Trad and Indie: So what’s different in 2020?

The new technologies of communication were supposed to open the literary landscape to everything and make all things possible, but instead the world of writing/reading has been sinking ever deeper into a bog or maybe it’s a quicksand. There needs to be a new way of reading and writing, assuming there is still time in this bizarre and quite possibly doomed century.

Not so long ago I assumed that soon writers and readers would be able to meet each other wherever they chose, around whatever books they preferred. Independent publishing seemed to open up the possibility that everyone could be an author and every reader could find a book (and author) they liked and could afford. Books would become easy and fast to produce. Gatekeepers and cultural brokers from identical backgrounds would no longer determine what was published. To some extent a bit of this vision has come true, but far less than what might have been. The infinite potential of the new technologies has been squandered and a new two-tier publishing world has emerged.

The two publishing worlds have accommodated one another. The Trad Pubs have happily regrouped and concentrated themselves into mega-corporate enterprises, swallowing up small publishers like sardines, cramming writing once again into little boxes marked by gatekeepers ever more vigilant and responsive to the needs of their local ecosystem with its critics, fashions and fame.  The so-called “Indies” are dominated by rules and expectations in part set by the publishing industry itself, requiring ever-greater expenditure on processes which independent authors once expected to do themselves.

Many books are no longer even written by their authors. Professional writers do what used to be called “the writing”. Editors do the rest. The degree of uniformity is astonishing. Sentences have shrunk to the minimum. Subordinate clauses have gone to the woodshed. The semi-colon and colon have largely been outlawed. Nobody would ever publish footnotes in a fictional book, or include photos unrelated to the text. In most cases there are hardly any photos at all, even in autobiographies and biographies. Copyright law makes sure song lyrics or poems by someone else cannot be included in a book. Content editors make sure the text conforms to specific “arcs”. Everyone expects three acts and a “hero” protagonist. Writers who still want to author their own books are enjoined to go to courses and learn to write so every book in each genre is as far as possible the same as every other one, apart from title and author name. Cover art, even font-styles, converge around genre expectations.

In Trad Pub the global space is once again divided up into “territories” defined by nation-states. What should have been a free flow of ideas and exchanges across an open planet has fallen into a morass of dot com suffixes with financial consequences attached. Trad Pub still pretends to be terrified of Indie, but it shouldn’t be, because Indie has been more and more mimicking Trad Pub and Trad Pub is making good profits from selling in the online market. Court cases secured publishers’ rights to set absurdly high prices for ebooks while Indie writers continue to destroy their own viability by setting lower and lower prices and indeed give a lot of their writing away for free.

Trad Pub retains the aura of superiority in cultural value. Literary writing conforms to certain expectations about ideology and positioning. Certain themes are “big”, especially if they are to do with those who are ‘Other’ to the publishing enterprise itself. It is sustained by hordes of English majors and over-educated humanities people willing to work for miniscule wages for the privilege of serving the interests of these grossly inflated transnational companies. Some books are mired in complex moral issues, most recently the question of cultural appropriation, when mostly white members of the cultural majority try to write about the experiences of the “less fortunate”. But in truth most of these books, whether worthy or unworthy, are being supported by the publication of one or two or three blockbusters every year from famous authors. If the books can be sold into movie markets or developed for long-form TV series then their success is assured via the feedback loop between viewing and reading.

In the Indie world, genre is King, Queen, Bishop, Knight and Deity. Editors, cover-designers, blurbists  and the rest ensure that writers conform to the genre. If you write one book in that genre then woe betide you it you don’t write a series of others, with matching title livery and often the same characters. This is popular mass-market writing, everyone agrees, and there is no room for literary fancies or trans-genre mucking around.  In Trad Pub they only want one book a year from their writers, if that, but in Indieland they want two, three, four or more one after the other. Mass production for a mass readership. Now readers don’t even want to read. The big thing is audiobooks so readers become listeners, mainly because the level of literacy in the general population has fallen so low.

Where is writing outside the norm? The most encouraging signs come from small local independent publishers who find all kinds of new (and old) writing worthy of publishing. It is fortunate that many writers can get back their rights to their own works from publishers who have gone out of business, or whose contracts were limited. The new publishing technologies mean these books, long unheard of and forgotten, can be republished and brought to new readers. But what about the countless writers who want to do something different but are being railroaded into the latest trends via K-Lytics and feel obliged to write shape-shifter romances featuring panthers, lions and mongoose (mongeese?) There needs to be a space where they can be published even if they aren’t going to score on the peculiar algorithms used by Amazon and the rest. Books used to appeal to small groups of readers. People didn’t expect to make $50,000 a year or more by writing pot-boilers, although now it seems to be a career path. But it’s all about money and ranking these days, whether Trad or Indie.

Meanwhile I am pushing onwards trying to find some path between the two even though I increasingly think it’s a truly thankless venture.

More on memoir: inspirations

Last time I wrote a bit about the memoir I am currently reading, by Tara Westover. This led me to reconsider other memoir writers who have been especially influential (and otherwise) in my current project. I think it’s incredibly important to remain aware of the link between what you are reading and what you are writing. There are thousands of memoirs around, a lot of them extremely boring. But memoirs of writers … especially of writers who mainly write memoirs … it’s a whole area of literary scrutiny which seems weirdly appropriate in the present era of compulsory self-curation. So here are some thoughts about three recent literary memoirists who have had a big influence on my recent work.

JOAN DIDION.

Joan Didion’s book about her husband’s death The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and her later book about the death of her daughter, Blue Nights (2011), were important for me in understanding how differently writers can inhabit and explain their  inner worlds. The story itself is heart-wrenchingly painful. From a young, happy creative woman with a loving family life, Didion suffers the ravages of time and random chance, far beyond what she ever could have imagined, with painful dignity. The passage of time itself seems almost a character in her books, enhanced by the publication in various places of photographs (though not in the books themselves). I have been wondering about whether to put lots of photographs in mine.  I love looking at other people’s snapshots of themselves and their families and friends as I am reading their memoirs. On the other hand, sometimes the imagination is the best illustrator.

Joan Didion with her husband Greg Dunne and daughter Quintana

Joan Didion, after the death of her husband

KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD:  MY STRUGGLE

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Karl Ove Knausgard – publicity still

Knausgaard showed me that I didn’t need to follow a temporal sequence but could produce component volumes of different lengths and time periods in episodically random order. His first  was A Death in the Family (2009 in the English publication sequence) and he was writing it round about the same time as I was writing my own maternal mortality story. His revelations about his father, which caused a violent storm in his native Norway, were pretty gruesome. I had nothing of that kind to contribute. My mother had done some pretty awful things like most of us do, but she was nothing like the kind of horror he described his father to be. If anyone was a horror, it was me. Sixty-three at the time, I still thought I had to excel in my career. I still thought I was much more important than anybody else. This was not the frame of mind to be in when trying to help a 93 year old woman through the last year of her life.

Like most English-language readers I was gripped by Knausgard’s second volume, A Man in Love (2013) about his relation with his second wife and their family. The texture of everyday existence and his internal monologues as he did his best to live in ideologically correct Sweden and please his feminist wife, the only man taking his little child to pre-school singalongs where he spent the time lusting after the kindie teacher – what happens when you want to be a writer but aren’t allowed to – a typical woman’s story, now being written by a man who had acceded to feminist expectations. A lot of women writers seem to have approached Knausgaard only to go away again. There is something challenging about entering so deeply into this man’s mind which feels strangely disconcerting. We think we know how men think but it’s weird to have it confirmed in such detail. Good feminists aren’t supposed to enter this terrain at all, or so it seems, but I found it liberating. Knausgaard exemplifies a masochistic hysterical masculinism which seems to have become a default position for many hetero male writers today.

NOT AN INSPIRATION:

Elena Ferrante (well, that is not “who she really is”; all l the hoo-haa has been quite absurd, unless you subscribe to the Author as Sacred Object school of literary thought) is very popular with women readers. Everything she has written seems to me completely fake.  I really and truly cannot read it. I have started one book, then another, tried going into the middle of the first one, then the end of the third and I don’t get it. Just look at those covers: Mummies and little girls in silly clothes, dollies and fairies, nakedness in the mirror, and a headless woman in a bright red dress. Really!

ferrante-book-covers

One of these days I will try again. If Knausgaard is the masculine consciousness of the twenty-first century,  Ferrante might be the feminine counterpart and not in a good way. Women seem to read books in order to identify themselves with the narrator, and in line with a lot of feminist theoretical work from the 1970s and 1980s, she works from the classic masochistic feminine position. It is so depressing that a great many women still seem to find this compelling.

 

A Kindle binge with Helen Garner …

Jenny Sages portrait

Jenny Sages Portrait of Helen Garner. National Portrait Gallery, Canberra.

The best thing about getting older is realising that others are getting older at the same rate, especially your favourite writers. They’ve been writing for years and years, and you’ve been reading away alongside. In traditional publishing it means that they write and you read at different moments of the Zeitgeist, so you experience them in different ways according to where you both are. Helen’s recent book of essays Everywhere I Look felt both familiar and dazzlingly fresh. Preoccupied with my current volume of memoirs, this and the publication of Bernadette Brennan’s study of Helen’s work (more on which in another post), sent me scurrying off to rediscover her work in the present moment, 2017.

A lot is now available on Kindle. I had purchased her print books over many years but most had gone off into the mysterious places books go when you move your stuff around a lot. Now I could repurchase and reread all at once. Yes, it is a Kindle binge. A wonderful short novella about a trip to the Antarctic was the first surprise: I had never heard of it before. I reread The First Stone and This House of Grief and The Spare Room and then I came to Joe Cinque’s Consolation, which I had never read before..

What can I say? Absolutely riveting, so moving, so saturated with a personal truth which is at the same time a collective experience of being “us”, people in Australia, experiencing things in different ways, and it is these differences which Helen tries to clarify and explore but in the end the mysteries of human behaviour defeat explanation or even understanding.It is great that Helen is getting the praise she deserves in the US at last. Reading some of the reviews on Kindle is sobering, though. They are not negative, rather, puzzled, a bit confused. Why is it that some writing travels seamlessly through English-language markets while other books falter? Why was The Dry such a hit in the US? Why does Liane Moriarty work everywhere?

I hope a lot of people discover and rediscover Helen Garner now. Nobody could have guessed back in Monkey Grip days what she would become. If you could give a medal to an Australian writer, Helen should be first on the dais.

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My new Kindle! Reading, writing and the transitional object (a brief diversion into psychoanalysis).

Well it took six long days but I finally unpacked my new Kindle Fire HD 2016 8 inch and after the usual struggles with passwords and buttons and chargers it lit up,  and what a pretty ***** it is.  Actually I am not sure what it is –  a thing? a device?  a machine?  Just another object? Yes, it is an object, but an object which reaches into the very depths of a writer’s being – this one’s, anyway.

Ridiculous, I know, but the whole time I didn’t have a  Kindle I couldn’t seem to write a word.  I carried around the print-out of latest version of Suburban Gigolo wherever I went, thinking I could start the next round of edits, but there was just something wrong. Didn’t even take it out of its brown paper bag. Night after night I re-tilted my bedside lamp and focussed my eyes on the printed pages of Emmanuel Carrere’s Liminov. I am really enjoying this book, in a strange abstract way, but the process of reading doesn’t feel the same. And if I can’t read, it seems I can’t write.

While I was recently in hospital I couldn’t read either, not because I didn’t have my Kindle – I did, it goes everywhere with me – but because I was so knocked out by the drugs and the pain and the numbing routine and the astonishing reality of having a metal knee now embedded and growing  in my bones and flesh there seemed no mind-space left over for reading books.

knee in hospital

New right knee is under there somewhere.

However  I became addicted to that enlightening TV show “Diagnosis Murder” about how a doctor (a spritely white-haired Dick van Dyke) helps his detective son (played by Dick van Dyke’s own real-life son Barry) solve strange criminal cases which embrace medical issues.

diagnosis-murder

Dick and Barry in Diagnosis Murder, 1994-5

This was on every afternoon and I lay on my back gazing at the TV screen up on the wall and felt both cheered and reassured by the ability of doctors and detectives to solve all human problems, as they were still able to do in the early 1990s, unlike today where the crimes are so much more hideous and the main role for the medical specialists is scraping up samples from torn fingernails and cutting cadavers open with wryly humorous remarks.

dick van dyke sick

Dick van Dyke falls victim to poison in his own hospital!

But TV in the end is no substitute for reading, and now I have a Kindle again I can read all the books I recently downloaded just before it finally died. These include the only book by Carrere which I can find on Kindle, The Kingdom, yet another excursus into the world of the first Christians, a theme which seems to have been trending recently, no doubt due to the near universal perception of imminent apocalypse. I even started watching A.D. the Bible Continues (2015)  on Stan but that otherworldly gleam in Peter’s eyes is really getting me down. Actually I thought the first three episodes were excellent, but it became a bit repetitive after that.

Peter in AD Bible

Adam Levy as Peter

The thing is,  you live with stories, and it matters how they reach you. TV has become a wonderful medium now that you can watch series the same way you read a book … you don’t have to wait until next week’s broadcast, you can just keep on and on and on until you absolutely have to get up and go to Aldi or clean up the cat vomit. Then the clever TV knows exactly where you got up to, and takes you directly back there. Just like the Kindle does.

I can feel myself falling in love with my new Kindle, even though I’ve hardly even turned it on yet. What creates this powerful attraction? A lot of people have it with their mobile phones, almost unable to be diverted from them even by great moments in the Real World such as picking up your children from school. The recent campaign in Britain to get parents to actually look at their child when they pick the poor little thing up at the school gate marks just one moment in the process of human alienation we are in the midst of.

Greet child

How to think about these object-obsessions? To cut a long psychoanalytic story short, it is a kind of transitional object. You know, the blanket the child carries around until it decays, the beaten up teddy bear, the Thing your little one just can’t be without. Some clever evil genius worked out that we never grow up, we humans, we go on looking for the comforts of childhood, and these days they’ve given us an electronic item instead of Blanky. I’m not the first to think of this, although I did feel disappointed when I found this quote:

quote-the-cell-phone-has-become-the-adult-s-transitional-object-replacing-the-toddler-s-teddy-margaret-heffernan-33-29-01

The thing about electronic objects though is that they just don’t feel the same . How about making Kindle or phone cases out of woven feathers? I had a kind of feathered scarf when I was a small child and yes, obviously it came from my mother, and I needed it in the same way I seem to need my Kindle now. I just can’t go to bed without it, and if that happens then I can’t seem to write anything the next day. What The ????

Kindle Interruptus

Regarding Kindle, I was a very early adopter. In spite of the endless anti-e-book raves from all sides in Australia when the first Kindles came on the market I couldn’t wait to get one. Even those old clunky grey things with weird counter-intuitive buttons here and there were just great. oldkindle 1I could take big chunks of my library anywhere. I was never without a book. I could buy something at 3.00 am in a steamy Bangkok hotel-room where the reading light was 30 watts or didn’t exist at all. I could read on a plane or in a restaurant. So what if every new and important “real” book didn’t exist on Kindle. It meant I would read things I otherwise would never even know about.

kindle-fire-lineup

And so it has been. Kindle #4  died and Kindle #5 has just arrived. All I have to do is set it up. I was really p****d off at the death of #4. It was still relatively new and in perfect condition but that stupid battery thing happened and after all kinds of different recommendations it was clear that the battery just wasn’t taking any new charges thank you very much. It had had it. Everything else is perfect, there isn’t a mark on it, and I just don’t know what to do with it – such a waste to just throw it away. Maybe there is a Kindle Re-Purposing program somewhere.

I dithered about what to replace it with. There are so many choices now and the latest and best seems to be incredibly expensive and it is a read-only device, it doesn’t operate as a tablet, which the Fire HD did perfectly well. What to do? The 2016 Fire model seems to be pretty much exactly the same as the old one which no doubt means it too will have the dead battery problem in no time. But if you get the read-only device you have to go to bed with an I-pad or use your I-phone to connect to the internet every time you want to find out what year some book by the same author was written, or whether or not some historical detail in your tartan romance is in fact true or even vaguely so. This is the kind of thing I do at 3.00 am most days.

bed book and kindle

And in my indecision I didn’t order anything and next thing I was ordering real actual books. In my Kindle Interruptus phase I bought a collector’s edition hardback of Marilla North’s Yarn Spinners (gorgeous, but big and fat and so heavy) and two paperbacks from new darling French literary figure, creative nonfiction writer Emmanuel Carrere. Had to order these from Book Depository, they got here in no time. Of course none of these books are available on Kindle. I probably would have ordered Carrere’s books anyway since he is said to be a pareil with Michel Houellebecq, supposedly a fiction writer, although the line between them is pretty fine. Started reading Limonov by the pale and feeble bed lamp and then I couldn’t put it down and finished up with a big headache and not enough sleep. This reminded me why I can’t stand “real” books. They are so hard to manage in bed and that is where I do all my reading.  But I’m glad I found Carrere. I’ll write something about his stuff shortly.

Meanwhile I ordered a 2016 Kindle Fire HD. Am about to set it up. It’s like the start of a whole new intimate relationship, and I feel quite scared about it. Not just because I hate setting up electronic gizmos anyway but mainly because I fear this might be my last Fire and soon ahead of me lies an even more bizarre tangle of chargers and wires as I go to bed each night with a read-only Kindle, a mobile phone and some kind of I-Pad device. Just as well I have a large bed!

wires-tangled