I recently wrote an article for The Guardian’s blog about how the rise of the Creative Writing course had killed creativity in writing and led to the death of the experimental novel. The Guardian posted it next to the announcement of the Man Booker short list and it caused quite a response.
I said, among other things, that publishers and agents were very conservative and tended only to accept manuscripts recommended by tutors in Creative Writing. These tutors, who include many big-name novelists, need to keep getting published to keep their jobs, and so feed this circle of conservative writing.
Is Self-Publishing the Answer?
As a self-published writer myself, I wondered why self-publishing had not increased experimentalism in novel-writing and concluded that unpublished and self-published writers don’t want to be unpublished; we all want a publisher to accept us and value us, whatever we say to ourselves and our friends. So we write what we think an agent or publisher might like, especially if we have invested in a Creative Writing course, which I likened to writing by committee. Is this true? Some people agreed, some didn’t.
I self-published a book on the British experimental novel last year, which I originally wrote as a doctoral thesis 30 years ago. I had previously self-published a book version of my MA thesis as well as several volumes of poetry, flash fiction and translations, using Lulu for print, Kindle for eBooks and Issuu for online reading. I only tried to find a publisher once: I had translated Maeterlinck’s early marionette plays, which hadn’t been translated into English for over 100 years; I thought there must be some interest in this. I researched specialist, niche publishers and approached three, with individual letters to each, explaining how I thought the book would fit in with their list. Two replied, both with rejections, though one gave me suggestions of two others I might try. I did, and neither replied.
Who Needs a Publisher Anyway?
Then I discovered Lulu.com and never looked back. Now I don’t have to worry about what a publisher wants, what their deadlines, lead times and requirements are. I write what I want, I make sure it’s formatted, proofread and printed to a professional standard, and then I release it as soon as I’m happy. Lulu books are printed on demand in the Amazon warehouse so you can order one of my books this afternoon (even if it’s Sunday) and get it tomorrow morning, in Europe or the US. So who needs a publisher?
Sadly, the way things stand, we all do. I employed a publicist on my book about the experimental novel, and she got me the Guardian article. But, however hard she tried, she couldn’t get reviews in the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement or any ‘serious’ literary journal (and my book’s pretty serious at 250,000 words and only 5 pages short of the Print on Demand page limit of 750-odd pages). They don’t review self-published books. In fact, in non-fiction they almost exclusively review books published by University presses (who also provide their advertising revenue). And in fiction the same publishers keep succeeding in getting books reviewed.
Of course, ALLi is working hard to change this, which is why I joined. But if Oxford University Press called me and offered to publish the book I’d jump straight down their throats, resign from ALLi and become as smug and insufferable as all the other published writers. Don’t worry, though; it’s not going to happen.
How fortunate I feel today. Today I found this place. I started on Amongst Those Left yesterday and had expected a good old Trawl through some of my favourite writers – Unfortunates each one of them. Managed to see myself Gently through the Preface and the Introduction and decided to have a look around for FrancisB. Bingo! Google turned this piece up and lo and behold the experimental novel clearly is not dead yet. I had begun to believe that I was just a remnant or rump of an avant garde that died out with poor old GilbertS. I have been writing this kind of text for years now and used LuLu right up until my texts became so experimental that they could not be contained on paper in books. I then turned to the web and played with the blogella format but eventually I have come to this odd place where only an application could handle my new novel in progress. Ho Hum – such are the chalenges of writing
Dan’s right about the 50s and 60s being ripe for experimental literature. My survey stopped in 1980, just after Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power, but it had already dried up long before then, though Christine Brooke-Rose and Eva Figes kept up the fight until both died last year.
In the 50s and 60s there were publishers like John Calder, Maurice Girodias and Barney Rosset who actively encouraged experimental writing and nurtured writers of the outrageous. They fought the censors – often at huge financial and emotional cost – and dragged public taste behind them rather than following it. Can anyone name any living publishers in this category?
Girodias financed his press by commissioning experimental writers like Alexander Trocchi to write pseudonymous ‘dirty books’ that make 50 Shades of Grey look limp. Jeff Nuttall published scurrilous and scatological books that would never pass the ‘new censorship’ practiced not by governments but by publishers.
To Dan’s House of Leaves example I might add Danielewski’s more recent experimental novel The Fifty Year Sword and T.M. Wolfe’s Sound (also American; published by Faber) and Anne Carson’s experimental/autobiographical Nox, which is printed as a continuous, folded sheet.
As a rare British example I would add Graham Rawle’s wonderfully bonkers Woman’s World, a novel made entirely of cuttings from 1960s women’s magazines – and done the old-fashioned way with actual scissors and with paste from a tube! But even this is described on the cover as a ‘graphic novel’, putting it in a nice safe genre box where it doesn’t belong. It’s in a way the opposite of Tom Philips’ A Humument, a ‘treated’ Victorian novel, which is much earlier but keeps being reprinted.
Concerning Dan’s Oulipo exhibition, I wonder if he, like me, thinks that system-writing is a peculiarly French disease that has never infected us Brits!
I’ve been amazed just how much Oulipo comes up in even quite casual conversation the past year or so in the UK – I even had the privilege of seeing a performance poet at a slam unashamedly introduce his poem written using e as the only vowel as Oulipian and refer to it as an anti-Perec piece
I’m very flattered that Dan Holloway has joined in; you’re an inspiration to us all and one of the brave few continuing an almost-lost British tradition. And thanks for the introduction to Rohan.
Mainstream publishers can do experimental work is they want to: BS Johnson’s book-in-a-box The Unfortunates has recently been republished in the mainstream, as has it’s literary model, Marc Saporta’s Composition No 1, by London-based Visual Editions. And Johnson’s Albert Angelo was republished with holes cut in the pages as Johnson wanted. But these already had cult status.
On Orna’s point: I do love being independent and I’m proud to be in the Salon des Refuses. But what I really want is the best of both worlds: freedom to write what I want, publish it when I want and then get it reviewed in the TLS.
“what I really want is the best of both worlds: freedom to write what I want, publish it when I want and then get it reviewed in the TLS. ”
Interesting point about the reprints of alerady cult items (our Waterstones in Oxford had half a table dedicated to The Unfortunates) – looking back (though the lenses may be very distorted) it feels as though a certain part of the mainstream was more open to the avant garde in the 50s and 60s and works therefore had the chance to become cult items and then to be recycled into the mainstream at a later date – it’s difficult to see what the cult items are today that will receive the same treatment in 20 years. The only consistently mentioned cult experimental book from recent times is House of Leaves and that was neither particularly underground nor, rather scarily as I remember it coming out so clearly, particularly recent
That’s a cool pair o’ shades in your avatar image, Francis — we should supply a pair of them to the TLS review team!
The logjam will be broken once a group (or even two!) reviewers start up a review site that has some literary credibility. And once that happens, the established outlets will begin to refer to them.
Once upon a time, there were no reviews of pop music and pop concerts, but thanks to independent reviewers in Time Out in the sixties, the reviews crept into the quality papers- especially the Sunday editions, The Observer, the Times, and later, the Independent.
Creative publishing needs creative reviewing.
I have been writing since June 2010. As a newcomer to fiction writing I could see readers the other side of the mountains between them and me. The mountains being the literary world of publishers, agents and established authors. I have had the personal satisfaction of holding my first self published book in my hand and standing on my own small hill. My editor’s said enjoyable read, but unusual and where does it fit in the genre tree? My current feeling is to finish writing my 15 long books in a million words, put them on the shelf and get my children to sell them when Lulu and the e book have taken over. Why should I have to take rejection from people I do not respect? Stephen King said read, read, read … I have and have found so many self published books so much better than the prize winners and big names. Books written with passion, feeling and a desire to be different and unusual. I learned to write by doing and reading King, Braine and Connolly, deliberately avoiding the first excuse to not start writing … ‘I must go on a course to learn to write’. All I seemed to get from those who did, who still had not started was … ‘show not tell’ … if one more person says that to me then. …. my next book is a crime novel! Well said Francis. I must read your book. Alexander of the Allrighters.
Maybe the problem is labels. I used to teach “Writing for Publication” and the students told me they wanted to be “creative.” Being creative was apparently different from writing for publication. I told them all writing was creative because you created something.
You’ve addressed all these simple questions. Self-publishing is marvellous, the best thing since sliced bread, the freedom and varieties of authors is all stimulating and rather magnificent. It’s no longer who you know that matters but who you are.
Let us lay patronage in the dust!
Thanks for the provocative post, Francis. Maybe once upon a time there was room for experimental fiction in traditional houses because there was more of a budget, but sadly I think In this modern day of bottom lines and corporate profits publishers and agents look for projects that will sell. You can’t blame them. That’s how they make their money. The internet and self-publishing has allowed writers to stick close to their dream-projects. It is unfortunate that there still is a stigma attached to self-publishing and we are shut out of major contests. Still, you can pay for a honest Kirkus Review and while the major book reviewers might snub you, the smaller but popular e-zines are usually happy to give you a trade review.
i agree with Franes Booth about the high and mighty publishers stamping out new thought. i tried for years to get them interested in my books and always got told it didn’t fit in their mould, or suit their lits.
Now, like many others i have gone down the route of self publishing through Lulu and Amazon plus one novel through Feedaread.com. all allow me the freedom to write what i like. i have a very small following who by my paperbacks and a few who down load to their Kindles
I am happy with this status qua and sod the bog publishers. i’m an indie for ever now. at the age of severty two i don’t want all that goes with big publicity.
reegards Peter Thompson
It’s not true at all that every author wants a publisher and, as a refugee from trade publishing, who finds author-publishing more rewarding in every way, I am one who would be very very slow to accept a trade deal again — and then it would only for certain rights, and at a price that recognised the work I had done myself, building my readership.
In the eighteen months since the launch of ALLi, weâ€™ve seen the author-publishing movement grow exponentially in size and stature. For a while perceived as second-best, it’s is now being acknowledged by many — publishers as well as authors — as the most creative choice a writer can make.
Alison Baverstock’s recent research (which ALLi helped to facilitate) shows that most author-publishers approach the process confidently, with clear aims; that they are well-informed about costs and benefits and timings and about how they define success; that they emerge from the process keen to do it again, and likely to recommend it to others.
It’s my observation that those who are proud of their indie status, and carry a sense of their own worth into their ventures and collaborations (with services like Lulu or with trade publishers), are at the vanguard, leading the way and opening new ground, not just for those who avail of those opportunities, but for all writers. And for all publishers too.
Very interesting post, Francis. And interesting commentary. Let me add to the mix. I have published a number of books with academic presses over my thirty or so year career. But the most recent book I have finished with be self-published, even though I tried just about every avenue–small press, commercial, university–to generate interest in it. Although not an experimental novel, it is experimental nonetheless as a work on non-fiction. It’s called Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, and tracks my thirty year fascination with her writing through a series of interwoven stories about her life and mine. It’s both memoir and biography; it’s an intellectual book intended for a general audience interested in, well, thinking. Frustrated with rejections that made no sense, I decided to move independently. And, also deciding to use Lighting Spark, the new dimension of Lightning’s pod services, I created an imprint/small publishing vehicle of my own. You essentially become a publisher when you bring out your own work, so I thought, why not make it more official.
Called Thinking Women Books, my plan is to offer the skills I have learned to other writers whose work fits my imprint’s “mission” as a service to help them get their work into print. I will stay small, being one person working with a far-flung team of editors and others experienced in publishing. But because I aim to have prospective works vetted by other established writers I am hoping this will help mitigate the perception that independently published works do not have the same literary value as “mainstream” published works.
The review issue is a major one, and one ALLI is working on now (I volunteered to help and am still willing!). It’s something we all need to pull together to address.
Thank you Kathleen and it’s so interesting to see these sorts of author-ventures. And thank you so much for volunteering. It’s taken a little time because we’ve needed to set up the structure behind the scenes. The good news is that we have now appointed a Volunteer team and PaTrisha Ann Todd will be in touch with you very shortly! We are also working hard on our guide for review outlets, bookstores etc. “Open Up To Indie Authors” which will be out before Christmas. Thanks for telling us how you do things.
Thanks. I look forward to helping in whatever way I can. And the guide will be a very welcome addition to independent authors’ “tool kit”!
Hi Francis, thanks for an interesting take, illustrating that writers and their wants come in many shapes and forms. The good news is that if OUP do come calling, you won’t have to “resign from ALLi”. Many of our members use trade publishers for some of their books while author-publishing others. It doesn’t have to be Either-Or. See our Definition “What IS An Independent Author” on our main website: http://allianceindependentauthors.org/faq/#what-is-an-independent-author
Fascinating to hear from you over here. And I’m glad, now that you’re here, I deleted my coment on the Guardian piece before I hit post 🙂
I took great issue with the notion that everyone wants a publisher. And also that the experimental novel was somehow an endangered species, especially amongst self-publishers. I *will* confess that small presses seem to be where the most interesting novels are gravitating in the current climate. And you have to look very hard to find experimental self-publishers. Rohan Quine at ALLi comes to mind, and Marc Nash is a marvellous example.
I think the new Goldsmiths Prize has sent out a massively poor message on the subject by closing itself off to self-published novels. For me it’s yet more proof that it’s OK for self-publishers to be taken seriously commercially, but it’s still not acceptable to take our artistic endeavours seriously – I’ve had some lovely comments about my latest novel, written entirely in numbers, and from some well-known people in the experimental mainstream if there is such a thing. But all of it behind closed doors. I turned down interest from a couple of presses because I wanted to try and prove that self-publishing was the natural home of truly experimental writing, but looking back I sense that if I had a small press behind me then people would have said publicly what they will only say privately about a self-publisher. When it comes to experimental fiction, they just don’t want to risk being called out for championing the emperor’s new clothes if their peers disagree, and a publisher gives them at least some defence. So instead we’re seen as great to hang around with (because we say and do the kooky thingsother people wish they could) – but not in public. We’re told our books are fabulous – but only when someone from “the public” isn’t really listening. But if we just got a publisher behind us, then we’d be the people everyone wants to be seen with in public. Despite the fact it’s the same book – and that’s what really drives me nuts. Lee Rourke has a great anecdote about an agent who turned down his novel The Canal. After it had been published to great acclaim by Melville House, the same agent approached him. He told them where to go – “it’s the same book” he explained to them – how come one minute they “just didn’t love it enough” and the next they were all over it?
All of which is by way of saying I’m coming round to seeing your point – I find it incredibly frustrating that no matter what I do it’s pretty much impossible to be taken seriously artistically as a self-publisher (it’s the old adage that if you submit a poem with an impressive name behind it a panel will scour it for allusion and depth. Submit in your own name and it’ll get a glance and an assumption of shallowness). Half the time that makes me want to say bugger it and submit my next book somewhere. The other half it makes me more determined than ever to break the walls down from the inside.
Out of interest, I’m putting together an event about the past, present and future of Oulipo for next year’s Not the Oxford Literary Festival.
Perhaps then the logical conclusion of what you have said is not that “everyone wants a publisher”, but rather, that almost everyone is willing to tolerate a publisher in exchange for the mainstream cred they bring. And a cash advance, of course.
Mmm… A cash advance… :-O~
And yet, if one looks at the history of artistic endeavour, it seems overwhelmingly probable that the publishing houses are the modern day “Academy”, while Monet and Matisse labour away outside…
I wasn’t really coming to a conclusion, more musing in a ramshackle fashion and deciding I didn’t disagree as strongly as i did. I certainly don’t want a publisher. And I don’t really want mainstream anything – I think it would be odd for an experimentalist to want mainstream credibility – most experimentalists would probably say “mainstream credibility” is an oxymoron.
I love artistic analogies as you probably know, and that’s a good one. The dominance of YBA in our time is telling when it comes to the conceptual and experimental, and the thread that joins them to experimental literature – Goldsmiths (home not just to its Prize but to most of the more prominent online literary experimentalists of the early 21st century – says a lot. There is a credible avant garde if such a thing even makes sense, and it comes through particular art schools. It’s very hard for the self-eductaed or any kind of outsider to have their ideas taken seriously by those who make a posture at being avant garde – and that does seem worth challenging
Thank you for the mention, Dan. Iâ€™m confident that those culture-impoverishing walls will indeed get broken down, by slow but sure degrees. This very comment thread and post constitute one little branching hairline-crack in one of those walls: youâ€™re one of our powerful wall-breakers, and there are others on this very webpage too. Those walls will go the way of the Berlin one, I tell ya!