Monday, January 3, 2011

So You're an Indie Writer. Now What? Part 1.

When Genres Collide: What Christina Rosetti's "Goblin Market" and Bands Like Arcade Fire Can Teach Us

There's been a lot of eyerolling, head-scratching, and "So What?" shoulder-rolling going on at the way the term "Indie" gets thrown around these days. Certainly, the term has become almost a cliche in the music and filmmaking industries. But since the advent of the e-book and the self-publishing revolution, writers are now hopping the Indie train as well. In an effort to get away from the stigmas long associated with the stodgy-sounding "self-published author," or even worse, "vanity press," Johnathon Fields of The Huffington Post explains just what's in a name in his article, "Bringing Sexy Back." But is tweaking a name enough to change the image? After all, isn't a self published author by any other name still a self published author?

Like a lot of people, including Joe KonrathApril Hamilton and Zoe Winters, to name just three of our most prominent standard-bearers, I am a fierce proponent of the Indie movement in writing, music and the arts. Let me repeat the important part there: Indie Movement. Because what we have on our hands, folks, is so much bigger than the names by which we call ourselves or even whether we sell more books independently or with traditional publishing houses. In this post, I'm going to try to get away from an argument that is wearing thin for those who've already gone Indie. Just one well-intentioned example is Joe Konrath's recent blog post The Death Spiral, no doubt meant to appeal to writers still slogging away in the trad pub trenches. But many Indie writers know this kind of info, and for those of us who embraced Indie writing from the very beginning, we are left to wonder, "Ok, Big6 dying, got it. Now what?" It's a big question, and one that demands an exploration of the emerging cross-genre Indie world. Here's why it's critical:

As Indie writers, we are part of an aesthetic movement every bit as viable as Romanticism, Neo-Classicism, and Surrealism. One hundred years from now, we will be able to access the latest version of the Holman and Harmon Handbook to Literature on our Kindles or Nooks and read, somewhere after Ibsen, about the Indie movement of the early twenty-first century.

Know what's really cool about this particular aesthetic movement, which is, incidentally, still defining itself? It exists across genres. Indie writers are inspired by and work with Indie artists and musicians all the time. Many of us make our livings doing some combination of the three. Writer and artist Ronnell Porter comes to mind. His book cover for his Indie novella Undying is mouthwateringly beautiful:

Cross-genre collaboration as a defining marker in the history of literary movements is really rare and really cool, although not unheard of. The example I've chosen today is the Pre-Raphelite movement. Christina Rosetti's poem Goblin Market is one of my favorites. If you haven't read it, you should; it's a classic. It's long, and although I've read the whole thing many times, often I just skip to the bits about the goblin men and the actual market itself because that's the most vivid. Her descriptions of the different kinds of goblin fruit are almost tactile, and the relationship between the two sisters has quite the erotic subtext. All in all, a remarkable poem for a woman to write in the late 19th Century. Here's David Shaw reading the entire poem aloud, with illustrations by Christina's brother, Dante Rossetti.

Here's where it gets interesting and Indie-relevant: artistic cross-collaboration. Dante Rosetti painted many of the illustrations for his sister's epic poem. She also grew up in a household surrounded by painters, and was heavily influenced by the visual in her writing. Goblin Market is considered one of the seminal works in the gothic/horror/supernatural fields. It's a poem that relies heavily on vivid, haunting descriptions for its almost halluncinatory effects. So there you have it: art and writing, hand-in-hand in an aesthetic genre many paranormal writers today claim as one of their favorites. 
Dante Rosetti also wrote poetry. Though he is most famous for his paintings, the two were often intertwined: "The blending of the material and the spiritual, of soul and body, of idea and act, defines Rossetti's poetry as much as it does his pictorial work."-The Rossetti Archives
Here are some of his more famous paintings. They remind me more than a bit of Mr. Porter's cover illustration:

So how is this relevant to Indie writers today? Bands like Arcade Fire have pretty much blown the lid off the term, sparking debates about whether bands that sell out Madison Square Gardens still qualify as Indie. And yet, their very success underscores the importance of stabilizing the term, as does Amanda Hocking's recent success. Does the fact that she has no less than six novels in the Amazon Top 100 as of this writing make her any less Indie than newly published me? Is Arcade Fire less Indie than bands like Glossary or The Only Sons?

Do we define ourselves by our sales or by our work?

Either way, there's already a thriving Indie scene underneath our noses, waiting for us to open our eyes and tap in. Some of us already have. If you are an Indie writer, tired of beating your head againt the myth that you aren't a real writer, there's a lot to be gained by looking to Indie musicians and artists, many of whom don't seem to face the same existential crisis we writers deal with. And remember: we're defining an aesthetic movement here! I know it's not as tangible as an Amazon ranking, nor will it pay the rent, but is important, and it's happening all around us, everday. 

To recap, "Indie" is more than a name; it's a vibrant, evolving aesthetic movement that's been under way for quite some time now. We writers are a bit late to the party, perhaps, but at least it's in full swing. Also, we have quite a bit to learn from fellow Indies in other fields. Although the paralells aren't exact, we certainly can take lessons in what worked and what didn't, what's working now, and so on. Finally, it's wonderful to know that, even though many fellow writers may not yet feel like "real writers" until they have the Big6 stamp, there is a huge, thriving community of like-minded artists, musicians, and even a few writers out there, all of them Indies.  

All Rosetti imagesand quotes, with the exception of David Shaw's reading, are courtesy of The Complete Rossetti Archives,


  1. Hi Vicki,
    Accepting the argument above, the problem of disfiguring still exists. I know that delivery is solved with POD and electronic media, however how do audiences find the works?

    More importantly, what about the addons (read: editors) that the big six give to authors?

  2. "The argument above" draws clear paralells to related industries with thriving Indie cultures in which audiences have little to no trouble finding works. In relation to books, choices are much more varied and easier to search through sites like Amazon and Barnes and Noble than they were in store front days. There used to be exactly two shelves of sci/fi-fantasy for sale within fifty miles of my house and one shelf of horror. Now there are a seemingly infinite number, and I can access them faster than I can change the channel on my television through my Kindle.
    Good links to follow are the Arcade Fire at Madison Square Gardens article- it will take you to Time- and the Amanda Hocking one.
    As far as add-ons like editors, Indie authors of my aquaintance are finding very good ones amongst themselves, through critique circles, or by paying freelance. One of my contentions is that ebooks are a new genre, separate and distinct from the novel, although they certainly have their roots in the novel. Editors at traditional publishing houses, trained to edit novels, are therefore poorly suited to edit original ebooks anyway. I intend to address this in an upcoming post.
    Publicity/marketing support is a rare or sparse add-on for new authors. Most traditional publishing houses will tell you this up front. I know I was told this.
    I am intrigued by your use of the word "disfiguring." Could you explain it a little more? I'm concerned I haven't fully answered your question.

  3. Disfiguring, autocorrect when posting from an iphone...
    I believe the word I wanted was distribution.
    How does an Indie author rise above the noise? I can find 100 Indie authors tonight and be lucky to see one who understands grammar.

    How does an Indie author rise above the noise?

  4. "I can find 100 Indie authors tonight and be lucky to see one who understands grammar."

    This is a pretty common complaint leveled at Indie authors. I'm going to draw a distinction between Indie authors- who are individuals- and the Indie movement, which is the subject of this post. Some Indie authors may not understand grammar, but there are many who do. If you are interested in finding good Indie authors to read, and one of your definitions of "good" is an understanding of grammar, if you will provide me with a bit more information as to your genre preferences, etc., I'll be happy to provide you with a list of Indie authors who do meet your requirements of "good." I'll even buy their books for you.

    As far as rising above the noise, again, I invite you to clarify because I'm not sure I'm answering your question correctly and I really do want to. But to take a stab: some authors will and some won't. It would be nice to think that good work will always be rewarded and shoddy work won't be, but I've heard that life's not fair. I think this probably holds true for more than just Indie authors.

    One of the most important things we can do to help individual Indie authors is to begin to identify and stabilize the concept of a legitimate Indie movement. When we can define who we are and what makes us Indie, it becomes much easier to address accusations of poor quality that may, in some cases, be forms of innovation unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable to the public. For example, James Joyce's Stream of Consciousness narrative style was initially considered horrible and the Expressionist painters were intially considered untalented. Is every Indie writer a Joyce or an Expressionist? Of course not. But the seeds of something new are there, and until we define our aesthetic, we won't really know what "it" is.

    I intend to address this further in upcoming posts. Thanks for the stimulating discussion.