Indie publishing, Politics and the Future of the Novel

Kristine Kathryn Rusch offers a brilliant take on Ewan Morrison’s screed that there will be no more professional writers in the future. I already skewered that particular missive by Mr Morrison here. If Morrison keeps this up, he’ll need his own tag.

There’s also a shoutout to the Book View Café and bonus potshots at Scott Turow and China Miéville for his recent speech at the Edinburgh Writer’s Festival about the future of the novel.

Now I can totally understand taking potshots at Scott Turow, because he is an easy target, has never met anybody’s definition for a professional writer (he’s a lawyer who writes on the side – good for him) and I never liked Presumed Innocent in the first place. Harrison Ford and Greta Scacchi doing it on that desk in the film version still sits in my personal top 10 of least appealing sex scenes.

But I don’t really understand why China Miéville’s speech was so controversial, because Miéville actually comes out pro-ebook, pro-indie, pro-genre, pro-fanfiction and anti-DRM in his speech. He’s no doomsaying Ewan Morrison, indeed he seems to be in accordance with many indie writers in many points.

I don’t agree with everything Miéville says, e.g. the bits about how modernism never managed to take hold in Britain struck me as overly pretentious. Not to mention that talking about modernism strikes me as a bit anachronistic at a time when people have been proclaiming the death of post-modernism for years.

Nonetheless, the vehemently negative response to Miéville’s comments in the indie writer community nonetheless surprised me. Take for example the discussion in comments at The Passive Voice.

The bit that people seem to disagree with most vehemently is this:

What if novelists and poets were to get a salary, the wage of a skilled worker?

This would only be an exaggeration of the national stipends already offered by some countries for some writers. For the great majority of people who write, it would mean an improvement in their situation, an ability to write full-time. For a few it would mean an income cut, but you know what? It was a good run. And surely it’s easily worth it to undermine the marketisation of literature for some kind of collectivity.

Coming from a country where public arts grants are common, this quote did not strike me as in any way problematic, merely impractical. Now I know perfectly well that I will never be eligible for any of the public grants or other programs for writers here in Germany, because I a) write genre and b) write in English, which means that I might as well not exist. But I don’t have any beef with those programs either – I can think of worse uses for my taxes.

Besides, Miéville himself is aware that his proposition is not exactly feasible, for he goes on:

But who decides who qualifies as a writer? Does it take one sonnet? Of what quality? Ten novels? 50,000 readers? Ten, but the right readers? God knows we shouldn’t trust the state to make that kind of decision. So we should democratise that boisterous debate, as widely and vigorously as possible. It needn’t be the mere caprice of taste. Which changes. And people are perfectly capable of judging as relevant and important literature for which they don’t personally care. Mistakes will be made, sure, but will they really be worse than the philistine thuggery of the market?

We couldn’t bypass the state with this plan, though. So for the sake of literature, apart from any- and everything else, we’ll have to take control of it, invert its priorities, democratise its structures, replace it with a system worth having.

So again Miéville is not even that far apart from all of those commenters at the Passive Voice who were terrified that the government would try to tell them what to write and throw them into jail for non-compliance (which Miéville never said BTW). As for that final call to take control of the state – well, Miéville is an outspoken Marxist, so it’s not exactly surprising that he calls for the Communist Revolution.

But then it sometimes seems to me as if Americans have very little experience in dealing with genuine Communists and Socialists (hint: Obama is not a Socialist). Plus, I am beginning to suspect that Paul Jessup has a point in comparing parts of the indie publishing community to the tea party movement in the US with its extreme free market focus. I would link to the actual post, but unfortunately it seems to have been deleted.

My initial reaction to Paul Jessup’s tea party comparison was a “Huh?” followed by “Well, ‘tea party’ is probably the nastiest label he could think of.” But parts of the indie writer community really seem to tend so neo-liberal (what the US calls Libertarian) that it seems as if you’d stepped into a convention of the liberal party FDP (and few of them are that extreme). Sarah Hoyt is one example and someone whose blog I simply cannot read, even though she sometimes makes good points, because her political views are so extreme. And then there’s this lady who wrote an essay at the rightwing site that she decided to self-publish, because traditional publishing was dominated by people in Obama t-shirts inserting Karl Marx references in their books (the link goes to the Passive Voice, because the article is gone from the Breitbart site). Sorry, but Marx references are guarantee for getting published the traditional way. I have had Marx references in works of mine and it didn’t help.

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