Another day, another obituary for the publishing industry which, despite countless instances of garment rending for its death, somehow manages to continue… not dying. Garrison Keillor begins his lament by naming all the fancy writers he ran into at a fancy New York party, the implication being that he doesn’t quite belong in the fancy writing world and yet, there he is. Of course, because this is Garrison Keillor, he has to make an aw shucks reference to the Midwest and continues to offer his bona fides as a man of the people because he drives a car with 150,000 miles on it. That’s such a quaint practice when it’s a choice, driving a car into the ground. For people who cannot afford a new car, 150,000 miles probably holds considerably less charm. Keillor does this, of course, to remind us, yet again, that he is not one of the publishing glitterati. He is a stranger in a strange land, or at least, that’s what he wants us to think so he can continue hawking his down home Midwestern charm and wisdom, or what some might call, schlock.
The gist of Keillor’s (not very well written) editorial is that publishing is dying because writers now have more options available to them to publish. He paints self-publishing with a scarlet “S” while clutching his antique pearls. Things have changed, you see. Writers no longer have to march to New York barefoot with their thirty pound typewriters strapped to their backs to beg publishers and agents to take notice of their work from dirty New York street corners. They can use the Internet and Lulu.com and put their writing out into the world all by themselves. There are fewer gatekeepers and clearly, the rise of self-publishing is the canary in the mine that is the death of publishing. Soon, there’ll be no more editors and when that happens, alas, the literary apocalypse will be upon us. I’m sure, as he wrote this, Keillor thought he was standing up for the endangered editor but his stance in this editorial is one that actually demeans the work of the editor. How little he must think of an editor’s work if he thinks they could so easily vanish from the publishing industry. Every writer I know, myself included, believes in and is intimately aware of the importance of a good editor.
Keillor tries to offer a few pithy words about the liberation of self-publishing but makes it quite clear that anything self-published cannot possibly hold any literary merit because, “You can write whatever you wish and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.” Keillor also gives us a math lesson when he says, “And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.” His screed reminds me of the Genoways article in Mother Jones where he panics about the 60,000 new writers MFA programs will produce in the coming decade. The horror of it, so many people having the nerve to want to be writers. Life was just so much better in the past when only four people were allowed to write. Those were the days. Keillor waxes nostalgic for us:
Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.
I shall translate:
People who are younger than me, listen up! Back in the day, I wrote books on a typewriter. I am the only writer who ever managed this. I made my own paper out of the trees on my farm. I called up the Pony Express and had them deliver my precious words to that fancy New York City and my words were so brilliant I got a book deal and I gloated about it and guess what? I’M RICH! I’m sad other people might now get rich too.
This editorial is not so much infuriating as it is sad. It is sad to see a man who feels threatened because the landscape of publishing is changing, modernizing, and, perhaps, becoming more democratic. In other obituaries for publishing, many culprits have been identified but I must say self-publishing as the evil enemy of traditional publishing is a new one for me. It is also sad to see a random grouping of incoherent ramblings instead of an actual argument that is somehow grounded in reality or rational thought.
The highlight of Keillor’s editorial is when he refers to his entire audience as, “Children,” the condescension of which is just, aw shucks, rank and to which my initial reaction was, “Motherfucker, please.”
Excuse my language.
Salvatore Pane also has some really interesting things to say about Keillor’s op-ed.