Every drunken man’s dream is a book

Anna Castle
Anna Castle

Guest post
by Anna Castle

Every month or so we get another outcry against self-published fiction. Some are aimed at the Beast of Amazon, destroyer of standards and scourge of literature, like George Packer’s bitter lament in The New Yorker (“Cheap words,” February 17, 2014) or Thad McIlroy’s anxious number-crunching on his blog (“How amazon destroyed the publishing ecosystem,” March 12, 2014.) Others, like Donald Maass, rail against self-publishing in general, on the grounds that it produces far more chaff than wheat (Writer Unboxed, “The new class system,” February 5, 2014.)

This dire transformation, this destruction of literature, is blamed on new technologies which have made it far too easy to produce a book, drastically lowering the necessary barriers to publication that have kept the riff-raff out for centuries.

I’m talking about the Internet, right?

Wrong! The innovation that destroyed literature by opening the gates to all and sundry was the printing press, invented by Bi Sheng in China in the eleventh century and by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in the fifteenth. William Caxton brought the device to England where he promoted its products intensively, ushering in a revolution in the world of words. Caxton was the Jeff Bezos of the sixteenth century.

In medieval times a book was handcrafted from start to finish, written with quill and ink on parchment, the pages sewn together with linen thread and bound in leather. Each individual book was commissioned by a wealthy patron. The printing press, in radical contrast, made it possible to produce thousands of copies of a single book. Bibles, almanacs, and ABCs were the bestsellers of that century. Far worse: now you could print up tens of thousands of broadsides to be sold around the country by chapmen like Autolycus, the peddlar in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. Hot rumours from abroad, sightings of marvelous fishes, murder trials: all manner of scurrilous nonsense flew off the presses and into the eager hands of the masses.

A gentleman of that time complained that there were “more [books] in number than the leisure of any man of calling will permite him to reade, or the strength of any ordinary memorie can be able to beare away.” The great-great-etc-grandfather of Thad McIlroy, one supposes.

Donald Maass’ spiritual ancestor wrote, “I loath to speake it, [yet] every red-nosed rimester is an author, every drunken mans dreame is a booke, and he whose talent of little wit is hardly worth a farthing, yet layeth about him so outragiously, as if all Helicon had run through his pen, in a word, scarce can a cat looke out of a gutter, but out starts a halfpenny Chronicler, and presently A proper new ballet of a strange sight is endited.”

Writers struck back at the “malignant, ready, backbiters” with their “sharpe morosities and biting cavils.” Elizabethans seldom minced words. “Let them not, like angrie dogs, also beslaver with their jawes the stone cast at them…. [I] will straightwayes fetch forth an olde rust-eaten halberd, which saw no sun these seven yeares, wherewith I will either massacre their deformed limmes, or (if they speake mee faire) garde them safely to Coldharbour colledge [a London jail], where they may have one whole monthes leysure to studie their backbiting arte.”

Thomas Nashe, the J.A. Konrath of his day, explained why he chose to self-publish his popular works: “I thought it as good for mee to reape the frute of my owne labours as to let some unskilfull pen-man or Noverint-maker startch his ruffe and new spade his beard with the benefite he made of them.”

And that’s the indie-pub argument in a nutshell.

(Quotes were taken from Bennett, Henry S. (1965.) English Books & Readers, 1558 to 1603. Cambridge University Press. Pix from wikimedia commons.)

Anna Castle writes the Francis Bacon Mystery series. She has earned a series of degrees — BA in the Classics, MS in Computer Science, and a Ph.D in Linguistics — and has had a corresponding series of careers — waitress, software engineer, grammar-writer, assistant professor, and archivist. Historical fiction combines her lifelong love of stories and learning. She physically resides in Austin, Texas, but mentally counts herself a queen of infinite space. Her indie debut, Murder by Misrule, launches June 8th at Amazon and everywhere. Learn more about Anna on her website.

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37 thoughts on “Every drunken man’s dream is a book”

  1. Great article, Anne, and right on the money.

    As an aside; interesting the way that spelling has evolved too, isn’t it. Take my name for instance: down through antiquity (about 1100 years); originally, literally, son of Fingon – MacFingon to MacKynnyne to MacKynnon and MacKinnon then McKinnon – with the pronunciation changing litte if at all.

    Thanks again for the excellent post.

  2. Thanks for the history lesson!

    Although it does seem odd that everyone rails against writers, and not other artists. God forbid someone self-publishes on Amazon, but songs and videos on YouTube and performances by local singers and musicians are celebrated? I just don’t get it.

    1. Yes, very good point. There’s even an almost-equivalent for visual ‘fine’ arts now too (for example, Saatchi online – with only a little more quality control than Amazon). The difference is that watching a youtube video or looking at a painting, we can see the entire artwork (without financial cost) before we make a judgement. With books, while we do get to read the first few per cent, that only tells us if the writer can string a sentence together, not whether they can create a complete work. You have to pay to discover that!

      Writers have another problem too: to play a musical instrument or wield a paintbrush does require at least *some* basic technique. Anyone (including those famous thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters) can write a book. And that means there is proportionally more ‘chaff’ in books than in other arts. It takes longer for a good writer to float to the top, and more readers are disappointed by ‘self published’ books along the way. It’s a hard life, but it seems it always has been!

      1. And everyone seems to have a story to tell. We love stories; we tell them all the time to friends, family, hairdressers. Most people think writing a novel is pretty much the same thing. There’s a glory in it; that so many people have the time and the education to write a book.

        I also find it frustrating to have so much chaff obscuring my carefully crafted book, but that would be a problem no matter how I was publishing it. Lots of people, lots of books. Luckily, also lots of readers.

        Thanks for all the great comments, y’all!

  3. Love this! It all just reminds me of the saying, those who say a thing can’t be done should get out of the way of the ones who are doing it. Thanks for a great post.

  4. What fun! A lesson in English through the ages! I wonder how future generations will view the language(s) we use today and all call English?

    1. Your comment made me wonder if there was an outcry against the use of reed pens on papyrus back in ancient Egypt. The oldsters said, “If it’s worth writing, it’s worth chiseling in stone, by gumpkins!”

  5. Who hates changes? Change can be fun….just as long as we’re allowed to hang onto those things that are tried and tested and we know work well. There’s no reason why there can’t be more than one way of doing or saying something. Flexibility is what’s needed. That accommodates change and the status quo.
    It’s a bit like still being able to bend when you get old.

  6. Gutenberg has a lot to answer for. 😀 Thanks for a great post, Anna. “Scarce can a cat look out of a gutter, but out starts a halfpenny Chronicler.” LOL!

  7. Excellent article. Hilarious history lesson. Thanks very much for taking the time and trouble to research and write this. It’s a real shot in the arm, and a great reminder there is “nothing new under the sun.”

    1. Thanks, everyone! I was actually researching something else (the composition of the Stationers’ Guild) when I stumbled onto this delightful book. That’s one of the great delights of writing historical fiction: you get to wander at whim, following the path of what inspires you.

      1. I’ve been wondering at Whim too. He’s done some very odd things lately! Not sure if they’re inspired or simply daft, but I’ve enjoyed wondering about his wanderings.

          1. A hunting we will go!
            For the Whim it is all “Tally ho!”
            It’s still only May,
            So into the fray,
            A hunting we will go.

            I found it down by the old river,
            The excitement had me all a quiver,
            So I go with the flow,
            And let everyone know,
            A Whim hunt is all Tally ho!

  8. In response to the question about red pens in ancient Egypt I understand from extensive reading about the period that many papyrus manuscripts were very colourful and ornate. Whilst plain black ink was generally used for mundane administrative documents, erudite texts, like many of the carved stone pillars and stele, were richly coloured and embossed with gold leaf. The red pen certainly had it’s place in a scribe’s writing tray but, I suspect, not as an indicator of fault or error.

    Isn’t it remarkable how these discussions can go off into interesting and unexpected by-ways?

    1. I meant to write ‘reed pen’, not ‘red pen,’ but your comment is further proof of how many fascinating byways there are. Thanks for that very interesting tidbit!

  9. Excellent post. The only thing I’d add is how much it spurred literacy in England in that period: suddenly even the poor wanted to read what had got the chattering classes all a-chattering, but altogether it’s an extremely well justified analogy.

  10. Excellent post, Anna. Technology changes every industry. When it does, the incumbent gatekeepers and middlemen rant and wail the loudest. I don’t recall if literary agents railed against electronic typesetting. The decimation of the typesetting profession didn’t threaten their share of the author’s royalties.

    “Decimation” must be an underestimate. Surely more than one in ten typesetters found themselves out of work within the span of a few years. Will most literary agents follow them?

    1. I’m sure the typesetters did some wailing. And pundits probably bemoaned the rigid sameness of electronically set type. It’s too regular, it reduces the print to a mechanical construct!

      Maybe agents will return to their role in centuries past: people who introduced people to other people, in hopes of a bit of whatever was going around falling into their pockets.

    1. And who would blame them? Cromagnons were devious little sods in comparison to the nice muscular, cuddly Neanderthals. They used guile and cunning, and made more ‘advanced’ tools, and had complicated brains too. So one ought to be suspicious of them!

  11. Hi Anna,

    I note your take of my “anxious number-crunching” on my blog (“How Amazon destroyed the publishing ecosystem”). I fear that my anxious number-crunching may have obscured the point I was trying to make.

    I’m thrilled with the explosion of self-publishing. My major concern is “discoverability” — that the ratio of readers to writers has tipped far out of balance. I have self published over the years (even before Amazon) and many friends and colleagues are self-published authors today. What pains me is when their distinguished voices can’t be heard above the din. It was always tough for new writers to find an audience. Despite the excellent social tools available today, I’m convinced that it’s more difficult than ever: again, only because of the volume.

    Amazon is a great champion of new self-published authors. I believe its interests are entirely self-serving, but unquestionnably numerous authors have been co-beneficiaries. It’s the hard-working authors who end up selling a couple of dozen copies of their new book that concern me. I can’t see any way to put a positive spin on that.

  12. I apologize for misconstruing your intentions, Thad. I shouldn’t have cast you among the nay-sayers. But we could interpret that Elizabethan gentleman as being concerned about the same imbalance between readers and writers. It was a similar problem, actually; the press made it possible for any literate person to publish and many of them did. Of course, there were far fewer literate persons in those days, but still, the ratio flattened.

    I do disagree with your conclusion, though. I think it’s easier for writers to be heard now than before. Mine is the classic case. I’ve written a damn good book. It’s getting great reviews and I think many people are going to love it. But it was rejected by the gatekeepers (not a good fit for their catalogs) which, a decade ago, would have made it impossible for anyone to discover.

    We’ve always depended on reviews, book clubs and friends to decide what to read. That hasn’t changed. Now there are even more reviewers and book clubs and ways for friends to exchange favorites, not to mention keyword searches in databases. Unlike that poor educated Elizabethan, we don’t have to read it all.

    Thanks for your comment. It’s an exciting new world for us writers and heaven knows, we love to discuss it!

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