E.L. James (author of the Fifty Shades of Grey blight) is publishing a guide for writers, and it’s all our fault.
Can we just take a moment to sit down and think, though? Cause I need a breather before I get into this. And maybe a stiff drink. (I said drink, cool it!)
Personally, I feel sick to my stomach and I’m not sure I even recognize reality right now. I look at my face in the mirror, and all I see is this disgusted look of bemusement, and I can’t get my eyebrows to stop doing that thing.
Why, Universe? Why MORE Fifty Shades of Grey buzz? Y U DO DIS??
I’ve been upset for a while, as many of you may know, about everything even tangentially related to Fifty Shades (including, but not limited to, the loss of the phrase “it’s all just shades of grey”), but just I can’t live in the negative space necessary to be the kind of upset Fifty Shades deserves. I actually have to step away from the topic entirely to de-stress and forget, for a minute, that Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more copies than the entire Harry Potter series, that E.L. James is now considered one of the highest paid authors in the world, and that she’s about to publish a guide to help other writers be [sarcasm] as talented and successful as she is[/sarcasm].
My mind is reeling from that last statement.
First I experienced Disbelief. “Oh my god,” I said to my little dog, who was fast asleep, and also didn’t care, “E.L. James thinks she has valid advice to give. Which, of course she does, because she’s the Messiah of Writing, now. Have you not seen her bank money?”
Following the Stages of Grief, I experienced the briefest flare of Anger. “This is going to ruin writing (and therefore, all life,) forever,” I thought, with no trace of hyperbole.
Then I skipped on to Acceptance, because ain’t no one got time for this, and thought “I have to share this,” because suffering is more bearable when shared.
But . . . how?
How do I share this with the people I know? Even if they don’t think Fifty Shades is Abuse, they can at least see the objectively terrible prose for what it is. How do I share this without feeding the negativity spiral and have us all chanting Satanic spells in the hopes one of them puts an end to this, the Darkest Timeline?
And then I remembered the only line of thought that allowed me to fall asleep the last time I was so upset by the series; change the conversation.
Instead of calling Time of Death on quality in literature as we know it, we need stop bad literature from winning.
Now, our first instinct in this situation is to be appalled at the very notion that a writer with as little appreciable talent as James could even begin to instruct other writers in the craft. This is considered a native instinct, up there with “fight or flight” and knowing it’s only a matter of time before Justin Bieber becomes his own religion.
This serves two purposes: 1) To prove you have a brain, and 2) that it’s still working.
Working brain intact, we are right to be appalled by this news, because new, impressionable writers may look at James’ success and think “Writing sounded hard when I talked to those masochists typing on finger nubs and drinking way too much coffee. To hell with that noise!”, and the next thing you know the stuff the internet was ashamed to show you becomes the next best sellers on all the shelves, because E.L. James is to literature what “reality” is to TV.
At least, that’s the fear.
This is, of course, ridiculous, because as long as there are writers with passion, there will be quality in literature. The bigger (and by far, scarier) question lurking within that fear, though, is “After this, will quality writing even matter?”
I say “Yes. But only if you make it matter.”
If you want to see quality published, you have to put effort into quality writing. No brainer, right?
But here’s a problem. The majority of writers seeking publication face a real uphill battle far beyond applying every trick, tip, and hard-won skill they ever paid a workshop to learn; writers are looking to craft the best, most engaging story they can manage without killing themselves (please), but publishers are looking for something they can sell. If the two happen to coincide, so much the better, but what the writer pours into their craft often isn’t what the publisher is looking for when they turn the first page.
And that’s all before E.L. James publishes the lazy self-help version of a writer’s guide. (It has blank lined pages at the end for writers to “set down their own ideas, or ‘inner goddess'”, as all good lazy self-help books do, not because fluffing out pages, but because people interested in writing never keep paper or, say, computers around to facilitate “setting down” their ideas, so it’s really considerate of James to make sure space is provided for them, and not lazy at all.)
But, it’s not like writers have been unaware just how screwed over they are when they plight their troth with an established publisher — those authors who are successful were at least somewhat aware of the flaming hoops they’d be forced to hump in order to see their manuscript polished and shipped to bookshelves across the . . . well, county, probably — country if the publisher thought they could push it.
If anything, they’ve figured out how to squeeze even more money out of every venture with the least amount of effort or risk on their part. The writer does all the writing, and most of their own marketing, and almost all of their own promotion and public event managing until the publisher feels they’re enough of a safe bet to offer more. If the author is really, really good at this, and makes enough money for the publisher, the author might catch some breaks for the future, and even see a cozy profit themselves. I’m not saying they could live comfortably off that profit, but they could celebrate with a reasonably priced meal out on the town, and an off-brand bottle of champagne, if they used a coupon.
And I’m not pulling this out of my ass, either. Search for articles around the internet designed to help writers, and once you get past the craft itself, it’s all about how to promote yourself. Building a solid audience before you approach a publisher, for instance, illustrates to the publisher that you have the ability to market yourself (one less thing they have to worry about, then), and increases the odds your book will sell if they publish it. [relevant links attached – find them*] That makes you a safer bet than an unknown author with no following and no internet presence.
Being an author isn’t glamorous. Authors like J.K. Rowling are the exceptions to this publishing house sideshow, not the rule, and it’s still not without monumental effort that they succeeded. But, her success is the fairytale we tell ourselves when we’re wallowing in writer’s block and too much mescal. Rowling is the bedtime story we whisper before falling asleep, because picturing ourselves doing a talkshow circuit to give the breathless public insight into the mysteries of our process makes it easier to keep plugging away at the keyboard to just finish the damn manuscript.
I know, I know. All of this sounds really depressing, which is probably because it is really depressing.
That was the conversation. This is why we’re changing it.
Until recent years, it was both difficult and not terribly profitable to self publish — even if you did it, it could actually cost you a lot, and you were unlikely to reach much of an audience — but, thanks to glory of the internet, now it’s as easy as hitting the upload button and spamming every community you’ve ever joined until someone reads it. (It’s like success . . . .) You could also go through outfits like Smashwords and Amazon, and get yourself free ISBN numbers, or take a more hands-on approach to make physical copies through CreateSpace, and similar, to distribute yourself. (Pros and cons are a completely separate topic. Stop it.) The point is, it’s not a choice between printing in your basement, or bending over for the Rod of Publishment, anymore.
We have options; we shouldn’t be afraid to use them.
If the publishers don’t want to take the risk on good prose, and you’re expected to do your own promotion, anyway, why not check out the indie scene?
But there is a second component to all of this; the reading public. If everyone today loved War and Peace, E.L. James would have been sacrificed before Justin Bieber on the day of his birth, and writers would be rewarded for investing the time, effort, patience, and bouts of screaming insanity it takes to do what we do. But we are not fortunate enough to live in that reality.
There is something we can do about it, though: Starve the publishers of the kind of public grateful for a series of books as thematically complex as a holiday dinner at Honey Boo-Boo’s. (Logan, shut up.)
The only reason publishers can get away with printing books barely edited to prevent copyright infringement is because people keep buying them. I know you probably don’t personally know three-hundred-million people whom you can convince to not buy something, but that shouldn’t stop you from talking to those you do know. I mean, it’s probably too late for all those grown-ups you know, all approaching thirty for the last twenty years, and watching their bodies slow down to die, but the young people can still be reached. Teach kids to appreciate complexity, critical thinking and facing new challenges, and you’re going to have a generation of readers who aren’t looking for a book so simplistic in its execution it’s actually easier to read by repeatedly slamming it against your head.
I know this isn’t a perfect world — not everyone is going to automatically leap for Nietzsche and Dostoyevski (holy butts, I spelled both of those correctly on the first try!)–, but it’s only this far gone because we let it happen.
So, here’s the conversation: If you don’t like the idea of new writers giving in to the inner idiot we all have screaming obscenities at us, keep being better. Stop buying idiot books written by idiots. Discourage others from buying idiot books written by idiots. You know how idiots get published? The idiot public makes it profitable for idiot publishers (same thing?) to support bad prose, because it will sell better than a complex story written well by an author who cares.
Adalind Monroe is a writer from a depressingly sunny part of Southern Oregon, and hasn’t eaten since breakfast, so she’s really, really hungry now.
*I didn’t find them. :( I was too hungry. I have failed you.