Indie Books and Their Critics

Porter: Here’s a knocking indeed! If a man were porter of hell-gate, he should have old turning the key.Knock, knock, knock! Who’s there, i’ the name of Beelzebub? Here’s a farmer, that hanged himself on the expectation of plenty: come in time; have napkins enow about you; here you’ll sweat for’t.


A good critic is hard to find, and for an independent author, any critic is hard to find.

This represents one of the, if not paradoxes, frustrations of the independent book trade—one which, as far as I can tell, there is no immediate solution to. The arts world in the United States is one governed by critics: independent music didn’t take off until Pitchfork, many novels are introduced to the literary world by a handful of gatekeepers—The New York Times, New Yorker, New York Review of Books…Ok I take that back—most novels are introduced to the world by a handful of New York-based critics who write for New York-based publications which draw their novels from a pool of publishers based in New York where agents…so you get my point—criticism is an insider’s game that is dauntingly and perhaps permanently unwilling to take the risk of reviewing a completely unknown book.

And yes, there are many reasons for this state of critical affairs, and many of them are good—there are no filters for self-published books, there are too many of them, and there are too many books by mainstream publishers anyway—but none of this changes the fact that our critical system is ossified and predictable. There are challenges to picking what books to review, and how to review them, but certainly it does not follow that the HarperCollins roster is the place to start looking for material.

There may be too many books sure—no editor of a critical review could possibly say that they could give every novel or even a fraction of every novel a chance—but again, it just does not follow that receiving agented, mainstream-approved material is the absolute or only way to review books. Some novels by smaller publishers get reviewed in The New York Times—but even these reviews tend to come from writers minted by prestigious MFA’s. For a writer with a potentially great book, a daring concept—a daringly great book—this means conforming one’s vision in one way or another: entering an MFA, working closely with an agent, accepting an editor’s changes at whatever cost. It means a writer has to choose, potentially, with being forgotten or being mangled; being reviewed for a book he or she would not have published or not being reviewed at all.

This (of course) is spiritually and aesthetically terrifying—perhaps because it is hard to imagine a critical world that didn’t revolve around gatekeepers, filters, and prestige. But even if we can’t eliminate these categories, we can try to reapportion their influence. For instance, there are too few outlets, and too few critics within those outlets. It’s fine if The New Yorker is going to review only a few select novels per year—James Woods is indeed a wonderful, thoughtful critic and George Steiner before him was even better—but we suffer from a lack of critical options.

This is a result primarily of two factors: 1) mass literacy (that is the level on which the common reader is capable of reading) has fallen dramatically and 2) university students, graduate students, and professors have opted, on the whole, for esoteric, theory-riddled (excuse my French) total merde instead of pragmatic, humanistic criticism that seeks to make texts available to readers instead of more distant from them.

Both of these trends (and ‘trends’ is optimistic: they are entrenchments) are hugely problematic. The falling levels of literacy means that the pool of serious readers and therefore potentially good critics, is smaller, and the permanent vacation of academics up their own asses means that both university students (millions of potential readers per year) as well as the publications these academics write for are deprived of a genuinely useful understanding of why certain books are worth reading and why others aren’t.

There is a third, perhaps related problem with criticism—which ultimately affects the indie writer—which is that criticism is simply not viewed as an art, and is in fact viewed as a task that almost anyone is equipped to undertake.

Collectively, this means we have too many critics at the top (academics writing for specialized publications with small readerships) and too many critics at the bottom (anyone with an Amazon account) and far too critics in the middle—like Woods for instance—at far too few publications with a general readership in mind. The New York Monopoly of Books (as we ought call the New York City-based publications) might not be able to look much further beyond the Upper East Side than Park Slope, but it’s partly the fault of our American literary culture that we have not been able to produce enough critics to keep up with the number of books worth reading.

So what does this mean for the independent writer? It means that they can write a masterpiece, publish it themselves—without compromise—and that the few critics who might have critical tools powerful enough to analyze it, will likely be too busy reviewing the latest prepackaged, well-groomed novel whispered-down-the alley from MFA to agent to editor to mainstream publisher, to read it.

The only way to really change this, as I’ve indicated, and as I hint in almost all of my articles for this column, is to have a general public capable of forming smaller communities that can cultivate and support non-commercially minded writers—and it’s not enough just for those communities to exist, they themselves have to be organs for intelligent, thought reflective literary discussion, which is no easy task.

  • A Sympathetic Critic

    Is it the case that mass literacy is down? I should think it is actually up, considerably, since there are more people than ever who can read. As a result, though, there is so much over-production (to keep the publishers and mass bookstores profitable), and this, I think, is why you rightly perceive a decline in quality of our “high” literary output. There are fewer available good readers partly because, as you note, the academic machine has grown so large, but also because they are so spread out across the web space and are interested in so many different things at once. It’s the pluralism of interests that our political-economic/utilitarian cultural situation produces. Naturally, to preserve high traditions, there will be centralization in the universities and among elite publications and distributors. Your idea about smaller literary communities is a compelling one – though I wonder, does this not run the same risk of proliferating into schools and cliques that talk past one another, thus inhibiting the reterritorialization of literary tradition? I’d be interested to hear your response to this concern.

    • August Wainwright

      I have to completely agree with you on your point that “they are so spread our across the web space and are interested in so many different things at once.”

      I believe what is forgotten whenever arguments like these are posed, regardless of how right or wrong they might be, is scale. Yes, the elites will stay the elites… whatever that means; and, yes, anyone with an Amazon account can be a critic. But it is almost entirely impossible to muse on these “smaller literary communities” as if they don’t already exist. Just because you don’t perceive something as existing, does not mean it isn’t there. Likewise, how many “high position” jobs for critics are out there that are going unfulfilled? A great book critic in today’s world might also be a coffee shop owner and Adobe After Effects videographer, on top of being a book critic.

      Countless forum groups, online book clubs, Goodreads groups, and web reviewers get together for the specific purpose of honing their own skills and finding the best efforts among the niches they serve.

      Like you, I disagree that mass literacy is down, but the argument by Mr. Gasda, like so many others, is framed by the idea that “literacy” doesn’t mean real literacy… it means being able to be literate within the context of only the world in which the argument exists.

  • Matt

    I might respond to your question in a fresh article; I think it’s a good one

  • I loved your post… very informative… but I would say that my ego was a bit wounded when you repeatedly griped about people with MFA’s as acting all-superior. I have an MFA. I indie publish and I’m proud of it. You can’t just blanket all of us into one cliche….just like you can’t just blanket every reviewer/publishing house/agent.

    Just food for thought, really. 🙂 Can’t wait to read more…


  • Josue

    Wonderful, just wonderful. Thank you for saying it. Favorite line:2) university students, graduate students, and professors have opted, on the whole, for esoteric, theory-riddled (excuse my French) total merde…

  • Oh tremendously said.
    I’m glad we can be “non-commercially minded writers”. That’s normal, yes, and right-minded? Tell me again.
    And the impossible choice — except there’s only one choice — it’s a bad one:
    “It means a writer has to choose, potentially, with being forgotten or being mangled”
    “This (of course) is spiritually and aesthetically terrifying”
    It is. It is this.

  • Nice article. As an indie author I have also spent some time thinking about this and arrived at a conclusion, too. Basically; I believe all authors should have equal access to materials, production, distribution, promotion, and exposure. If the playing field were leveled, it would be a fair game, would it not? If all artists had equal opportunity, culture could only benefit from it, because the means to excel would be directly in the control of audiences. As it should be. A worthwhile undertaking for the literary overlords, however monumental.