Thursday, January 6, 2011

Unfinished Business #5: You Get What You Pay For

 A View from Dragon's Ark

(Continued from previous posting)

Maybe you’ve heard of Sturgeon’s Law. If not, it goes like this--ninety percent of all books are crap. Theodore Sturgeon, its originator, was  specifically referring to science fiction when he said it, but later expanded the remark to all art and culture. I think it a decent rule of thumb.

I believe Dragon’s Ark is well in the 10% of novels that are not crap. Now I have to ask: if the traditional gatekeepers—like the critics at the New York Times et al--are slain with that righteous
spirit that idealists and revolutionaries are known for, leaving only the unpaid reviewers on Smashwords (mentioned previously) and Amazon, how will discriminating readers—those hardy few who are looking for a little more than The Vampire’s Righteous Organ--ever be able to find that 10%? How will they ever find Dragon’s Ark?

It is beyond doubt a cruel, insensitive and elitist thing to say, but I can’t really depend on either Smashword and Amazon reviewers, nor Aunt Thelma’s blog, to give Dragon’s Ark the boost that it needs, even if they do love it (and they may well not, for reasons I’ll discuss next time). Nor will killing off all New York Times book critics improve my chances. We need the Times and the other traditional outlets—to match the best of the right books to the best of the right readers.

Someone has to say what’s good and be able to make it stick. Readers need some organizing principle to make sense of it all, or we’ll all have to quit reading. Wading all alone through fifty books to find one good one is too tiring. We have to learn to rely on each other—and be reliable—once again.

And so, I want Terrence Rafferty—a noted and favorable critic with a positive outlook on horror fiction--of the Times to
read my book, even though he may not like it. I don’t expect him to. I simply hope he does. I want those gatekeepers: conscientious, eloquent, experienced, discriminating writers of taste and vision, who are as ambitious as the books they tell us about.

Writers, who by the way, are paid for what they do. Because no matter how the pseudo-egalitarians rage, there are distinct definable differences between War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy and Shopping and Fucking by Buffy Barnard. We need the gatekeepers—snobby, arrogant, tyrannical and any other adjective-of-evil you want to apply—to help the rest of us tease out and maintain those differences, to see that the best of human creativity, high artists and sturdy, dedicated craftspeople alike, remains at the center of both the divine and human spirit.

I’ve read Times Book Review online—for free--for some years now and no matter how often they’re wrong or neglectful towards writers I care for, I, at least, still think they’re still the
among best at what they do (They got me interested in Barry Hannah—not bad for a day’s work.)

Our days of mooching off the Times are, I gather, ending soon as they try, once again, to move to an online subscription model. I don’t blame them. In fact, good luck to ‘em. I hope it works. I’m not at all sad, even though, right now, I can’t afford a subscription. Being even a halfway decent book critic is hard work, takes years of grinding experience reading terrible books because the guys who cut their checks say they have to!  Reading bad books for the rest of us. They should be paid.

Everyone who visits this page is reading it for free, mistakes and all. Because no one's paying me now, I cannot pay an editor to pare down and clean up my prose (and brother, it needs it). 


What’s more, you’ll never read a review of Zombie Nights or any number of potboilers here, because life is too damn short and close to over to read bad boring books without a paycheck for my misery. Those who whine about the poor writing or copyediting on Slate or Salon better think again. Pay nothing, you may get nothing.

Once readers face it that Aunt Thelma will never learn that there is no “k” in “cat,” and Stephanie Wright is not the voice of anyone’s generation, the gatekeepers will become as influential, as looked to, as before (I hope). The Internet will become the giant book, newspaper and magazine stand
it was meant to be and—as in sweet days of golden yore—you’ll have to slap your quarter on the counter for your copy on the way out.


But for independent writers/publishers with more on their minds than downloads and sales figures, the challenges will continue to mount.

Next in this series: the Time problem. Or: The “Literary” Agent Rises from the Grave.


(re-edited 1/11/10)

Copyright 2010 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by Author

Thomas Burchfield's contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark will be published this Spring by Ambler House Publishing. Other essays and postings can also be read at The Red Room website for writers. He can also be friended on Facebook, tweeted at on Twitter and e-mailed at tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net.

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