A while ago I read a very interesting essay by Jonathan Baumbach about the founding of the Fiction Collective in the early 1970s.
You may know Baumbach from such books as Reruns; My Father, More or Less; and B. Or you may know him as the man traduced by his son Noah in The Squid and the Whale, where Baumbach was played by Jeff
Bridges Daniels. Yes, traduced. I don’t care if your father was a shitty father, Noah, he still founded the Fiction Collective. You know? I’m sorry he drove a Volvo! It’s a safe car! He was watching out for your fucking safety so you could one day grow up and make a film depicting him as an asshole.
Anyway, Baumbach and his Brooklyn friends, frustrated with mainstream publishing, got together and started their own press. And in the essay Baumbach describes some of the technical difficulties they ran into, as well as some of their successes.
One thing that really struck me more even than the technical aspects—which initially was what I cared about—was Baumbach’s discussion of the psychological toll of self-publishing. The publication of any worthwhile novel is necessarily—I’m paraphrasing—a deeply anti-social, even violent act. And when a publisher publishes your novel, he is taking on at least part of the responsibility for that act. You wrote it, but he published it—you share the burden of whatever anti-social message your novel contains.
When you self-publish, Baumbach went on, you take that entire psychological burden upon yourself. There is nothing between you and the reader, in terms of the violence of your work.
To write online, especially on a personal blog, is to magnify that feeling. Because the Fiction Collective was ultimately, well, a collective—a group of people had endorsed the book. Whereas with a blog—not so much. Not at all.
And this is really strange. At the n+1 panel on the internet, Caleb Crain argued (and he’s posted his talk here—as always with Caleb, very much worth reading) that one of the qualities of online writing is its incessant publicity—that it is always “on,” that there is no backstage where things get discussed, processed, edited, that the writer, instead of putting on view what he’s worked through and re-worked and considered, is always in view. I think the point I’m making is actually just a subsidiary point, but here it is: That without the intervention—or, really, the excuse—of an editor or publsher, who would presumably keep you from telling everything if you tried, you no longer have any structural excuse not to tell everything. And so there is a kind of totalizing effect—either you are totally cynical (or sarcastic/frivolous/etc.) or you are totally sincere (angry/confessional/etc). And that of course is a totalizing statement, but still: It’s an odd situation for writing—in some ways the most ambiguous form, the most subject to readerly interpretation—to find itself in. Something has to give.