Saturday, 7 May 2011

Published Writing: Rise in Quantity; Fall in Quality?

As I have commented before, like many people I tend to get the bulk of my news from the internet and rolling news channels.  In the UK I am aware that we have fewer news stories being broadcast at any one time than, say in France and Belgium, where news broadcasts seem to have twice as many main stories as their UK counterparts.  Consequently, I soon know all that is available about a particular story at any given time.  So that I have something more to engage with, I buy one newspaper per week.  This has long been 'The Guardian' on Saturday.  I tend to read it in the order of magazine, TV guide, news section, money section, jobs section and review.  The money and jobs sections obviously depress me, but sometimes have useful tips on what to avoid in terms of companies and errors in interviews.  The review section does cover music and art but is predominantly about books and writers.  At one time I thought I would one day be among that set; especially when, back in the early 2000s, a friend of mine became a member of the Royal Society of Literature, but now it is like an insight into an alien world.  To some degree it has got more distant because being unemployed my reading (and writing) always falls away sharply.  This is the longest period I have ever been unemployed, in fact, longer than all the previous occasions put together, stretching back over a career which is now 20 years long.  The other thing is that, certainties of publishing of writing and publishing seem to have disappeared, and the writing world and its literary sub-set, in this respect, is a very different place.  It is one, I guess, I feel disconnected from; I imagine those who work in the industry are probably feeling pretty lost too.

People have long spoken of the death of the book and there have been reports of young people from teenages onwards seeing no point in reading books.  To some degree, what a book actually is, has changed a great deal.  Not everyone has a Kindle, but there is a sense that those who read the most before are those most likely to adopt electronic versions of books.  Back in the mid-1990s, when the internet was coming into so much of society, I remember attending a talk by a university lecturer, speaking in East London, about the opportunities which the internet offered.  In the questions session at the end, there was a striking moment when someone in the audience pointed out that internet access was not free.  The speaker, presumably at that time using the internet for free at her university had assumed that was the case for everyone.  Her whole premise that the internet allowed democratic access to information was utterly undermined when it turned out that only a handful of people in the audience could access the internet. 

At the time I knew no-one who had it at home; I used to go to a local takeaway Indian restaurant and pay a fee to use their terminal for 30 minutes.  Of course, the growth of cyber-cafes appeared in the next few years, and I could go to an Easy outlet in a quite salubrious setting compared to the corner of a takeaway, but, still, it was apparent that I was paying.  As the speaker totally missed, the actual future of electronic media, is segregation.  This is not only on the basis of access and even then 27% of the UK population does not have internet access, varying between 17% in London and 41% of the population of the North-East.  In addition the quality of service varies across the country as the reporting of the difficulty of getting internet connections in Cornwall, certainly outside Newquay. Anyway, the speaker believed the internet provided a democratic access to resources, and, I guess if you consider you can use it in libraries (though usually at a fee) and centres assoicated with job centres, this is the case.  However, high quality, home access tends to be for the wealthier. 

Publishing in electronic formats takes this segregation a further stage in segregating those who can access material or not.  When will the day come when certain books, rather than as at present coming in print and electronic format, will just be in the latter, as that is the kind of affluent audience that publishers want to address?  With the news that Britain's last bookshop chain, Waterstones, maybe closing at that online retailer Amazon already has 80% of the book market in the UK, will it be possible to even buy a printed book if you do not have internet access, and importantly, a credit or debit card.  Even in affluent houses, unlike when I was a boy, when I could go to a bookshop and buy any book I wanted, nowadays I would have to engage a parent to pay for it using one of their cards.  The past decade certainly has seen increasing attempts to shut off the less wealthy from accessing more and more of what is being produced.

Aside from the increasing segregation of potential readers, on the basis of wealth and the related access, there is two other developments in publishing which are noticeable.  One aspect is something I have commented upon and of which I am a perpetrator.  The amount of writing, fiction and non-fiction, simply being pumped out into the media-sphere.  This is done in different levels.  Naturally there are thousands, perhaps millions of blogs and websites on which people post their writing.  As I have noted before, there is something like 42-49,000 finished novels in the UK which are entered into national competitions, and I imagine there are many tens of thousands more that are not put forward for competition.  These does not even begin to touch on the short stories that are produced or the poems.

There are also websites run so that people can simply put up their writing, some are genre based, some are simply general.  If you are bored at your desk you can spend hours simply reading stories, for example, on vampires and a whole sub-genre of 'fan fiction' stories written about characters appearing in movies or particularly television series.  I know that people from other European countries often access such free resources as an easy way to improve their vocabulary and their knowledge of contemporary English.  I suppose that this is a true democratic approach to writing, that so many voices can now be heard.  Writing, especially fiction, must be one of the largest hobbies in the UK at the moment.  For some people, like me, for whom it has been a hobby as long as I can remember, there is a feeling of 'why should I bother?', any more.  I read a comment in 'The Guardian' a few weeks back from a reader responding to an article about creative writing courses.  Like many other commentators he noted the difference between skill and talent, most of us can gain creative writing skills, but most of us lack the talent to write well.  He had qualifications in creative writing, but had come to the conclusion that the world did not need any more creative writing which was below the standard of the great novelists and so he had ceased writing, in theory making room for better writers to shine.  I have found myself being tempted to follow that path too. 

Perhaps it is vanity, that I would rather not be a writer at all than be a poor quality writer.  However, perhaps it is not the correct approach, and I should just write for the enjoyment in brings me; recognising that the only reason why I feel uneasy, is because there is a sense that if you write you must publish: 'everyone can be a millionaire/so everyone has to try' as The The satirised back in 1986.  In addition, I certainly know there are writers who are far worse than me pumping out content, so, to some degree, it is not simply vanity, but pride too, that: why should they be putting their stuff into the world, when I could be putting out better?  I recognise that neither vanity nor pride are acceptable motivators, hence I remain conflicted over whether to even bother writing.

The other development in writing, is a decline in quality, mainly around the lack of editing.  This is unsurprising.  I take a lot of time editing my postings and especially my fiction, before I put them online, but even then, months later I got back and see loads of errors that I have missed.  Regular readers of this blog, going back to an older posting may have found it has changed a great deal from what they might remember.  That is because I have gone back to it and have been startled by errors I missed at the time.  No author can spot everything even with the passage of time.  You are too close to your writing to be able to do it.  Automatically your mind makes the connections and understands the message in a way that any reader could not do, thus you miss weaknesses.

Self-publishing comes in a number of forms these days.  Here I have already mentioned posting on blogs and fiction websites, but, of course, you can self-publish or publish on demand into print form as well.  I discussed issues around this approach back in 2009:   In the old days this was called 'vanity publishing', you paid a company to publish what you wrote with little quality checking and certainly no analysis of any market demand for the book.  These days, authors have both run towards this approach but have also been driven towards it too.  Publishing houses have been struggling for at least twenty years and the online environment has not helped. Despite the fall in production costs other things like publicity and the risk of backing an author who does not succeed are so great that they have sought other approaches; even a great author can fade, think of how many books aside from 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' (1994), that Louis de Berni√®res has written, which you cannot name.  He has, in fact, written seven others and some short fiction too. Similarly, another author who wrote a 'must read' book in the 1990s was Joanne Harris, author of 'Chocolat' (1999). She has produced 14 other novels 1989-2010, including 12 since 'Chocolat' but I imagine, like me, you could not name a single one. Thus, publishers put more of the work on to the author, that in the past they would have done themselves.

I have known there published first-time authors who have been compelled to handle their own publicity.  Unlike self-published authors they do not have to buy the books from their publisher in order to sell them on, but they do have to organise trips around the country to signings.  I do wonder, with so many bookshops disappearing in the 2000s where such events will now take place.  If you want to do a signing for free at the bookshop in Whitby during the Gothic Weekend, you have to join a very long queue and show your previous sales figures before they will even consider you.  Everyone wants a sign of success before investing anything in a new author.  In fact self-publishing is becoming a route into being published by a publisher. 

Authonomy is run by HarperCollins publishers.  Authors put their material up there for comment and a few are picked up by the company.  A couple of years back one of the three novels they selected had already been self-published and had been selling, before they took it on.  The website explicitly mentions self-published authors as well as unpublished, and in fact, if you look at the list of novels for users to comment on, they all have front covers already, suggesting that in fact they have already been printed.  I suppose self-publishing has now become what community colleges are to universities in the USA, they prove the quality of the applicant before you let them go any further.  I do not know how many hundreds of novels go on Authonomy, but the number picked up is in single figures each year.

We live in an age when audience participation is seen as the sure way to get what the public wants.  Television programmes that allow you to telephone in to determine the fate of the contestants are among the most viewed ones broadcast.  The same goes for fiction.  I have commented on the Amazon competition for new novels a few years back.  I began participating as reader when they reached the 5000 novels on the 'short list'.  Amazon naturally elicited my comments and I contributed as the numbers were whittled down.  However, by the time that they reached the list of 10 novels, I backed out.  I realised that a kind of homeopathic process had been going on and that the 10 novels left completely lacked originality or spark, they clearly ticked genre boxes and were least offensive to the most number of readers.  None of them engaged me in the way the tens of others I had looked at previous had done. 

This is the challenge to the issue of the author giving up writing, that the pathways to publishing that are in place, increasingly do not bring forward great literature, in fact, the reverse.  This may be why there is such a popularity for novels from languages other than English.  Of course, the cultural differences are of interest, but there might also be an issue that the process in which books come to be published, mean that different types of books succeed say in Brazil or Sweden, than would be the case in the UK.

The other element which publishers are economising on, is editing.  As I noted earlier in this posting, editing is a challenging activity.  Traditionally editors were very knowledgeable and intelligent people, not only able to spot inaccuracies and non-sequiturs, but also to contribute to the very fibre of the story, in terms of how characters developed and their actions.  This is a very challenging role and one that needs a high level of literary knowledge as well as 'people skills' in communicating it to the author; skills, which I discuss below, the average reader lacks.  The cost of editing is increasingly being seen as one that can be avoided: but the consequences in terms of the quality of the books we buy seems to already be biting hard.  Note the review of all the errors in Henning Mankell's final Wallender novel, 'The Troubled Man' (2011): clues disappear and Wallender's character alters, from a morning person to an evening person in the course of some tens of pages.  The reader is left seeing the novel as disjointed.  Now, Mankell is a good, successful author, but he, like all authors needs an editor, something it once was the publishing house's job to provide.  A notable case was 'The Corrections' (2010) by Michael Franzen, published by HarperCollins, for which it was noted that an unedited version actually was printed, despite a corrected one being produced.  This shows you that even with a big publishing house, the skimping on editing aspects is having an impact.

I suppose there must be an industry in being a freelance editor.  Whereas in the past when the publishing house would do this, it is given back to the author for them to be responsible for.  I know that some websites offer this service, but my engagement with such editors has been very unpleasant mainly because they forget that any author invests a lot of themselves into a novel and it is hard when it is torn apart.  Alright, if it is not good enough for others to read, say so, but instead you get 'death by a thousand cuts' lots of picking of very minor things, which generally, in the age of the wordprocessor can be rectified very quickly, yet you have to be harangues about every mistake made.

In my experience editing certainly cannot be left to amateurs who seem to lack even the awareness of the relationship between writer and their work that proper editors have.  I am aware that a lot of my writing has flaws.  There are issues like character development, behaviour and feasibility of actions.  However, I am never challenged on these.  The feedback I receive falls into two categories.  The largest feedback is picking up on individual words or names that I have used.  I have even have had people whose names I have inadvertently used in the story, complaining.  I take a lot of effort to get the detail correct.  However, clearly not as much as the seemingly hundreds of people who scour the internet looking for minor errors or even the frequency that certain words are used in a piece of fiction.  I like to get things correct, but am now fearful that too many readers have an entire novel ruined by a single word. 

Famously, in his James Bond novels, written in an age when publishers' editing was at its height, Ian Fleming made technical errors, such as which pistol fitted which holster, but I doubt that has stopped many people enjoying his novels even fifty years later.  However, anything I put up is liable to be heavily criticised because I feature the character's name more than a certain number of times, or do not use the contraction that is in common use today, or something of that nature. 

I think one issue is the severity of the language used in the feedback I receive.  Yes, I make mistakes, but a single wrong word does not seem to be the grounds for me being a total idiot or unfit to write as I am all too frequently told.  It is hard to take criticism of any kind, but to be harangued by editors or the public does nothing to improve the quality of the work, it just encourages the author to abandon it entirely as a waste of time.  This is ironic given that it takes months or years to write a novel, and five minutes to drive an author away from ever touching it again. 

To some degree you understand why people adopt self-publishing, they by-pass at least some of the criticism.  However, as I have noted before, this does not lead to better books.  Some compromise between not receiving editorial feedback at all and being harangued so harshly that you give up hope must be found.  While I doubt it would succeed, you almost need websites to train readers on how to be effective editors rather than simple hecklers.

One key problem is the difference between the popular view of something and the actuality.  Novels often face this, whether they need to be altered to fit into what the readership expects or stick to their guns and put down what the author knows to be true, or wants to be true in the fictional world they are creating.   The woman in my house was reading the poem 'The Hollow Men' (1925) by T.S. Eliot the other day, online.  The site she accessed it on allowed readers to make comments.    An interesting discussion had developed about the significance of the poem, especially its relationship to the First World War.  Many of the commentators seemed to be school children, and I liked the fact that these days when assigned to 'do' a poem pupils can discuss it with others around the world.  I have a feeling many of the people going to the particular site were Americans and there was a lot of parallels drawn to the experience for US society in the wake of the US intervention in the Vietnam War (1965-73/5).  However, such interesting parallels and an engaging discussion was constantly knocked aside by what I call the 'nitpickers' coming on to remind commentators that the First World War was not in the 1920s (though the impact Eliot was talking about continued through the 1920s and 1930s in the way the impact of the Vietnam war went on long after the 1970s) and that the First World War was fought in Europe (neglecting the fighting in Asia and Africa and the oceans) and Vietnam is in Asia.  The sense was, as you find on so many sites commenting on writing whether produced by professionals or amateurs, is that the text and comment on it too, must simply refer directly to facts; no parallels or comparisons are permitted. 

Another common difficulty is that commentators assume that the author has to be like their characters.  Do not dare feature a homosexual character or show a story from a criminal's perspective or have someone with psychological differences or comes from a non-Western culture.  The assumption, too often, is that, you are not clever in writing from a different perspective than your own as would have once been the case, but that you must simply be drawing on personal experiences and so must be as 'sick' as the characters you portray.  As I have noted before, if we only wrote about what we knew personally fiction would be incredibly dull and nothing from a historial period would ever feature.

I guess a lot of feedback is about power play, whether writing to the author directly (of course, far more easier than ever in the age of email; authors are now not distant characters but often pretty accessible)  or dismissing people's comments as irrelevant because they are more imaginative than a standard recounting of what the text contains.  Such a recounting of the text is in itself a kind of assertion of power, effectively telling readers that they are too stupid to understand it without someone's help (though, perhaps, all of us who review things are guilty of that; maybe it comes down to an issue of tone).  The power play comes to the fore in the second type of feedback I receive, people telling me that the outcome of the story was entirely wrong.  Often this is on the basis that the direction the narrative took was not the one that they expected (which personally I feel is a positive attribute, but given what I noted above, perhaps writers are obliged to adhere to set story patterns rather than be surprising) or was simply not a topic that was of interest.  You begin to ask why did they bother continue reading if that was the case.

Most websites that carry fiction categorise it; they often have a profile of the author.  Consequently, it is very easy to find out what kind of story you are likely to be reading and even the author's take on particular issue that are likely to appear.  Even more than before we are not compelled to 'judge a book by its cover'.  Yet it is clear that people slog through the novel just so they can tell the author how wrong they have got it.  I guess in an age of consumer choice and viewer power, there is an expectation that novels should also permit this.  I know some even allow readers to pick the next step in the writing, but even then the path the majority selects is not going to please everyone.  I encourage commentators who do not like how my stories unfold to write their own version.  However, it seems that those who are capable of making stinging criticisms lack the ability to commit to something longer, even if it would be more to their taste.

As we head on into the 2010s, what do I see as the future for writing and publishing?  I think the amount of writing will probably not decrease, but the number of printed books will.  There are going to be even clearer spheres of writing that people access: electronic books that the privileged will access through some device (and publishing houses are battling to keep the price high, hence the EU challenge on monopoly grounds) and free comment put up by people on blogs and websites.  What it is apparent is that whilst the quantity will be greater than ever, the quality will be poor.  There are good writers on the internet and good writers in print, but we are going to have to stomach far more errors and anomalies in what we write than we would have expected, especially in printed boooks, even just a decade ago.

Internet fiction is not unpoliced, but the 'editors' and 'critics' adopt a very combative style, which does nothing to help authors develop.  Those who will listen to the criticism will be turned off writing anything more by the aggressive, dismissive tone of the commentators and those who do not give a damn about such comments, will keep publishing with no editorial input.  We probably live in an age with more being written and more accessibly than ever before, but the question remains, that, when there is no effective way to bring objective views to bear on what is produced and popular opinion squeezes the life from novels coming forward: is any of it any good?

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