Recently there has been much ado about gender inequality in publishing. In The Bookseller, Cathy Rentzenbrink wrote about two literary prizes whose shortlists were dominated by male authors, and argued this as the tip of a deeper rooted problem, which then became the subject of Porter Anderson’s Futurechat on Twitter.
Ms Rentzenbrink particularly drew attention to the fact that the Goldsmith competition aimed to celebrate fiction that is, in the words of its press release, ‘audacious and original’. As she said:
‘So that’s 18 books singled out for praise in the space of a week only one of which was written by a woman. Why is this? Are women incapable of writing audacious and original fiction? Not much cop at sharing their experience of the world?’
But something seems to have been missed as everyone joined the uproar. There it was in the Goldsmith prize rules, bold as brass. Self-published novels are not eligible. Check it for yourself.
(I can’t find a list of rules for the Samuel Johnson prize, which Ms Rentzenbrink also cited and accounts for her total of 18. Update: an enterprising commenter found a cached version. The Johnsons do not exclude self-published books, so no argument there. UPDATE April 2016: a Twitter friend tells me she talked to the Samuels Johnson, who told her they do exclude self-published books.)
Now, we’d probably all argue that the gender line-up in the final shortlist is most likely a matter of chance, not conspiracy. Ms Rentzenbrink felt it was a symptom of a wider attitude problem.
And I contend that this exclusion of self-published books is another.
Especially from a prize whose goal was to find ‘audacious and original’ fiction. Because they are more likely to find it from indie authors than from the output of traditional publishing.
But the crap, Roz
Now yes, some indie fiction is unripened. Inept. Hobby work. Personal therapy. All possible literary sins can be seen in self-publishing – but self-publishing is also where you find original, finely honed work that should have been on a publisher’s list if market economics allowed. (NB: anyone quoting this line had better include its full context or I will smite them with my hairdresser’s zombie homage to Ulysses.)
Ms Rentzenbrink’s discussion of gender is a call for equality and fair chances, to judge a book and a writer on merit and nothing else. So while the industry beats its breast about the gender thingy, it should also address the exclusion of independently published fiction. Double standards are rather unattractive, aren’t they?
Indeed, like Ms Rentzenbrink, I can show that this prejudice against self-published authors goes further than just a few competitions. Some quarters of the publishing world still dismiss it as vanity press. I’ve written in a recent blogpost about how the Royal Literary Fund dismisses applications from authors who are not ‘commercially published’, as they put it. (You might wonder about their imprecise use of the word ‘commercial’ here. I certainly did.)
I thoroughly support the upholding of standards. Crikey, that’s how we pull ourselves up from our first amateur efforts. But we need to ask how quality should be judged.
A spectrum view
This question will become increasingly significant in coming years. There will be many more authors releasing their books in new ways. ‘Totally self-published’ and ‘totally published’ will simply be opposite ends of a long spectrum. Indeed they already are.
There follows a brief diversion into details that may be familiar if you’ve known me for a while. I shall render it in brackets so that you may skip if you wish.
(Some of us authors are publishing professionals as well as writers. In my case, I ran an editorial department for three years and trained other editorial staff. I teach writers how to bring their novels up to publishable standard, and I’m rigorous about it. Ask any of my editing clients. Ask The Guardian. I am every bit as qualified to make good publishing decisions as, well, a traditional publisher. I treat my own work just as ruthlessly, as a matter of pride in my art and respect to the reader. Rant ends.)
In which I invent two new buzzwords
In the coming years, increasing numbers of significant books will be produced with these new models. This is an age of options.
So far, most of the discussions about successful self-publishers have concentrated on business. But fiction is an art too. Just as film has writer-directors and auteurs, and music has singer-songwriter-producers, we will see the self-published author who is characterised by a strong creative vision and artistic proficiency. Just as we’ve seen the rise of the author-entrepreneur, we will also see the rise of the author-director, the author-auteur.
Phew, I didn’t know I was going to write that. I might have invented a new monster.
Back to the Goldsmiths competition exclusion. We should be as committed to seriously tackling this issue, this blindspot, as we are to scrutinising gender prejudice. It has just as much potential to unfairly disadvantage authors whose work deserves critical recognition.
So what are the objections to including indie authors ?
There seems to be only one, really.
But the crap, Roz
Yes, there are so very many books.
Clearly there has to be a sensible method of triage for competitions, professional bodies etc. But here’s a suggestion. Judges and gatekeepers, you don’t have to read all of every book. You do as any sensible reader would – read the opening. Do the page 99 test. If that’s not good enough, no reader would continue. Throw it out. Pick up the next book. Then read the real contenders properly.
There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Or is there? What might I have missed? Let’s discuss.