So, the other night Scott Pack and I were on Radio Litopia's The Naked Book talking about the topics we had been set to do on Newsnight (until they cancelled last minute): namely, ebooks, fanfic, and the cringe-inducing "mummy porn". All inspired by the success of the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, of course.
This raised some interesting issues for me: as a product of early blogging which later led to a few "dead tree" books, I'm a big believer in the traditional publisher way of doing things. Blogging is a great crucible for some writing but not for long-form, in my opinion. It's not only incredibly hard to focus on writing a full book that hangs together without the steering and support of an editor, but also having the publicity and legal backup of a publisher is reassuring.
Back in the day a lot of excitement around blogging and bloggers seemed to be this idea of the 'mass amateurisation of publishing' - a notion that, even then, made me uncomfortable. There are some great things to come out of the internet (such as using YouTube to get instructional baking videos) and some real rubbish (such as the growing echo chamber that is political blogging). Someone once described the internet as being in a library where all the books are on the floor. When everyone's a critic and everyone's a writer, how do you discern what's worth reading from what isn't? Popularity is not always the best guide; blogging and social media reward personality-led content, flash in the pan stories, and attention-getting tactics over measured consideration.
As well there is the race to be "first". First to post a news story, even if you don't add anything to it; first to comment on a phenomenon, even if all the commentary consists of is "I don't like this idea/person". This does not make such comment invalid, but it does cheapen the experience of being a writer and of being a reader. In the race to score points in the game of internet we lose a lot of valuable nuance. I like a witty epigram as much as the next person but man can not live on zingers alone. The proliferation of technologies that some people hoped would broaden discussion too often narrow it. I've lost count of the number of issues on which the so-called discourse basically amounts to black-and-white moralising, both sides equally rabid in their conviction, both equally wrong. And I've lost count of the number of contributors to those discussions who get filed into one or the other camp when their opinions belong to neither.
The fact that most successful bloggers et al. drop the format at the merest whiff of a proper publishing contract says a lot about how important these phenomena are (in other words, not very). Everyone went into a tizzy when Jonathan Franzen dissed Twitter, but deep down I think we all knew he had a point. If your deepest beliefs can be summed up in a tweet, or perfectly align themselves with a ready-made ideology, you're doing it wrong.
With more and more resources directed at the comment box, however, writers who would otherwise have developed more slowly and organically are pushed into a corner before they really know what's happening. My writing, while not likely to win a Booker anytime soon (and not only because I'm American), has been allowed to develop in unexpected ways through of the consistent help of my publisher and editors. Without their expertise I might still be turning out zingy little blog entries and wondering why I was getting no closer to writing the kind of books I want to write. Are the writers who forego this setup scuppering their chances in the long run in favour of short-term attention?
Part of this feeling comes from my experience. I've felt that, generally, it would have been far harder to write what I'm writing now without the support of a publisher. Writing memoir-slash-erotica is one thing, turning to corner to write more serious nonfiction is another. Having been fortunate enough to get noticed at all I am throwing myself into writing for the long game (sorry, haters). So the prospect of already self-published authors having their works snapped up for mainstream publication, while a Good Thing, also leads me to wonder whether those writers are going to get a career out of it or just a single book... you know?
Anyway... you can listen to the whole conversation here. I know I learned a lot (such as, there is no chart for ebooks! Which seems bizarre). And we all agreed that "mummy porn" is a terrible, though possibly apt, term. And that any and all discussions of erotica go better with a little drinking game. But you probably suspected that already, no?