Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Oh, Garrison

I came across this piece in the NY Times by Garrison Keillor bemoaning the new world of self-publishing via the twitter feed of Austin Kleon, who suggested Keillor should “just put a gun in your mouth & spare us yr ‘you missed the good ol’ days’ monologue.” How could I not click on a link with that as an introduction?

It’s not surprising that Keillor would take this position, given his writerly persona, so it’s difficult for me to get angry at him. But I do get tired of this nostalgic crap in general, and if at some point in the future, I turn into a curmudgeonly “things were better in the old days” type of person, I hope someone will smack the hell out of me and tell me to wake up.

Because, as a general rule, things were never better in the past, not even if you were a white male. The privilege you gained by being in power was offset by poorer health, fewer economic opportunities, less flexibility in your career options, etc. I can’t think of a single way in which life in the past–even the recent past–was better than in the present. Advances in technology alone make the present better, and the future potentially better than that.

And it’s those advances in technology which are causing the changes that Keillor is moaning about.

Call me a pessimist, call me Ishmael, but I think that book publishing is about to slide into the sea. We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions, and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.

Point 1: It’s not all free. In fact, a large part of the tussle between publishers and Amazon (with Apple stirring things up) is over how much they’re going to charge for this reading material. Yes, the web is full of free stuff–blogs, journals, webzines, journalism–but that’s not the whole of publishing, and it’s especially not the whole when you look at the world of contemporary fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

Point 2: You’re not really committed to finishing a book you’ve paid $30 for, or at least you don’t have to be. And if it’s the cost that’s driving you to finish a book, I think that says something about what you value in literature. Also, when was the last time anyone paid full price for a new hardback? Books are like cars–you never pay full price for them.

But this is only the start for Keillor. He’s on a roll now.

And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a Web site. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.

Did you know that before the web, you needed a publisher and permission? That probably shocks the hell out of Walt Whitman, or would if he were still around to be shocked. Self-publication has been around a long time. All that’s changed is the cost of entry and ease of distribution.

Keillor’s not completely wrong here. The business model is changing, though that’s been in the works for a while now. And part of that change involves writers becoming brands, becoming more involved in their own publicity and getting closer to their readers–interacting with them personally instead of just being a distant figure who imparts art from on high.

And it’s clear that that’s what Keillor is really sad about–the power of the gatekeeper to determine who will and won’t be a writer is disappearing.

Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check and our babies got shoes….Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.

Maybe that’s how it worked for you, Garrison. If so, count your blessings, because you’re lucky beyond all belief. Most writers don’t make enough solely from their writing to survive, much less thrive. That era of martyrdom isn’t disappearing (though I wish it would–the stereotype damages a writer’s ability to make a decent living), and self-publishing won’t kill it because it’s not rejection that creates the stereotype of the starving artist–it’s the economics. And the economics of self-publication haven’t changed, really. Yes, you can self-publish your book online, but who’s going to market it for you? Who’s going to get paper copies of it into bookstores? Who’s going to set up a book tour? Who’s going to get reviewers to take a look at it, much less champion it?

But there’s one more reason why Keillor’s piece is so off base. He doesn’t seem to value the joy that someone can get simply from finding his or her work in print (or online). For him, there’s only value if an outside power has deemed the work worthy of publication, and I say that’s crap. Arrogant, self-important crap. There is value in writing a book even if no one else ever reads it, even if you never make a penny from it. Just count your blessings, Garrison, and leave it at that.


May 26, 2010 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. Followed this from your FB post. Thank you for this. I get irritated at “end of era” stuff in general. Like it would be wonderful if everything stayed the same???? Maybe for some folks I guess.

    I like your Point 2. I have stacks of books that I’m in the “process of reading.” I’ve bought books I’ve never finished, even a few I’ve never started. Granted, now I have them and could read them someday. Sometimes I feel a bit of guilt for not having read something yet, but I don’t feel I have to read something cover to cover, which strikes me more as “consuming” books. Just shovel them in. Want fries with that?

    I agree with your last reason. The joy one. Because it’s true.This made me laugh: “an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives.” Because I’m a poet, most of my blood relatives have NOT read my self-published chapbook! Ha. Now, I could still be sending it out, probably accumulating rejections at a steady clip, hoping that someday somebody would get to read some of my poems. Or, I could do what I did (let’s hear it for printers and staplers!) and put together a little something that the 14 folks that have read it (actually I think I’m ahead of that, even not including family) have told me they’ve enjoyed reading it. I keep trying to figure out what’s not good about that.

    Hmm, okay, I guess I could rant on here, but I won’t.

    And one more thing (ha!) – what survives to be enjoyed by subsequent generations cannot be predetermined. Only time will tell. There’s a lot of drivel published the “old-fashioned” way too.

    Comment by Robin | May 26, 2010 | Reply

  2. I’ve never been one to have anything nice at all to say about Garrison Keillor. I find his mush-mouthed fellation of “the good-ol’-days” exhausting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tuned my radio to NPR (which I often do, as I’m an NPR addict) on an absent-minded weekend, only to lurch immediately back to the dial at the sound of his toadlike, unwarranted crooning.

    Basically: I hate Garrison Keillor. A lot.

    That said, I can’t help but be a bit supportive of him here. I’m 29 years old – and I find myself longing for the good ol days when it comes to publishing. Or pretty much anything in our culture that’s falling victim to our cheerful campaigns of digitization.

    I’ve never had any of my work published in print – it’s all been printed online. Now, yes… I’m always elated to see anything I’ve written find a home. But an internet home is transient by nature. I don’t know where it lives (in a server somewhere… but I don’t actually know what that means). Books are something I can hold – something I can see and smell and taste (should I choose). Books are slow – quiet – pensive. Even the loud crazy ones.

    I will always side with the whisper of paper over the chirrup and warble of technology. Even if that means I’ll have to side with self-involved peckers like Keillor. Because I want – I need – to believe that there is still substance in the world around me.

    Comment by eugenicsbeginswithyou | May 26, 2010 | Reply

  3. Ha! Looky what I found! Even he blogged.

    Comment by Robin | May 26, 2010 | Reply

  4. I originally put this on the fb feed, but I guess it really belongs here:

    Um, this response is terrible. It’s juvenile and takes silly straw man shots at arguments that aren’t actual arguments, or aren’t even there…but since that’s what we do here:

    1. The you can’t think of a single way in which life was better in the past than it is right now? Not a one? That shocking lack perspective and imagination must be a terrible handicap in your line of work.

    2. If you do not see the process of selecting a book and purchasing the author’s work as some sort of commitment, then perhaps it says something about how you value literature.

    Most of all, I like that you hone in on Garrison’s obvious self-deprecation in painting himself as “crumudgeonly” and use that to attack him. I’m not sure if that makes you an idiot, or just a dick.

    And now that you mention it, it does make me feel good about myself to see my unsolicited, unedited, hastily thrown together words in print (or online.)

    Comment by Phillip Rogers | May 26, 2010 | Reply

  5. Okay, Phillip. Come up with one. Come up with a way that the past was better than the present. Don’t just claim I lack perspective–prove me wrong. Should be easy, given the tone of your comment.

    Second–I didn’t say there wasn’t value in purchasing someone’s book. What I said was that the idea that I have to finish this book because I paid a chunk of money for it is a pretty simplistic was of viewing quality. I’ve read great things that I paid nothing for, and utter crap that I paid a lot for, and vice versa. The market doesn’t decide what I enjoy, and the price I pay has no effect on whether I find it aesthetically pleasing.

    Comment by Brian | May 26, 2010 | Reply

    • I’m not offended by the suggestion that the present is better than the past–it’s a perfectly reasonable opinion to have. I am annoyed by the cut of your hyperbole. “I can’t think of a single way in which life in the past…is better than in the present.” It’s just s stupid thing to write, it makes you sound hysterical and short-sighted and robs your commentary of credibility because it cannot possibly be true. There is something in the past that you like better than now, whether it is a better job market, more rational political discourse, a shorter NHL season, wider availability of Boo Berry and Frankenberry cereal…I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I am not trying argue that the past is better, just that if you cannot come up with a single thing that is better about the past (even the recent past) than the present, then you have a shocking lack of imagination for a poet. (To be clear, I don’t really think you are unimaginative, I just think you don’t really mean that you “can’t think of a single thing.”)

      Obviously, it doesn’t matter if I can name something that I like better about the past (1) because it’s, you know, an opinion; and (2)asking me to do so totally misses the point. I don’t have a list, and I have no idea what you’re getting at on the fb post in suggesting that I do, but since you asked: I think it was more fun to be a sports fan before the age of 24-hour non-news cycle and prohibitive ticket pricing that has drastically changed the culture of live events.

      Second, I don’t think that you believe there is no value in buying someone’s book. In fact, I didn’t even come close to saying that…but again, that’s beside the point.

      The way that you have responded to my post shows that you didn’t get it, maybe that’s my fault, so I’ll be clear:

      You took an opinion piece, mis-characterized individual statements as straw man arguments to which you responded with vitriol, disrespect and an appalling lack of internal logic. I did the same thing.

      Comment by Phillip Rogers | May 26, 2010 | Reply

  6. So then, you’re goal was to what? Out-asshole the poster? Look, I didn’t agree with everything he had to say either… but that doesn’t excuse or justify acting like a complete twit.

    What kind of man uses ad homenims to counter a strawman?

    You do realize that you’re making yourself look really very stupid here, don’t you?

    Comment by eugenicsbeginswithyou | May 26, 2010 | Reply

  7. And, of course, I am speaking to Phillip Rogers, not Brian.

    Comment by eugenicsbeginswithyou | May 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Not sure the appropriate way to respond, especially in light of not having a readily articulable goal, but here goes:

      Just participating in the conversation, eugenicsbeginswithyou. I think this is a bad post because it misrepresents the original opinion piece and then proceeds to attack the writer in a way that is, at best, intellectually dishonest. I thought it would be funny and effective to use the same approach I was perceived in Brian’s post. You think that is acting like a twit, I think it is a perfectly reasonable way to make a point. Opinions vary, I suppose. And since you brought it up, I’m not sure that I actually disagree anything he says…just what he attributes to Garrison.

      This is precisely relevant to the real issue. Everyone has a blog. There is no actual oversight or accountability to finding and predigesting source material before delivering to whatever audience the blogger has. More and more people are looking to these unregulated sources as their primary source of information and it is important to look at them critically. Presumably, the comment feature is intended to allow this self-policing policy to play out in the open and robust forum for debate we’re been idealizing for so long.

      Not gonna go in to the rest of the stuff about what kind of man I am or whether or not I am stupid, except to say that I suspect you and I are working off slightly different definitions of ad hominem.

      But seriously, what kind of man uses the word “twit”?

      Comment by Phillip Rogers | May 26, 2010 | Reply

  8. Wow, I thought he could come up with ONE way the past was better, just to at least *seem* to prove his point, and he failed to even meet that low bar. What a loser. On the other hand, he could not have more efficiently proved Brian right, on that point at least. Maybe he’s an audience shill Brian cooked up just to make himself look even more right on that point. Or maybe he’s just a moron.

    Comment by amy | May 26, 2010 | Reply

    • Amy,

      Please see the reply immediately following Brian’s post at #5.

      Many thanks,

      Comment by Phillip Rogers | May 26, 2010 | Reply

    • I agree with pretty much everything you just said. I still maintain that there’s something intrinsically depressing about the speed and transience of a digital culture – some of the things that GK was talking about in his article.

      That said, I’d like to again reiterate what an insufferable wad I find Keillor to be.

      Comment by eugenicsbeginswithyou | May 27, 2010 | Reply

  9. I don’t really understand the tone of some of these comments. Besides, I think Brian’s “attack” on Keillor is completely warranted, since GK’s whole piece is framed by his own bio.

    GK wants it both ways–live on the upper west side and go to fancy parties, but then be the “aw shucks” guy who just lucked into the invite. Worse, he appropriates other writer’s “martyrdom.” Here’s a guy who has built a mini empire on npr donations–which is fine, I don’t care for the show, but am glad it’s on and is successful. But don’t construct the whole struggling writer bio on the side. It’s dishonest, and it’s insulting.

    Comment by Rich | May 27, 2010 | Reply

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