by Samuel Stevens
Despite the publishing establishment’s long-running campaign to paint independent authors as rejects peddling sub-par work, visionary and important authors in Western literature published their own work. In the eighteenth century, authors often paid out of their own pocket to have their books published. Even worse, copyright protection was often non-existent, leading to royalty-free copies if a book was popular. Self-publishing was something the Modernists of the early 20th century often had to do. While not exactly the same, the famous Left Bank artists of Paris published their “little magazines.” Now famous among these were magazines such as The Little Review, The New Age, and BLAST; each represented a particular artistic and literary niche unacceptable to the American “slicks” like Harper’s or Mencken’s The American Mercury. The critics of the day repudiated authors with mountains of literary criticism about them now. Names like Hemingway, Pound, Joyce, Eliot were at one time the enemy. Hemingway’s friend, the memory-holed author Robert McAlmon, published Three Stories and Ten Poems; the New York world wasn’t interested in the young Hemingway’s work. Even more famous was the case of Joyce’s Ulysses. No British or American house would take it for both its style and its content. Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach published the first edition.I
Eventually, these authors won the respect and admiration of the New York establishment. On a suggestion from F. Scott Fitzgerald, Scribner’s took Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises; the publisher took on newer writers. Decades went by and eventually a poet like Ezra Pound who had been a relative unknown outside of expatriate art circles could win the Bollinger Prize for poetry. The US rescinded the ban on Ulysses’ publication in 1934. Mainstream publishers took on these authors, rather than subject them to permanent rejection. This cycle played out with many artistic movements, where the existing base took in the outsiders. Now, however, a number of factors limit the ability for new authors to break into traditional publishing recognition. Since the Second World War, both the business and artistic spheres of creative writing have undergone a huge shift.
The major change in the creative aspect of fiction was the explosion of the Creative Writing MFA program in the immediate postwar era. Where the Modernists and their forebears were largely self-taught, academia would train the writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Authors of literary fiction such as Raymond Carver, Joyce Carol Oates, and others earned these degrees, and went on teaching to support their writing. Contemporary prize-winning authors like Marlon James and Eleanor Catton earned MFA degrees. Such a program looks good on paper, but these workshops do not welcome “genre” fiction, which is anything beyond stories set in a contemporary, middle-class setting. See: Franzen, Carver, or Oates. Writing also has a business side, and these workshops do nothing to teach a would-be writer business skills. It’s all craft-related, and primarily designed so graduates can go on to become teachers. These programs are not all bad. Learning from someone with results (sales and/or awards) makes sense. The issue is that creative writing teachers are just that, teachers first. They aren’t established names who then sit down to teach.
More concerning, the explosion in these programs was not by accident. Intelligence agencies fought the Cold War on all fronts. The Central Intelligence Agency helped fund many of these programs—Iowa in particular—to act in opposition to the Soviet Bloc’s strict Socialist realism. American arts became a weapon to promote “freedom” overseas; admirable on the part of the Central Intelligence Agency, but damaging to literature. Iowa alumnus Eric R. Bennet describes this and the strict styles taught at the workshop. The cut-down Modernist style a la Hemingway, the “chatty” warm method of John Irving, and magical realism.ii The focus on form over substance is the hallmark of postmodernism. Bennet’s article does not describe the professors encouraging students to read widely and experience life. Good style is all anyone needs to write a good book. The reading public has reacted to this push for dull “literary” fiction by going in the opposite direction. Either by not reading at all, or picking up the latest formulaic James Patterson or Lee Child novel. A writer today has to appeal either to the small market for literary fiction or the low-brow pulp community, with nothing in between.
Top-down change in corporate publishing is not forthcoming. The Modernists were able to gain traction in New York because most of the publishers were independent of one another. In the last twenty years, five companies now own most of the print book market.iii Where decades ago Scribner could gamble on bold new writers, it cannot now because it’s a subsidiary of Simon and Schuster, owned by CBS Corporation. Publishers are part of media companies’ larger holdings, and they have to turn a profit in order to stay current. Editors and agents can only take what they think they can sell.
The tide may be turning, however, thanks to the proliferation of indie publishing and e-books. Publisher’s Weekly reports that print book sales increased 2.8 percent from 2014 to 2015 according to Nielsen BookScan.iv Nielsen does not track indie e-books, which have seen tremendous growth in the past five years. BookScan and other traditional counting outlets do not track titles without an ISBN (A.K.A. indie books), which accounts for about 37 percent of sales on the Kindle store.v Authors don’t have to engage with the establishment at all anymore. They can go direct to the consumer, retaining their rights and complete creative control. From a business standpoint, 70 percent Kindle royalties is far more than the single-digit royalty percentages afforded by New York (if you jump through all the hoops to get to a book dealvi). A lot of what’s on the Kindle store is crap: literal pornography and lowbrow thriller adventures. Amazon and self-publishing in general are more important as opportunities for writers. While there’s no space for the third-position author writing between the two extremes of establishment publishing, there’s plenty of room on the Kindle store. Instead of breaking into the establishment like the Modernists did, writers can create a new ecosystem for literature. The future looks bright.
Samuel Stevens is the author of the military espionage novel Phoenix Operator. He lives in Maryland and blogs at his website on books, military history, and Modernism.
Link to his site: https://samueljstevenswriter.wordpress.com/
iSee The Most Dangerous Book: the Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses by Kevin Birmingham