Oh, Garrison


I came across this piece in the NY Times by Garrison Keillor bemoaning the new world of self-publishing via the twitter feed of Austin Kleon, who suggested Keillor should “just put a gun in your mouth & spare us yr ‘you missed the good ol’ days’ monologue.” How could I not click on a link with that as an introduction?

It’s not surprising that Keillor would take this position, given his writerly persona, so it’s difficult for me to get angry at him. But I do get tired of this nostalgic crap in general, and if at some point in the future, I turn into a curmudgeonly “things were better in the old days” type of person, I hope someone will smack the hell out of me and tell me to wake up.

Because, as a general rule, things were never better in the past, not even if you were a white male. The privilege you gained by being in power was offset by poorer health, fewer economic opportunities, less flexibility in your career options, etc. I can’t think of a single way in which life in the past–even the recent past–was better than in the present. Advances in technology alone make the present better, and the future potentially better than that.

And it’s those advances in technology which are causing the changes that Keillor is moaning about.

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

Point 1: It’s not all free. In fact, a large part of the tussle between publishers and Amazon (with Apple stirring things up) is over how much they’re going to charge for this reading material. Yes, the web is full of free stuff–blogs, journals, webzines, journalism–but that’s not the whole of publishing, and it’s especially not the whole when you look at the world of contemporary fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

Point 2: You’re not really committed to finishing a book you’ve paid $30 for, or at least you don’t have to be. And if it’s the cost that’s driving you to finish a book, I think that says something about what you value in literature. Also, when was the last time anyone paid full price for a new hardback? Books are like cars–you never pay full price for them.

But this is only the start for Keillor. He’s on a roll now.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a Web site. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Did you know that before the web, you needed a publisher and permission? That probably shocks the hell out of Walt Whitman, or would if he were still around to be shocked. Self-publication has been around a long time. All that’s changed is the cost of entry and ease of distribution.

Keillor’s not completely wrong here. The business model is changing, though that’s been in the works for a while now. And part of that change involves writers becoming brands, becoming more involved in their own publicity and getting closer to their readers–interacting with them personally instead of just being a distant figure who imparts art from on high.

And it’s clear that that’s what Keillor is really sad about–the power of the gatekeeper to determine who will and won’t be a writer is disappearing.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes….Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Maybe that’s how it worked for you, Garrison. If so, count your blessings, because you’re lucky beyond all belief. Most writers don’t make enough solely from their writing to survive, much less thrive. That era of martyrdom isn’t disappearing (though I wish it would–the stereotype damages a writer’s ability to make a decent living), and self-publishing won’t kill it because it’s not rejection that creates the stereotype of the starving artist–it’s the economics. And the economics of self-publication haven’t changed, really. Yes, you can self-publish your book online, but who’s going to market it for you? Who’s going to get paper copies of it into bookstores? Who’s going to set up a book tour? Who’s going to get reviewers to take a look at it, much less champion it?

But there’s one more reason why Keillor’s piece is so off base. He doesn’t seem to value the joy that someone can get simply from finding his or her work in print (or online). For him, there’s only value if an outside power has deemed the work worthy of publication, and I say that’s crap. Arrogant, self-important crap. There is value in writing a book even if no one else ever reads it, even if you never make a penny from it. Just count your blessings, Garrison, and leave it at that.

Brian Spears is Senior Poetry Editor of The Rumpus and the author of A Witness in Exile (Louisiana Literature Press, 2011). His poem “Upon Reading That Andromeda Will One Day Devour Triangulum and Come For Us Next” was featured in Season 9 of Motion Poems. More from this author →