctuation, spelling, word choice, continuity; then learn again, to throw these things out selectively, for effect. Traditional publishers (indies included), confer cachet—trusted names that can be used for promotion, the social support of an official re-tweet. Thus the foot-in-the-door problem goes full circle.
I think, in the same way you come to learn a brand of anything you like (jeans, shoes, coffee) is less often sourced from the small, quaint and mission-oriented, and more often another label under the corporate umbrella…with self-publishing, it’s the suspicion of fakeness that dismays. Some authors seem funded and connected, yet tell a David narrative of themselves, rather than admit their friendship with Goliath. Some cynically peddle teeming catalogs of copy and paste jobs, and some scare away readers by responding to every comment and contact with aggressive sales-pitching.
But if you are the sort of reader I am, you like knowing what’s out there, and you like trying new things…you wouldn’t, therefore, like each publisher’s having its one institutional standard, from which it refuses to depart. And diversity is good for both the reader and the seller of books. Diversity, however, doesn’t teach the writer, for having taken the usual advice to “look at our catalog/latest issue, and see what sort of work we publish”, whether she should or should not submit to a given house.
So let me expand on the things that make me want to read past the opening pages. (I can afford, at least, the “look inside” feature on Amazon.)
My touchstone, as a novelist, comes from a man I know nothing about otherwise, a Paul A. Jorgensen, writer of an introduction to Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”, probably in the 1950’s. (My Pelican Revised Text lists several publication dates, from 1956-1971.) Jorgensen said, to paraphrase, that there are three types of mistaken identity: to be mistaken for another person; to mistake the nature of another person; and to mistake one’s own nature. The last is the most profound, the essence of human tragedy, the height to shoot for, whether or not we succeed in realizing it.
Making a character is better than describing a character. I see a trend of adopting in fiction the creative non-fiction approach, and this, while humanizing to journalism, seems actually to impose a distance and detachment on storytelling. There are multiple languages of mood and perspective, and the reader instinctively understands these; she inhabits the role assigned to her by the positioning of the omniscient camera. I noticed this phenomenon when I was editing a snatch of internal speech that belongs to a character otherwise given third person. If Bruner were the sole narrator of Sequence of Events, we would hear his words—
So I ask Summers for a letter of recommendation. I tell him, “To help me make a start.” And what are the odds he can help me make a start? Maybe it works out he knows people in Los Angeles.
—with not much more of hope, or less of self-defeat, than Bruner himself knows. When we are on the character’s shoulder rather than inside his head, and aware of this, we adjust our judgment; we see what he can’t see of himself.
When you’re sitting down to be told a story, you want to feel anchored to a character and a purpose—Clever Gretel and her master’s special dinner, Colonel Aureliano Buendía and the firing squad, Miss Lonelyhearts and his enemy Shrike; even, in the opening paragraphs of Bleak House, the conurbation of London and the shroud of fog.
I find the historical present to be a minor flag, even though it has also a kind of brain-candy effect, that draws you into the stream at once. But I think that’s part of the problem…it becomes facile to use this technique. The writer still needs to clip into an engagement with the reader. When a book goes on for six pages and I don’t know yet who the character is—or what dilemma we’re grappling with—the reportorial style won’t stop me falling out of the stream.
And, interestingly, this style belongs to poetry as much as journalism; at times the intention is to slip the reader into an unfolding scene, h.p. is quite right. In stories, wherever immediacy, inescapability, is the mood, the device works. But ramping up tension is a two-edged sword. When the reader is not engaged, she gets nothing from the author’s withholding from her the reason she ought to be engaged.
To judge poetry by published works—as superior/inferior; good/bad; right/wrong—seems to me impossible, at least at the center of the spectrum. I’ve looked at the Poetry Foundation’s selection by subject feature (this, on one occasion, the word “sough” to see how it was being rhymed, since it has more than one pronunciation). I’ve looked at published books of poetry; at prize winners, journal offerings and personal blogs, The Oxford Book of English Verse, Rilke and Saint-John Perse in the original. Often, I can see no large and distinct difference between the accepted and the unaccepted—not in subject matter, not in emotional realization, not in diction, not in rhyme and beat.
I’m inclined, then, to go on posting my own poetry…because for one, I think bloggies (who see a lot, and are open to a lot) can get into what I’m doing, can see telling stories in poetry is akin to the captions and speech balloons of a graphic novel—a shorthand, a way of brachiating from detail to detail; also because poetry is momentary, and publishing anything traditionally takes a long time.
Blogs, I think, are the ideal medium for poetry.
2017, Stephanie Foster
(Thanks to my Mom, for her funding of my work.)