What Is Literary Value?

This article, from Henry Baum, originally appeared on the Self-Publishing Review site on 5/9/09.

The post about the ways that people criticize self-publishing brings up the idea that a traditionally published book has a stamp of approval and so traditionally published books are more reliable.  This is true.  Some amount of vetting does count for something, but in an age when it’s more difficult to get published, it is not the only measure of a book’s worth.

What’s also problematic is that writers may take this one step further and consider that their writing is indeed better because it has been accepted by an editor.  I don’t want to limit the idea that getting accepted by an editor and receiving a paycheck is enormously validating.  Of course it is.  I’ve been traditionally published as well with Soft Skull Press in the U.S., Canongate in the U.K., and Hachette Litteratures in France.  I come to self-publishing with a sense of both sides of the aisle.

But just because a book has been accepted by an editor does not mean it is automatically better – and dispelling this idea could help self-published books gain more clout, and reduce the amount of prejudice.

Let’s look at a writer like Jack Kerouac.  Most people think of Kerouac as a fifties writer.  Actually, Kerouac was going on the road in the late forties, after the war.  On the Road was written in 1951 – but it was not published until 1957, towards the end of the decade.  Jack Kerouac did most of the writing that’s part of his legacy before On the Road was ever published.  Is On the Road a better book in 1957 than it was when it was initially written in 1951?  I think most people would say no: publication doesn’t determine worth.  The book is the book.

Take other writers like Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald.  They both died unheralded and Moby Dick and Gatsby become a part of the literary canon only posthumously.  The same goes with a writer like Philip K. Dick.  Read to some degree while he was alive, but not nearly as regarded as he is today, with editions being put out by the Library of America.  Crime writer Jim Thompson is another one, who had a renaissance in the nineties.

Obviously, not all self-publishers are geniuses like the writers mentioned above.  They don’t have to be.  This is just to point out that a book’s success or lack of success does not determine if a book is worthwhile.  It can take decades for a writer to be discovered and reexamined.

Read the rest of the article on the Self-Publishing Review site.

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