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From vanity press era into the blogosphere

June 15, 2007|Julia Keller | Chicago Tribune

Edgar Allan Poe has a lot to answer for. It was Poe, after all, who self-published his first book of poems, thus giving hope to rhymesters everywhere who have found themselves dissed, ignored and inadvertently humiliated by mainstream publishers.

Poe is the name often dropped by disgruntled poets whose dens are wallpapered with rejection slips ("Dear Sir or Madam: While your epic poem cycle on the history of the world's oceans is fascinating, we regret to say that it does not meet our needs at the present time.") Because the act of writing often is posited as little more than opening one's soul the way one would a can of ravioli, many people are under the mistaken impression that they can do it. We all have souls, after all.

Virginia Woolf didn't help matters, either. She and her husband, Leonard Woolf, started their own publishing company, the Hogarth Press. She didn't have to wait around for dithering publishers to decide if "To the Lighthouse" tickled their fancy. She just turned the crank on the machine.

Personal computers and the Internet's ability to fling information far and wide have furthered the idea of Everyday Shakespeares. As the joke goes: Everybody has at least one book inside him -- and most of the time, that's where it ought to stay. Technology has drained the humor from that jest, because now people can bypass the traditional gatekeepers: agents, editors, publishers. They don't even have to scrape up money for a so-called vanity publisher, as Poe did, or establish their own printing company, as Woolf did. One click and they're published.

Good thing? Bad thing? I don't know. As more and more publishers get squeezed by the punishing economics created by mega-mergers of publishing firms -- unless it's a pre-sold, guaranteed hit, unless your name is Stephen King or Mary Higgins Clark, don't even bother -- the idea of returning power to the authors themselves is kind of cool.

Walter Mosley, one of the niftiest mystery writers around, has released a new book called "This Year You Write Your Novel." My only qualm is that people who read it may think they can then write like Mosley. As if.

The amateur ideal is the golden nugget at the center of all art forms, and for a very simple reason: Everybody has to start somewhere. The most renowned, technically proficient musician was once a kid stabbing a piano keyboard with a stubby finger; the most accomplished and profound writer was once a toddler scribbling with a crayon on the kitchen wall while dad's back was turned. Artists evolve. They're not born. Moreover, the proliferation of first-rate bloggers is vivid proof that the world is filled with exquisite writers whose words deserve a large audience. Many blogs are better than many published books.

Trouble is, the sheer blizzard of undifferentiated stuff out there will ultimately work against, not for, new voices. If everyone's a poet, then nobody is.

As Flannery O'Connor put it, when asked if writing schools stifle writers: "They don't stifle enough of them."

Julia Keller is cultural critic at the Chicago Tribune.

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