Writing is difficult. It’s a constant balancing act between spelling, grammar, content and structure. And then it’s about your reader, and your intentions: do you want to bamboozle them and chase them away with your assumptions of erudition, or do you want to seduce them into seeing your world through your words, making them thirst for more? Lately, there has been a spate of self-published books reviewed on this blog: many are guilty of the errors of blind pride and sloppiness, but there have also been unequivocal gems.
As soon as you see the signs of a self-published debut, as a critic, your hackles rise. Basically anyone who can raise the cost of a printing and binding a book can do it, and with today’s facility of the internet and computer know-how, anyone is capable of producing something that on a superficial level and to all intents and purposes looks like a real book and an object that can pragmatically stand side by side with a Jane Austen, a Joseph Heller or a Chinua Achebe. It shouldn’t be so easy. It isn’t.
So you’ve had a bad day. You’ve had a bad life. You got sick and then you got better. You go into a computer store, fork out a few thousand rand and buy a generic computer and a set of word processing software, complete as it is with spell-checks and grammar checks and a thesaurus at the reach of a mouse click. And hey presto! You’re a writer! The minefield of this kind of clean technology at your fingertips no matter who you are, cannot be overlooked or leapt over. Good writing is a lot more than what money can buy and computer buttons can generate.
In this contemporary world of cheap computers, kindle, social media and click-of-a-button publishing we are hip-deep in this ghastly mire of poorly written stuff masquerading as real books because of the instantaneous nature of technology. Maybe it will take a generation – hopefully less – for the cream to rise to the surface again, and different checks and balances be put in place for the real material to be distinguished from the rest.
What a poorly written self-published book does is insult the tradition of literature before it and around it. It also disrespects its readers’ intelligence. And more: it arrogantly expects its readership to pay their hard-earned dosh for your poorly read-through autobiography. It’s like imposing an ugly selfie on the unsuspecting stranger and expecting them to pay for the honour of seeing you at your unwashed worst. Or crudely, it’s like a potty-training child telling the nearest adult, “I’m ready!”
For this reason, a book that doesn’t bear the sanction or the imprint of a recognised publishing company with a reputation for quality needs to be handled by a critic not with kid gloves, but without pulling punches as any professional book should be critically handled. A similar thing applies to amateur theatre: if you wish me – as Joe Public – to spend my time and my money engaging with your work, you should respect me for whoever I might be. If you wish me – as a critic – to spend my time engaging with it, you should have the stomach to hear what I have to say.
A book, like an art work, like a theatre production is like a child. It is never really yours. Once it is out there in the world, you cannot protect it from the kicks and pricks that surround it and mould it. You cannot predict its life and challenges and dismiss all negative criticism it might weather as spiteful. The only thing you can legitimately and realistically do with a book or a creative work, is make it as good as you can, and in the process, to humbly look to the work of practitioners greater than yourself. Ask their advice. Pay them to cast an eye over your precious progeny. Respect what they have to offer no matter how difficult it may be to hear: it’s a tough industry and one which you don’t slip into overnight or because life’s suddenly treated you with a bad turn.
And I do not say this to punt editors or down people who think they’ve a story to tell, but a manuscript which shows a lack of understanding of something as humble and diminutive as the apostrophe for instance, is one that punches holes in the value of its own content. One spilling with sloppiness in the proofreading department loses its readers with exaggerated speed. As it should.
But then again, there are the others: those writers who have superb language skills, magnificent content, and the untrammelled courage to get their work out. But they do not meet the publishers’ criteria for whatever reason – nothing in this world is cut and dried and publishers might reject a manuscript because it doesn’t point with alacrity to commercial success, for instance.
So the challenge is confronted and a book gets written. It gets proofread many times. And polished until it shines. It is edited. It is sub-edited. And funds are raised to make this dream come true: the book is a success and the writer becomes feted and noticed. But does this mean that she can now leave her day job? Invariably not. Like any of the creative arts there are so many elements of the unknown that make a gesture like making a drawing or producing a musical or writing a book need to be undertaken for the sheer delicious challenge of doing so.
Art school graduates may be cynical in the face of realising that they emerge from university with scant marketing skills, and condemn the word ‘money’ as an expletive, but the thrill of creating, of getting your fingers filthy with ink, or your brain fraught – or vrot – with ideas, should override the filthy lucre potentially at the end of that rainbow. That is, until that cream is encouraged to rise to the surface.