fine literature and electronic publication
Writers of great talent and courage (i.e., genius), I think we can say, are scarce in any time. Those attributes taken individually are not scarce. Combined they are. Why is that?
I think it's because talent alone will get attention with only modest effort at stretching the imagination or sensibilities of an audience. Get that attention and you are set. Too set, as a matter of course, to more than sway boats.
And there are plenty of courageous people who think they are artists as well. These also may get attention for their stunts. May even deserve it. But courage is not original. It takes it merely to survive, that or stupidity. Ergo, it is rampant. Courage alone will be forgotten if only to make room for more, just as good, in our compact memories.
Amazing an audience with your prowess or daring does not, in my view, make for great art. Posterity, if you are lucky, will remember you as a phenomenon at best but not as a great artist unless your gifts were squandered on elevating, disturbing, terrifying, scandalizing, to the limits of endurance and then some, the sensibilities of your reader. Great writers require great readers. You as an artist must not be afraid to carve individuals worthy of your gift from the block of pretenders.
Tell them a good story but make them pay. Delight them but drive a knife into their back. Make them lose sleep at least. Make them witness to a truth they would never have asked to be shown. Educate their sentiments. Don't pander.
If you must offer healing or commiseration, injure them good first. Art is not therapy.
But all the while the injury you bring must emerge from what you are or have made of yourself in the contest of survival so far. You, not somebody else…
By now you've probably guessed you won't get rich being a great artist. No one pays to be served truth. And if you are that singular snowball in hell, know that it wasn't because of your greatness but because you were grossly mistaken for mediocre… Actually, truly great artists do in fact get rich every time—only after their work falls in the public domain still in demand. Posthumous royalties may amount to a tidy sum too late. In the fullness of time, they or their estate may get very rich. Until that too ceases to matter.
Is this a bad thing? Not entirely. It keeps the clutter down. Artists starve for two reasons: one, because they ought to. They are no good. They should be doing something else. Hunger is a hint. And two, because they are too good to be easily recognized for what they are while they are doing it. They need to be dead awhile and lucky to boot.
A case could be made that even the lousy ones should be allowed to live… but I won't make it here. My concern is with the ones we ignore or marginalize at our peril. The ones that might set us straight if we are lucky enough to encounter their work.
Great artists, unlike philosophers (who thrive in poverty), ought not to be so poor they cannot experience or have time to turn the lives whose truths they reveal. They should not want to be rich. Or if they do, they cannot be prudent about it. Profligacy befits them. Poverty inspires and beckons them because before anything else, a great artist may need evidence that their work jimmied a soul open a crack, not lined a pocket. If you want to make a living from your writing, you are ipso facto not a great writer. Your work requires being merely good for that.
This is why publication ought to matter. Recognition requires publication—a making known to the world.
Traditionally there have been great costs in publication. Printing presses and marketing machinery must move fast and expensively. Small forests defoliated, trees pulped or re-pulped, ink spilled, material transported across distances at great speed, complicated protocols set in motion, all for only a few weeks of shelf time. Unless you write for masses none of this is justified. (It may not be justified in the latter case either but for different reasons.)
You write from a singular sensibility for a singular audience—an audience so lightly dispersed across space and time that a few weeks' lease of shelf space cannot reach it. You need your work to be accessible for as long as its intrinsic—not market, i.e, pandering—value demands. It must be discoverable to the diaspora of your readership—which today means the entire world for all time.
Neither you nor anyone else can be expected to foot the bill for such extravagance. That is why traditional paper book publishing is and ought to be dead.
I love books, the old fashioned kind that can line shelves on a wall and be visible testimony to the education of my sentiments. But today that comes at a morally dubious price, not just environmental—though that, too—but the cost of producing a paper book is actively impoverishing culture by excluding work that deserves to be universally accessible as opposed to work that hyped demand will assure will be so temporarily.
Electronic publication is the most responsible way to publish today.* This has been true for some time, but the wide availability and affordability of electronic readers has made the ebook more than merely viable. It is the medium of choice. (If your work has neither pandering nor intrinsic value, don't worry, you can sleep knowing that little was wasted indulging your vanity.)
The traditional paper book may always have antiquarian and specialized value. It is not going away any time soon, and, for some purposes, is still to be preferred—I argue, however, not for the purpose of introducing untried or untested writing. Paper publication should become how we honor a piece of literature once it has proven itself to deserve a monument.
First, get read. Later, we'll consider the monument.
*Though I am reasonably comfortable around it, I am no special fan of technology. If we someday learn to harness even more efficient occult powers of communication, I will change my tune on the preferred medium for the transmission of culture in an instant. It happens electronic publication is the best we can do along those lines for now.