A Book Report from the Zero Income Front
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; match online sellers to Kindle Direct Publishing, et al.; flea markets and trade shows to the blogosphere. The open-minded reader ought not to say categorically, “It’s impossible to find anything good in a store”; “Nothing sold online can be worth anything”; “You 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 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, music, 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 we find dismaying. 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: Paul A. Jorgensen, author of an introduction to Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”. (My Pelican Revised Text lists several publication dates, from 1956-1971.) Jorgensen said, to paraphrase, that there are three types of mistaken identity: being mistaken for another person; mistaking the nature of another person; and mistaking one’s own nature. The last is the most profound, the essence of human tragedy, the height storytellers ought 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 in the 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.
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, what dilemma we’re grappling with; and my readerly role is bench-sitter, unanchored to the past, disconnected with the passing scene—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 event, the historical present is quite right. In stories, passages where 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.
2017, Stephanie Foster
(Thanks to my Mom, for her funding of my work.)