Storming the Citadels…

This week The Guardian ran an interview with author and stand-up comedian Mitch Benn, one which I thought raised some interesting questions. On the surface, the interview might almost be described as ‘inspiring’, a tale of lucky breaks and careers kickstarted by happenstance as Benn recounts landing a book deal for his comedy-SF novel via an idle tweet. It’s the sort of quirky story to hang an interview on and would be barely remarkable if that was as far as it went.
However, he goes on to describe how his publishing deal didnt’ go quite as planned. This is also interesting stuff, although very little that you won’t have heard before. The decades, and indeed, the centuries, are littered with book deals gone sour. There is also some, not exactly new, insight into the extreme obsession with celebrity in current mainstream publishing but nothing that’s going to get you clutching your pearls really.
No, the quote that really interested me was towards the end of the piece. Benn is now self-publishing is trilogy but still ponders whether he will be ‘readmitted to the citadels of literature’. Benn’s sniffy attitude to self-publishing throughout the article is nothing new, of course, and is, to an extent, understandable but I thought it might be interesting to explore where these ingrained attitudes come from and that I’m going to turn to the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.
Bourdieu formulated the cultural field theory of cultural production. There are two ways to think about this field. One is as a ‘football field’; the arena in which all the participants in cultural production, the artists, the agents, the gallery owners, the critics, all operate and interact with each other. (As this is a books newsletter, let’s translate these to writers, agents, publishers, critics etc.)
The second way to conceptualise the term is in the slightly SF sense of ‘force field’ or perhaps gravitational fields. Therefore, these various agents of cultural production exert different ranges of influence on the others depending on their size and reach. And this allows for another Bourdiuesian concept — that of consecration. And this is the power that these agents wield partially through their field of influence and partly through an internalised hegemony. There’s an implicit agreement that we have conferred the authority upon these agents to decide who and who is not a writer, who and who is not worthy of being published.

Within the cultural field, self-publishing at hitherto been easily contained by the consecrating entities and did not constitute a serious threat to their authority

Now, of course, self-publishing is hardly a new phenomenon. Publishing books by subscription (an early form of crowd-funding) was once common. And authors like Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf and Margaret Atwood have all self-published in their time. It’s nothing, by any stretch of the imagination, to be ashamed of. But within the cultural field, self-publishing at hitherto been easily contained by the consecrating entities and did not constitute a serious threat to their authority. This was partially achieved by attaching a pejorative label and stigma to it (‘vanity publishing’) but mostly through a comprehensive control of distribution and communication channels.
Which brings us to a third and final Bourdiuesian term. Hysteresis. This basically refers to a situation when technology advances at a far faster rate than the mechanisms within the consecratory authorities can deal with. This is something that is obviously happening through all mediums of cultural production and publishing is no exception. In practice, at the moment it means that the previously locked-down channels of distribution and communication are much more freely accessible, forcing the consecrators to rely far more heavily on the perceived prestige of mainstream publishing.
However, by all accounts (and at least partially borne out by Benn’s article), this is an increasingly spurious distinction. New authors especially, and particularly those who don’t bring sufficient cultural capital of their own to the table, have less and less reason to rely on consecratory authorities. Advances are falling precipitously and debut authors are unlikely to receive much in the way of marketing budgets. As authors are expected to market themselves anyway and the costs of self-publishing continue to fall, more pressure is again put on the concept of consecration.
But, of course, this doesn’t mean that mainstream publishers aren’t interested in anything other than a new David Walliams or Richard Osman. Nor does it mean that everything self-published is remotely worthy of publication. We are still going through the ‘gold rush’ phase of self-publishing, where opportunists are trying to make a quick buck (they won’t) and that substandard, or at least not yet ready, works are rushed into print. The first thing that any prospective writer has to consider is that there might be good reasons why their work has been rejected by mainstream publishers. These are professionals, after all, and while it’s not necessarily true to consider them experts in literature, it’s reasonable to assume that they are experts in the market and that there could well be good reasons why they have declined your MS. Any writer looking to turn to self-publishing must absolutely satisfy themselves that their works is absolutely the best it can be in terms of plot, structure etc, even if that means seeking out some professional help in any areas where they have any nagging doubts. This is why Benn is perhaps the perfect poster child for a new publishing paradigm. His work is clearly good enough to hold its own in the market and he clearly believes in his work, which is, after all, probably the most important thing a writer must have.
Ultimately, I believe we’re going to see a period of ‘levelling out’. Traditional publishers are going to see their consecratory advantage erode further and that writers, like Benn, are going to increasingly adopt a hybrid approach to publishing — self-publishing some works but turning to mainstream publishers for others, perhaps as they increase their own capital within the cultural field. The real question is perhaps the extent to which writers will in the future consider it worth their while to do so.