From Grapnel Press
So far I haven’t felt the need to chime in on the whole nasty, nasty business of Fifty Shades and a first-time novelist making more than a hundred million dollars. I mean, hell, that stuff happens. The owner of Grumpy Cat made a hundred million dollars last year. So did Glenn Beck. The four-hour workweek sold a million copies offering readers advice on how to sell vitamins that may or not be toxic at a fantastic profit, offshoring all the work to India and China.
And if Grumpy’s owner makes a hundred million dollars, what can it hurt? Worst case scenario is that people start injecting Botox into their cat’s face and making videos of the poor paralyzed thing sitting inert at a piano or behind the wheel of a semi.
But the thing about E.D. James or whatever the hell the pseudonym is (P.D. James, a fine British writer, died soon after this whole thing and I don’t blame her) that bothers me is not that she came out of nowhere. It’s not that she’s awful. Not Dan Brown Awful, not Tom Clancy awful. For me, the experience of reading her work was like reading a journal of an eighth-grader while watching a video of my Aunt Letty masturbating with an fifteen-inch pink dildo. It was horrifying in every way.
It’s not that it’s horrible. It’s not that it went viral. It’s not even that it’s horrible and it went viral.
No, like 9/11, it’s not the tragedy. It’s what came after.
What came after is rather like what happened in the Black Hills when some toothless jackass avoided getting scalped long enough to dig up a testicle-sized nugget and wave it around screaming “GOLD! GOLD! I’M RICH!”
Then every other jackass in the world sold all their earthly belongings and headed for the hills. The Indians, for whom this place is beyond sacred (and who own it by treaty and sheer moral authority) watched a trickle and then a hoard of unwashed, unskilled, violent and ignorant people clamber all over what had been their home turf. They set up horrible towns where they could count on mutual support. They’d go into the assay office with a half ounce of the yellow metal and walk out with enough money to get drunk. Tales of this minor “success” would spur other latecomers, equally greedy, to dig still more holes and junk up the landscape. People got rich, all right, but it was those who sold picks and shovels and whores and whiskey at wildly inflated prices.
This is so much like the terrain I see now of millions of horrible, shitty and untrained writers publishing away in the hopes of garnering a tiny slice of the success that this first-time novelist seemed to drift into with such ease. They form groups, write blogs, tweet to one another. It’s a vast circle-jerk based on the style of your typical MFA fiction workshop, but with no entrance requirements at all.
You see, I give a shit about writing. I’m like Anton Ego in Ratatouille. I don’t believe anyone can do it.
I believe that writing is at once both an art and a craft, a set of skills and talents that, combined with a mixture of arrogance and humility and a tremendous amount of work can sometimes produce a work that is truly good. A work that tells a truth, that has characters that readers can root for, that has a gripping story.
Some of my favorite writers–indeed, some of the best–are not big sellers. “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” said Mencken. Ditto for bad taste.
A friend of mine who is a famous editor at Knopf said as much when he admitted that the only reason the Big Five even publish literary fiction at all is to salve their conscience for printing so many books about how to win at Texas hold ‘em and what Bill O’Reilly thinks of Thomas Jefferson. They feel guilty, and the shit books sell enough that they can afford to do it.
But now with a hundred million e-books out there, most of which range from semi-rancid to obscenely wretched, they have their backs to the wall. Pity, because they function as sort of a cultural immune system. Without them, you can die from the simplest infection, a base virus capable of replicating itself millions of times.
I feel bad for any new writer out there who is truly talented, truly working hard for reasons other than money. They have about as much chance and the next David Bowie or Jimi Hendrix. Which is to say, almost no chance at all.
But have a great fucking weekend anyway, writers. Get back to work.