The Lepers of Literature

I was prepared to launch a tirade, but I see now that it is unnecessary.  That which prompted this essay is not a threat.  Rather, it is a sad, anachronistic, misguided assessment of what is happening in the world of letters today.  I read it on a well-trafficked blog that re-publishes items and links to items on the general theme of writing and self-publishing.  The author is the head of a publishing company, and according to him, self-publishing is a Biblical plague on the body of the legitimate publishing industry.  This writer would like to see all self-published writers relegated to a separate section of the Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites.  No, says he: Better yet, such audacious writers should be banished from these booksellers’ websites completely, and corralled in their own website to protect the innocent reader from harm.  This publisher admits that readers don’t care who publishes the books they read, and therefore they might be tainted and defiled by inadvertently picking up a book by a (shocked hush) self-published writer.  The only way to protect the reader from this catastrophic event is to ostracize the ne’er-do-wells, that is, the writers who would presume to inflict their unsanitary works upon the unwitting public.

This reminded me of the attitude towards lepers in ancient times.  You’ve all seen it in the movies:  the skinny, rag-clad figure with a begging bowl in one hand and a bell in the other, ringing the bell as a warning as he walks down the street crying, “Unclean!  Unclean!”  That’s what this publisher wants self-published writers to do.  In the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses, the first five books in the Old Testament of the Bible, there is chapter after chapter on how to deal with lepers.  They were banished from the community and forced to live without the camp.  If their homes and possessions were found to contain a trace of the disease they were burned.  If a leper were cured, the only way he could be re-admitted to the tribe was to undergo a minute inspection of his flesh by a priest.  If the priest determined that yes, he was whole again, he would wash, change his clothes, and become once again a bona fide member of the group.

So it has been in most cultures of the world throughout history.  To be a leper was to be stigmatized and ostracized, remanded to isolation in shame and disgrace.  Though leprosy is treatable nowadays, leper colonies still exist in various parts of the world.  When I traveled in India back in the 70s, I frequently encountered lepers begging in the streets or on the trains.  Some had lost fingers, toes, hands, and feet.  Some had gone blind.  Others had gaping open sores that they would scratch to exacerbate the infection, so the sore would appear brighter and bloodier and they would make more money in alms.  One of the most horrifying experiences of my life was when a blind leprous beggar  covered with huge crimson sores came staggering down the aisle of a train, waving his arms wildly and groaning like the Frankenstein monster.

That’s what this publisher thinks of writers who self-publish.  They are weird, sickening monsters who attack and infect unwary readers.  We must be protected from them, says he.

And now we must determine who we must banish from the midst of the traditional literati.  For you see, there are many degrees of self-publishing.  Some begin with self-publishing and do nothing else.  Others, who have been termed hybrid authors, avail themselves of both traditional and self-publishing, depending on the material and the circumstances.  That’s what I do:  I traditionally publish some of my stories in magazines and anthologies, and self-publish other material.  Yet others are primarily traditionally published writers who have decided to self-publish their dormant backlists.

When we think of it though, the only way to truly purify the ranks is to make a clean sweep.  Away with all of those who have self-published even a little.  That prevents the poor readers from acquiring even a hint of contagion.  Now I’m going to mix past and present a bit for the sake of the argument here, but if we are going to cast all self-published writers into a separate, controlled website so that readers will be safe from them, we must pull a Joe McCarthy and get rid of all of them, purge history’s roster clean.  Therefore the denizens of the self-published leper colony would include William Blake, Willa Cather, T.S. Eliot, John Grisham, James Joyce, Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe, Marcel Proust, George Bernard Shaw, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman.  Oops, wait a moment.  There are Nobel Prize winners in that list.  Never mind, away with them!  And while we’re at it, we will have to toss J.K. Rowling in too, for having the audacity to set up her own website to sell the electronic versions of the Harry Potter books.

Come to think of it, there’s going to be some good company in that leper colony.  It might not be such a bad place after all.  In fact, it might be a lot more lively, innovative, expressive, creative, and dynamic than the original site from which it was banished.  Wait a minute.  It already is the big, dynamic, creative site, because this thing is happening and more and more writers from around the world are getting behind it.

Do you know how lepers lose their limbs?  Contrary to popular belief, they do not fall off.  Leprosy numbs the nerves so they don’t feel anything.  Their tissues become injured as a result, and the flesh decays and atrophies from secondary infections.  This publisher would be part of the high priesthood who would have the power to approve or ban books before readers have a chance to see them.  It is his site that would become stagnant and decaying.  Too much power in the hands of too few stifles freedom.

As a reader, I do not want others telling me what I can and can’t read.  Readers are smart people; that’s why they read.  They can decide for themselves what they want to buy and read.  They don’t need gatekeepers at the doors of the literary temple deciding for them who may and may not enter.

I guess this did come out as a bit of a tirade after all.  But this article upset me.  It hurt, and this is my reaction.  I have paid my dues as a writer, and I have the right to publish whatever words I deem necessary to publish.  I am very thankful for venues such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and others that give me the opportunity to do so.  If you don’t want to buy my books or the books of some other author, continue to browse until you find a book you do want to buy.  Freedom, yeah!  Readers can decide for themselves.  Let them.

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One Response to The Lepers of Literature

  1. Hello, saw this posted over on the Passive Voice. When I first read the post you mention, I had the same thought about the Traditional Publisher Only section might not be such a good idea for them! Nice post, thanks.

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