Literature the (late?) communist stronghold

When I refer to literature as ‘communist’ I do not mean to suggest any similarities with current political parties – I mean that, from its birth to the modern day it has been an industry far more free from primarily monetary concerns than others. The big publishing houses and many successful companies may profit hugely from certain releases but to anyone courting the idea of becoming a professional writer I will (with sympathy) repeat the advice that has been passed on as long as there has been a profession: DO NOT GO INTO IT FOR THE MONEY. If you start writing expecting a lucrative career you will, 99 times out of 99.5, be disappointed. This is partially because it is difficult even to get published, partially because writing a book takes far, FAR longer than reading one (completely discounting the necessary editing), partially because it’s all about getting an audience to buy something they really don’t need and partially because everyone who takes the script from your computer-screen to a reader’s hand will need a cut. Admittedly self-publishing has been an option for some time but until recently it’s been a largely ineffective venture (you see, a lot of the time you need those slime balls taking your hard earned book sales money and spending it on, well, selling books).

In the last decade, the operating procedure was fairly similar to the way it had been before. However with the advent of book-incorporative social media & e-readers (yes – I never will stop banging on about them) many of the old rules have been quite thoroughly circumnavigated. Amazon offers a service where you can have your book available to download within days and encourages lower prices by giving the writer a larger cut if they set the retail value at less than a pound (80 rupees). Before buying the work, they can look almost identical to any more conventionally published work, however, as the Victoria Foyt controvercy may have shown (see an earlier post) – self-publishing can eliminate some structures that do have value. In addition, it has lead to a different attitude to writing. Stories have begun to surface of businessmen outselling Steven King in the e-book market because, as they have stated, they deliberately priced their works cheaply, forcing the famed Mr King to prove that his work was twelve times better. This seems an unfortunate attitude and one that, thankfully, will not pay off unless the book is of any real merit – particularly when it is so easy to see others reviews of past works.

Although, there are ways around this too – there are posts abound (and increasingly irate ones at that) which describe ‘review services’ – companies not unlike those hired to boost twitter ratings with fake accounts. These groups, the most famous being “GettingBookReviews.com”, take a certain amount of money for a certain number of positive reviews to be posted about your work – perhaps with enough cash you can bury those five comments which read along the lines of ‘boring and narcissistic – DO NOT BUY’. I am not giving a dire prediction for or description of the literary industry but the growth of these activities suggests a new attitude to writing: one which focusses solely on boosting sales figures without recognising that, one merit of the tooth-and-nail fight to be a successful writer is that it encourages you to be a better writer. This is why I compared literature to communism – a priority, whether you liked it or not, was always to improve your contribution to the community.

Recently, Barton Swaim has written an article complaining about the attitude to academic writing. “Academics don’t write to be read;” he argues “they write to be published.” This might be expanded to encompass my worry that some modern writers don’t write to be read – they write to be bought. The only problem is, the environment seems less and less harsh; not necessarily a bad thing but something that is more condusive to this attitude surviving.

Some might blame this on the ‘fifty shades’ craze that has swept most of the globe – regardless of your opinions on quality, these are books to watch simply because of their huge success. This situation could lead a jaded mind to feel that spending six months crafting the perfect soliloque isn’t worth their time if they can just include graphic descriptions of animalistic acts and sit back to watch the cash roll in. However, this is no new trick – VHS quite famously won out against Beta-max because of prominence in the, shall we say, less child-friendly side of video and Blu-Ray’s recent victory against Xbox 360’s HD was for the same reason. The allure of that kind of entertainment has been successful for many a year and other forms still exist within those mediums- any writer who focusses solely on the sales-boosting power of ‘shady’ scenes has already moved away from the ideal. While it is understandable to take sales figures to heart when you have poured yourself into your latest literary work – we need to accept that sales is just one pigment in the image that makes success and also that our attention span is far too short to see the merit of long-term readership (Moby Dick sold terribly when it was first released, driving Herman Melville to say “I shall die in a gutter).

For the most part, I beleive that we do keep these things in mind. For the most part, I beleive that the average author acts for the love of the craft or to communicate with their reader and is glad to see a rise in sales because it means a. that people appreciate their work and approve of their message and b. that they do not have to cut into their writing time with anything so heinous as another job. For the most part, I beleive that literature is still a communist stronghold, devoid of the warping effect that real-world political application tends to have on these things and geared towards creating something and giving it away. For the most part. Writers are famous for proclaiming the death of literature (if they weren’t melodramatic how could they entertain?) but it seems that in modern writing, as in most arenas, there is a focus on being the next big-money craze. Some would argue that we are at a tipping point (one of many) between the culture of literary communism which focuses on communal contribution and capitalism which seeks the right buttons to push to conquer the market. We shall see, in the end, who will win out – but my bet is on the commies.

For the Victoria Foyt controversy see earlier post
For information on Amazon’s e-publishing service (which is actually quite good aside from the corruption it has been entangled in – it just allows a more capitalistic attitude) : http://www.amazon.com/gp/seller-account/mm-summary-page.html?topic=200260520
For Bartom Swaim on the state of literary writing today: http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/smart-writing_650766.html?nopager=1

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