Saturday, 18 April 2009

Writing Communities Are -

A contradiction in terms.

I am not talking about pure peer review sites. I am talking about any which offer the honeypot at the end of the rainbow. Usually the lure of being read by publishers/agents. Then, for all the bolstering hugs and reviews through smilingly gritted teeth, it becomes a bun fight of the highest (lowest) order. Community ethics in which virtually every player is out for themselves. Did somebody say 'like the real world' ?

I have just served a 50 day stretch on Authonomy. I was there during the flame wars when a gamer outplayed the existing players. Good luck to the geezer; suggests a) he has a ready-made market b) he can self-promote.

But I wish to state that I do not blame publishing house HarperCollins who set Authonomy up, for the monster subsequently unleashed. I would rather consider the culpability of many of the writers on that site, for turning it into an economy of monstrous need.

Why should HC be expected to manage the need they simply gave a conduit for ? Should they have had on-line counselling for anguished and hurt writerly egos at the click of a button ? (Next to the 'report abuse' button presumably). There were challenges aplenty to the rationale of the site and writers pleading with Harper Collins to redesign the workings of the site in line with the individual writer's suggestions. Writers seemed to view HC as an absent God who would not reveal itself through great pronouncements from on high. When what HC actually represents is an absentee landlord, collecting the tithes of website traffic for their shareholders, until they decide what they want to do commercially with the site. THEIR site, however the self-congratulatory teatime insurgents on the site, conceive they have wrested control of Authonomy to their own direction.

For those of you unfamiliar with Authonomy, Harper Collins openly admit to all submissions on the site forming their slushpile and that the members of the site effectively help them trim it down from 2000 manuscripts to 5 a month which they then guarantee to read and critique. Note, they do not offer to publish anything. An algorithm is embedded that calculates a ranking for each book and at the end of the month the top 5 get culled and read, resetting the table for 5 more the following month. It is a popularity contest which relies part on personality/friendships/alliances as well as literary merit and self-promotion. The gamer crashed into the top 5 on points 1 and 3. I can't comment on point 2 in relation to him as I never read his book. Despite him bringing 1500 new potential readers to Authonomy, a handful of whom stayed to read other people's books, his approach was considered indecent. To wit, it threatened vested interests already established.

So you have the prospect of 2000 books being whittled down to just 60 chosen ones in a calendar year. 1,900 or so, therefore ain't gonna get much of a look in. Yet the hysteria of so many writers if their rank dropped a few points was incredible. The self-promotion became increasingly desperate and shrill. Sledgehammers and walnuts and all that palaver. Nobody seemed terribly willing to do a bit of basic maths. Instead people speculated on other agents and publishers stalking the site for talent. Believe me, if any professional has a space on their roster, they ain't trawling through a 2000 book slushpile to fill it. Even one that has creamed off 5 top titles as a shortcut. To date the site has yielded one direct book deal. And not one from the top 5 interestingly.

More disturbing was the amount of writers on the site who came out in public with some mental disorder or other such as depression, bi-polarity and schizophrenia. Instantly we were both asked to take it into consideration when reviewing their books, but also we were rendered co-dependents by having to tread on eggshells around their presence on the site. Of course some folk had no such scruple and flayed them alive on the fora. The common or garden hunger of writers writ large by a factor of fifty when you open yourself up like that. Monstrous need indeed.

Then we have the genre wars. HC ask you to mark which genre(s) your book falls into. This is common practice in the industry, think how bookshops are organised. I loathe the practice as I think it diminishes the work, but I am a realist, this is how it is. Firstly there were the skirmishes over people who ticked virtually every genre. Let these people hole themselves, as no professional is going to take their offering seriously if it thinks it represents every single genre possible.

It's all just fiction right ? (Unless it isn't, then it's non-fiction). But the severity with which each fiction genre fought its corner under perceived attack. Paranoia centre. A distinct lack of community in evidence here. I was as guilty as anyone, of which more below.

The most oft posted review of a book started with "Though not my normal choice of reading...", before tactical voting being the better part of valour kicks in. My take was, if you don't like SciFi/Fantasy/Romance/Historical/or Literary, then don't read it. Then maybe you'll get other SciFi writer/buffs reading your SciFi novel, rather than a Literary Fiction type looking down their nose at it, or a Romance writer complaining about the unattractiveness of the beast with 3 backs and tentacles ...

Again, it is not Authonomy's fault that the obsession with rankings leads most authors to read just 2 chapters of a book and comment, in the hope of a reciprocal read of their own book and a possible vote to move it up. Just now a movement is starting up offline between writers to commit to read whole MS. Like thanks guys, where were you when...? Unless I really couldn't get beyond Chapter 2 because of the writing (which only happened twice in my brief sojourn), I DID read everything an author had uploaded of their book. To me it was just one writer honouring the sweat and toil of another. You know, like a Community of like minded souls ...

Okay, mea culpa time. Genre wars. Though I eschew the category as being of any validity, my work would fall into Literary Fiction. Since it delights in language, isn't plot heavy and has voice rather than character at its heart. Some of it is political, most is social satire. To give you an idea of the themes/subject matter, Binge Culture, Suicide Bombers, Teenage knife violence, you know like stuff you see in the news. I was brought up short time and again, by the distinct lack of interest in my fellow writers interrogating their chosen art form, ie language and literature. But I was more shocked by the propensity for writers to own up to wanting books for escapism. There seems no appetite for engaging with things in the world about us, only to flee it. Congratulations Thatcher/Blair, your work here is done.

Of course there is a place for escapist literature in the market, but to the exclusion of all else ? To judge by the writers plying their would be trade on Authonomy, yes. I can only propose that this represents self-censorship stemming from a perceived reading of what the market will and won't sustain.

I initiated a forum discussion about how Rowling is brilliant for children to seduce them into reading, but couldn't fathom why so many adults read her of their own volition. If it's as some sort of access course to re-enter the world of books, then that is a good thing. But do they then ascend to fantasy penned by adults ? I admitted I didn't know, cos I don't read fantasy. I stated that I felt such books infantilised adults or rather they let themselves be thus infantilised. Additionally, in their regression they might even pass their children moving in the opposite direction, as they are telescoped into premature adulthood by the information bombardment hurled at them in the modern world. I got lambasted for denying the inner child within me and told not to worry so much. Oh well, that's my teenage knife crime book invalidated then ...

To my parochial mind, the majority of would-be authors as witnessed by Authonomy, are happy to churn out competent versions of one twentieth century novel or another. No one seems inclined to have a stab at taking the novel into the twenty-first century, despite all the technological advances that permit experiments with the physical form if nothing else. Some Authonomites actually owned that they were happy to 'live the dream' of being a writer, simply by having their book up in virtual print and having 'readers' (for which read, 'fellow writers') peruse their work. All 2 chapters of it. So on the one hand we have an unquenchable hunger and yet, not one whit of the professionalism that it's going to take to ever stand a chance of being published.

The two reasons why I ducked out of Authonomy today.

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