Bewildering Stories Discusses
Writing and Listening
with Danielle L. Parker and Don Webb
[Danielle] I think the problem with small-press and self-published books — I’m lumping them together here, and not quite fairly — is not that “just anyone” can publish a book; that was always true.
Vanity presses were an expensive option, although they may have been more professional-looking than today’s so-called do-it-yourself self-publishing. But in many ways, vanity presses and self-publishing amount to the same thing.
The real problem is that they lack good editing, something that has crept into even the large established presses, at least judging by the errata I’ve found in their books. There’s no one to say, “Not ready for prime time because...”
The road to “First Book Published” is slick and easy now. You won’t get advice from most editors or agents. Agents, in particular, have no time to waste on educating the hopeful writer, and their finger is always poised over that much-used “send the generic rejection” button.
What happens, then? Poor writers and those learning their craft trot out embarrassing mistakes for everyone to see. And we writers don’t even know it. Sadly, we mostly don’t want to know it. I suppose actors may be more thin-skinned than writers, but if so, it’s a close race.
I look back on the first edition of The Infinite Instant and am glad it is now out of print. I have revised it extensively, and I hope the copies still out there in the ether remain priced by the book sharks at their present ridiculous levels.
I don’t want readers to pay $80 for one of my books, and I certainly hope no one is crazy enough to do so. That book was a learning experience. I pick up the original and wince at the mistakes. I hate to see it out there now, when I know I can do much better. Maybe I’ll feel that way about every book I write. But I think that’s a healthy attitude in many ways.
I recently told our managing editor, Don, that I strongly prefer not to review author-submitted books from now on. Too many of them exhibit early learning-curve mistakes or, sometimes, a simple lack of talent. I hate to pan these books, especially since they’re freebies, and I feel all the wincing pain of my own first mistakes. I hate to destroy authorial illusions. But I also hate to cheat the readers by giving these books rave reviews they don’t deserve.
Don and I both remember a certain prideful author who went ballistic over a well-deserved bad review he received from me. For months afterwards he sent e-mails telling me “Look How Great I Am, You Worthless, Know-Nothing, Nobody Reviewer” and touting his supposed successes and my shortcomings. He snarked to my editor; he may have considered hiring a hit man and trashing my name everywhere he could. I finally began deleting that person’s mail unread. Finally the torrent ceased, thank God.
Don’t be like that. If someone takes the time to give you feedback and advice, swallow hard and listen. That’s how I got better, though some advice I wisely — I think — discarded. You have to decide.
Overall, learning was a horrible, ego-smashing process, given I’m not the humblest person (and most of us aren’t). But if you write, strive for a sincere desire to improve. And please don’t gun for the reviewer or editor who gives you the bad news.
And if the road to publication is too easy, please... be a little worried. One day you may be blushing.
[Don] Thank you, Danielle! You make some very important points, in particular:
1. Texts are dynamic, not engraved in stone. Any can be improved, and the test of talent consists in recognizing — or admitting — where improvements can be made. And, as you say, it also consists in recognizing the point of diminishing returns, when “better” becomes the enemy of “good enough.”
Chalk it up to the spirit of the season, but a striking historical example comes to mind: the gospels. They are now a “closed” genre, but immediately after Easter, the genre was wide open, and people were writing extensively. One of the earliest was the “Q Document,” a compilation of oral history. It is now lost because it was no longer needed after it became a common source for the synoptic gospels. And the genre remained open for a long time, concluding with the gnostic gospels partially recovered at Nag Hammadi.
Why was it essential to establish a canon? It can be summed up in one of our mottoes: “Tell the readers what they need to know, but do not do the reading for them.” Without the canonical works we’d have been flooded with romances, adventure stories and tendentious balderdash.
For example, the book of Revelation made the cut mainly for sentimental reasons, and as apocalyptic literature it was hard to equal, let alone top. But it shows where “better” was already becoming the enemy of “good enough”: it’s a cryptogram that could be decoded by its intended audience at the time of emperors like Nero and Domitian, but today it only creates weird misconceptions. It proves another of our mottoes: “Readers take everything literally unless they know to do otherwise.”
The point is simple: if the New Testament canon is composed of texts that were dynamic in their own time, who are we to think our every jot and tittle is Holy Writ?
2. Can an artist listen to his or her audience? If not, the artist doesn’t deserve to have one. I’ll take another seasonal example. We recently received a poem about St. Peter. How could he have believed and done what he did when it was such a “mystery”?
I had two responses: First, the poem, while good in its own right, did not meet our guidelines; it was better suited to webzines specializing in inspirational literature. Second, I didn’t agree with it. There’s no “mystery” about Peter; he knew exactly what he was doing and why.
In fact, it’s hard to find a more human character than Peter in all of literature. He’s constantly in dialogue with Jesus: sometimes he gets things right; sometimes, terribly wrong; and sometimes both in almost the same breath. Why was Peter such a likable person? He had no false pride; he was constantly learning. Who are we to think we’re any better?
3. We must speak the truth, but there’s no need to be unkind. Like you, Danielle, I love writing favorable reviews and hate writing what I call “rips.”
I’m neither a publicist nor a curmudgeon. Rather, I feel I owe it to the readers to explain my position. That’s why I write review articles rather than conventional reviews. And that’s why I write so few: a book has to move me to explain why people may want to read it, or to warn them when I think it’s taken a seriously wrong turn.
And that’s what you’ve done in this issue, Danielle, in both the discussion and your review. They’re entirely in keeping with Bewildering Stories’ mission. We know who we are, but we’re constantly listening and learning. And I hope we set a good example.
Copyright © 2013 by Bewildering Stories