Friday, June 7, 2013

Why John Green Can Kiss My Ass

In the book section of today's Guardian, there is an article in which bestselling author John Green, speaking to the Association of American Booksellers, explains in no uncertain terms why he has no desire to self publish. I am not offended by his not wanting to self publish; he managed to find a good agent and a good publisher and is riding that train as far and as fast as he can, and good on him! I have no problem with traditional publishing and wish him and any other traditionally published writer all the success in the world. Who knows? If God/fate/ka wills, maybe one day, I'll even have the opportunity to publish traditionally.

Honestly, I cannot completely argue with his reasons for preferring traditional publishing, i.e. the input one receives from an agent and publishing house editors that help make a possibly "self-indulgent" novel far more readable and universal in appeal. I will say, however, that agents and professional editors do not have a monopoly on good revision advice. Anyone who reads extensively, has a good ear for quality literature, and is willing to devote the time it takes to read a book and offer constructive criticism on it can do so just as well (in some cases better) than agents and editors. 

No, what pisses me off most about Mr. Green's comments is the pompously offhand manner in which he dismisses self-publishing as a concept. In the article, he clearly implies that self-publishing consists of "widget-selling" and "profit-maximisation" (sic). Really, John Green? Seriously? Are you actually suggesting that independent publishing is too commercial? 

What really burns me up, though is his fear that self-publishing "threatens the overall quality and breadth of American literature." This is probably the most common insult hurled at independent authors: that we are somehow diluting American literature by circumventing the divinely appointed gate-keeping functions of Random House and Simon and Schuster. Brad Thor, author of several techno-thrillers (that I will not list because fuck that guy) claims that the role of traditional publishing is to "separate the wheat from the chaff" he continues: "If you’re a good writer and have a great book you should be able to get a publishing contract."

Well that certainly worked out for John Kennedy Toole, didn't it? For those of you who don't know this name, here's a recap. In 1964, Toole wrote what is often considered one of the "seminal" works in 20th century American literature.
Seminal: "highly original and inlfuential [...] central to the development and understanding of a subject" (abridged from the OED)
Anyway, so Toole writes this SEMINAL book, A Confederacy of Dunces. It was so good, it won a Pulitzer in 1981. Now maybe you think its odd that a book would win a Pulitzer 1981 if it was written 17 years earlier, and this is a good point. The fact is, though, it didn't get published until 1980. See, publishers kept rejecting it. Over and over. This Pulitzer prize winning novel was considered unpublishable in part because "it isn't really about anything." (Obviously, this was before Seinfeld  made stories about nothing marketable). Well, you may be saying, Toole eventually got his book published, and it won an award: YAY! Well, not so much. Toole killed himself in 1969 (while it may have had nothing to do with his book being rejected over and over, I'm sure it didn't help). His mom found the manuscript, and several publishers turned her down, too. Then she hounded Walker Percy, an influential Southern novelist who happened to be teaching at a local college at the time, until he read it and convinced LSU Press that it was good enough to publish, and it won the Pulitzer the next year.

So much for separating wheat from chaff, Mr. Thor, at least in enough time for the farmer to reap the benefits.

Brad Thor, however, is at least partly genteel in his disparagement of independent writers. Sue Grafton, on the other hand, seems positively offended that independent publishing exists as a concept:
"To me, it seems disrespectful…that a ‘wannabe’ assumes it’s all so easy s/he can put out a ‘published novel’ without bothering to read, study, or do the research. … Self-publishing is a short cut and I don’t believe in short cuts when it comes to the arts. I compare self-publishing to a student managing to conquer Five Easy Pieces on the piano and then wondering if s/he’s ready to be booked into Carnegie Hall."
Well, I am absolutely abject, Ms. Grafton. Please accept my most humble apologies. I had no idea that my unmitigated audacity in publishing my little collection of short stories somehow disrespected your alphabet mysteries. Also, how foolish of me to think that all the time I have spent learning what kind of trees grew in Texas in the late 1800's, what superstitions revolve around poker hands, and what kind of firearms were available in the late 1800's in order to write my Western was actually research, reading, and study.

The assumption, here, by writers such as Green and Grafton, is that good writers get picked up by publishers and bad ones self-publish. (Yes, thank the good lord and all that is holy that traditional publishing saved us from Twilight and Glenn Beck's novel).

If John Kennedy Toole is one example of how traditional publishing is flawed, let me introduce you to Richard Monaco, who shows how well independent publishing can work. In 1977, Monaco published his first novel, Parsival or a Knight's Tale with MacMillan. It became a bestseller, was a main selection of Quality Paperback Books, and was nominated for that year's Pulitzer Prize. It's sequel, The Final Quest, was also a Pulitzer Prize nominee and, oddly enough, lost to Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Throughout the 80's and 90's Monaco was a consistent bestselling author until, through a series of circumstances beyond his or anyone's control, he wasn't. Last year, when he decided to finally publish two new novels, he couldn't find a publisher for them. This two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee could not get a publisher to look at either of his two manuscripts, so he decided to publish them independently, and both have been generally well-received, and Monaco is now gaining a new generation of fans.

The point I'm trying to make here is not new. When I first set out to write this post, I came across it in a couple of places during my research, but David Vinjamuri of Forbes draws exactly the comparison I set out to make. You don't hear big-label musicians trashing indie bands. On the rare occasion you do, it is because of a dislike of the band's music, not because they had the audacity to not get picked up by a label. Everyone loves independent films (anyone heard of Kevin Smith?), but God knows there's enough crappy indie films to fill most of Calcutta. However, A-list actors and directors consistently work independently in addition to working with major studios (Samuel L. Jackson does about as much work for independent films as he does for studio blockbusters, for instance). This brings me to the great irony of this whole diatribe: It is sparked by statements given to a group of independent booksellers. I find myself wondering if Green followed up his statements by telling these people that they were threatening the overall quality of bookselling by not being Barnes & Noble?

Yes, there is a shitload of crap being independently published; however, there's also a crapload of shit being published traditionally. (That Fifty Shades of Grey began as self-published fan fiction and "graduated" to traditional publishing should serve as argument enough against Brad Thor's "wheat and chaff" comment). And just as there are a lot of horrible books published traditionally, there are quite a few independently published books that are well worth the time. Ever heard of these books?

The Adventures of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Ulysses by James Joyce
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Lady Chatterly's Lover by D. H. Lawrence
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Yep, all of these were worthless "chaff" written by "wannabes" looking for "short-cuts" and "profit-maximisation."


  1. Well said, mate. This is one rant I enjoyed reading :D

  2. Thank you! Stay tuned, I'm sure there will be more. I don't post regularly, but when I do, it's because I have something to say.:)