Of mass culture and self-publishing

rowlingBy Bruno Masse: Anti-copyright 2009

We are pleased to add this critical essay that takes a look at the erosion of the publishing industry and the self published alternatives, and hope to see more work by this author in the future. Bruno Masse’s web page can be found at www.brunomasse.com

by Bruno Masse; Anti-copyright 2009

A book must disturb everything, must put everything into question
– Émil Cioran

What do Edgar Allan Poe, William Blake, Oscar Wilde, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain and John Milton all have in common? They all started out as self-published authors. In this era of hypercapitalism, nationalism and religious fundamentalism, it’s always fun to remind ourselves of what still differs from the seemingly even concrete landscape of ecocide, poverty and the all-debilitating grind of everyday work, consumption and decay. This is, in short, a half-coherent and very biased rant against mass culture in favour of independent, DIY, self-publishing.

As a former international buyer at a large Montreal bookstore, I’ve talked to a wide array of publishers, distributors, and marketing specialists. I’ve seen what sells and what gets left behind. More so, I’ve heard what some people in the book industry fear about the new “publish-on-demand” trend, coupled with the prejudice usually held against self-published authors and the quasi-religious halo surrounding mainstream publishers – those who, seemingly, can make starving authors into millionaires overnight.

As an author I’ve been all around this debate. I’ve been a small scale publisher for more than six years, always underground, with a handful of artists by my side, doing distribution, design, and most importantly, creation. One the one hand, I’ve managed to build the equivalent of a publishing house in strictly informal terms, eventually surpassing the span and breadth of the average publisher in visibility and even in strict sale terms, attaining more on my own than the average author gets. It was a long and frustrating process but also fulfilling, not to mention that you get absolute creative control.

On the other hand, I’ve also gone down the drain in the rank-and-file author abattoir, grovelling to corporations for acceptance, to no avail. All the time and money and energy I put into mainstream publishers was lost completely. I gained nothing, learned nothing, wasted so many hours and hard earned cash, just like a fucken gambler, pumping my dignity into these bourgeois pigfuckers, hoping for that big break…

And looking back on it I can see both experiences: one empowering and cost effective, the other one crippling and ruinous. So I’m here to tell you one of these options is not fucken worth it.
This lesson is being learned all other the globe. Capitalism is a process of exclusion, of course there’s going to be losers if there are to be winners. That is, until the losers get tired of it and stop competing. Mainstream publishers only blend in the hyper-industrial cultural landscape of innuendos and tautology. But it took longer to realize there’s nothing separating such corporate swine from producers, agents, big record companies, pimps and the like, mainly because they are supposed to promote human wisdom.

What we now see is these corporations discriminating the particular and promoting the similar, letting junk through and eventually investing further in the items that sold best, like Paulo Coelho and Eckart Tolle. In return, the entire mainstream publishing trade is upheld by this elusive myth, this fable of the spontaneous “best seller” phenomenon. It’s what generates awards, honours, knighthoods, TV spots, honorary degrees and such. Yeah, bestsellers are hot, aren’t they? They’re happening. And everybody thinks bestsellers sell best because they’re good reads. But quality, per say, has nothing to do with it. Best sellers sell best because they’ve already sold, meaning, falsely, that they’re supposed to be good, and so on it goes. A novel only becomes a mass phenomenon once people talk about it on a mass scale. That doesn’t happen out of the blue. It requires a mass infrastructure, a mass information network, and more importantly, mass marketing, of which the news media (including critics) is only a subsidiary branch. Everybody’s talking about it, it’s the next big thing. Society needs a focal point to sustain mass identity, nourish the feeling of belonging to “something” and entertain the thought that we – billions of precious little miracles that we are – can somehow connect through a medium.

Success stories like Twilight, Harry Potter, Eragon and The Da Vinci Code prove this point quite explicitly: it’s things that don’t disrupt anything that get most attention. Like American Idol, Celine Dion (or here in Quebec, les “Cowboys Fringants”, “Tout le monde en parle” or some other vacant excuses for fallacy). They blend in just perfectly on the top of the landfill that is History. Most spineless little peons tend to refute what outlines their existence as that of spineless little peons.

Remember that, essentially, mass culture is a mirror for what people think they are – either present, past or becoming. It’s a totalised system of symbolic exchange. Its aim is falsification.
Circumvention, not truth. The truth, as it happens, would annihilate anything remotely pertaining to the concept of self-replicating culture. Pieces of cultural products, be they visual art, theatre, movies or literature, either reinforce or threaten the identity complex of society by either falling in sync with mass culture or plunging straight across the stream of values, spreading complete fucken chaos. The later is, somehow, discouraged. And will not be published in a mainstream fashion. It won’t sell, and why would it? Not if it offers a rigorous analysis of society. Such narrative would ask for the order of things to cease: division of labour, objectification, negation of nature, reified thought, representation, and so on.

Evidently, it’s easier for people to consume cultural products that don’t threaten their sense of right and wrong and identity. “Yeah, just keep on going, Turn that frown upside down. And, most importantly, don’t be so negative! So what if you hate your life, so what if your lifestyle makes other people suffer and die? Other people, scratch that, how about ecosystems, entire species? Nevermind. That’s so depressing, don’t even go there! And guess what, you’re not alone. We’re all like you: consumers without a clue. Nah, nobody wants to stand up. Yeah, let’s go catch a movie. See? At the end, the bad guys always lose. The self-righteous hero gets the girl-object and the comic-relief sidekick slips on a banana-peel. At the end, we’re always more or less right back where we started. Nothing ever changes. How reassuring!”

In Quebec, even publishers who once seemed as though they’d broken from traditional mainstream skullfucking – namely, Lux and Écosociétés – have proven time again how eager they are to encourage the stupefying hoax of left-winged politics and the whole “human-faced capitalism” scam. Touching though their struggle against larger corporations may be, these bastions of make-believe intelligentsia still surf on different emulations of mass-culture, issuing reformist works from positivist and utterly self-deluded authors like Laure Waridel, Noam Chomsky, ATTAC, Pierre Beaudet and Dimitri Roussopolos. Enough said.

Yes, I believe it is beneficial for humanity to have authors offer their work to the world and let the world decide what it wants to do with it. We should have equal opportunities to publish and browse through human knowledge freely. You want junk like the Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter available for everyone? Great. But line up Zerzan and Adorno and Nietszche and a couple issues of Green Anarchy right next to them. And don’t tell me the odds were even to begin with. That’s capitalism’s first lie, the illusion of a fair deal. Easily proven to be the life-sucking scheme that it is. You spread the same handful of products all over the fucken globe saying it’s “da shitz”, don’t tell me it’s a fucken coincidence if they turn out to be the next big thing. See? There wasn’t anything else going on. “Build it and they will come. And then make sure nothing else gets built anywhere. And then they’ll have no choice but to come.” Mainstream culture is filled with icons who got there by default, supported by sycophants who don’t have a clue about themselves or the world they live in. Why should they? The Vegas whore sings about almighty Love. The little wizard casts his little spells. The computer nerd finally meets a girl. Cops catch the serial-killer. The evil villain gets his arse kicked. Generic pizza-delivery boy gets blown by generic female pornstar. Sport team X won over sport team Y by Z points. Right. So who really gives a fuck?

Now what about the other stories? The stories that shock you and seduce you and disgust you and make you wish you’d never seen them – or that you’d seen them sooner – that you were better off not knowing, that you can’t go to sleep now because it’s too late and you’ve walked like Alice through the looking glass?

The truth is beguiling. This is what I’ve come here to say. You can run from it, but it’ll find you sooner or later. If you’re shaken, if you’re shocked, if you’re disturbed, then you’ve tapped a very precious vein. Hold on to that, go deeper. Learn to appreciate critical thinking. Truth. And I’m not talking about “Oprah’s bookclub” truth. I’m talking about unmediated truth, animalistic truth, the kind that doesn’t have a dollar sign on top of it. The kind of lifestyle you can’t buy into. The kind of philosophy you don’t wear like a pair of socks. And I don’t mean voting, going to therapy, buying organic or starting yoga. I mean immediate, radical, direct action. I mean putting everything into question: God, the State, the Church, the Schools, Capitalism, Technology and the Prisons it supports. I mean going against the very notions of Authority and Order and Meaning and Hope. I mean breaking free from the chains that have ever kept you from becoming what you are.

Any discourse that doesn’t end in direct action is a waste of time. If tomorrow looks like today I’ll say you’ve failed to change anything at all. Just thinking things are different doesn’t mean they really are. That shiny “positive attitude” is just a cork on the bottle. Let go. Open up. Stop plastering on that fake smile, it won’t make you happy. Like Adorno said, “wrong life can’t be lived rightly.”

So why do people criticise self-publishing? Because it decentralises the distribution of information from the ground up. It forces people to think for themselves and not let others (mainstream publishers) make the decisions for them. It makes it possible for thinkers to disseminate ideas without having to conform to the standards of corporate swine who in turn profit from the ignorance and powerlessness they instil with such self-gratification.

So anyone who still thinks an author is not an author so long has he/she hasn’t been signed on by the big boys, anyone who base their opinion on the word of whomever received the most honorary titles, anyone who stands in awe at the aura of fame and majesty as opposed to the actual value of the content at the very core of the person’s work – anyone so conditioned and incapable of critical thinking should be force-fed 500 mg of trimethylxanthine, get strapped to a chair and get their ears crammed with Atari Teenage Riot’s entire collection at top volume for twenty-four hours on end – see how they like to be exposed to what they’re so desperate to avoid. For it is they, the bleeting sheep, the shallow shills, who deserve contempt and anathema – not the thinkers who refuse to bend over before a board of editors and beg to get their arses paddled.

Dignity for the self begins with freedom of thought – a most precious value which is inextricably linked with the material means of production and cannot be dissembled from the steamroller that is mass-culture. You want to share your ideas, you have the right to do it. You don’t need to sell your integrity in order to get integrity. Those who seek to discredit independent, small-scale or autonomous publishing are not looking for truth, they’re looking for slaves, but they know they won’t find any here. So stop wasting time. Don’t let anyone – or anything – tell you otherwise.

Bruno Masse, Anti-copyright 2009

About karlsie

Some great perversity of nature decided to give me a tune completely out of keeping with the general symphony; possibly from the moment of conception. I learned to read and speak almost simultaneously. The blurred and muffled world I heard through my first five years of random nerve loss deafness suddenly came alive with the clarity of how those words sounded on paper. I had been liberated for communications. I decided there was nothing more wonderful than writing. It was easier to write than carefully modulate my speech for correct pronunciation, and it was easier to read than patiently follow the movements of people’s lips to learn what they were saying. It was during that dawning time period, while I slowly made the connection that there weren’t that many other people who heard the way I did, halfway between sound and music, half in deafness, that I began to understand that the tune I was following wasn’t quite the same as that of my classmates. I was just a little different. General education taught me not only was I just a little isolated from my classmates, my home was just a little isolated from the outside world. I was born in Alaska, making me part of one of the smallest, quietest minorities on earth. I decided I could live with this. What I couldn’t live with was discovering a few years later, in the opening up of the pipeline, which coincided with my first year of junior college, that there were entire communities of people; more than I could possibly imagine; living impossibly one on top of another in vast cities. It wasn’t even the magnitude of this vision that inspired me so much as the visitors who came from these populous regions and seemed to possess a knowledge so great and secretive I could never learn it in any book. I became at once, very conscious of how rural I was and how little I knew beyond the scope of my environment. I decided it was time to travel. The rest is history; or at least, the content of my stories. I traveled... often to college campuses, dropping in and out of school until one fine day by chance I’d fashioned a bachelor of arts degree in psychology. I’ve worked a couple of newspapers, had a few poems and stories tossed around in various small presses, never receiving a great deal of money, which I’m assured is the norm for a writer. I spent ten years in Mexico, watching the peso crash. There is some obscure reason why I did this, tightening up my belt and facing hunger, but I believe at the time I said it was for love. Here I am, back home, in my beloved Alaska. I’ve learned somewhat of a worldly viewpoint; at least I like to flatter myself that way. I’ve also learned my rural roots aren’t so bad after all. I work in a small, country store. Every day I greet the same group of local customers, but make no mistake. My store isn’t a scene out of Andy Griffith. The people who enter the establishment, which also includes showers, laundry and movie rentals, are miners, oil workers, truck drivers, construction engineers, dog sled racers and carpenters. Sometimes, on the liquor side, the conversations became adult only in vocabulary. It’s a good thing, on the opposite side of the store is a candy aisle filled with the most astonishing collection, it will keep a kid occupied with just wishing for hours. If you tell your kids they can have just one, you have an instant baby sitter; better than television; as they agonize over their choice while you catch up on the gossip with your neighbor. We also receive a lot of tourists, a lot of foreign visitors. They are usually amazed at this first sign of Alaskan rural life style beyond the insulating hub of the Anchorage bowl. Many of them like to hang around and chat. They gawk at our thieves wanted posters. They laugh at our jokes and camaraderie with our customers. I’ve learned another lesson while working there. You don’t have to go out and find the world. If you wait long enough, it comes to you.

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7 Comments on “Of mass culture and self-publishing”

  1. Yay!… so thank for now allowing me to stand up and be a pround fist waving self-publisher…whatever,how long until I get picked up like Green Day and Nirvana and The Red Hot Chili Peppers and can make some money in good old skull-fuckery style? Seriously we do all have somethng to say but we also all have a price, let’s not pretend otherwise…There is also some good mainstream stuff Like Palahniuk and Andrew Davidson and Elizabeth Cunningham; who did self publish, then “sell out” or whatever but still write mind blowing life changing thoughtprovoking fiction.

  2. have had a mixed approach to self-publishing all my life. In high school we were told that it’s a scam if anyone ever asks you for money, and I mean, come on, I’m 38 so high school was a looooooong time ago. So I have always had a very bad impression of self-publising. I am a traditionalist at heart: I seem to believe (against all clear logic) that if you have something good and you stick with it, eventually you will cut through the dross.

    But then you hear stories like the mother of the author of A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES having to lug his ms all over NYC till it was published, and given a posthumous Pulitzer. Sad story.

    Or, on the happier side, ERAGON and MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA being self-published and finding commercial success.

    I’ve had a few s-p friends, however, who have invariably been disappointed. It’s hard to market your own work with so little support. Still, for some people, this is the only way their work will be seen.

  3. Initially, i had thought to pursue traditional publishing. Once i had crafted enough work to be satisfied it was time to go on a hunt, i began studying the markets. Since by then, the WM Handbook was suggesting an inclusion of the Internet in your search, i begrudgingly, with traditional and somewhat hermit-like instincts, went on line. It was then, among the instant feedback of aspiring authors, editors, agents and emerging houses, my perceptions of publishing began to change.

    The writer has become as much of a business investment as building a shopping mall. Once the agents, sub-agents, editors, sponsors and other expense account investors have received their cuts, the author is left with very little left over from that first book. The investors also go through great pains to make sure that work fits the formula for engineering a best seller.

    I’ve also heard a great many horror stories from online writers who complained that the plots for their work had been usurped by a recent published writer. I’m a somewhat paranoid person. During my years of apprenticeship, my professors instructed me to keep my work very close to my chest; to only give out partials until there was some kind of contractual agreement. I decided to hold my work until i could find a trust worthy institute. I’m still waiting.

  4. We have reality shows that need no script writers, only people willing to make asses of themselves, movies that need no plots, only a change in the scenario and best sellers that extol the virtues of a woman’s vagina. To this public that gulps it down like pigs at the trough, we are supposed to sell our unheard stories? It seems almost like a mouse trying to push over a mountain to me.

  5. Hey I just wanted to let you know, I really like the written material on your website. But I am utilising Firefox on a machine running version 8.x of Xubuntu and the look and feel aren’t quite correct. Not a important deal, I can still essentially read the articles and search for info, but just wanted to inform you about that. The navigation bar is kind of tough to apply with the config I’m running. Keep up the great work!

  6. I am glad you care about quality. The problem is that not enough individuals take the time to embrace talent. It’s a bigger issue at hand. The business as a whole is oversaturated. We need to begin to teach the youth and new generations about the culture as a whole. 🙂 🙂

  7. It sounds like you’re creating problems yourself by trying to solve this issue instead of looking at why their is a problem in the first place

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