Creative Writing, Some thoughts on going forward

I’ve recently taken another ride on the merry-go-round that is the process of getting published these days.

Here’s a direct quote from a friendly publisher who took the time to answer my request for a reading,

“…it’s almost impossible to sell any debut fiction at all these days, wherever it comes from, unless it’s a bestseller…”

In a way it’s refreshing to hear. And not the first time.

Coupled with a variety of other catch-22s and old fashioned double-binds it’s publishing way of welcoming us into the era of collapse! These conditions aren’t going to improve “after the down-turn.” This is a sign of the new normal, at least until the next floor drops out.

I’ve been putting a lot of thought, for years now, into what it is that I really want that has not been available outside of traditional publishing. It has consistently come down to two related issues. First my conviction that a manuscript is not a book – I’m talking about fiction and creative writing in general here, non-fiction is a totally different animal, as I’ve been told for a decade by everyone I’ve asked within publishing.

A manuscript is not a book until it’s been edited. I don’t mean copy-editing, or proof-reading, although those are necessary. I’m talking about having a committed reader and lover of literature who is experienced and talented and can communicate a point of view and enter into a dialogue with the writer in a process that culminates in a finished book. This may mean a series of major revisions, cuts, and transpositions, or it may be the lightest of line-edits and a thank you very much! But it doesn’t happen in an editor-for-hire situation and rarely today does it happen at all, even if one is lucky enough to find an amenable publisher.

I can’t stress how important this is. How central it is to the creation of a work of fiction. Somewhere between the subjectivity of a writer and manuscript, and the public presentation of a completed book, there needs to be this other person, another subjectivity removed from the writer, yet held to the work by a certain affinity, and even love for it. Much of what we revere as literature written at least in the last few hundred years has had the benefit of this relationship as part of its creation. If there’s anything I’m nostalgic for about the great days of the small independent houses in Europe and the United States, say, between 1900 and 1950, it’s this.

The other point I’ve been holding out for is the way a publisher’s involvement signals the approval of a known “gatekeeper.” This isn’t to validate the work in my own mind, that’s not really here nor there. It seems to be the best, if not the only way to get above the noise. There are more works published, either printed or as e-books, today than ever. There are so many thousands of items published every day that it is nearly impossible to show above the surface of this deluge without the benefit of whatever remaining clout publishers still have to get the word out and notice paid.

Of course, the above quote does admit that this is not seen to be enough anymore, even by those who are still dedicated or crazy enough to attempt to run an independent house. Everyone expects a writer to be his or her own publicist and to spearhead a marketing campaign for their own work. It’s curious the way this last gasp of “market wisdom” is so firmly held in this field of creating and disseminating an art form when it’s been so fully discredited everywhere else! It’s almost funny.

Then there’s another double-bind. Publishers reject outright anything that’s been put up for view on the web. Copyright is a fraught issue. The blurring of traditional quid-pro-quo, payment for work, hit music and print publishing hard, as it continues to spread to many other sectors. There are no clear procedures to address this and there needs to be room to experiment with ways to trade access for attention. This publisher’s fiat makes it that much more difficult for a writer to jump start interest in their work before they get a contract.

As I see it, in the absence of a clear path to publication one of the few avenues open to me is to put my writing on-line so it can find some audience, have some influence, and perhaps gain some traction. But then by doing so, I run headlong into their prohibition and automatically exclude my work from consideration. The net result is as if print publishers admitted I have absolutely no chance of getting picked up without being able to prove that I have a following and that my work is influential. But if I put my work out so that it can have a chance to meet these prerequisites, I have forfeited any chance they will accept me.

Ah! The joys of the double-bind! Good thing I’ve had so much experience with them, now that they’re surfacing everywhere we look!

This condensed version of my agonizing analysis of the situation is a preamble to finding some other ways forward. These problems are not unique to me. This is where so many writers find ourselves today.

As with any intractable problem or predicament there are all manner of snake-oil remedies and sweet-tasting pablum “on the market.” Buzz-words abound! Today’s versions of the true-blue advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate, “Plastics!”

As with all generalities, these are much less helpful than we’d like to believe. They still need to be translated into a set of specifics, and these need to be tested against our real requirements, not just taken on face value.

To begin, let’s review what publishing has traditionally offered writers and see what still applies.

A relationship with an editor may be the only thing that cannot be worked around or done without. Obviously there needs to be another way of finding such a person and entering into a relationship with them that will meet each parties needs.

The question of gatekeepers and rising above the noise, is much more complex. It seems to require all parties to recognize and admit that there are no sacrosanct defensible positions. The double-bind of demanding a viable presence from writers without allowing them to use the web to generate it is a refusal by publishers to see anyone else’s needs but their own. The demands to meet a “bottom line,” whether as was recently the case by making fat profits on a bet on a best-seller, or even today’s narrowed circumstances where even meeting costs is more of a wish than an expectation by small houses, we all need to work on the realization that without maintaining the cultural connections between writers and readers, there will be no publishing, and literary culture will fall in lock-step with this particular society’s fiscal assumptions and collapse with the rest of it.

Writers write because they have to. People read because they feel a need to. Creating a path between the two that honors the values behind this human connection is a way of life that some people have taken since the birth of writing, even before the printing press, certainly before the e-book! As the old ways fall apart around us, we need to carve out a way to fulfill these roles without putting all the pressure to take up the changes on some other party.

We are all in the same quandary, How do we make a living in a post-capitalist world?

The assumptions behind profit and capital growth are killing us. We see the results of this play out around us in every sphere of life. When it comes to the specifics of how we each make a living, we are caught in a trap. We have “expenses.” These are firmly within the dying paradigm and are backed, at least for the less fortunate among us – the vast majority – by the power of law and the state to keep us within this form of servitude. We are each of us making some efforts to find other pathways to connect with each other and share value and find meaning in the way we would want to allocate value. We have a hodge-podge of tools at our disposal, and a variety of skills and talents to bring to bear.

The result, at least so far, has been a form of fibrillation. Our old rhythms are failing and the new ones have not been able to develop strength, so we vacillate and vibrate between them unsure and unknowing how to proceed. A first step would appear to be to recognize this and accept it as our current situation. Continuing to look over our shoulders at what used to work and hedging our bets is one mechanism that keeps us from going forward. We need new ways to find each other and to initiate new relationships. We then need to develop these relationships, building resilience and robustness into new forms that just might last as the collapse of the old ways deepens and continues to exert pressure on us all.

Our desires, as with our needs, will have to be modest; but that doesn’t mean that we should abandon what led us to follow our callings in the first place.

Reading this, you might be thinking of all the tools we do have available to do this. There’s Kickstarter, and Indie Gogo, collaborative projects like The Future We Deserve…. These are useful tools, as far as they go. But unless we put some effort into laying out a framework for their use, a set of new assumptions that are more than marketing ploys or wishful thinking, we will continue to flail about, each finding some partial success or teasing near-miss.

It comes down to our expectations for institutional forms in general. We are coming off a long habit of expecting to plug into institutions created and operated by others who are doing so on the basis of harvesting a capital advantage from the process. We have the underlying assumption that all such interactions should and are necessarily negotiations between competing parties each bent on gaining whatever advantage they can from the system. We reward those who succeed at harvesting these advantages and sequestering socially perceived value for their own uses, whatever those may be. The failures of the rest, most of us, to meet these conditions and “win,” is taken as not just the “way things are,” but as a sign of virtue, or divine Providence.

This does not work. It is corrupt and leads unerringly to the abuses we suffer from and which threaten to destroy everything.

Those of us who find our callings as artists, as writers, as anyone who sees value in all that is missing from this reductivist equation need to be clear. With ourselves, and with each other.

Making a living cannot continue to be segregated from having a life. We can no longer afford it!

This connects with the examples we have of past Bohemias. In these places, at those times, people came together and chose to share hardships so as to be able to live a certain life that was not generally valued by the culture at large. This truth has also been corrupted. Over the course of the Twentieth Century the idea of Bohemia was co-opted and taken advantage both from within and without. The Star System and things like the CIA backing Abstract Expressionism for nationalistic geopolitical ends came together and destroyed the old Bohemia. It’s important that we realize how this happened so we don’t just assume the initial impulse was faulty. Bohemia was killed, it didn’t die of natural causes. It was colonized along with every remaining scrap of the world outside of the reductivist system.

Unless we see these connections, and take seriously how deep the rot goes, and how difficult and all-pervasive the causes are, we will remain trapped, oscillating between an inchoate yearning for something vital while disbelieving how much force is arrayed against us.

Our predicaments are intertwined. The crises of security, of want, of the destruction and unraveling of the fabric of life; are all interwoven together and cannot be addressed independently with any possibility of finding traction. As artists, as writers, we are the ones who can point this out, and imagine new pathways, all in the spirit of the beggar in Stone Soup.

I’d like very much to see this place as a forum for dialogue on the implications, both broad and narrow of these conditions. I think that putting them under this umbrella could be useful as a way to signal, to ourselves, to each other, and ultimately to a wider view; that we see what’s at stake and are going forth together and with our eyes open.

I recognize that the splintering and Balkanization of views the web facilitates as it makes it so easy for some of us to find a minimal reach for our work at least is yet another bind. There is a continual fracturing of consensus and a doubling-down of finding differences between those who might otherwise be willing to act as allies. This may be frustrating, but as a reminder that any grouping of artists into a herd is a mistake, it does help keep us honest! The key is in finding ways to work together while maintaining our unique viewpoints. In finding paths to reciprocity and dialogue instead of negotiation and aggregation.

This is a rambling preamble and not a laying out of steps, or even an exhaustion of the factors involved. I look forward to finding ways to proceed with this project in the new year.

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