At the moment I am reading a new novel by a young British author, published by a small but reputable UK house. It is terrible. OK, perhaps I should qualify that a little. The narrative structure is fine, and there is undeniable warmth to the style. But the prose is weak. No paragraph is without a cliché. The writing is imprecise - the similes are at best inaccurate and at worst laughable. Perhaps worse - given that the book has been pitched and sold as 'literary' fiction - it is bereft of literary sensibility. It doesn't feel like a book written by someone who actually likes books, let alone loves them. The writing is informed by television, and cheap television at that. The characters are unoriginal, culled from those lame sitcoms where the joke is that the joke isn't very funny but it is familiar and the writers have had the meta/ironic/insert-phrase-here audacity to include it anyway. We get the bumbling loser with a big heart who's been dumped by his girlfriend and is trying to adjust to life alone. We get the zany sidekick. We get the beautiful female friend who is implausibly attracted to our carb-gorged hero. Finally, we get insights into modern life that are so obvious to everyone that they barely warrant a fortune cookie slip, never mind a whole book.
I remain an unpublished novelist. Is this sour grapes, then? Probably. But I would say this: I completed a very well-regarded MA in Creative Writing and I have no doubt that, had the galleys been workshopped there, the thoughts of my tutors and fellow students would for the most part have reflected mine. I also suspect that any serious reader of good fiction would feel the same way. Sure, individual response to art is subjective, but there is a line. Bad writing is bad writing.
Responses to this are predictable. 'If you think you can do better then don't just talk about it, do it.' Trust me, I'm working on it. 'Don't be snobbish about work for which you may not be the target audience.' For the record, I'm not disparaging genre fiction that isn't to my taste. I fully accept that E. L. James and Dan Brown et al have their place, and that their work should be judged on different metrics. But when a book is sold as literary fiction I believe it should be subject to rigorous critical appraisal. Unfortunately, this doesn't always happen, given that reviewers are often keen not to criticise writers unduly for fear of damaging their own relationships within the industry. There are great young(ish) literary novelists working right now - Tom McCarthy, Sergio De La Pava, Evie Wyld and Ned Beauman, for example - but there are many others who, while published, would love to get into the club but fall sadly short. A third response is: 'Sales don't lie. Even if you can't see the merit in a book, if other people are buying it then that's all that counts.' Fine. But what if not many people are buying it? What if, after a modest spike in the first week, encouraged by quid pro quo blurbs from friendly writer colleagues, the book tanks? What then?
Clearly, conventional publishing has brought us many, many great books over centuries. The use of agents and editors as literary gatekeepers remains the most reliable and consistent guarantee of quality that we have, and how it could ever be replaced effectively is hard to see. As you might expect, nearly all of my favourite books are traditionally published (although I am starting to read more self-published work, and I suspect this will only increase). But it doesn't follow that everything with a publisher's stamp on it is automatically good - far from it.
All of this leads me to wonder what publication, craved by so many would-be writers everywhere actually means, and why it is seen as so desirable. The obvious answer is to get one's work out there. True, the purist might be happy to sit in his bedroom and write only for himself (Kafka famously instructed his agent Max Brod to destroy all of his work when he died), but for most of us the act is about communication. You might argue that a text doesn't even exist until it is 'created' in the mind of the reader. But if the endgame is merely to communicate then why bother to publish at all? We live in the age of the internet - if you want to speak to people then simply start a blog and attract readers to it by commenting on high-traffic websites. Or spend hours on Twitter every day and build up a following there. Or make a series of sassy, would-be amusing You Tube videos.
But you want to communicate through old-fashioned, long-form narrative prose that doesn't lend itself to any of the above. So why not self-publish? As I discussed recently, it is now incredibly easy to put out an ebook via Amazon. Here, of course, we get to the heart of the matter. The dirty half-secret for many writers - and I don't absolve myself of this - is that communication in itself is not enough. We also crave the endorsement of a major publishing house and the validation that comes with it. After all, who wouldn't want to be published by Faber? By Grove Atlantic? But this seems to me an impulse driven more by ego than an egalitarian desire to share something of ourselves with others.
There are other reasons for signing with a name publisher. Marketing spend for one - although in many cases this is dwindling, particularly for first-time authors. Expert editing - although this can be bought by the author who intends to go it alone. Remuneration - but with mean author earnings down to £11,000 per anum in the UK this is perhaps a somewhat Pollyannaish expectation. But I would venture that the true psychological reason for seeking a traditional publishing deal is driven by a desire for validation and to be part of something bigger - literary tradition, no less.
But does this really make sense when many manifestly bad books are published every year? There is only one James Joyce, but the market is swamped with modish, faux-literary novels, pale imitations of other, better books that are forgotten - if they are even read - days after the Hoxton launch party, with the writer having to desperately re-tweet the generic praise of poorly-read bloggers to whom he or she has given a free copy to maintain any sort of buzz. It is amusing sometimes to read disparaging comments on social media by published writers whose own work has barely sold and has attracted little or no critical attention about their self-published colleagues or so-called 'aspiring writers'. It is as though for them simply having jumped the hurdle of publication is enough, never mind what anyone thinks of the damn book afterwards.
I once attended a workshop where the speaker cautioned us that the line between published and unpublished work is not a line between good quality and poor quality. Certainly, I have read aspiring writers whose work is considerably better than much of the published stuff I've been exposed to. So assuming you are not James Joyce, what degree of validation does being published really offer in the age of the internet - over and above the opportunity to make your mother proud and to show off to potential sexual partners at parties? Why isn't just writing enough? Sometimes, I confess, I'm not sure. And yet publication remains a burning ambition for me, as it does for thousands of others.
Perhaps I am just a big show-off. Perhaps being a big show off is inextricably linked with the business of being a writer. I should mention here that of course the process of writing itself, while often frustrating and difficult, is extremely pleasurable for me. If it wasn't, I wouldn't spend so much of my time doing it to the detriment of other things. The act of putting one word in front of another, of creating music with language that is filled with surprising harmonies and dissonances excites me like nothing else. Perhaps that in itself should be enough. But I am also human. I desire praise. I like it when people admire what I do. I like it when they tell me I'm not wasting my time.
To date I have written three full-length novel manuscripts. I have also written a self-published non-fiction book and countless short stories, essays and articles. My work has attracted praise from agents and publishers and peers. But I have yet to publish a novel. Of course, practice makes perfect, people say. Keep writing and eventually you will improve. One day - one day - you may write something that is worthy of a traditional publishing house. It's good advice, and advice that I heed. I am nothing if not a grafter and I respect the process I know I must through in order to create work of which I am truly proud. But for many it can feel galling to be required to rise to a standard so far below which so many traditionally-published authors fall. Perhaps one of the less-discussed criticisms of MAs, MFAs and other creative writing courses is not so much whether writing can be taught or not, as whether there is any point in teaching it - if any commercial recognition is the goal - given that what is finally published seems sometimes to be decided by factors other than quality.
In the end, writers must stick to the old advice. It has endured, and for a reason. Write for yourself. Write the book that you would like to read. Make it the best possible book it can be. Maintain your integrity. Don't try to second guess what the industry wants. Not only will you inevitably be wrong, but you may end up writing a book that you didn't necessarily want to write. Writing is a long, hard, solitary process and life is too short to squander on projects that you are not passionate about. You must accept that you may never publish, and carry on anyway.
Finally, writers should feel free to designate themselves as such, regardless of whether others recognise their work or not. Was Proust less of a writer when Andre Gide rejected Swann's Way? Was Orwell an inferior hack when T.S. Eliot turned down Animal Farm? Of course not. They remained artists who were true to their own vision, regardless of whether they had received external validation at that particular moment or not. In the end, the only achievement that is truly meaningful is creating work that is successful on its own terms, and on those of the tradition of which it forms a part.