Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Man in the Ivory Tower

Is there a difference between complaining about your workload as a (graduate) student and having a heavy workload, feeling like you want to talk about it, so saying things like "I'm not complaining, but..."? I've found myself on several instances this past week leading discussions of my current semester with that "I'm not complaining, but..." clause, enough times that I'm now concerned that I actually am complaining. But I think it's more like having any other job--sometimes you just want to talk about what you do. And currently, I read like its a full-time job (again, this is what graduate school is; I'm not complaining--if anything I like it), so this post, which I intend to be further ruminations on the notion of self-publishing, is going to be much more extemporaneous than I'd like it to be, but I'm, like, you know, busy, so worried that if I don't type this now (about 20 minutes before I head to my Literary Theory class (tonight: Barthes' seminal text, "Death of the Author" which, as much as I "don't like it," turns out to be somewhat appropriate to the discussion which I hope to further seed with this post)) than I won't get around to writing it until its already become less urgent to my running-at-capacity-these-days-in-terms-of-literature mind. [Ed: I did not actually finish this post before class. I am finishing it now, Friday afternoon, having just watched last night's Conan O'Brien on the internet and with no particular plans for the evening.]

So... preliminaries: this post is a continuation of this post, which expressed primarily, an excitement at the fact that Philip K. Dick's widow, Tessa, has published a book based on the final idea that he had been working on at the time of his death, but also surprise at the fact that this book was being self-published, with the reason for that listed as the Author's inability to find an editor. As it turns out, I, in my capacity as a GA at my university, am the assistant editor of a small literary journal (and will be the "executive" editor of it starting in the fall (the journal's 20th anniversary year, as it turns out)). So I'm quite curious about this sort of thing. I was also very interested by the comment that Don brought up about potential parallels between independent music publishing and self-publishing in print. And we've also had the good luck of having the author herself comment on the aforementioned post as well (which is exciting for me, in that I spent several years in college reading pretty much every novel of PKD's that I could get my hands on, so have enough fan enthusiasm in that regard).

The basic questions, then, are:

Why is this particular book self-published?
Does this/should this matter?

(I've got to admit that I feel myself pre-writing a post which is way too heady, or headier than I want it to be, anyway (I was just thinking to myself about what the next sentence should be, started something like "As Walter Benjamin famously noted..." but I should avoid this (goodness, I'll never finish this post before class (and wow! "regular" readers , have you ever seen me be this referential to my own existence as a student?))).)

I suppose my most optimistic appraisal of the potential for self-publishing would be that it could be functionally anti-capitalist, in that it might undermine the corporate-driven book culture which, one might imagine, sees books as simple commodity-objects aimed at various consumer demographics. This draws on the potential demonstrated by independent music projects, which are syndicalist in nature, where small, community-driven hubs of artifact-production plug into a wider network of similarly-minded distributors. Any broad appeal, by this model, is driven by curiosity or quality in a locally-aimed output; that is, albums are produced by independent bands for their friends, the CDs or LPs are sold at their shows, and perhaps made available on the internet through centralized marketplaces or distributorships. This takes a local phenomenon and makes it national (or global) without requiring a shift in scope of the music recording itself (the last time the "corporations" attempted this was with Seattle and "grunge" music). An example: when I was in college in Pittsburgh, I was really into a bunch of bands from Richmond, Virginia. When one of the bands toured through, they also introduced the other bands from their community--the music was about Richmond, but enjoyable in Pittsburgh, without any authoritarian broad-audience editorship of the music itself. It was enjoyable in Pittsburgh because a similar audience existed in both cities (though his audience was a small one).

But is the same thing possible with books? My sense is that there's something different about language communities and musical communities (though my sense is also that the language-folks would try real hard to convince me that everything is language (it isn't)). Part of this has to do with literary tradition. Whether a text is canonical or not, it is still in dialogue with its historicity. And "Literature," as it turns out, has a long history of criticism and quality control, and this has almost always started at the level of being published in the first place; that is, the book has to be published first by one house or another, before it can be welcomed, criticized, or ignored. Because it costs money to print books, and to recoup those costs, you need to sell enough books. So, with some sense of audience in mind, the publishers employed editors to determine and ensure [Ed: This is where the second burst of writing begins.] whether or not something will recoup its costs.

This editorial apparatus also allows for a critical apparatus, in that it presents a systematic distance between the author and the text (whereas a community-bases author would rely on a closeness). The critics would argue that it is the criticism, even more than the editing, that maintains the "standards" of "literature." So even if a book is published independently, or even self-published within a community, it may well overcome the editor/publisher paradigm, but does it suffer for the absence of critics? This depends on how similar the small community of readers that promotes a self-published book into being maps onto a larger, demographically broader community of readers. And this itself depends on whether or not a given self-published book even wants to have access to that larger audience (I think it's the general assumption that they do want to be as popular as books from the major corporate presses), because if the book doesn't want to be criticized it is probably unfair to do so. But also, it seems to me that the smaller community, in that it also has to keep its own community intact, will be less likely to criticize a given book published therein.

Given all of this, though, if something that was self-published does gain a wider audience, is it fair to criticize it as if it had been published in the standard corporate fashion? I would argue that yes, you can criticize it, since the text has overrun its author's intention, so even if the author never wanted it to be read by a broad audience (though, again, this is claim that strikes me as non-standard), once a text is read broadly, it must be acclimated to that new audience (i.e. criticized). It is most often the case, though, that self-published works never break through the barrier into that broader audience. Why is this the case?

It may extend beyond just aspects of distribution. Small-audience texts probably fulfill a different set of demands as those that are written with a broader audience in mind. Or, a text which satisfies a certain market (like that of a group of enthusiasts for a certain topic) does so at other levels than that of "good fiction." Hence genre-fiction in the first place. Philip K. Dick ends up being a great example of this, as he was a pulp sci-fi writer for the bulk of his career, and thereafter his books gained a new life as post-modern literature. What was good science fiction became good literature, but the same book--say, A Scanner Darkly (since this is the book that I read for an undergraduate literary theory class)--is good as literature by a different set of criteria than it was good as good science fiction. The two genre distinctions overlap to some extent, but my point is that the amount of overlap varies from work to work, and the expectation is that what is considered to be the "best" sci-fi will also be the "best-written" from a critical perspective.

So in the case of Tessa Dick's book (which I have now read the first chapter of--it does indeed seem to be priming a book which will be dealing with very Dickian themes (the importance of the soundtracks in movies, for instance)), my initial surprise at its being self-published was because I would have expected the now-broadened audience of Philip K. Dick to be big enough as to present a market share which is alluring to book-profiteers (though it occurs to me now that just because people had to, like, read his books, didn't mean that they, like, liked them (the way I did--which is to say, I may never have read PKD if it wasn't being read in college-level lit classes, as I wouldn't necessarily have gotten deep enough into the genre of science fiction as a whole to get to him), but this isn't necessarily indicative of there being a particularly large/active audience for PKD at the consumer level). Since it already, apparently, failed to find an editor or publisher, what Tessa Dick's book relies on, then, is whether or not there's a large enough community of readers in the first place for her enterprise to be considered successful. In that the book exists at all, this answer must be "yes." Whether this community also supports self-publishing writers whose work will hold up to the scrutiny of traditional values and criticism is much more questionable, and indeed, may be, by definition, an impossibility.


Blogger Nick Marino said...

it's interesting to me to see the discourse of self-publishing played out in a venue where self-publishing has a negative connotation. personally, unless there's something that's particularly sacred about the physical novel format, i don't see why something like this couldn't run on a blog or anything of the like. the fact that it's not on a blog or online for free somewhere suggests to me that there was a definite feeling that money could be made off of the product. i think, therefore, that the book should be open for critique just like any other novel and/or work of published fiction, regardless of the corporate stamp on it. however, if it were to run in a different format such as a blog, then i think the content would deserve a potentially different set of criteria, if only because the delivery method (and potential value of content) would have a different set of parameters.

2/24/2009 2:19 PM  
Blogger Pete said...

The thing is, though, Nick, that centralized publication exists for a reason, and these reasons aren't arbitrary. Certainly, more and more texts will exist in a virtual format--most academic journals are online at this point, for instance. Which doesn't automatically mean that they should be free--you're still paying for the editing, both in terms of content and copyediting. And if a goal is either a) to write something for a community of readers outside your own community, or b) to write for the broadest audience possible, then the kind of things provided by centralized or "corporate" publishing are useful and good.

But I disagree that there's any reason to criticize, for instance, fan-fiction, in that its purpose for its readers has very little to do with the notions of quality of interest to most critics (story and ideas over style and structure).

Blogs have more in common with journalism (or "new journalism") than literature, so are probably a separate case unto their own. One supposes that a serialized novel could be published in "blog" format, but as soon as that notion of "novel" is introduced, a different set of criteria comes along with it.

2/25/2009 2:10 PM  

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