Today I am in the process of uploading an electronic version of my story “Painsharing” to two different venues, Amazon’s Kindle, and Smashwords, which distributes to several other online bookstores. It is taking hours because many other authors are uploading their works at the same time. Some say it is a tragedy that anyone who wants and is willing to learn simple formatting can publish their writing; they say that the Web will be inundated with mediocre to terrible writing and that no one will be able to find the gold for which we all search. I, however, consider it a triumph.
My reasoning works thusly: if there is even one great writer rejected by traditional publishing for his or her unorthodox but brilliant work, then the flood of crap is worth it so that writer can emerge and be recognized. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau, considered a literary master now; he was forced to self-publish “A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers” at his own expense. Have you ever read that book? It’s a classic of travel writing, full of brilliant description of scenery and local history, and insight into philosophy, writing, literature, and so on. And I am reminded of Henry Miller, sitting alone in a Paris hovel writing “Tropic of Cancer”. Talk about unconventional works – that must be the epitome. Not only was it unpublishable due to its idiosyncratic style – it also ended up being banned for decades in the US due to its so-called pornographic content. Being flat broke and recently abandoned by his wife, Miller would not even have been able to self-publish; he needed a sponsor, Anais Nin, to finance the project through to completion. It hit the world like a literary bomb and inspired hundreds of thousands, including myself, with its vitality, honesty, and originality. I think that throughout history there have been many other masterpieces like these that have never seen the light of day, and the world of literature shines less brilliantly because of it.
There are, of course, two sides to the coin. Many books exist which never should have been published, and many more exist which we are all probably thankful that they weren’t. However, that is not the point.
I am speaking of freedom.
Throughout history artists have needed sponsors. In Michelangelo’s time wealthy nobility bankrolled artists’ careers. In the more recent past, publishers have sponsored writers, in return for a lion’s share of the profits. And publishers have guarded the portals of literature. If you danced their dance and agreed to their terms, you got published. If not, you didn’t. You remained a nobody clerk in podunkland, unheard-of and unlamented. Unless you were rich and could publish and distribute at your own expense, you had no recourse – and if you did self-publish you were derided as a charlatan, a fraud, an upstart, a claimant to talent you did not possess. And why? Not because anyone had read your book and found it lacking, no – merely because of the method of its delivery to the marketplace.
All that has changed, and the change has come about so recently that the world of publishing is still reeling from the shock. Now it is possible for a writer to publish his or her own book electronically and even on paper with a minimum of effort to learn the proper formatting, layout, and so on. The book can be out there and readers can discover it.
What does this have to do with freedom? Writers no longer need to feel an agent or a publisher leaning over their shoulder making sure that their work conforms to convention or to what is currently selling in the marketplace. Writers can write what they want – what they must – and present it to readers and let the readers themselves decide. The gatekeepers are gone, or are at least marginalized.
I believe that this will, in time, when writers realize the freedom they possess, spawn brilliant new work – work that writers might never have even tried to write, knowing that no mainstream editor would touch it. A new era of publishing and of literature is upon us. Yes, there will be crap – most of what is written will be, as has always been the case. But there will be masterpieces too, wonderful books that might never have existed had this new era of freedom not burst upon us. These new books make it worth it all.
To writers, then, I say: let it rip. Be free. Don’t be like a creature who has spent its life in a cage, who once the cage is removed is so used to the tiny confines it has known all its life never ventures forth into the wild. Be bold. Be different. Be innovative. You don’t have to do it anyone else’s way anymore.
And to readers I say: you are the new patrons of the arts. Support your local writer by buying his works. Cast your vote with your pocketbook. The new world of the arts will evolve in whatever direction we all see fit, based upon the choices we make. Let’s make the right ones.