Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Walt the Plumber, or: Is Writing Books For Famous Writers Only?

Walt the Plumber

"The monstrosity of her pretensions touches the highest point of the ludicrous."

Those words are from George Gissing, describing one of the comic characters created by Charles Dickens. Gissing's barb defines the essence of today's publishing crisis: anybody and everybody believes that they can — without skill, practice, concentration, devotion, sacrifice and years of sustained efforts — write a worthwhile book.

Those of us who work at the writer's trade do not commit the opposite folly of believing that we could pick up a violin, for the first time, and play it with the unabashed virtuosity of Perlman, Paganini and Sarasate.

This problem is wittily discussed in a recent New York Times essay by Timothy Egan. (Here is the link to the essay: it is free to read, however you will need to register with the NY Times before you are permitted to read it: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/07/opinion/07egan.html).

Egan's essay (called =Typing Without A Clue=) begins this way:

The unlicensed pipe fitter known as Joe the Plumber is out with a book this month, just as the last seconds on his 15 minutes are slipping away. I have a question for Joe: Do you want me to fix your leaky toilet?

I didn’t think so. And I don’t want you writing books. Not when too many good novelists remain unpublished. Not when too many extraordinary histories remain unread. Not when too many riveting memoirs are kicked back at authors after 10 years of toil. Not when voices in Iran, North Korea or China struggle to get past a censor’s gate.

Joe, a k a Samuel J. Wurzelbacher, was no good as a citizen, having failed to pay his full share of taxes, no good as a plumber, not being fully credentialed, and not even any good as a faux American icon. Who could forget poor John McCain at his most befuddled, calling out for his working-class surrogate on a day when Joe stiffed him.

With a résumé full of failure, he now thinks he can join the profession of Mark Twain, George Orwell and Joan Didion.

Point well made. And the remainder of the essay sweetly captures the frustrations of every genuine author struggling to survive.

There is, however, another side of the argument, perhaps best summarized by Karl Popper, who wrote:

"If you want a democracy, you need to put up with some of the chaos."

Many of us cannot imagine how Plumber Joe can have a significant story to tell, or tell it in a captivating manner. At the same time, we do not want to bolt the door to every unknown and unpublished literary voice.

Consider the plight of some women and men, initially ignored or scorned, and now recognized among our finest writers:
  • In 1855, Walt Whitman set type at his friend's printing company, then paid for the printing of the first edition of his unappreciated masterpiece Leaves of Grass.
  • With the help of his wife,William Blake — considered by his contemporaries to be a madman, and now regarded as one of the world's great poets — handcrafted all his books in his own workshop at home.
  • Some other once-ignored now-famous writers who have self-published include Benjamin Franklin; Henry David Thoreau; Mark Twain (The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn); Carl Sandburg; Rudyard Kipling; William Strunk, Jr. (The Elements of Style); D.H. Lawrence; Gertrude Stein; Beatrix Potter; the Bronte Sisters; John Galsworthy; Edgar Allan Poe; Robert Browning; George Bernard Shaw; Samuel Butler; William E.B. Du Bois; James Joyce (Ulysses); Anais Nin; and Virginia Woolf.
Publishing in the past was motivated by a balance between culture and commerce. Publishers wanted to make enough money to survive, but money was not the only thing, nor was it the most important thing. Once, the job of the publisher was to discover the finest books, and offer these books to the reading public.

Fortunately, there are a number of contemporary publishers who have stayed true to their calling and professional integrity. But many — and the cynic might say "most" — have not.

In theory, there is a system in place to separate the wheat from the chaff, the writers from the plumbers. The great gates to literary stardom are guarded by a hardhearted breed of businesspersons known as "literary agents." Admirably, a group of these agents have joined together, and formed an organization called the AAR (The Association of Authors Representatives) to protect authors from exploitation from members of their species who have lower ethical standards.

Years ago, inflated with youthful hopes and nearsighted optimism, I mailed a letter describing my novel to an agent in the publishing capital of the world. To my shock, within 6 months I received a reply from this agent. The reply — which of course had been mailed to me in my Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope — was nothing more than a glossy flyer promoting his new book. Though I laugh at this incident now, at the time I was mad as hell. It is petty to mention names, however I must say that I was very gratified this week to discover that the very book which had once been so nefariously promoted, is now available for free online, via Google Books.

Agent Book

But let us return to our original dilemma. Given the choice between two universes, one realm that published big-name authors only, and another world that published a wide variety of authors — great, awful, good, bad, and everything in between — I will choose the second world every time. That world of equal opportunity — where everyone has the chance to be published — is vastly more chaotic, more enlightening, and more fun.

— Michael Pastore

Thanks for the ping, to one of favorite blogs, Arts Journal: