Death and life in literature

Link: The Long, Slow Death of Literature – The End Of The Pier Show – Henry Gee’s blog on Nature Network

The above post by my friend Henry Gee is about whether it is best to write to please oneself, or to please others. Henry writes about an author who has published many books and stories, all in print, but who cannot now find a publisher for his new work. What hope for the rest of us, wonders Henry? "I think that with very few exceptions, the only people who can get their books published have to fulfil at least two of the following criteria:

1. They are well-known for something other than authorship, especially if that activity is ephemeral (sports ‘personality’, pop star, politician);
2. They have appeared on TV in any capacity whatsoever (TV presenter, contestant on reality show, pundit);
3. They are very good-looking;
4. They are under 25.

One can only check off these boxes to see what happens. For me, the results look like this;

1. Does being an editor at Nature count?
2. I’ve been a guest on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, so that’s probably far too worthwhile;
3. My daughters think I’m terribly handsome, but they are only small and to them I’m a superstar. To the rest of the world I look like the results of a collision between a number-nine bus and a stegosaurus, especially if compared with Myleene Klass, or even Alan Titchmarsh;
4. I am indeed approaching 25, although from the wrong direction."

Read the rest of Henry’s post for reader statistics, some publishing initiatives and for his views on POD (print on demand). As Henry points out, POD is becoming "less sneered at" and, via his back of envelope calculation, perhaps even not so bad financially either.

An update on the much-discussed Espresso machine is here, on O’Reilly Radar, together with various comments on its practical usefulness for printing and, crucially, distribution.

5 thoughts on “Death and life in literature

  1. Anyone can write to please themselves at anytime and for a myriad of reasons. It may even take the form of therapy for something they’re going through. Expression and creativity can never be curtailed.
    But if you want to be published with your thoughts/writing, then you have to accept the commerical world. Publishing means money and income; and this derives from having an audience.
    If you please yourself only, you might even find that someone (or more) is suddenly interested in your ramblings and you’ll get a publishing deal. Disappointment will not feature, as you wrote all this for yourself.
    If you aim to get noticed, writing for others; disappointment may follow swiftly, unless you started out with a key target audience you can evidence as the target market.
    In whichever form, I believe that if you hit a nail on the head, you’ll be able to share your writing with many, via a publishing contract. For pleasure or not; it’s the connection to a readership that counts in the end.

  2. Let us remember the immortal words of H.L. Mencken: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”
    People who write only “to please themselves” are not really writing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…

  3. Good points, CFR and Dave. And these days, for a few hundred pounds, you can write to please yourself and get a book out of it too — and sell it on the internet if you like.
    But as you say, if you want to make money out of writing, that’s a different story. A few people can do both, but not many.

  4. From Boswell’s Life of Johnson:
    ‘When I expressed an earnest wish for [Dr Johnson’s] remarks on Italy, he said, ‘I do not see that I could make a book upon Italy; yet I should be glad to get two hundred pounds, or five hundred pounds, by such a work.’ This shewed both that a journal of his Tour upon the Continent was not wholly out of his contemplation, and that he uniformly adhered to that strange opinion, which his indolent disposition made him utter: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.’ Numerous instances to refute this will occur to all who are versed in the history of literature.’

  5. Dave K, if people who write ‘only to please themselves’ are not really writing, then what do you make of someone like Kafka, surely one of the most influential writers of the last century? Though perhaps he might even agree with you, since he left instructions for all his manuscripts to be destroyed upon his death.

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