Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
Last March I developed a long essay on the state of fiction these days, as I see it — particularly the fiction we associate with the indie market. It’s probably thought of mainly as genre fiction, though there’s a mixed bag of material out there, available predominantly as ebooks from Amazon.com. It struck me — still strikes me, in fact — that the tools offered by online publishing present an enormous opportunity that’s not being taken advantage of by writers, artistic freedom being the biggest elephant in the room.
I had planned on publishing the essay as a standalone ebook, but over the course of the year I realized that hawking my novels is hard enough. I’ve decided instead to post it in eleven parts here on the blog, offering it at the end as a free pdf download. Each part will run about a thousand words so it’s easily chewed. I’m hoping for a lively discussion during and after the series as a way to evaluate what’s going on in the world of indie publishing and whether it’s evolving in a positive or negative way. Odds are there are lots of different opinions on that…
Below is the first part, a brief introduction to the theme. But first I’d like to thank Marie Bailey and Susan Toy for reading the essay in advance and giving me some very helpful feedback. Marie and Susan, I’m grateful for your input.
Here is part I of “Gatecrash: Liberating creativity in the age of boilerplate fiction”:
Recently I picked up a favorite old book of mine — gobbled whole when I was young and lingering in my mind ever since — Zen And The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe it seems a little dated now, but the ideas author Robert M. Pirsig works through in the book haven’t faded in the years since its first printing: quality, meaning, method, consciousness, and how to live in understanding and appreciation of them. They’re the kind of thing human beings are always, and have always been, grappling with.
In the first few pages I was struck by the metaphor of the road, appreciating how Pirsig and his son prefer the country two-laners and back highways to the interstates on their motorcycle journeys. The winding, unpredictable route, the route on which you might actually get lost, is always superior to the straight shot. And this reminded me of the year I spent in London when I was a student, when I’d purposely walk through the maze-like lanes and alleys with the intention of getting lost. It increased my chances of seeing something rare and remarkable, or at least unexpected. Something to write home about.
Why, I’m wondering nowadays, doesn’t this instinct to seek out new and unpredictable directions extend to our literature? Why are our stories always (it seems to me) variations on the same boilerplate, with minor differences that amount to not much more than splashing a little color on a black-and-white photograph?
That’s what I’d like to dig into in this little broadside.
Publishing has changed immensely over the years. The traditional approach, in which an editor at a staid old New York house found diamonds in the rough and polished them up for modest dissemination (we’re talking literary novels), was always a conservative, low-margin enterprise. Back in the ‘40s, though, at the dawn of the paperback age, the suits realized they could peddle certain kinds of books like candy or cigarettes — on racks in drug stores and bus stations — and it didn’t matter so much what was in the books but instead what was on the covers. A mass market was out there, promising sales in the seven figures rather than three or four. And while a literary author might still be discovered and groomed for the canon, the vast majority of titles became nearly as disposable as razor blades, used for as long as they held up and then tossed.
What the people wanted was now what the publishers mainly dished out. Maybe a handful of “serious,” boundary-stretching books appeared every year, as they still do, but for the most part the model morphed into one of assembly lines and replaceable parts. Books became commodities.
A culture of sameness has grown out of it.
Now, with e-publishing and an explosion in self-published titles, sheer volume renders whole categories of writing more or less generic. Emphasis on selling the maximum number of copies has created a marketplace in which quality isn’t always the draw and can’t really be distinguished anyway, since the tens of thousands of books with essentially the same story are hard to tell apart.
This doesn’t mean that all self-published books are poorly written, or that all traditionals are Pulitzer-worthy. Only that, by and large, indie writers seem to have fallen into the trap of copying rather than innovating. And this is a real shame because, among other things, self-publishing offers something that the Big Five grant only rarely: genuine artistic freedom.
There are more writers out there than ever before, but they’re writing a million versions of a few threadbare stories. Our literature has become a branch of the fast food industry.
The problem is that we’ve left the two-lane country roads in favor of the interstate. We don’t seem to seek out the interesting detour these days. We want to get there as fast as we can. As writers we rely on trusty formulas — a kind of code — and as readers we want to recognize the code and get through books in a hurry. Even a respectable venue like Goodreads encourages members to post outlandish reading goals for the year that would force the average Joe to speed-read his way through every minute of his free time. Quantity over quality.
The series has taken over. A lot of authors strive to publish multiple books a year so they can keep their core readers hooked. Worse, the installments of many series no longer honor structural conventions that would give them the feel of “complete”; instead they are divisions of a larger narrative that is merely divided up into digestible pieces so they can be spread out over a year.
And readers have come to embrace this trend. They’re addicted. Getting there fast has become the standard, gobbling up books like Chips Ahoy cookies, accepting the smallest variations on a theme as distinct works and hardly pausing between the end of one and the beginning of the next.
Even more baffling: To a large degree, readers are now writing and publishing their own books, presumably books they’d like to read. Problem is, they’re all clones of the popular stuff that clogs the plumbing throughout the marketplace. (Writer Michael Lind has noted, aptly, that “When arts die, they become hobbies.” I hope we’re not approaching that stage yet.) This new cohort of writers isn’t using the openness that’s so obviously at its disposal.
As a novelist, and one who has always tried to find different stories to tell (or at least different ways to tell a more familiar tale), I struggle these days with the fundamental idea of creativity and how it fits into our new culture — our 21st century culture of generic consumption.
Is it even necessary to be creative today? Or are creativity and innovation in fiction now viewed as flaws, shortcomings that aren’t rewarded by publishers or appreciated by readers?
More exactly: Why write, if the only thing you’re expected to do is repeat the familiar patterns over and over and over and over…?
[Read and download the entire series here.]
(Image via Gratisography.)
© 2016 by Kevin Brennan