A Third Way

The publishing industry is one way to make a living as long as you’re not a writer: most of the chosen few novelists who actually get published earn less than $10K per book. To make matters worse, there’s no compelling evidence that the published few, or the even fewer best-sellers, are actually better books than the ones flushed into the slush pile. Self-publishing is too fragmented an alternative, with little quality control and no systematic way of getting books in front of large numbers of potential readers. What about a third option?

Why don’t the writers become their own aggregators? Join forces, edit and critique and format one another’s work, assemble portfolios of novels, publicize and endorse the entire array of offerings. They’ve got the talent and the motivation, and from an income standpoint they’ve got little to lose. Writers already work from home so there’s no need to lease office space. With a firm commitment to publishing e-books there would be no upfront costs of printing and binding and warehousing and transport, eliminating the need for investment capital to get up and running.

Suppose a dozen novelists, brought together by shared aesthetic or geography or happenstance, were to form a small publishing shop. Would their combined efforts garner each of them more success than they would attain as solo practitioners? Or would each writer, oozing self-confidence, regard his or her own book as the winner, deeming the other eleven partners as parasites siphoning off more than their share of the take? And would each writer devote as much effort and enthusiasm to promoting the other eleven’s books as to his or her own? Maybe it’s the mythos blocking the way, the cultural image of the artist as solitary visionary and demiurgic creator of worlds, that’s so hard to shake. Or maybe fiction writers are just too socially awkward to strike up the necessary conversations with each other. I wonder if creators who spring up in traditionally polytheistic cultures exhibit a stronger tendency to assemble themselves into pantheons.

[Excerpted from “Postcapitalist Houses: Writing Precariously,” a 5,000+ word pamphlet to be found on-site here or as a .pdf here]

Manuscripts selected for publication by the industry pass through an extensive vetting process. Rigorous editing and formatting and printing, attractive cover art, alluring synopsis inside the front cover, flattering bio and exuberant blurbs on the back: each book gets the full professional treatment before it’s sent out the door to the retailers. Could a writer-controlled publishing house put out the same sort of finished product? I don’t know why not. And what about the vetting: could a writers’ syndicate establish and enforce a set of standards by which to select and edit one another’s texts? Writers’ standards could actually surpass the commercial publishers’, being more committed to excellence than to return on investment. In-group solidarity might override more objective appraisals of one another’s work, but perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.

Writers patting each other on the back: maybe that’s how tastes were shaped in the good old days of the professional storyteller. Writers might never have made much cash, but they did have cachet. When they agreed with each other they established standards and canons, while those who were not seated at the main table with the literary doyens organized themselves into avant-garde movements that challenged complacency. Writers weren’t trying to please their readers; they were trying to please one another. Readers were judged by writerly standards: if your tastes aligned with those promulgated by the writers, then you were a good reader. Not very democratic; not very capitalistic either. Writers were aristocrats who, like scholars, weren’t in it for the money because they already had plenty, through inheritance or marriage or patronage. Either that, or they were starving artists, aristocrats of the soul who would stomach no compromise in sating their hunger for excellence. Reading too was an aristocratic pastime indulged in by ladies and gentlemen of leisure or of decadence. The undistinguished and indistinguishable masses read – and wrote – what best suited them: trash, pulp, slush.

That all sounds kind of great to me. Even if it is a fantasized past, something like a neo-aristocracy could take shape in the not-too-distant future. When all of the jobs go away, outsourced to robots and offworld drones, only those who have already amassed wealth will be able to afford to buy books and will have time to read them. There won’t be enough wealthy readers to support writers by buying their books one at a time. Only those possessed of independent means or with ready access to it via patronage will write fictions. Highbrow culture will be restored in the midst of the late-capitalist plutocracy.

There is an imagined alternate future where the slush becomes the primordial soup in which new breeds of fiction will evolve. The rich, devoted to trendy dining and luxurious world touring and biogenetic self-enhancement, won’t bother to read fiction, or to write it either. Writers, who already don’t make enough money from book sales to live on, finally give up that fantasy. Everybody else, out of work and out of prospects, might have time on their hands but no money in their pockets. What they read they get for free from libraries and online piracy hacks. The industry collapses; the agents and publishers and bookstores all close up shop. But in this postcapitalistic world the writers are still writing, the readers are still reading. Will standards of excellence fall into the sewer when the middlemen aren’t there to enforce them? Or will different standards rise up from the slush, standards not predicated on running a profitable beauty pageant, not geared toward simulating and stimulating the tastes of the paying customers?

Once everyone is rendered economically superfluous and the publishing industry goes under for lack of revenue, the AIs that select fictional beauty pageant contestants will find themselves out of work too. What sort of chaos will emerge from the wreckage? Will the fictional multiverse devolve into the entropic decay of the slush pile, or will it self-organize into fractal complexity? Without the middlemen and the money to bridge the gap, will writers and readers diverge from one another, the writers patting one another on the back while the readers search in vain for something they like as much as the books published in the good old days when the industry was a vital force? Or, without the middlemen and the money keeping them apart, will writers and readers join forces, launching joint forays into as-yet unexplored sectors of the fictional multiverse?

A case can be made for fiction writers organizing themselves into houses for writing, editing, and promoting one another’s texts. Ficticities is envisioned not just as a theory shop but as a collaborative laboratory for conducting experiments and simulations and demos, designing and testing components that might be assembled together into postcapitalist fictional ecosystems. Now seems as good a time as any to get the lab up and running, moving on from rationale to initial project design…

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4 thoughts on “A Third Way

  1. Maybe this will separate the men from the boys in this ‘fictional multiverse’. It sounds like it could work for some…maybe. I say ‘maybe’ because I don’t see why fiction would seem like a form of ‘upside’ with everything else collapsed and decomposed. Of course, not everyone has such a sense of ruin. You are obviously very optimistic about something you call ‘fiction’ in the midst of wreckage. If you get the ‘lab up and running’ I may understand what some of this could mean, but I can at least see that what you are looking for is a view that fiction has a meaning that would almost mean redemption–something that would somehow re-colour the horror while old institutions still either stood or were themselves demolished, and while society itself was now useless, there would be this way of going into these ‘alternative worlds’ and ‘living in them’. Since I already do that, I wouldn’t be able to force out something that would be ‘otherish’, but that doesn’t mean I can’t read this as theory until some of the productions emerge. I would have said ‘creations’, but so much of this already sounds so Marxist that I find myself outside it–so I guess I’ll be one of the readers then. But the main reason is that I know you somewhat, and that it’s you talking about this.

    It must be at least 10 years, probably more, that I remember the now antique Paris Hilton saying “I live a fantasy life”. At the time, it seemed accurate even if you also towed the party line about her stupidity (she is and isn’t.) But as for the ‘fantasy life’ she lives, she just…doesn’t. It is just a silly consumerism combined with mediocre exhibitionism, all of it very conventional ultimately. But she had been right to think that it could be seen as a ‘fantasy life’, because society does see it as such and punishes it when it can manage (there was some minor success with this, and she’s been mainly relegated to the dustbin by now, however rich.) So that’s not really an ‘alternative universe’, but it is generally perceived to be, even if it’s also seen as theft.

    I can hear echoes of texts going as far back as 2008 in my own writing here, echoes of someone else’s writing (I don’t know who.) But there’s also the possibility that we already live so much in fiction, especially someone like me, that we don’t want to live in it ‘even more’. But the whole ‘reality world’ where all the entropy shows everywhere already seems like such fiction that I personally don’t know how to imagine what alternatives would be useful to me. I guess when you move on ‘from rationale to initial project design’ it may make more sense to me, and may already to others. For now, I see myself as an observer of this ‘theory shop’ you say will then be filled out with all these objects of fiction. Rather more formal than spontaneous and jazzy, but still somehow ‘different’ from what has gone before.

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    1. You actually have a publisher so I can see why you’d be indifferent. art&fiction produces physical books that are attractive objets d’art in their own right, so the proposed emphasis on ebooks wouldn’t fit. I’m guessing that many of the art&fiction authors set up displays of their books at their gallery shows or concerts, so having a physical book to show and to sell at the venue is integral to the house’s distinction as a boutique publisher. That sort of distinct house vision — plastic and musical artists who also write fiction — could find a place in the “multiverse” of writer-run publishing boutiques.

      “Of course, not everyone has such a sense of ruin. You are obviously very optimistic about something you call ‘fiction’ in the midst of wreckage.”
      Those last paragraphs of the pamphlet and of this post constitute one axis in fictive space, one fictional universe among many. There are apocalyptics and post-apocalyptics and millennialists, those seeking redemption and those seeking damnation, time travelers from the future and from the past, marxists and socialists and anarchists and libertarians, formalists and jazzy improvisers…

      There will be more theory-shop materials forthcoming. The Houses pamphlet is one of five already written and edited; initially I intended to go through each of them via post-and-discussion series like I did with the first one. But I’m getting antsy to do something more tangible. Of course if I can’t find any writers who want to play then I’ll have to regroup.

      Here’s a sneak preview from pamphlet 5, working title “Reclaiming Fiction”:

      Writers assembling themselves into a syndicated network of publishing houses. Readers assembling themselves into a network of anarchist replicating libraries, their members freely downloading e-books from the curated collection. Transforming books from commodities into cultural resources. Transforming the book industry into a public utility. Writers and readers organizing themselves into schools of fiction.

      It’s an alternate reality – a fiction. What happens to an idea once it’s been acknowledged as a fiction? First it will be dismissed as unreal, irrelevant to practical concerns. Then, maybe, the fiction will acquire entertainment value as a made-up story, to be read or watched as a temporary diversion from the day-to-day ordeal of grappling with the real world. Even serious fiction, so-called literary fiction, serves real-world functions: as a non-threatening way to practice empathy, for example, or as a means of gaining insight into the world, into the people who populate it and, perhaps especially, into oneself.

      This partitioning off of fiction from reality is a death trap, not only for fiction but for reality as well. Fictions are transformed into coping mechanisms, like weekends and happy hours and self-help groups. Sometimes fictions operate as pressure valves to keep people from exploding, at other times as stimulants to help them avoid sagging into inertia. Fiction becomes incorporated into reality, assigned its proper subservient role in keeping things moving along smoothly. And with fictions partitioned off as entertainments, the what-is of actually existing reality becomes reified, immunized from the what-is-nots – the vast and depthless expanse of possibilities and improbabilities and impossibilities on which the actual floats like a rowboat on the ocean.

      Automobiles aren’t natural geological formations; they didn’t evolve from oxcarts: they were invented, designed ,and built. A car is a physical object to be sure, but it isn’t only that. Its material substance is shaped with intent, imbued with meaning and purpose. Is it a stretch to propose that an automobile is partly a fictional object, and that driving a car through the city streets is kind of like being an actor in a play or a dancer in a ballet? Fiction is typically regarded as a category of writing or performance, an entertaining work of fantasy contrasted with the serious business of nonfiction. But that’s not the intrinsic meaning of the word. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the English word “fiction” first appeared in the 15th century as ficcioun, “that which is invented or imagined in the mind,” derived from 13th century Old French ficcion, “dissimulation, ruse; invention, fabrication,” from the Latin fictionem, “a fashioning or feigning,” originally “to knead, form out of clay.”

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  2. I probably am indifferent, but no more so than I am about the work Christian wants me to do for 2019. I’m sure I’ll do it, but he’s not a regular publisher anyway, and I’ve made little money from my books. Yes, the money matters as much and I’m not getting it either. That could change, and anyway, I’m not indifferent to what you’re proposing insofar as I’ve read all you’ve written here, more than I can say for much of anything else except the NYT and WaPo. Some of the ideas release something already when you read them, all this material about the history of fiction. I’ll be keeping up and hope people will come up with interesting and even amazing things. I’m really not clever enough to know how to foresee any of it yet, so I’ll just keep checking in and won’t say much unless it becomes more apparent that I’m able to see clearly what you’re up to. Best wishes, I can see why this would come out of you and be very important to you.

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  3. Thanks for the kindnesses. It’s been an internal struggle: try to make something happen related to this scheme, or write a fictional narrative that pushes the scheme to logical and illogical ends. No reason it can’t happen; no way it will happen – that’s been the predicate for most of my fiction writings. I feel the same way about this ficticities scheme, but thought I’d give it a try in the real world this time.

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