Story behind the Passage
There are writers who have the privilege of publishing with an acclaimed publishing house. And there are writers who get kicked out of a publishing house after 40 years of successful book writing. Both of these things happened to Monika Maron. I have never read a book by her and I cannot form a well-informed opinion about the reasons why she got kicked out. The only things I know about the case come from the Spiegel article entitled “Black Sheep.”
The passage I have chosen for today is from this article. For non-German speakers this long passage is a pain in the ass, I know. I still wanted to show you the entire paragraph. And I am only going to translate the very last sentence because it is the one that I want to discuss in more detail.
“The claim of the ‘Death of the Author,’ which haunted the feuilleton pages a few decades ago, may have been exaggerated — but today, everything seems to be about the author. Whoever thinks like that does not need any literature anymore.” For those of you who are not literary studies majors: “The Death of the Author” was an essay by the French literary critic Roland Barthes published in 1967. It basically argued that the classical approach to interpreting literature, which used to focus very much on the supposed intention of the author, is wrong. Instead, as the title of the essay suggests, the text is seen independent of the author who suffers a metaphorical death.
This essay by Barthes is probably one of the most discussed and cited ones of literary history. No worries, I am not going into this in more theoretical detail. I personally never cared much about it, although I think it was a great breakthrough at the time. I know many people from the older generation still hate any talk about literary criticism because they were forever traumatized by their teachers in school who loved to force their students to speculate about authorial intentions in their exams. Ending this author-centric approach must have been a great relief.
Since I used to be very much into (auto-)biography research, I would never insist on this strict separation between text and author because to me, everything human beings do and produce is autobiographical in one way or another. Still, I see the point of Barthes and I also want to underline that blunt equalizations of the author’s life and the life of the characters he/she creates are misleading.
What does all this have to do with the sentence above?
I do share the statement that today, everything seems to be about the author. And I am not necessarily talking about established authors who have the privilege of publishing with a publishing house. I am talking about the thousands of authors who do not get to do this. And among them, there are broadly two categories. One group that writes on a level that is in no way inferior to the quality that established writers display. The other group that consists of wanna-be writers who really have no chance of publishing in any serious way because the quality is simply poor and the topics would never find a market.
The market — here we go.
The book market has been changing dramatically in recent years and there is no indication that the current change towards digital publishing will be over soon. There is no doubt that this is a hard time for an industry that is extremely complex and that has to operate with tight budgets. In order to sell a book, it takes much more than simply a good story and great language. The timing needs to be right, the style needs to meet the zeitgeist, and especially marketing has become even more important than ever by now. This is also where the trouble gets even more complicated.
This extreme focus on the author which I call the ‘wrong rebirth of the author,’ to play on Barthes essay, to me is one major reason why the traditional publishing houses are actually killing themselves. The competitors, among them well-known online sellers and self-publishing houses, have been experiencing a boom. And there is no indication that this will end soon. Even Covid has caused an increase of publications that nobody would have projected before the outbreak of the pandemic.
But many of these books by self-publishing authors might even fall into the category of books which I described above; the ones that do meet the standards of established publishers. Still, they never made it because of the extremely rocky and largely intransparent selection process. Every author knows that simply sending an exposé to the publisher of one’s choice will almost in 100% of the cases lead to nothing. Nobody is going to push through the publication of a Nobody.
Yes, if you are not a well-known bestseller author or an extremenly prominent figure already, your manuscript will most likely not be accepted. I am aware that publishing houses will now claim that this is not true but talking and doing, as usual, are different things. And the example of Maron in the article provides additional evidence of how things, mostly (micro-)political ones, that have nothing to do with the quality of writing, lead to a rejection.
The same mostly holds true for the economic side of book publishing. If the market size is not clear and there is no prior experience with a particular topic, publishers will not take the risk. This is also the case if the author simply has no huge marketing machinery behind him/her already. Yes, selling a book is the job of a publishing house but all sales and marketing activities are only as good as the personal marketing efforts and channels of the respective author.
This focus on the author in relation to the aspect of marketing is the major reason for my argument that this particular version of the rebirth of the author is wrong. Requiring that only the big and loud figures get to publish — with very few exceptions — provokes just what is happening out there. People are trying to sell themselves on every social media channel possible to build up a huge crowd of followers. And this coverage then determines whether or not someone is likely to market the book in a successful way which then leads to high sales figures and, possibly, a place on some bestseller list.
In other words: The process of publishing has been reversed somehow. In the past, you wanted to write a great book and sell it to become “famous” in the sense of acknowledged and well-received. Today, the book itself is just a product that scales up one’s existing market value. If the book is actually read by the people who end up buying it, is a completely different cup of coffee. What matters is that the book sells well.
This, of course, triggers a spiral of follow-up books and human followers. A one-time bestseller author is more likely to publish his/her next book with the publisher. Furthermore, the writer turns into a role model for other potential writers who will follow the same logic and even enhance the practice of self-marketing first, writing second, selling well last.
And where is real literature in all this? Unique thinking and feeling? Real art, philosophy, and social criticism? Original business innovation or biography?
I know, all this sounds a bit bitter but I really do not understand why there seems to be so little risk-taking and also initiative on the part of many publishing houses. If marketing is so immensely important today, why do they not enhance this part themselves to ensure that great new authors get a chance to communicate their thoughts to the people? Why leave the floor to all those self-declared authors who will then contribute to making the competitors even stronger?
For sure, all these are complex problems and if it were easy to fix them, they would not exist anymore. On a more positive note, there is at least the finding that books still seem to matter, independent of their quality and discursive potential. I am truly optimistic that in the long run, only those books with real content, i.e., novel thoughts that bring value to society on a larger scale, will survive and lead to a revision of the (self-)publishing boom.
If that does not happen, it is indeed true that we “do not need any literature” anymore. Not because there are no authors — but because there is no literature independent of the bla bla coming from one-time writers. Somehow, I think it is the original Barthes whom we need to revive. How pleasant it would be to see the “Death of the Author Reloaded” under the present circumstances.
1) Did you ever think about writing a book? What was/is the motivation behind it?
2) Do you read books on a regular basis?
3) If the answer to 1) and/or 2) was “no” — what needs to happen to change this?