What is Literary Value?

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Dan Brown sells more books than Michael Chabon. Does that make Dan Brown a better writer?

Columns, Guest Author, Guest Column, Homepage Sub  •  Oct 07, 2013

With the appearance of a post, Is Publishing Still Broken? The Surprising Year In Books in Forbes on Friday, I thought it timely to re-post something that our friend Henry Baum wrote several years ago for his blog, Self-Publishing Review.

While it has always been the case that hyperbole runs high when it comes to book by self-pubbed authors, the Forbes article and this one makes the case that–indie or trad pubbed–it’s the individual book that counts.

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by Henry Baum

The post about the ways that people criticize self-publishing brings up the idea that a traditionally published book has a stamp of approval and so traditionally published books are more reliable.  This is true.  Some amount of vetting does count for something, but in an age when it’s more difficult to get published, it is not the only measure of a book’s worth.

What’s also problematic is that writers may take this one step further and consider that their writing is indeed better because it has been accepted by an editor.  I don’t want to limit the idea that getting accepted by an editor and receiving a paycheck is enormously validating.  Of course it is.  I’ve been traditionally published as well with Soft Skull Press in the U.S., Canongate in the U.K., and Hachette Litteratures in France.  I come to self-publishing with a sense of both sides of the aisle.

But just because a book has been accepted by an editor does not mean it is automatically better – and dispelling this idea could help self-published books gain more clout, and reduce the amount of prejudice.

Let’s look at a writer like Jack Kerouac.  Most people think of Kerouac as a fifties writer.  Actually, Kerouac was going on the road in the late forties, after the war.  On the Road was written in 1951 – but it was not published until 1957, towards the end of the decade.  Jack Kerouac did most of the writing that’s part of his legacy before On the Road was ever published.  Is On the Road a better book in 1957 than it was when it was initially written in 1951?  I think most people would say no: publication doesn’t determine worth.  The book is the book.

Take other writers like Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  They both died unheralded and Moby Dick and Gatsby become a part of the literary canon only posthumously.  The same goes with a writer like Philip K. Dick.  Read to some degree while he was alive, but not nearly as regarded as he is today, with editions being put out by the Library of America.  Crime writer Jim Thompson is another one, who had a renaissance in the nineties.

Obviously, not all self-publishers are geniuses like the writers mentioned above.  They don’t have to be.  This is just to point out that a book’s success or lack of success does not determine if a book is worthwhile.  It can take decades for a writer to be discovered and reexamined.

Literary Longevity

One of the major problems in the publishing industry is the fact that they gauge writers one book at a time – if one book doesn’t sell, writers are boxed out.  But really, this isn’t how writing – or any art – unfolds.  Someone said that writers generally write the same book over and over again in different ways.  Not to say those books can’t be unique, but personally I feel like I’m writing one long novel made up of smaller novels.  Each novel builds on the last.

So writers should be gauged on what they’ve accomplished during their entire careers, not based on one or two books.  Supposing a writer self-published five novels, and then the sixth novel gets picked up by a traditional publisher, who then puts out traditionally published editions of the first five books – which are all successful.  Are those five self-published books now better than they were before?  No, because that would be like saying that book sales equals artistic worth.  It doesn’t – it’s just that the books are more accessible now that they’re distributed traditionally.

There is some proof in consensus.  But Dan Brown sells more books than, say, Michael Chabon.  Is Dan Brown a better writer?  “Better” is subjective, not based on sales figures.

This idea that editorial acceptance means that a book is more worthwhile just needs to go away.  Books have worth regardless of an editor’s stamp of approval – even the number of readers.  That’s just an example of how much money has changed hands.  To claim that is proof of a book’s worth is a seriously corrupt model of how art should be valued.

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Henry Baum is the author of The American Book of the Dead. The novel won Best Fiction at the DIY Book Festival and the Gold IPPY Award for Visionary Fiction. Largehearted Boy says it’s “reminiscent of Philip K. Dick and Haruki Murakami, a book that boldly explores the future and defies genre.” I’m also the author of North of Sunset, winner of the Hollywood Book Festival Grand Prize, and The Golden Calf – first published by Soft Skull Press, with editions in the U.K. (Rebel Inc.) and France (Hachette Littératures). Visit henrybaum.com for more information. I’m the editor of Self-Publishing Review.

2 Responses to “What is Literary Value?”

  1. Excellent and obviously timeless post. Judging literary quality and public preferences is very challenging. Sometimes the traditional publishing world gets it right. Sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it gets it right a few years later. There should not be a stigma associated with getting one’s work out there in a different way (i.e. self-publishing) to be judged positively or negatively by the public. Other artists do it all the time.

  2. […] Dan Brown sells more books than Michael Chabon. Does that make Dan Brown a better writer? IndieReader Henry Baum 7 October 2013 […]

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