Can excellence survive in the era of digital publishing?

Excellence isn’t a word often heard in the world of digital self-publishing, where Good Enough has more force when backed up with six-figure sales. In a smart essay William Gosline asks and answers the question; can excellence survive in the digital era? Gosline is a talented writer of speculative fiction, currently writing a fascinating serial fiction Jury Selection. I get the feeling you’ll be hearing more of him.

Answer The Question is my regular slot for guest posts, you can get details on how to contribute here.

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What do Charles Bukowski and William Gass not have in common?

Charles Bukowski and William Gass are not usually mentioned in the same breath. They do share some similarities, however. Both were raised in abusive households – not the same one, of course; their generation was one rife with domestic abuse. Both turned to writing to make sense their father’s rage, their mother’s disaffection. Finally, most who know their work would agree that they are serious writers, if not literary figures. Bukowski had become a legend before his death, loved by celebrities and the workingman alike. Gass, on the other hand, is still trucking along at the age of ninety, happily peripheral but well regarded in certain circles.

“No aspect of writing can inspire as much ire as Form.”

But there is also a fault line between the two that, like most fault lines, is at once minute and significant: the question of Form.

bukowski-gritando
Hero of the working man – Charles Bukowski

No aspect of writing can inspire as much ire as Form. For some, like Gass, it’s the pinnacle of craft. For others, it’s a dirty word: form is what “educated” writers rant about, what college courses study, what critics praise. In short, Form is for the elite. For the pulp novelist, the digital self-publisher, the everyman who hit it big with a thriller written at midnight, the proof is in the pudding—and the checks they brag about: Readers want story.

In William Gass’ titular essay from the collection Finding a Form, he lists the problems of popular fiction: subject matter that quickly becomes irrelevant; twist-endings that forestall revisiting; posturing from a belief system that will someday become obsolete.

“The problem [of fiction] was how to achieve a lasting excellence — that is, it was a problem of form.”
 And it is the quest for lasting that leads writers like Gass to think first and foremost of Form.

gass
Man in the ivory tower – William H. Gass

For the Methodologist — as he calls his caste of writer — every word enlists the ghosts beneath and behind it. Strung together and multiplied, they, like the tip of the iceberg, evoke metaphor and meaning within the subconscious of the “free reader”. Form, then, is what lasts when all else has been swept away.

Bukowski was famously mean in words — in both senses. Here, on the other hand, is what he had to say about Form:

“As the spirit wanes the form appears.”

Let’s agree to disagree.

In the 21st century, literature—like the publishing industry that represents it—is in a state of disruption. Words no longer carry weight nor have the depth of meaning they once did. The novel, that giant wounded whale, is being pecked at by smaller, swifter predators. In the digital universe, entire idioms are created and rendered to dust over night, misspellings and grammatical errors replicated.

Writing that both Gass and Bukowski would consider mediocre at best is out there, proliferating with the speed of a million typing fingers. With social media, writers are no longer at the mercy of their critics. The doors have been flung open. The barbarians have arrived at the gate. Those in the Ivory Tower shake with fear, along with their shuddering edifice.

The question becomes, can the goal of William Gass “to achieve a lasting excellence” survive the digital publishing revolution, or will his efforts be run over, like a desert tortoise in an Arizona suburb — places also hastily erected in a bubble of confidence?

In short: can the lasting excellence that Form strives for survive in the Digital Era?

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3 thoughts on “Can excellence survive in the era of digital publishing?”

  1. I guess excellence can survive it. Visibility and supremacy are not the same thing: pulp fiction also sold millions at its time and it didn’t keep the Paul Austers and Don DeLillos from appearing (and still gave us guys like Lovecraft and Chandler). Digital (and POD) self-pub is wonderful in the sense it shakes all established things that needed shaking and also opens a whole new level of availability to all kinds of authors, good and bad, story-driven and form-driven. We must keep in mind that, of course, story and form, plot and style, are not mutually exclusive, although so many gurus and guides appear to think (and preach) so. There were so many crap best-selling pulp authors back then the same way there are lots of hack self-pub writers now, but the best tend to stay, I guess. As for the problem of form, it’s also present at the trad pub scene: there is a whole ocean of badly phrased printed novels with a turdish prose. But, for all my love for the self-pub possibilities, people should talk more about writing and crafting and form, and less about sales figures and pricing.

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