My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Mailbox: Good Books and Racists

Will going through traditional-publishing help your book be higher quality? Was Kipling a racist?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. .] 

Samantha asks:

I've read in a like four different places that one of the benefits of traditional publishing is that your work will be scrutinized backwards and forwards. Given some of the crap that gets self-published, maybe that's not such a bad idea. Even the five star books are crap–it's just the writer's friends doing a bunch of fake reviews. I want the book I put out to be good, so maybe traditional publishing is better, no? What do you think?

If you want to write a better book Samantha, no one is stopping you. It's not like when you go to submit self-published books the Microsoft Paperclip comes up and says, "It looks like you're trying to self-publish a novel. Would you like to add some horrible grammar mistakes," or an error message that says "We have detected that this is your eighth draft of My Greatamerican Novel. Please revert to your first draft before publishing."

The only thing stopping most people from writing a better book is their egotacular sense that they are already fucking perfect or their pants-wetting impatience to be published before they're ready.

Can I just pause for a second and say that I'm glad to be off the hate mail barrage of Blogust. I know it gets a lot of traffic, but what usually happens is that the hate mail is about me, and I'd much rather answer questions about writing.  I am not so choleric when I'm not returning fire. So thank you for having a question about writing.

I'm out of traditional publishing for my own reasons, but for others there are pros and cons for both. However, the ability of the traditional publishing to put out better quality work is a bit of an "ad hoc ergo proctor hoc" fallacy. There are reasons to do traditional publishing, but this one is pretext.

Because of the cost of printing, writing has often had a strange seat among art and entertainment. Most arts there are expressions for amateurs, semi-professionals, professionals, and the extremely successful. Community playhouses, local theater, troupes, and Broadway all have different levels of skill and talent even if everyone is serious about their craft. You can easily be known as a local painter and even scrape out a living without the slightest world renown. Musicians can get gigs and get paid in local bars, small venues, and big regional venues long before they do album tours or have a fan from the other side of the country. Only writing has seemed to have a dichotomy where the artist is either published or not. (Of course, the reality is that there are small presses–most operating locally–but the perception of publication as that rubicon of quality is undeniable.)

The sense of this dichotomy has persisted even after printing costs dropped in the sixties, seventies, and especially eighties making smaller and smaller print runs possible–thus less and less financial risk. Even as the dichotomy became more and more of a continuum.

What computers have done is to restore writing as an art form with a full continuum of quality much like music experienced a decade ago. Now everyone can put their work out there and hoof it to promote themselves. Yes, that means that not everyone is spectacular (I'm sure not!) but even mediocre writers can carve out a niche with some fans and do their thing. Bloggers exist from the amateur making the price of a movie once a year to the slick famous writers pulling down six figures. Writing has become more like the other art forms where you can still perform in front of an audience and make a pittance while you improve your skills.

Does that mean there are some crummy books out there. It surely does. But anyone who reads a lot already knows there are some pretty shitty published books out there complete with typos and missing punctuation and everything. While traditionally published books tend to be a little better, there is no guarantee. I remember my friend Jason and I used to pick up a dollar's worth of the worst looking books we could find from the 5¢ table at the used book store and see who could find the one that was the worst.

Loser had to buy the winner a Super Big Gulp and four games of Ninja Gaiden.

(By the way, I can't think of any customer generated rating system that isn't notoriously "ballot stuffed" by friends and family [or hired shills for bigger stuff] of the creators. It's not just Amazon or Goodreads book reviews. I find ignoring the stars and reading the non-hyperbolic reviews is usually most informative about the actual product.)

If you want to write a good book, write a good book. There's nothing stoping you but your own impatience or hubris. Put it through multiple revisions. Have it professionally content edited. Hire a copy editor who makes three figures an hour to comb through it for the typos you missed (instead of your friend who's an English major). Get lots of feedback from many different people who read a lot (and then take it to heart.) Go medieval on its ass.

Because here's the truth and there's no way of getting around it; you would have to do all that revision anyway. There's a myth that publishers will assign your recently shat out word babies an editor and it basically isn't true until/unless you are already established author (and even then it's not like they do it out of generosity–their cost will be folded into your contract negotiations). You'll have a copy editor look over the galley proofs with a fine-toothed comb, but that's only after you've gotten through all the layers of rejection.

If you don't hand them a cleaned up, multi-drafted work, they won't say "Let's clean this up because fuck; I just know there's genius under all these layers of missing commas and wrong homophones!" They will just say "This shit is the shittiest shit on shit street in Shitsville."

See that's where perception and reality diverge, Samantha, and why we have that sense of a book as either being "Worth Publishing™" or not (instead of a continuum like other arts). The publisher isn't working with you to help you create that better book. They just approve it or don't. It's more like gate keepers act as a hazing process.

Books that come out the far end of this process tend to be better quality not because of anything the publisher did, but because each time they were rejected, the writer went back and worked harder to improve the work. (Books right on the edge of possibility sometimes get a few thoughtful suggestions from a publisher or agent and encouragement to resubmit a later draft, but most just get a form letter. "No. Fuck you. Your book sucks. Go away.") The writer is still the one doing all the revision and hiring editors and doing all that work.

The problem is that non-traditional publishing lets a writer bypass that rejection and go for the instant gratification. Who wouldn't want to just push a button and skip all that fucking self doubt and work? Well, if it turns out if you want to be a good self-published writer, you have to resist that temptation and haze yourself. Unless you have deplorable impulse control (by the way, no one who sits down and writes a freaking novel has deplorable impulse control), nothing is stopping you from producing work of higher quality.

But it's not the publisher making your book be better. It's like those kids stories where the power was inside the character all along. Except...like....with writing and shit.

Eli writes:

My friend keeps claiming Rudyard Kipling was racist. Can you set him straight.

My reply:

I'm afraid not, Eli. He's been dead a long time. I'm not sure anyone could set him straight even when he was alive. He seemed pretty strident in his assumptions about....

Oh you probably meant set your friend straight, huh? Okay.

Yes I can see how that would be an easy mistake to make, what with Kipling writing White Man's Burden and all. Plus the vast collection of work he did portraying other cultures that are so infamously ethnocentric they have actually lead Edward Said to the genesis of an entire school of literary criticism which could essentially be called EuroAmericans Are TOTES FUCKING Racist. Even though Just So Stories are quite literally the introductory go to example for post colonial theory of sneering imperialism, I'm sure it's just a big misunderstanding. The fact that Jungle Book is an allegory for Britian's incursion into India that literally uses humans staring down animals and cowing them with their civilizedness, and at one point a British railway builder shooting a crocodile into three pieces with an elephant gun is, I'm sure, just coincidence.

Of course he's racist, Eli. Kipling's writing is basically the quintessential example of how racism can be unconsciously condescending and not necessarily hate-filled. The best thing we can say about him is that back in Kipling's day they may not have called it racism. They just thought it was pretty self evident that white people totes fucking ruled and that they had a duty to teach backward people how to live their lives properly. Even as he satirized U.S. imperialism in the Philippines, his larger body of works pretty obviously indicates that he really did feel it was Europe's duty to show everyone else how to live and lift them out of poverty and ignorance.

He might not be racist in the "Get away from me you dirty savages!" way that many people of his time were, but rather in the ethnocentric way that doles out value judgements on another culture through the lens of one's own. (This is why modern anti-racist movements literally talk about "decolonizing" your thoughts/words/behaviors/government/economics.)

Just because there's a gap between white supremacists burning crosses on lawns and well meaning but clueless folks telling people of color how they ought to live does not make the latter un-racist. It's just racist in a slightly more invisible way. (Although it is largely only "slightly more invisible" to white people).

In fact, most white people (or folks with internalized colonial attitudes) still haven't learned this lesson today. You can look around and see how the way non-white cultures dress or the type of music they like used as justification basically for killing them. The entire justification of right wing fiscal policy has ideas baked into it like: "Those people just want to live off government handouts." And liberal areas have their versions as well––a more refined sense of what SORTS of people belong in the neighborhood. All of this often said by folks who think they can't possibly be racist because they haven't committed any hate crimes.

Culturally we falling into the trap of realizing that racism is bad, but not knowing what racism IS.

Kipling's attitudes may have been a sign of the times, and Kipling may have been more open minded than some of his fellow countrymen, but he's pretty patronizing and judgmental and ethnocentric and imperialist and yes, racist.

I'm afraid you owe your friend a Super Big Gulp and four games of Ninja Gaiden.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I got this comment in my inbox before you decided to delete it, and I thought it made some interesting points. I hope a version of it shows up again some day. :)

    2. I might try it again if I can get something closer to coherency and less word-vomit. :) Plus, I'm not sure this is the best forum after thinking about it. Maybe a very patient minority-rights blog.

  2. I think you may be missing an aspect of the good book/traditional publishing subject, which is the question of how do you *know* you've written a good book? Maybe some people can do a good job of seeing their own work critically, but most have trouble taking a step back and seeing it from the outside. Getting an acceptance by a traditional publisher can seem like getting the gold star, the one that will overcome the Impostor Syndrome. Except that many famous writers still struggle with that. Even after they're published, even when they are tremendously popular, they're still not sure if they're really *good*. Not to mention that even very very good books may not make it through the publishing gatekeeper for one reason or another, as publishing is actually a business and not a gold star emporium.

    Rudyard Kipling may have been a product of his time, but he also said the whole thing about nine and sixty ways of writing tribal lays, which in addition to being bar none the best writing advice of all time, is remarkably relativist.

    1. I think that's where the feedback from lots of readers and the professional content editor come in handy. But yes, one of my main points is that publication isn't so much a stamp of quality as of marketability, and that's one of the reasons I think that non-traditional routes are so exciting. Not just because people can get their work out there who might not make "enough" for it to be worth it to a publisher, but also that the trends of whitewashed aesthetics can be ignored.

  3. Your reply re Kipling reminded me of this scene from a British sitcom, "It ain't half hot, mum". Captain Ashworth and the Colonel are discussing "the natives".
    ASHWORTH: We civilised them, sir. Taught them how to drink tea.
    COLONEL: Ashworth, the Indians were drinking tea long before we arrived.
    ASHWORTH: But not with milk and sugar.