Quality, Schmality—Indie Lit Rocks!


TW Column by David Biddle

How Self-Publishing Taught Me Patience


"Reading" © Kate Hiscock


Coming Soon: TW's Winter 2014 issue launches next week with a focus on literary critics and quality. Here, David Biddle offers a taste of what's to come with his spirited defense of indie literature. Let the games begin!


I tried reading a good fifty self-published e-books in 2013. I finished five. I also began reading fifty books published the old-fashioned way. Of those, I finished five.

Okay, I’m a slow reader. Ten books a year is about my average. I’d do better if I weren’t on Facebook and Twitter every day; it also took time to read all the books I didn’t finish. But I guarantee I’ll start more self-published books in 2014—and I bet I’ll finish more than five. The five indie books I finished were as good as, if not better than, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad or even George Saunders’s Tenth of December—both of which I read early in 2013.

You see, I’ve figured something out about indie work: It’s a different beast than the stuff put out by the likes of Penguin, Hachette, and HarperCollins. The trick is to learn to read indies in a different way than you would slicker books that have been passed through the filter of a dozen publishing professionals.

The trick is to become a patient reader.

I’ve been buying indie books all over the place for the past few years. More than half the work on my e-reading devices is self-published. Since I’ve got three books of my own out there, I need to pay it forward and buy work by other indie authors. The thing is, no matter how much I wave the “Go, Indie!” flag, I’m ultra-discriminating about what I read. Cognitive dissonance has held me back, bogged down as I’ve been with the following logic: Why read self-published books when I still haven’t read all the David Foster Wallace, Toni Morrison, and Haruki Murakami in the world?

Lysergic book coverYes, I am that kind of asshole book snob.

Fortunately, this ridiculousness began to change in 2012, when I finished Krystle Cole’s self-published account of the time she spent, from 2000 to 2003, connected to Gordon Todd Skinner and the new psychedelic manufacturing vanguard in the United States. Lysergic is an extremely personal story of an intelligent young woman coming of age during some of the most bizarre drug experiences I've ever read. I have no doubt the raw power of this story would have been turned to mush by mainstream publishers.

Since reading Lysergic, other indie books grabbed and stuck with me in 2013. Last summer, I read Nancy Bevilaqua’s Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Days, and this one clinched the lesson: Indie literature is no different from indie music or indie film. Independent art of all kinds is independent because the artists control every aspect of production—and that’s the point.

The magic of indie art is that it feels more authentic and down to earth. Think hand-held cameras and living room recordings. With literature, of course, authenticity is a tricky thing. It comes through word choice and honest description. Literature happens not because editors and academics give it the nod, but because a writer puts her whole self on the page—as in Holding Breath, a heartbreaking love story.

Bevilaqua, a freelance author and poet, told me in a recent e-mail interview that she chose the self-publishing route because she wanted to make all the calls on her book. For instance, she included a great deal of poetry in the text. Even her simple narrative observations are highly charged and lyrical:

Every so often I find a sick or dying bird on a sidewalk…. [t]hey’ll look up into my eyes for a moment as if they’re trying to gauge what my intentions might be, and as if they’re saying, Do whatever you’re going to do; I’ve given up.

Holding Breath: A Memoir of AIDS’ Wildfire Day book cover

It's this unvarnished approach to storytelling that distinguishes the best indie books from anything else I'm reading now. My response is the same as when I listen to indie rock or watch a Sundance Channel movie. It can take awhile for a story to get rolling. There may be goofy word choices, strange psychological details, unstructured plot lines, rambling descriptions of towns or homes or farms—but so what? Great indie fiction is brightly colored with the obsessions of authors who have handcrafted their books from inception to online sales pages.

I’ll even go out on a limb and say that Fifty Shades of Grey, the mother of all self-published e-books, is brilliantly written. Yes, it’s full of clichés and repetition, but the bold and breathless innocence of E.L. James’s language matches the bold and breathless innocence of her narrator.

I know I won’t get far claiming that Fifty Shades is “literary.” Indie books have become a threat to mainstream book publishing for a host of reasons, including the fact that breakout bestsellers like James’s trilogy or Hugh Howey’s Wool appear to be hooking readers far more successfully than the supposed pros in the business have been able to. The debate about indie quality is contentious precisely because mainstream publishers seem so out of touch with what actual customers want.

But the most surprising result of my 2013 year of reading is how much I’ve learned from indie authors about reading all literary writing.

Take Tao Lin’s Taipei, one of the most notorious novels of 2013. Published by Vintage and not technically an indie work, Taipei polarized many people in the book world because of its deadpan “Asperger’s” style and plotless narrative. I haven’t finished Taipei yet—and I’m not sure I will—but I’m fascinated by Lin’s use of language.

Lin and young indie author Marie Calloway, some of whose stories in what purpose did i serve in your life also captivated me in 2013, are at the forefront of what’s been dubbed “Alt-Lit.” At this point, Alt-Lit is no longer a new phenomenon, but the centerpiece of the indie literary fiction movement.

Calloway coverMicro publishers like Muumuu House, Tyrant Books, Scrambler Books, and Tiny Hardcore Press are rounding up young literary authors and giving them launching pads for their work. Writers like Roxane Gay (who is everywhere on the Internet these days), Scott McClanahan, and Megan Boyle are publishing strange, sexy, and linguistically odd fiction through these houses and others like them—all on their own terms.

Indie literature is popping up all over online, far from the madding Amazon crowd, including in magazines like TW. In an article last fall, Flavorwire called it the “Golden Age of Indie Publishing,” noting that “this is an exciting time to be a fan of literature.” The literary elite and money grubbers are probably still winning, but it’s only a matter of time before readers figure out there’s more good stuff available beyond the pipeline of corporate publishing.

This year, I’m looking forward to tackling writers like McClanahan and Boyle and Gay. I still need to finish Anna Karenina (which I started last February). And Murakami’s latest is scheduled to publish this August. I’ll always be a snob about books, but I plan to keep downloading independent work, acting a little less like one with my fellow indie writers.

Who knows, maybe I’ll even bust out of the ten-books-finished-a-year thing. I’d really like to hit twenty. Now, that would be an accomplishment.


Books I Finished in 2013

Indie Self-Published 

Mainstream Published

  • A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (Anchor, 2010).
  • Jazz by Toni Morrison (Knopf, 1992).
  • Tenth of December by George Saunders (Bloomsbury, 2013).
  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2011).
  • Bad Behavior: Stories by Mary Gaitskill (Simon & Schuster, 1988).


Publishing Information 

Art Information

  • "Reading" © Kate Hiscoc; Creative Commons license.

David BiddleDavid Biddle is TW’s “Talking Indie” columnist. He’s the author of the novel Beyond the Will of God and several collections of short stories. As a freelance writer, David has published articles in Harvard Business ReviewPhiladelphia InquirerHuffington PostKotori Magazine, and BioCycle.

He's currently working on a cycle of novels about sex, love, and family life near the edge of Philadelphia.

For more information about what else he's up to, see David Biddle’s website.


I'm encouraged by your piece

I'm encouraged by your piece for several reasons:

1. You didn't start it with "So" as a non sequitur, as I hear all too frequently from the younger professed cognoscenti responding to interview questions on NPR. I've no idea where this affectation originated. Perhaps intended as an interjection, sans the traditional emphasis? The Nouveau Intellectual's version of "cool"? Or as a dangling conjunction to imply continuity with the interviewer's intent? Whatever. Enuf already!

2. Bless you for providing the first literary snob's defense I've encountered of the imperfect literary product. I've stopped reading the routinely tedious scolding advice to Indies who've not hired expensive editors or even a professional typist to prepare the impeccable cover letter.

3. Oops, there is no 3.

Interestingly, just last nite I read Matthew Bruccoli's afterward to Scribner's "authorized text" of The Great Gatsby, asserting it is "the first accurate text of a masterpiece that has been published and republished in flawed texts." The first edition by Scribner's, Bruccoli says, "was blemished, and subsequent editions have introduced further corruption." Heavens to Betsy!

So Matt great comments! I

So Matt great comments! I love your notion of the imperfect literary product...I love your reference/proof in your point about "the first accurate text" of Gatsby. Who knew?

I too have read my fill of self-publishing tips, etc. But one thing no one really says very clearly is that if you're going to publish a book without a copy editor you probably need to figure on at least ten (10) full read throughs with a blue or red pen before you publish. If you're going to use a copy editor, of course, you probably need to figure on at least eleven (11) full reads... It is the most painful (and necessary) thing you do as an author.

And the funny thing is you will think you have a perfect manuscript...then, after going to press, you'll still find typos in the first 100 pages regardless. And then, two years later, if you have the courage to open the book, you'll freak out before the end of the first page. "Who the hell wrote this shit?" What a great profession!

Hi David! I love many of your

Hi David! I love many of your points here - and especially agree that indie literary fiction is often more honest, has more artistic integrity and originality than the fiction coming from the mainstream. Indeed, in the cases of writers I know, that's why most of us ended up publishing ourselves. We weren't safely similar to anyone else.

Where I disagree, though, is in the assertion that indie literary fiction is less polished. Some of us - not all - work with editors, copy editors and proof readers, cover designers - all the same professionals who hone the tomes that come from traditional houses. While some self-published writers won't know what goes into a book that goes through the traditional process, others do - and appreciate the contribution these stages make. We're also wise enough to give our books enough maturing time. In my case, I used to run editorial departments before I published my own work. I'm also a developmental editor. I believe in endless polishing, to eliminate the kind of problems that will trip up a reader. While keeping that innocence and originality, of course!
But you wouldn't be alone in enjoying the 'living room' finish (lovely phrase). There are plenty of people I've ended up in friendly disagreements with who value just that quality in indie fiction.

I hear you on your

I hear you on your disagreement with me, Roz. I was more or less addressing the stereotype of self-published work that many people have. Also, of course, addressing the bald fact that a good many folks don't use enough quality control, or maybe don't get enough input or editorial filtering.

However, your point brings up an interesting thought for me. Most of us don't want a sliver of imperfection in our work if we can help it -- on all levels. That's a double-edger though, because each of us has a different idea of what "perfection" means. Without doubt, professional editors, working for those venture capital investors known as publishers, should usually have a more objective idea of perfection and storytelling.

But maybe there's validity in imperfection. Maybe, in fact, there's an aesthetic in writing with errors and weird structuring and rule breaking right and left that we need to see at this stage of the indie self-publishing movement. If you read some of the reviews of Tao Lin's Taipei, while he doesn't have any real typo or grammar issues, it's very easy to see that Taipei offends the hell out of a lot of conventional fiction professionals.

I'm actually quite surprised that Tao Lin got away with what he did with a publisher like Vintage. That speaks volumes though, hopefully, for where we're headed -- both in the self-pub marketplace and in the corporate world. I'm keeping my eyes out for something truly wild and crazy that is full of mistakes and gaffs and rule breaking. The next Ulysses or To the Lighthouse may well come to us in that form. We just need to know it's there when we see it.

Roz: Love, "We weren't

Roz: Love, "We weren't safely similar to anyone else."

I sometimes wonder if all we hafta do is solve the mystery of getting Maureen Corrigan to read and like our book, whence we'll be off to the races.

Thanks again, David, for an encouraging, enlightening essay.

i guess indi lit rocks...but

i guess indi lit rocks...but it does have a tinge of recycled emotions shaded slightly differently by emails, gmails, and cell phones littering the pages of the story. Rather than the absence of any form of communication shy of yelling out a hotel window like in a great Buchowski short ,or only the hushed sound of a thought in a Camus story, these writers tell the same story of youth finding sex, truth, crime, debauchary, etc. with the trappings of our current time in history.

Yes, there is a good tune to the stories, but not one I haven't heard better as written by Leonard Cohen.

Plus...I'm tired of writers convincing us it is cool to do bad things. I guess if that is what writers have to do over and over again, but I shudder to think of the damage done to young girls with less talent emulating Marie Calloway's character in an effort to create their own story.

Why are we so entranced by the danger and unsavory elements of indi lit? In real life we try to rise above all of that white trash desperation. If you are mired in it everyday, faced with the attitudes and prejudices of your neighbors, living on the wrong side of the tracks or sleeping with strangers and living the edgy artistic life loses the romanticism indi lit creates.

Maybe for one moment these stories reflect our lives, but it is the part of our life that is wrong, troubled, unhealthy, and lost.

No...indi lit doesn't rock, it reminds me that people still need to make their own mistakes, that we very seldom learn from history or if we do learn, then I am so tired of us learning the same thing over and over again.

No wonder I can only stand to read non-fiction!

Lisa, you provide a great

Lisa, you provide a great counterpoint to the alt-lit hype, and yet, I'm wondering if your comment about style and topic doesn't have more to do with what's trendy now in literary circcles, indie or mainstream: broken form and chronology, disassociated narrative voices, the mix of text-speak and other forms of contemporary communication. The Cloud Atlas messes with time and POV, too, and in a way that stopped this reader reading. Like you, I think, I like well-told tells that make me suspend disbelief rather than projects that feel more like intellectual exercises.

I also get annoyed with a focus on hot-button topics like sex and drugs, especially if the narrative POV is so detached it denies responsibility or any form of social contract. I'm not sure this is all the provice of young writers like Calloway, but there are media  trends in who gets annointed  a Young Turk Pushing the Boundaries of Literature--a huge irony, considering the status of many indie books from the get-go.

My bigger point is that it's ever thus for literary fiction writers, going back to modernists like Woolf, Joyce, Stein. It's probably no accident that much of their work was also self-published, at least in the beginning. They and many other writers of the time were trying to come to grips with a changed world after WW I.

My main question has to do with what are the genuine boundaries being pushed by indie literary writers now, not just the cool and hip topics. Are we talking about breaking down the boundaries of narrative and chronology--or, in a more fundamental way, what a writer can reveal and write about in public?

Roz, I'm also very intrigued by your point regarding editorial polish and David and Matt's ideas about letting imperfection into a work. In some ways, I think this ca'tn be avoided, whether a book goes through publishing professionals or not. No book is perfect, and I'd say there are plenty of mainstream books that now employ many of the same experimental approaches to language (and include plenty of typos). I'm an editor, so my heart is with you, Roz, in wanting to acknowledge what editors do in helping to shape a finished product.

But then I think of Emily Dickinson, with her many "typos" (or just eccentric spellings?) and oddly framed lines, scribbled in her own notebooks. Editors have been messing with her stuff through many editions, and yet, rarely do they improve or "fix" the original. One thing that indie publishing offers us now is the chance for somebody like Dickinson to emerge unvarnished, even if just in an anonymously penned e-book.

Hey Martha,

Hey Martha,

I think that looking through the genre of outsider lit and indi lit, I think you will find all the same literary devices, topics, style, and "tricks" or political/intellectual discussions going on all the time.

Yes, voices like Scott Mcclanahan can be refreshing and comedic and remind us of our raw youth, although Scott isn't so young anymore, but by no means are these approaches to literature fresh or cutting edge. I think that was more my point. These Young Turks are just going through their own 20s hollering as they will and learning every thing a curious and intellectually active and politically minded young person can if they swim in the philosophical, sexual politically charged waters of arts/culture/literature. From what I've read, which admittedly is not a lot, I haven't been moved to a new space of thought, which is what I am really looking for when reading anything that is supposed to move our culture.

Breaking down literary barriers of narrative and chronology have been done before, I find the revisiting of the topics of illicit sex and psychological manipulation be more damaging and hurtful for the genre than the edgy use of time and space is helpful. If these kids are trying to work through their own attitudes about morality and cultural boredom, I wish they would push the envelope one step farther and offer us ...well, let me read the ending of one of their books before I write..."offer us a happy ending."

One more reply to the main

One more reply to the main question:

"My main question has to do with what are the genuine boundaries being pushed by indie literary writers now, not just the cool and hip topics. Are we talking about breaking down the boundaries of narrative and chronology--or, in a more fundamental way, what a writer can reveal and write about in public?"

No, I don't think writers are breaking down boundaries about what they can write about and how publicly they can write that any more now than ever. I think that writers and artists have always pushed the boundaries and always will. I don't think this group or this time in indi lit is particularly more cutting edge, breaking down boundaries is an ongoing activity in this field of literature that never stops and only changes given new writing venues and devices like blogs, email, texts, tumbler. Although those spaces are not much different than the brick wall, just less easy to cover up, and the use of them for literature began as soon as they were created. Unless you want to liken the internet's tools for literature to the electric guitar for music. Well, then, maybe literature is different. But what I look for fundamentally in literature is not tricks or devices, I look for thought and ideas and not necessarily as given to me through a trick or device. That would be like comparing a Rembrandt and the effect of his work to a Franz Kline and the effect of his work on my senses.

Indi lit only seems new and innovative when we have walked away from it for a time, missed a lot of what has been going on, and then rediscover it again. Then we might give it special attention when one artist catches our eye because a combination of things happen: They are beautiful, there is a "community of minds" forming to hint at some kind of "movement", they are multi-talented (film, music, lit, art, modeling), their personal story is interesting, their whole creative approach is intriguing, or they scream louder than anyone else.

If indi lit is pushing the boundaries, it's because it always does.

Lisa, you're preaching to

Lisa, you're preaching to the converted with me. I do agree that indie lit writers have always been pushing those boundaries, as noted in my reference to self-publishers like Woolf et al. -- or long before the modernists.

However, I do believe our notions of privacy and personal revelation have changed with the advent of digital publishing. The way we read online is changing, too, and our expectations about how quickly we get and process information are undergoing a huge shift. For good or ill, I think that's part of the real newness making its way into self-published literary works, even if the storylines aren't particularly alternative or hip or written by the trendy Young Things annointed by the media.

Hmm, I don't know if I agree

Hmm, I don't know if I agree with you about our notions of privacy or personal revelation changing. I think there have always been exhibitionists willing to flash the public in any venue they were given, and also people who would open their diaries for all to read for shock value or try and champion a more liberal agenda.

Yes, it is EASIER to get your diary out there and in front of more people. And if that is the difference then sure, more eyes on your work...

But is that any more of a revelation/innovation than the copy machine was in it's day?

also...my notions about

also...my notions about privacy and personal revelation have not changed, somethings are okay to share in any venue, somethings are not.

I think the ease of sharing is different and who we share with...those may be the main innovations with the digital age, but then the backlash to that is the numbness I feel after looking at a million digital images and quips, and how many self published authors there are out there online, and what does the world look like in real time with all that going on? and where are they writing from? and what does that story or book do for my real life?

Literature is a luxury in my world, for indi lit to rock it should move a mountain or two right here on the ground. From what I've seen, it is still running in place.

Ah, yes, the numbness

Ah, yes, the numbness inspired by the "million digital images and quips" -- and maybe that is the reason for the oddly flat, numbed narrative voice that's so hip now. But, yes, new things are often not really truly new (as in the numbness and shock many artists and writers felt after WW I; Hemingway's Nick Adams stories, just for example).

I'd say any form of literature, really good literature, needs to move a mountain or two. I'm willing to believe that Holding Breath did so for David as much as George Saunders's stories. Now, I'm thinking about what writing of any sort in the recent past, indie or mainstream, has moved that kind of mountain for me...hmm. I liked A Visit from the Goon Squad, but didn't love it. I wanted to love Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being (and there is lots to love there), but I have yet to finish it. Suggestions, anyone?

I'm not sure about moving

I'm not sure about moving mountains. What is that? I'm sure about illuminating life, though -- sometimes bright, sometimes dim, sometimes weirdly shimmery. I'm also pretty sure that literature's function is in telling stories about the human heart in all it's guises...lit up, in love, desirous, injured, frightened, rabid, bleeding, fearless, hopeful, romantic, and jaded. Emotion seems to be what we are trying to light up ... or keep dim, depending.

Moral issues arise as well in good literature. But is it supposed to give answers? I hope not. One person's disgust is another's humanity. Personally, I think the packaged fiction and non-fiction of the past 40-50 years that gets dunned as "quality" or "best-seller" badly treads water in a very shallow pool. Indie lit and alt lit are more than just young people writing about growing up or having issues with sex and intimacy. You just need to look harder. (It is funny, though, how much the coming-of-age story appeals to everyone. Is that an American obsession?).

What I'm always looking for more than anything is writers able to expand language and make ideas dance in new ways -- by any means possible. We wrestle with things like race and gender and class in this society mostly because we don't know how to use our words properly. So few people know how to be good parents. Everyone rationalizes selfish behavior. For many people, life is a luke warm lake filled with floating pieces of disappointment and struggle. Everyone wants love and intimacy. Some find it. Few hold onto it.

Are the issues I listed above derivative or redundant? They've been with us for freaking ever! Words carry emotion into the world and get interpreted emotionally by others. But we're so often pathetically bad at this give and take -- even the George Saunders and Amy Egans and Charles Bukowskis of the world, and those of us who read them.

Somehow, whether you read romance, mystery, or that boring old thing we call literary fiction, stories chink away at the shit of life that we feel we can't escape. I find moments in the middle of novels or even essays when I feel like something lifts away. I see things more clearly. I try to capture that "clarity" in my own work. But it's hard. So I keep reading and keep paying attention. And keep writing.

Art is iterative to me. And it's never only about the work -- whether that's a song, a movie, a watercolor, or a story. The game is the connection of the work to the audience and the audience to the work. That connection is where the illumination occurs. It's all so delicate though. Profundity and clarity melt away just when you think you've found them.

Maybe the thing about having so many more people writing all of a sudden, or at least so much more stuff getting published, is that it simply means we have more chances to find those moments of clarity. There's more meaning churning away under the surface. Sooner or later something big enough and bright enough may well come bobbing to the surface. The question may well be whether we're open enough and honest enough to know that thing is bobbing there once it arrives.

David—Wow! That is one

David—Wow! That is one shining paean to everything in your heart. Clarity, yes. Illumination. Brief moments of being. Sure, that's what great writing does, and I think that's just another way of saying (at least for me) that it's moved a mountain--maybe just for a moment, before I'm distracted by everything else, but that moment can be a mountain.

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