Thursday, 24 May 2012

A new censorship?

I was thinking about Soviet censorship of writers in the shower the other day, as one does. Having not long finished reading a couple of books written in Soviet Russia (one that got past the censor and one that didn’t) I was trying to work out why the one that was highly critical of a totalitarian regime that suppressed creative thinking got published, whilst the surreal work that explored the difficulty, even impossibility of successfully putting anything into written words was blue pencilled. I was also wondering whether living under the gaze of a censor (terrible as that is) did not make better writers of those inclined to be subversive. They did, after all continue to be subversive right under the very noses of those they criticised and got away with it. They were forced by circumstance to be inventive.

Notwithstanding the thought that anything that makes one a better writer must have some good in it (from a purely craft point of view) I thanked my stars that I do not live in such circumstances. Advocating a Stalinist state just to get better writing would be stupid and even I am not that daft.

I was at the rinsing down stage by now and another thought did strike me. Two in succession. After I recovered from feeling a bit faint, I developed this second thought. We might not, as writers, live under a formal regime of censorship but our work does face various forms of censorship nonetheless if we follow a mainstream route to publication (self-publishing in the modern age is something else altogether). Some are obvious and to be welcome. I don’t want to pick up a book that is riddled with spelling mistakes, typos, bad grammar, rubbish structure, and so on. It doesn’t mean such books don’t get published, even after going through the mill. Book shops are full of such tat. But for the most part they are properly designed and have the worst of their errors removed.

But capitalism censors just as readily (if in different ways) to any other socio-economic system. Books need to make a profit for the companies that publish them. At least, there must be an expectation that a given book will make a profit. You cannot expect such companies to make a loss. They wouldn’t last. But they have got themselves in a bit of fix recently. Like many other businesses they are staggering under increasing layers of people who want their cut of the money without actually contributing anything to the process that generates the money.

Books now get rejected on the grounds they won’t make enough profit. It is no longer sufficient that they bring in more than they cost. Now the level of profit must be increased to feed all those hardworking shareholders and all the layers of middle men who don’t do very much.

If your book is out of the ordinary, exploratory, ground breaking, has a small audience, then forget it. It will not generate enough profit. It will not appease the free market dogma. It will feed the leeches in the system. Therefore it gets censored. Good writing, stuff that doesn’t fit the stupidly narrow pigeon holes invented by marketing people who really have no conception of how writing works, stuff that is written by a dull looking disabled person who won’t dazzle the camera or be able to get out and do all their own promotion. It gets censored.

Thank goodness then for modern technology. These works rejected by the capitalist censor at least stand a chance of being printed and distributed (even if the average income is just above zero because reaching a market when you are self-published is something that has yet to be cracked).

But whilst this alters the picture, it also throws responsibility onto those who are taking this new route. It may be the future of publishing so I beg of you – don’t foul the path; don’t shove out any old crap because you think it’s a masterpiece. It most likely isn’t, but that doesn’t matter. Only one in a hundred thousand of us are going to produce a work that lasts for generations. The rest of us should aim to produce work of better quality than you find in traditional print. Better designed, better written, better edited. This isn’t difficult. You have friends. Involve them. You probably know a struggling artist. Get them to do the cover. Learn how to spell. Learn how to use your computer. Because if you don’t do these things you will be just as bad as the mainstream that has rejected you and on which you have turned your back.