Recently, a writer friend forwarded an email from the executive producer of an Internet talk radio network, inquiring about her interest in hosting a new book-oriented show. She was intrigued, and asked if I knew anything about the network. (I didn't.)
An hour later, she emailed again: "Never mind, it's a vanity thing."
We are age peers, so "vanity" was understood to be old-fashioned shorthand for "self-subsidized." And unlike, say, me, my friend earns a decent living from her books and is overwhelmed with invitations to read, speak, and teach, so there was no reason for her to pursue this further.
The incident got me thinking, though, about the meaning of "vanity" in this context. For example, what is the difference between a self-subsidized radio show or book, and a blog? Why, as MJ has asked before, do we admire independent filmmakers who "buck the system" and hock their grandmothers to finance their own films, but consider self-published authors somehow inferior to those who have been vetted by a corporation?
I know the quick answer: To be published by a company, a writer has to pass through a multi-tiered filtration system designed to trap and discard impurities such as lack of imagination or writing talent; fact fudging (or outright lying); plagiarism; and ignorance of the topic under discussion. A publisher's reputation rests on the quality of its books, so these are chosen, edited, and marketed with integrity and care, to ensure that only the best examples find their way into our bookstores and homes. A self-publishing outfit, by definition, will take on any schmo with access to a MasterCard.
(This is why a James Frey or Kaavya Viswanathan could never be published by a reputable house.)
In Colonial America (among many other times and places) the mainstream press was government-controlled, and citizens depended on small, independent publishers of newsletters and pamphlets to get the "real," revolutionary news out. In twenty-first-century America, many of us rely on independent bloggers for the political and cultural news and analysis that we don't find in large, corporate media outlets. We assume that vetting by a corporation results not in excellence and integrity, but in homogenization and oversimplification, in the quashing of original, but controversial, thoughts and positions. Of course there's a problem with quality control, but what that means is that we have to read intelligently and selectively and decide for ourselves whose voices are worth our time and attention.
I'm elated because this week, after a dry spell, I received two acceptances from literary journals and the news that a grant-funded chapbook version of one of my stories will be distributed at AWP, as well as at bookstores and coffee shops. Naturally, I'm happy because I love to share my work--I write about ideas and issues that are important to me, and I like to feel I'm part of a dialogue, not just shouting into a hole. But it's more than that.
Another writer friend recently decided to start posting her stories on her blog, because, as she told me, "I'm sick of submitting my work. I just want people to be able to read it." I admire her confidence and generosity--but I can't emulate it. A part of me feels it wouldn't "count" if I put up my own work. It would be like asking myself to dance.
Like many writers, I was a nerdy bookworm growing up. I was always one of the last picked for any team. I brought a book to the lunchroom and pretended to be too absorbed in it to notice or care if I sat by myself. I was never in the running for prom queen, or cheerleader, or any of those cool positions you have to be chosen for.
So perhaps "acceptance" has a different meaning for someone like me than it might to an independent filmmaker whose individualism was a countercultural choice, or to my confident and charming blogger friend. Maybe part of my elation has to do with the validation that comes from being chosen. Maybe part of my reason for writing about this issue today is that I wanted to tell you how accepted I am, so you'll accept me, too.
Now, you tell me--who is the "vanity" author in this story?
Susan O'Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers and other creative artists. Her book, Getting Unstuck Without Coming Unglued: A Woman's Guide to Unblocking Creativity, was published by Seal Press in June, 2007. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.