If American literature had been left wholly in the hands of established publishers—Ticknor and Fields, for instance—Longfellow might have remained our greatest poet. But Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, had Leaves of Grass printed, at his own expense, in 1855—he even set most of the type himself. Likewise, if Virginia Woolf had continued to rely on her half-brother (and erstwhile molester) Gerald Duckworth to disseminate her fiction through his established publishing house, she might have continued the fine Forsterean realism of her early novels rather than revolutionizing modern literature with Jacob’s Room, Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando, A Room of One’s Own, The Waves, and more, all published by the Hogarth Press, so named for Hogarth House, the private residence where the Woolfs literally kept their own printing press in the dining room. Like Whitman, Woolf often set her own type, and her sister, the painter Vanessa Bell, contributed cover illustrations.
In her case against the self-publishing of literary fiction, Ros Barber claims, “Gatekeepers are saving you from your own ego.” I do know what she means. Self-publishing’s reputation as the preserve of cranks and pornographers is not exactly undeserved. There are problems with exalting the gatekeepers, however. Literary history offers many examples—I have given two in the above paragraph—of gatekeepers’ inability to recognize merit, either because of a too-cautious focus on supposed profitability or an excessive concern for outmoded notions of decorum. I have heard people lament that Ulysses could not be published today in the profit-driven and experiment-averse marketplace. But Ulysses was not able to be “published” the first time around either, in the sense of its being supported by a mainstream or respectable American or British press; it was printed by Paris bookseller Sylvia Beach and advertised to prospective consumers by individual subscription on a model not unlike today’s Patreon-funded art and literature.
Success in the literary—or any other—mainstream generally depends on playing by certain rules, all of them contingent, some of them more dubious than others. While I think it is juvenile to advocate “break[ing] every rule,” to quote Carole Maso (as if there would be some virtue in running stop signs!), I think that in art, where originality or at least vitality is prized, we do want an outside perspective on these fabricated rules of ours from time to time. That is where ego comes in. Like it or not, the writers we admire for their boldness and originality, their perennially urgent voices, were not shy, retiring, modest types.
“Well and good,” I imagine the reply, “but you are not Walt Whitman.” No, and neither was Walt Whitman when he was hand-setting the type of his dirty free verse in a print shop in 1855: he was a nobody journalist whose idea of literature was not shared by the regnant literati, even though it would be shared—which nobody, including him, knew at the time—by the succeeding century.
Fortune favors the bold. So does misfortune, of course, but without boldness, you’ll never find out which is to be your lot.
Self-publishing today is not extremely bold. There is no type to set, no large lead letter forms to haul across an ink-stained shop floor, though in my experience you will have to endure a long night’s struggle with the maddening tab settings in MS Word. To self-publish literary fiction, though, which is to say fiction meant to be formally complex and intellectually ambitious as well as entertaining or beautiful, is a gamble. You risk associating yourself in the eyes of your social superiors in an economy of prestige with conspiracy theorists and smut-peddlers. Your self-published work is not something you would put, if you are in academia, on your CV (though I’m not sure how publishing your own work is really all that much more disreputable than having it published by your friends in whatever hip coterie you happen to belong to; but I digress). Self-publishing in any event bespeaks a certain arrogance, but unfortunately this world so discourages most human effort that without arrogance very little would ever get done, and certainly nothing out of the ordinary.
For the reasons given above, I have independently published my novel, Portraits and Ashes.
Portraits and Ashes is about artists and cities, men and women, cultists and individualists, libraries and museums, respectability and poverty. It is about the widespread desire to burn down the contemporary world and return to something simpler. It is about the struggle to live in the contemporary world and create meaning and beauty within its confines.
Reading Portraits and Ashes is like following a well-marked and yet unfamiliar winding path—the footing is sure, but it’s impossible to guess what’s around each corner…everything I hunger for in a novel.
—Craig Conley, author of Franzlations: The Imaginary Kafka Parables
Set during the economic collapse of an unnamed Rust Belt city, Portraits and Ashes tells the intertwined stories of three main characters. Julia is an aspiring painter without money or direction, haunted by a strange family history. Mark is a successful architect who suddenly finds himself unemployed with a baby on the way. Alice is a well-known artist and museum curator disgraced when her last exhibit proved fatal. Running from their failures, this trio is drawn toward a strange new cult that seeks to obliterate the individual—and which may be the creation of a mysterious and dangerous avant-garde artist.
Portraits and Ashes combines the surrealism of the avant-garde with the social and psychological portraiture of realist fiction. Portraits and Ashes challenges the stability of character with the chaos of a disintegrating social order. Portraits and Ashes shows how hope and endurance may (or may not) pass through the fire of despair and how art may yet be a redemptive force in our world.