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The Dreaded Training Debate: What If It Can’t Be Taught?

Image - iStockphoto: User2547783c_812 [1]
Image – iStockphoto: User2547783c_812

No, this is not about talent vs. skill.

Let’s just set that aside for today, shall we? There’s no need to engage the ineffable this time.

“Like toadstools,” one seasoned observer called it in a note to me recently — this sudden proliferation of “author services,” especially the ones there to teach you, instruct you, train you. They’re everywhere, these kitchen-sink companies, and many of them seem to be peddling (or claiming they do) parts of the job we’re not even sure can be taught.

Provocations image by Liam Walsh [2]
Provocations image by Liam Walsh

Today’s provocation is about this booming industry on all sides of us. And about expectations in a tight market. Expectations that it can all be learned.

It’s prompted by a recent column at The Bookseller in London from the literary agent who writes for us there from time to time as “Agent Orange.” As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’m not fond of this use of a pseudonym. But I have verified that this is a prominent, working agent on the UK scene. We’ve spoken about this. And he or she writes (very well) under that pen name because she or he fears retaliation. The industry might strike back.

In Vanity fair? [3], Agent Orange is, as usual, supportive of writers. (After all, the job is to advocate, negotiate, and agitate for them, he or she is a literary agent.) But those many, damp-eyed, Kleenex-clutching “never been a better time to be a writer!” people among us — and they do love that exclamation point — might be heard gasping with alarm at Agent Orange’s opener:

On the face of it, it is paradoxical that while it’s never been easier for authors to get their books into print, there has never been a worse time to be an author.

The explanation for what she or he means:

Author earnings are down and the number of writers able to make a living out of their work is at an all-time low. But perhaps that is because there have never been so many people making money off writers.

[pullquote]There has never been a worse time to be an author. — Agent Orange[/pullquote]

Granted, there are opposing viewpoints we respect here. Hugh Howey and “Data Guy,” for example, have issued their sixth quarterly Author Earnings report. [4] They’re focused on proving that a career in self-published ebooks is viable, remember. And they again see what they interpret as ample evidence to support their promotion of this route as a worthwhile alternative to traditional publishing, writing [4]:

What does this report show? Higher ebook prices from publishers continue to erode their market share of ebook sales. Drastically. When you read industry reports on the health of ebook sales, keep in mind that these reports are discussing a mere 14% of the ebooks that show up on Amazon’s bestseller lists. That’s it. Indie ebooks account for 26%. Daily unit sales of self-published titles are now greater than the Big 5 publishers, combined. And indie authors are taking home more earnings from readers every day than those same authors, combined.

Some of us, however, are detecting a tonal shift in the independent sector’s palaver overall.

Gritty, not giddy — the party hats are coming off

Image - iStockphoto: EyeEm [5]
Image – iStockphoto: EyeEm

In exchanges I’m privy to these days, there seems to be less “We can all publish now!” euphoria than before, and more concern about discoverability under that stupendous overhang of output, the “tsunami of content” enabled by digital means.
If you’re watching the darker edges of that forest closing in, you know what Agent Orange means with:

There are hosts of literary types out there, people who regard themselves as being on the side of the angels, who happily and repeatedly dip their hands into authors’ pockets.

The people who really make money out of gold rushes are the ones selling the shovels. And there are many shovel sellers. This century has seen hosts of companies springing up offering editorial, design, marketing and publishing services. Some good, some bad: all expensive. There are now endless digital vanity presses (sorry, DIY publishers) such as Author Solutions, about which Penguin Random House is now so silent. When did publishers think it would be a good idea to begin selling their “services” to work on books they clearly did not believe had any potential in the marketplace? At least in the past it was clear who the vanity presses were.

That’s an important point. And it’s right for every author to ask how he or she can expect to be found by an audience when walls of new titles get only higher on all sides every day.

This is especially true for someone who hasn’t been writing in some way or another for most of her or his career, the person who needs to “learn how.”

Agent Orange gets us to the central point of today’s provocation:

The writing school at the University of East Anglia was set up 45 years ago and since then there has been an amazing proliferation of writing courses. Every second-rate university in the country has one, yet has the quality of literature increased? Have we not, in fact, seen what might be called (apologies to Jessie Burton) a Miniaturisation [6] of literary culture: middlebrow being passed off as literary?

It is impossible to point to an improvement in the literary scene. That’s because the real purpose of writing courses is to provide novelists who cannot make a living from their writing with an income. Many high-profile publishing businesses have moved into this territory too. There have been occasional successes, but the overriding feeling is that their raison d’être is to allow well-off writers to jump the queue, a kind of cash for literary access. That is not merely socially regressive, but creatively moribund.

There are serious and rightful points.

[pullquote]Have we not, in fact, seen what might be called (apologies to Jessie Burton) a Miniaturisation of literary culture: middlebrow being passed off as literary? It is impossible to point to an improvement in the literary scene. — Agent Orange[/pullquote]

That business of providing “novelists who cannot make a living from their writing with an income” hits home once a year here in the States: anyone who has joined the 18,000 or so attendees at AWP, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ [7] annual convention knows something about the campus creative-writing mill ponds.

This is what former MFA program professor Ryan Boudinot was talking about in his highly controversial essay Things I Can Say About MFA Writing Programs Now That I No Longer Teach In One [8]. A lot of good points probably were lost in the mulch of Boudinot’s salt-the-earth tone. But there was a strong current of truth running through much of what he wrote. And perhaps part of it that we should take into consideration here at Writer Unboxed — where we mercifully don’t debate the efficacy of the MFA much but do spend a lot of time on the challenges of a writing life:

My experience tells me this: Students who ask a lot of questions about time management, blow deadlines, and whine about how complicated their lives are should just give up and do something else. Their complaints are an insult to the writers who managed to produce great work under far more difficult conditions than the 21st-century MFA student. On a related note: Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not.

And it’s along those lines that I think we have to ask ourselves today a difficult question:

How many name-brand writers — standout authors, “the big names,” the people we know and understand as leaders in the field — achieved the prominence they have by “learning it” in writing courses or MFA programs or by reading some of the thousands upon thousands of how-to-write-a-book books?

And do those who can’t sell, teach?

Lovely, dark, and deep. How much good-looking fungus will grow around the digital era's obsession with being published? Image - iStockphoto: peeravit18 [9]
Image – iStockphoto: peeravit18

Agent Orange has a word or two for the self-publishing “gurus” of those how-to-write-a-book books:

It is worth noting how many of these gurus seem more successful at selling their DIY books/courses than they are at marketing their fiction.

That’s something I’ve noticed, too. The higher-visibility folks with the how-to books and courses and podcasts and audiobooks and webinars and workshop manuals and 10-point guides and 12-point posters and 20-point T-shirts and 30-point masterclasses…do they also sell their own fiction? If so, do  you ever hear about those books? Good question to ask  yourself, isn’t it? There’s nothing that says a parasite can’t be attractive, engaging, and helpful, after all. Some mushrooms are gorgeous. Tasty, too. Even psychotropic. But at what point do we need to say that such a person is not a successful writer of creative work? — only of instructive guidebooks?

[pullquote]Students who ask if they’re “real writers,” simply by asking that question, prove that they are not. — Ryan Boudinot[/pullquote]

And how often can you point to someone and say this? — “Aha. There goes a writer who spent many years and many bucks on how-to books and four-month courses and instructional CDs and now is doing great as a well-known author.”

I don’t see this happening much. Do you?

Lovely, dark, and deep, these toadstools, fungal opportunism growing on the digital era’s obsession with being published. And to what end?

Agent Orange: “It is impossible to point to an improvement in the literary scene.”

Can anyone say that this mass influx of instructional competition — and the fields of toadstools surrounding it — is giving us better work? A meaningful step forward in our writerly culture? Better books? What say you?

A quick note: Our weekly #FutureChat from The Bookseller’s The FutureBook today is on an interesting question: The problems that many in the industry have recognizing illustrators for credit, along with other artists such as translators, book cover designers and, yes, even our fellow writers. Join us if you’d like, live on Twitter at 11 a.m. Eastern, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. British Summer Time.


About Porter Anderson [10]

@Porter_Anderson [11] is a recipient of London Book Fair's International Excellence Award for Trade Press Journalist of the Year. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives [12], the international news medium of Frankfurt Book Fair New York. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. Priors: The Bookseller's The FutureBook [13] in London, CNN, CNN.com and CNN International–as well as the Village Voice, Dallas Times Herald, and the United Nations' WFP in Rome. PorterAndersonMedia.com [14]