This tweet and the article it links to got me all riled up on Sunday[1. With all due respect to Colleen Lindsay who is an extremely generous tweeter and knowledgeable publishing person who you should totally be following.And I do sympathise with her points, from her perspective.]
Now the thread goes on to make some valid points, from the point of view of a publishing insider. The article she links to however, gets my hackles right up and I call for a rallying cry of:
“Yah boo sucks to you! I’ll write any damned thing I want”
And so should you!
The Problem With New York[2. Not the whole city, obviously. Just the centralized publishing industry part of it]
The publishing machine exists for a reason (to help authors distribute their work to the masses). For some authors that still works just fine.
For the vast majority of writers, however, the publishing machine is broken. They don’t have a big audience, so they don’t fit the economic model.
The problem comes when publishing insiders forget that the limitations of their system are exactly that: economic.
If something is deemed ‘unpublishable’ it does not mean that,
- That people aren’t interested in it,
- That it’s bad,
- That you shouldn’t write it
It might mean that,
- Not enough people are interested in it to justify a huge print run, distribution deals and a massive marketing campaign.
- You won’t sell very many copies. (Although you may. You never know.)
- It will be intensely interesting to a tiny number of people, who are easily identifiable because they a, live in the place you’re writing about or b, join associations of other-people-who-do-similar-pastimes, etc.
My problem with “Oo, the peons shouldn’t write their stories” articles [3. Apart from the short-sightedness, a lack of awareness of subaltern studies school of historical research and the insufferably smug arrogance, obviously] is that they are destructive to the very soul of humanity.
I’m not exaggerating here.
We are a story-telling people. It’s how we make sense of our lives and our world. It’s what separates us from the brute beasts. It is an essential part of our nature.
- Think about the friend who makes you laugh the most. What is she doing? Telling stories — stories with pacing and suspense and great twists.
- Think about the most boring person you know. What does she do? Tell stories — terrible, unending, pointless, rambling stories.
Sometimes we make up stories about our origins and pass them on to our progeny. Sometimes we write beautiful epics that explain the human condition. Sometimes we unwittingly preserve a way of life that is destined to die out and be forgotten, except for our stories about it.
What does it do when some arbitrary gatekeeper says, “No, the story of your life growing up in Hicksville with a quirky family isn’t important enough to be published. Don’t even waste your time writing it down.”?
What arrogance! What utter idiocy!
Take Back Your Stories
We’ve been trained by a couple of generations of TV, music labels, and yes, publishers, to believe that we little people aren’t qualified to tell stories, make music or entertain our friends.
- Homer [4. or the composite historical phenomenon that has come to us in the stories handed down] kept people spell-bound around the fire with tales of Ulysses and his epic journey.
- Jane Austen catalogued a lifestyle long since extinct but nonetheless fascinating to us all these years later.
- My grandparents hosted get-togethers where my grandmother played the piano for sing-a-longs, my grandfather told uproarious lies and everyone had a great time.
What do we do? We watch pre-packaged, fake ‘reality’; we listen only to homogenous music on stations that only play one style of music, and we read only the stories that an intellectual elite has chosen for the universality of their appeal.
There’s Room For Everyone At The Digital Inn
There is nothing wrong with best-sellers, nothing at all. I love me some pulpy paperback mystery and sci-fi, and I read the big ‘literary’ hits whenever I can stomach them.
The problem I have with the top-down model of publishing (whether books or music or art) is that it stifles the creative lives of ordinary, gloriously creative people. Because that’s what we are, us humans. Endlessly creative and passionate and social animals.
No, not everything that people put out into the world is my cup of tea.
Yes, there is a lot more dross to sort through these days.
But it’s also a lot more likely than ever before that I’m going to find something fascinating to read, on a topic of my choosing, by asking around online and getting recommendations from people with similar tastes.
And One Final, Not-Insignificant Point
This flowering of creativity and distribution is going to be an absolute gold mine for anthropologists in the future.
As someone with an MA in History, I am incredibly excited about the breadth of primary sources we are leaving to future historians[5. Part of my Masters’ research was on the travel journals of explorers to the New World in the 1500s. Some of my other research invoved the shopping lists of Ventian guilds and what they could tell us about what was going on in the city and the world at the time. I’m betting the people who wrote those documents never imagined they’d be considered important by scholars 400 years into the future] Imagine if everyone in the Bronze Age had had a handy, dry cave wall where they could have documented their daily deeds. How much more would we know about our ancestors than we do now from a few scratchings in Lascaux and the occasional stomach-pumping of a frozen ice-mummy?
So go. Write your memoirs. Make them as detailed as you like. Make them as vivid as you can. And don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s all been said before. Because it hasn’t.
Not by you.
And your story deserves to be written.