Talkin’ About an E-Revolution: The Death of Publishing, Great American Novelists, and “My Way” Fresh Salsa


In the interest of full disclosure, I haven’t managed to do any new novel writing since my last column. I’ll blame vacation, back-to-school shopping, and a few unseasonably hot days in the Bay Area that reduced me to lolling around like a sun-doped lizard. I would be ashamed of my lack of productivity, except we all know procrastination is part of the writer’s lot. Every book, every story, and every word we write represents sweet victory over forces, internal and external, that would silence us.

Yes, you can see it coming, can’t you? I’m going to talk about Voices again. This month I’m taking on the mean ones, the voices of doubt that once told me I had no talent and would never see print. Now that I have a couple of published books and dozens of stories behind me, they’re trying a new song: Whatever you have managed to sneak past the editors was a fluke. You’ve lost it and you’re condemned to work for years on a pathetic hybrid novel that will rot in a drawer for eternity.

I try not to make it a habit to listen to such melodramatic blather, but this particular Voice knows my weak spot. I worry that my new novel will indeed be unpublishable because it doesn’t fit neatly into a genre (incidentally, I believe literary fiction is as much a genre in terms of having its own peculiar limitations and expectations as sci-fi, horror, or romance). It feels too dark for erotica and there’s definitely too much explicit—and enjoyable—sex to qualify as “literature.” While a reasonable person would argue it’s early for such worries, with one novel behind me, it’s hard not to envision the trials that await me in the cruel marketplace. Especially when I’ve got all this free time because I’m not distracted by actual writing!

Fortunately, my Mean Voice is proving herself very old-fashioned. She doesn’t seem to realize that we’re living in a time of great change in publishing. Manuscripts “rot” in hard drives and the virtual vaults of off-site back-up services, not drawers. Better still, the Internet has brought us the miraculous e-book—infinitely cheaper to produce and distribute than traditional print versions, even if the latter maintain an irreplaceable age-old charm. A full discussion of the pros and cons of this relatively new medium is beyond the scope of one column, but there’s no doubt this has brought about a revolution in the relationship between author and reader. The middlemen and gatekeepers known as agents, editors, publishers, marketing departments, and newspaper book reviewers are suddenly endangered species. More and more talented writers are choosing to make their work available through e-publishers or more radically still, they’re publishing the book all by themselves. Since a writer does most of her own promotion anyway, do we really lose all that much by self-publishing while gaining full artistic control of our work?

On the face of it, I’d honestly answer nothing. And yet I’ll also admit that having been born at a time when the idea of the Great American Novel was actually more than a joke to many people, I do have to wrestle with some deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be a successful fiction writer. It certainly doesn’t help that the literary industrial complex is trying its best to cling to that fantasy with its high-profile push of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom, complete with an appearance on the cover of Time, identifying him as the man who “shows us the way we live now.” I could (and have) gone on and on about this most recent manifestation of an ancient myth of writer as priest, but suffice to say today my sympathies lie with best-selling writers Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner (HuffPost Exclusive) who have publicly expressed their suspicion that the title of Great American Novelist is still stubbornly reserved for those lucky enough to be born with fair skin and penises.

Even an iconoclastic critic of the literary establishment like Anis Shivani, who skewered “The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers” in another recent Huffington Post article, finds it hard to renounce the idea of an objective measure of literary greatness (which means, I infer from the Time cover, a writer who illuminates truths about our national character we less exalted folk cannot see for ourselves). Shivani mourns the fact we no longer have “Malcolm Cowleys, Edmund Wilsons, and Alfred Kazins to separate the gold from the sand” in terms of deciding which writers have claim to recognition by posterity. I presume his article is an attempt to take on that role for himself?

As writers—and readers—I believe it is crucial for us to take a step back and look at what these culture-wide voices are really saying to us. Can any single writer, man or woman, white or purple, really speak for “us”? Can Edmund Wilson or any critic tell “us” who that person is? Shivani’s irreverence toward today’s literary lions was amusing, but his nostalgia for the good old days strikes me as misplaced. In that faded golden age, a small number of well placed, well-educated white men were deciding what kind of writing mattered. They shepherded many writers to enduring fame, at least on college syllabi, but think of all the writers who didn’t make the grade. Those who were born as the “opposite” sex, the “wrong” race or sexual persuasion, and anyone with an opinion or style that displeased the Great Arbiters, were silenced by that system. These silenced writers, my dear and courageous reader and writer of erotica, would surely have included you and me.

I have to admit, however, that my Mean Voice is absolutely right. This new dirty novel I’m going to start writing again in earnest this month will not get me a big agent or a five-to-six figure advance. It won’t get me on the cover of Time (for which I am, frankly, grateful). But thanks to the e-publishing revolution, I have a good chance of finding a publisher who is willing to take a relatively inexpensive chance on my story. If not, I can take the risk myself. This newly democratic situation does indeed put more burden on the reader who has to decide what is worth reading rather than have Edmund Wilson do it for her. But do you really want some ill-tempered, paunchy, secretly sex-obsessed old man telling you what to read? (This is a major reason why I’ve declined all invitations to join a book group even when asked by cheerful, slender, openly sex-obsessed women!)

More importantly, this new democratic view of writing illuminates an important truth for us all: no single writer can ever speak for another person much less an entire culture. However, as a writer with our own vision, we can aim to make a quality connection with a reader—one being as much a gift as a million—that makes both partners in the duo feel their lives and minds have grown somehow larger, wiser and more generous in the process. That would be a great enough achievement for me.

Nay-saying voices will always try to interfere with those who want to call them on their game and break free of old rules. While I haven’t yet come up with the perfect strategy to silence the ones that tell me I suck, those insidious whisperers who threaten me with piles of unpublished manuscripts are as doomed as the book review sections of major newspapers. I simply remind them that if I write the best book I can, there’s a very good chance someone will “print” it. The publishing revolution gives us all new power as readers and writers to decide what matters. Let’s use that power as wisely and lovingly as we can.

Speaking of creative and independent decisions, there’s no doubt September is the richest month for fresh fruits and vegetables, with the summer stone fruits, corn and beans still sweet just as fall’s bounty of tomatoes, apples, pears, grapes and squash fill the front bins of my local market with their gorgeous color. It is therefore fitting that this month’s recipe is another non-recipe for fresh salsa. Pico de gallo-style salsa relies on the freshest ingredients. It often starts with the basics of tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice. That’s probably how Edmund Wilson made his salsa (or had his maid do it), but times have changed, and there’s no reason you can’t make a delicious fresh salsa with any ingredient that works for you. Bon Appetit!

“Do It My Way” Fresh Salsa
(Makes as much as you want)

Suggested list of basic ingredients:
About 6 medium-sized season-ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped (Roma, heirloom, early girl, whatever looks best at the market)
A small chopped red onion or a few chopped green onions
1-2 medium cloves garlic, chopped or pressed
1-2 fresh jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped (wear gloves, the seeds sting)
Juice of 1 lime or lemon
A handful of chopped cilantro
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Feel free to add these optional additions in whatever combination works for you: 1 Tablespoon extra virgin olive oil, some fresh corn cut from the cob, one diced mango, diced peaches, Serrano chiles rather than jalapeno.

How to make it: Combine all chopped ingredients in a bowl. Add seasonings. Let the salsa sit at room temperature for one hour or in the refrigerator for up to a day to allow the flavors to blend.

Eat with tortilla chips, omelets, chicken or fish, steamed vegetables or my favorite way—straight up with a spoon!

Donna George Storey
September 2010

“Cooking up a Storey” © 2010 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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