“Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width”*

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It had taken me just a few hours and cost a weekend’s wages at the grocery store where I worked. At age 16 I was now a published author of several execrable (I’ll check next time I visit my mother — she still has a copy of the book!), angst-ridden teenage poems.

Feeling magnanimous (more likely, wishing to show off ) I took a copy to school, to donate to the library. Our headmistress, Miss Higginson — think Severus Snape in the guise of Professor McGonagall — took one look at the title, A Kaleidoscope of Verse, and asked, “Is this vanity published?” I didn’t know, back then, what she meant. I’d simply responded to an advertisement informing me that my poetry could be published, I’d paid my money and now saw my name in print.

That youthful “dream come true” is similar to the one experienced by Ajla Dizdarevic, only this 12-year old is aiming for three self-published books of poetry by the time she’s 15, and meantime has got herself quoted in the New York Times.

The idea of parents funding the literary aspirations of their offspring has led to opposing opinions. On the one side we have novelist Tom Robbins who asks:

What’s next? Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists? Any parent who thinks that the crafting of engrossing, meaningful, publishable fiction requires less talent and experience than designing a house, extracting a wisdom tooth, or supervising a lunar probe is, frankly, delusional. There are no prodigies in literature (which) requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.

As if on cue, Seth Godin pitches in, mocking Robbins’ allusion that writing fiction bears any resemblance to “leading part of the Apollo mission.” Godin concludes with a “what’s the harm?” argument, pointing out that:

It’s free! No gums are damaged, no thumbs are hammered, no shuttles are launched.

Leaving Robbins and Godin to debate the “what” and the “how,” I’m more interested in the question: Why? And the answer lies, I believe, in the mediocritization of our goals.

What do these parents want to impart to their kids? What, indeed, is the goal here?

To be published? So what? Anyone (or anyone with parents willing to do so) can pay to be published these days. If this is being lauded as something worthy, then I fear these kids are missing out on an invaluable lesson. The one that Miss Higginson gave when she informed – no, shamed — me on the demerits of vanity publishing. I never wanted to feel so lessened ever again and determined that would be the one and only time I paid to be published; my new goal was to have people pay me.

Was the goal to sell books?

If it was, these kids are going to be sadly disappointed. The founder of KidPubPress, one of the vanity houses presumably making a lot of money from the current “be published” obsession at least has the honesty to admit that if each sells 50 books on Amazon that would be “pretty unusual.” And that figure is 150 short of what the average, “crank out a book in 30 or 90 days” tomes written by adults can expect to sell.

Was it to learn to become a real writer?

Not if you’ve got your mother fretting — as one of these published teenager’s mothers did —  about your writing being criticized. Good grief, I hope it would be , preferably before it’s published!

If that budding novelist has any desire to make writing a career and isn’t wanting to be published just so she can tick “author” off her bucket list, then – hell yeah — you’re going to be critiqued! As Malcolm Gladwell alludes to in the Acknowledgments of his bestseller, Blink, not even a writer of his calibre can expect to complete a manuscript perfectly, first time, with no help. Writes Gladwell: “Thank you (insert names here), who deftly and thoughtfully, and cheerfully guided this manuscript from nonsense to sense.” And later, “(different names) brought focus and clarity to the text and rescued me from embarrassment and error.”

Was the goal to perfect their craft so that, eventually, these youngsters would end up writing something really good?

That doesn’t seem to be the case either, from what I read.

And that lack of desire to produce quality work is not confined to the kiddie publishing scenario. For example, an aspiring author I know announced to our cohort that she had completed the query letter she intended to send out to a number of literary agents, to pitch her self-help book. Much celebration ensued, which puzzled me. Surely she wasn’t to be congratulated simply for finishing a query letter? Which appeared to be the case, since none of the others had actually read it. I did; it was really poor. I told her — in as kind a way as possible — that she was going to have to study what made for a good query letter, because the one she had cobbled together wasn’t going to get her represented any time soon.

In the end she decided to throw money at the problem and hire a professional to write it for her. This “author” felt she had it in her to craft a book she expected to be read by millions, yet didn’t even have the skill or patience to write a compelling query letter. Go figure!

In The Closing of the American Mind, author Allan Bloom writes about college students of 25 years ago:

  They arrived ill-equipped to explore the large questions the humanities pose, and few saw the need to bother with them in any case.

Now that would be a worthy goal, surely? To use the discipline and process of writing a book to explore those “large questions,” to find your voice and a perspective that you can defend — perhaps even be open minded enough to  engage with others who take a contrary view? To incrementally shift from being a novice writer to becoming a master story-teller?

But that’s not the goal of Author Solutions, Lulu, Create Space or even KidPubPress who are providing the means with which to add “author” these youngsters’ future CVs. Their goal is to part as many folks as possible from their money — and quality be damned.

I can assure these young people that contributing unedited early material to a vanity published book is going to advance none of their writing careers. Although, sadly, gone are the days when an educator (or anyone else for that matter) will tell them that; we wouldn’t want to damage their fragile “self esteem!”

I will, however, reserve believing we’ve gone completely bonkers as a nation until the New York Times covers the latest self-published offering by a two-year old. It can’t be far off!

* In case you’re wondering, the title of this article refers to a term used by London tailors of yesteryear, which spawned a British TV series in the late 1960s/early 70s: it means diverting attention from shoddy workmanship by drawing the eye to something completely irrelevant.

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