Tuesday, 11 November 2014

So who defines “Quality” these days?

Jillian Bergsma writing in Independent Publisher recently produced an interesting analysis of where the digital revolution was going http://bit.ly/1pI8GLy.  Reading it prompted this blog: because for me there is one question that is of burning relevance, and I would be most interested in your opinions – both on the validity of the question as well as the variety of possible answers.

Like Jillian, I have a degree in English, and I also have a professional lifetime’s experience of teaching it and of running writers’ workshops.  My first attempts at writing 40 years ago were published by Penguin; but in those days I was on my way to being head of a high school and far too preoccupied with the challenges of teaching inner city children in a very stressful social services area of London to think seriously about developing excellence in my own writing.

By the time I finally set out to achieve that goal - four years ago at the age of 68 - the digital revolution was in full swing and the publishing world had changed out of all recognition.  Our house is still full of beautiful books, and I have always thought of myself as a bibliophile; but once I had my kindle there was no going back.

Printed books don’t make any sense to me anymore on any level: impact on the planet, price, instant availability, the portability of a whole library on my travels, manipulation of print size, daily access to free books in almost all  genres (I’m highly selective, but have still downloaded 200+ free books worth reading in the last three months), tremendous highlighting and note-making facilities for review/study purposes…  The list goes on.

Jillian says a recent survey showed that the majority of Americans still prefer the feel and smell and tangibility of traditionally published “books”.  In the late fifteenth century there were still many people who preferred the feel and smell and solidity of a manuscript that had taken a patient monk a year to produce.  The crossover from manuscripts to printed books took most of a century.  I predict that in our more literate age the crossover from traditionally printed to e-published books will take perhaps half that time, and I would expect schools to play a leading part in effecting that transition.

What interests me most, however, is how ‘quality’ writing now gets noticed by more than a handful of discerning people in a marketplace barely containing the constant flow of millions of new titles every year.  I wonder how many seriously good writers are now submerged under the struggling mass of authors - previously denied that status - who are all now diving into the self-publishing pool: thrashing and splashing on about their own personally prized publications, most of which are destined to sink with hardly a trace

The erstwhile gatekeepers, it seems to me, have now largely turned into parasites feeding on the backs of celebrities and using stardom to promote sales of on occasion ghost-written or professionally “edited” semi-autobiographies, while much better writers are routinely turned away because no one has heard of them.  “Quality” scarcely enters into such an equation.

So who defines ‘quality’ anymore? - certainly not traditional publishers or agents, whose only concern (understandably enough) seems to be guaranteed volume of sales (hence their fastening on celebrities); and certainly not the reading public, which merely defines popularity (often a very different thing).

I’m 100% in favour of e-publishing and self-publishing; but it does raise that interesting question.  Wonderful writers aren’t necessarily wonderful publicists.  Shakespeare, as far as I am aware, made no attempt to publish his own plays.  Thank the Lord for Hemynge and Condell: for without them we wouldn’t have had the First Folio, published eight years after his death.  Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems were found among his papers after his death…

Perhaps the most I can hope for is to go on writing to the best of my ability for the time I have left, and to achieve what I consider to be a kind of excellence.  I can certainly hope for recognition from a handful of discerning readers and fellow writers (recorded in their reviews), and hope to leave behind something that future generations may one day find interesting and valuable.  How many of us are in that boat, I wonder?  I’m pretty sure ‘boat’ is the wrong word.  It had better be ‘ocean liner’ (to contain the numbers).

Please be clear that this is not a complaint about the status quo!  I’m merely trying to understand it, to come to terms with it, and to discover what thoughts you have on the matter.