This past summer, my colleague Tanya Barrientos wrote an excellent piece about the explosion in self-publishing. Scores of thousands of books are being published every year through iUniverse, Xlibris (which is part-owned by Random House, which guarantees that any book published by Xlibris that sells a certain number of copies will be referred to a Random House acquisitions editor), and AuthorHouse. It is not only possible, it is altogether likely that at least some of these books are as good as anything brought out by commercial publishers. Michael Hoeye's Time Stops for No Mouse was originally self-published. So was Leaves of Grass. The problem is finding out which, among all those that are out there, are the ones worth paying some attention to.
Xerox Corp. came up with a promising idea recently: an Aspiring Authors Contest. There were more than 250 entries and the judges were well-respected critics: Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio and Emily Chenoweth, fiction editor of Publishers Weekly. I blogged about the contest here and here. The latter post announced that Tanya -- who has written a couple of well-regarded novels herself -- had agreed to review the winner, Barbara Ghosh's Tenure Track to Mommyville.
Well, Tanya gave it her best shot, but said she felt it wouldn't be a good idea to review the book in The Inquirer. She explained why in an email (which she has given me permission to quote in full here):
The romance of do-it-yourself publishing is irresistable to anyone who loves fairy tales. Or to anyone who's ever labored over a novel in obscurity, daydreaming of the moment their hard work will be discovered and - poof!- they become the prince or princess of the publishing world.
I like happy endings as much as anybody else, which is why I came to Tenure Track to Mommyville, a self-published novel by Barbara Grosh, with great expectations. After all, it was chosen by Maureen Corrigan, the widely respected book critic for National Public Radio, and Emily Chenoweth of Publishers Weekly, and as the winner of a national contest staged by Xerox Corporation to find true talent in the slush bucket of print-on-demand titles.
The main character is Elaine Barlow, an economics professor who did not get tenure and has found herself transitioning into the life of a stay-at-home-mom. Her husband, a veterinarian, is resentful. She is unsure of her ability to mother well, and is certain she's lost her intellectual edge.
In the publicity material, Corrigan is quoted as calling the novel "a picture of the trials and tribulations of 21st century motherhood."
But a well-crafted picture it's not. The story is serviceable, as is the prose. But there was nothing about Mommyville that made me think the self-publishing world is bubbling with undiscovered gold.
The narrative read too much like non-fiction. It dragged and wandered and employed dialogue that didn't sound natural. So much for fairy tales.
I haven't read Ghosh's book myself, but I trust Tanya's judgment. The key observation in her email is that "the narrative read too much like non-fiction." There are plenty of autobiographical novels out there -- D.H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, all of Thomas Wolfe's novels, and all of Henry Miller's. Miller's are worth considering in this context, because he invented little -- but he exaggerated a lot: he turned his life into a burlesque. My point is that for a novel to work the author has to do more than transcribe the details of his or her life and just change the names of persons and places. There has to be a powerful imaginative element.
Ghosh has plenty to be proud of. It's not easy to write a book. It takes time and effort amd perseverence. She should keep at it and I hope she does. In the meantime I'm going to continue paying as much attention as I can to what is going on with all this self-publishing.