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Book Reviews, Criticism, Fiction, Publishing

Oh, When the Self-Published Come Marching In

Recently, at the literary journal where I’m the Book Review Editor, we made the decision to begin reviewing self-published books. I could write pages on the debate that continues over whether such books are a valid part of the market, but to me the point is moot. Those books are out there by the thousands. Digital publishing has made it so easy to produce books, and traditional publishing has become so closed to writers who aren’t already established, that this phenomenon will keep growing.

The Los Angeles Review has been accepting queries and samples of self-pub books for review for a couple of weeks now, and here are some first impressions, drawn from the submissions:

  • It is truly great to see that so many people want to write, and that they won’t let the lack of opportunity in the publishing world keep them from pursuing their passion.
  • The writing is not bad. All of the submitters so far have a good command of language. A couple (and I’ll be contacting the authors soon regarding reviews) are superbly written.
  • While the writing is decent, the structure in most cases is weak. What I’ve noticed:
    • Plot establishment and character motivation lacking.
    • Too much time spent on description of the setting and not enough on enacting a scene.
    • Lack of imagination. Storylines read like retreads of mainstream pulp.
    • Absence of theme.

In short, it seems that most of these writers have little formal training in fiction, and that they are trying to mimic books they’ve read, rather than write about something that really matters to them, or examine some aspect of human nature. Reading the openings of these novels is like watching network TV shows—it’s safe, formulaic fiction that is uninteresting, and not in the least challenging. Here lies the difference between successful fiction and writing that is rejected by most agents—the successful novelist almost immediately taps into a psychic chord that connects with the reader by invoking some desire or experience that stimulates identification with the fictional characters and plot, and draws the reader into a world s/he wants to explore.[1]

I can’t help imagining Anton Chekhov tearing off the first half of each of these submitters’ manuscripts and handing them back to the writers, explaining that all the prologues and backstories and slow build ups aren’t necessary.[2] I see Damon Knight teaching that a good story should begin as close to the point of character change as possible.[3]

Despite their drawbacks, I’m still encouraged by the queries that have come in. People want to write—they want others to hear what they have to say. Sure, they may not have command of the craft yet, but writing is learning, and if they keep writing, they may get there. They are trying, and trying matters.

By the way, if you or someone you know would like to query regarding a self-pub book review, go to the submission page of the Los Angeles Review for guidelines and uploads.

[1] Yeah, my MFA done gimme this.

[2] Fairly famous, and apparently true story about how Chekhov dissed the work of a priest who tried to get him to read his novel. More here.

[3] Knight and many other great writers and teachers have said this.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


9 thoughts on “Oh, When the Self-Published Come Marching In

  1. Ya ready for the deluge? I linked to your blog in my shelfari forum, which (through an accident of precedence) has hundreds of self-pubbed writers. You might get a few review queries.

    Posted by arichaley | April 7, 2012, 12:30 PM
    • Thanks Aric. Just checked and some have started coming through already. Your post on Shelfari should help a lot.

      Posted by jpon | April 8, 2012, 5:21 PM
  2. I can imagine that while many ‘self-educated-in-fiction’ writers spend a lot of time researching the things they want to mention in their stories, not many spend an equal amount of time researching the method (or even all the tips available at writing sites). This entry hopefully will send some of them in that direction and the increase in self-publishing can be something whose quality you helped improve, just now.

    Posted by spijder | April 7, 2012, 2:43 PM
    • Thanks for the kind comments. I certainly don’t want self-published writers to think they must adhere to the MFA standard that dominates fiction in the U.S., but on the other hand, much of what is taught at grad programs and independent writing classes gives writers a strong background, which in turn fosters the kind of creativity I found lacking in some of the submissions.

      As you know, there’s a lively debate in writing circles about the value of creative writing MFAs. Some people think those programs tend to homogenize writing styles. But as someone who works as both a writer and editor, I disagree. Sure, I see writers who copy popular styles, but I see far more who continue to push their writing beyond the boundaries of what’s accepted.

      Thanks for commenting!

      Posted by jpon | April 8, 2012, 5:29 PM
  3. Thanks very much for this generous and thoughtful post. Interesting on the lack of originality paired with the plot problems. I wonder how much these writers have read and how much non-US writing they’ve read. Just wondering. Thanks again — I always enjoy your thoughts.

    Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 9, 2012, 5:10 AM
    • That’s a really good point, Stephanie. I’ve noticed in my own work that the freshest ideas seem to come from looking outside the current work by American authors. Whether the distance comes from geography or time or both, it helps to step away from what’s fashionable in literary America and make a deliberate attempt to see how other writers approach storytelling.

      Posted by Averil Dean | April 10, 2012, 5:41 PM
      • Thanks Stephanie and Averil. This is an interesting tangent. I wonder if the foreign books that make it to the US are those that transcend typical, mainstream fiction, and therefore offer the different ideas and perspectives you talk about. Maybe the reverse is true too–U.S. books overseas are generally not bodice rippers or gumshoe cases. You’re both right, a good writer needs to look outside the narrow confines of the supermarket checkout stand. Way outside.

        Posted by jpon | April 11, 2012, 1:03 PM
  4. I’m glad that Stephanie and Averil are thinking that reading great books helps writers write, too, as I am one of the outsiders who don’t have an MFA and often worry how that handicaps me. Are all the good writers really products of writing programs? (Which leads back to one of your previous posts about how we only hear the voices of one socioeconomic type, Joe.)

    Posted by girl in the hat | April 11, 2012, 4:22 PM
    • Interesting question, girl in the hat! Octavia Butler didn’t even have a BA, but was an inveterate reader and took courses in writing at UCLA extension. I think oftentimes writing programs are as much about reading wonderful examples of good writing as they are about learning “techniques.” The writing program that Joe came out of (and that I am in), certainly stresses reading all kinds of books — old ones, new ones, mainstream ones, and not mainstream ones, and certainly ones that aren’t written in English originally. As someone who is more “at home” with writing from French speaking and German speaking writers, I’ve often found that there’s something very hide-bound about American lit, and I really enjoy the freedom and cultural self-confidence that abounds in the work of these other language traditions.

      Posted by Stephanie Barbé Hammer | April 11, 2012, 5:29 PM

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