Thursday, February 06, 2014

Thoughts on "The New Caste System"

Donald Maass wrote a thought provoking essay on his thoughts about the current state of publishing, looking at writers and where they fall in the publishing/self-publishing spectrum. I have pulled out some quotes, indented and italicized below. You can read his post in its entirety at Writer Unboxed.

He lays out his vision by rejecting the view that the sky is falling and here I am in complete agreement.

What’s happened instead is an evolution of the publishing world into a new class system, and like any class system it has winners, losers and opportunities.
 While there is certainly a perceived class system/hierarchy/stratification within the population of authors, I'm not sure this is anything new. There has always been a town/gown rivalry between writers of genre fiction and literary fiction, for example, with genre fiction perceived as always 'less than' literary writing.

Then there is the hierarchy between a-list authors and mid-list authors, where the a-listers have always received the lion's share of publisher resources.

Look at the controversy in literary prizes in terms of male vs female writers; if that's not a class system, I don't know what is.

No, stratification in the publishing world is nothing new. However, I don't agree with how Maas breaks out his layers, with self-published genre writers relegated to freight class.

Maass initially says:

. . . the self-publishing movement has been a boon to the print industry. Far from being threatened, print publishers instead are now gratefully relieved of the money-losing burden of the mid-list. Like giant banks that have discovered that banking is boring and the real money is in gambling, big publishers are now free to focus on the high-risk/high-reward game of finding the next Twilight, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones or Fifty Shades of Grey.
And this is patently obvious in the shift to bigger and more monolithic publishing houses and the flurry of 'me too' books that are published in the wake of a single blockbuster.

However, when he describes which authors travel which classes, he described freight class this way:

. . . for the most part it is an ocean of genre imitations if not amateurish writing. Freight Class novels generally take few risks. Too often they rely on character stereotypes, heavy-handed plots, purple and obvious emotions, and messages and themes that are time-worn. Justice must be done. Love conquers all. Good vs. evil. Freight Class fiction can be easy to skim. Literary flourishes are few, cliffhangers are many. Genre conventions are rigidly honored. Characters are not motivated from within, for the most part, but instead are pushed into action by external plot circumstances.

To my eye, this looks like the tired argument against genre fiction in general, which is surprising, given that Maass is a literary agent who represents many extremely talented SF&F writers. While he doesn't expressly say it, freight class is the ghetto of the self-published writer in this system.

The next higher class is coach. These books are characterized by:

Readable pages, appealing characters, clever premises, attention-grabbing plot hooks, a display of craft and art, emotional engagement, and themes that “resonate”…

While characters can be motivated from within, their inner journeys can feel somewhat painless. Readers are “engaged” but don’t always feel deeply moved. Coach Class fiction sometimes borrows secondary characters from history or classics, retells other stories, or stretches into series that can become thin. Genre conventions may be borrowed or blended but essentially they are not violated.
Coach class authors seem to be those genre/commercial/mid-list writers who have been published traditionally. As Maass says:

Coach Class authors, however, are professionally edited and get goodies like nice covers, ARC’s, and plenty of blurbs. Plus, their books are in bookstores, a big boost in visibility.
First class, in this schema, seems to be the literary a-list:

First class novels shake our way of thinking, challenging us to see the world in new ways. They confidently break rules, may transport us to unlikely cultures and times, teach us things we knew little about, and always feel utterly unique. Each novel creates its own genre. First Class fiction is imitated but never matched. Its authors are revered and for good reasons.

And while Maass does talk about writing quality in all three classes, for the most part, he treads old ground by placing self-published writers at the bottom of the pile, genre writers in the middle, and literary writers at the top.

As a writer, working hard to pursue a hybrid path (I have an agent and I've self-published), I am not here to engage in any sort of traditional versus independent publishing debate.  However, I do think about this differently than Maass, and part of that comes from my work in making pottery.

a set of coffee mugs in process, bodies thrown on the wheel

For the past 5 years, I have been working at a local pottery studio, throwing on the wheel and handbuilding a variety of decorative and functional objects. In the ceramics world, there are artists who craft incredible pieces of sculptural beauty and intricacy. And there are production potters who make lovely and elegant functional pieces - mugs, bowls, and plates - to be used and appreciated.

When I go to a craft/art show, I don't judge a purely sculptural piece as inherently better than a mug whose colors draw the eye and whose body fits perfectly in my hand.

I wouldn't call the potter of functional wares a member of a lower class of ceramics artists than the sculpter of decorative pieces. (Now, we are not including the clumsy work of the beginning potter here. Just as I wouldn't include the writer who hasn't mastered basic craft in any of the 'classes.')

'dragon belly' mugs. A little wonky, meant to be used and enjoyed

I am no longer a beginner, though I chose not to become a production potter. (This is more because of constraints on my time and the fact that I do pottery as a creative outlet and respite from stress.) However, I am in no way a ceramics artist. Yet, my work has been chosen for juried exhibitions and I have been asked to make several commissions.

I enjoy making functional work that people use and appreciate.

And I believe there is a place in publishing for books that are the equivalent.

I believe that there are many, many kinds of books that "shake our way of thinking, challenging us to see the world in new ways" and that capacity does not exist only in Maass's first class. Nor would I stratify writers/books in the way that he does. Those clumsy books, with clunky prose, cliche-ridden plots, and flat characters don't even have a ticket on the train. They are the equivalent of the student potter, unable to control the wheel and center the clay and create work purely by accident.

I may appreciate the hard work of the beginning potter and even attend the student show at the studio, I wouldn't buy the out-of-round bowl, or the mug with the too-small handle.

Yes, the ease of self-publishing has allowed those beginning/developing writers to rush to the marketplace, but the presence of poorly make pottery doesn't mean that all functional potters are shunted to freight class. In addition, there are many, many other writers who are competent craftspeople. And when I want a story to go with my morning coffee in my well-turned, well-trimmed, smooth-glazed mug, that's what I choose to read. 

No comments:

Post a Comment