Monday, March 4, 2013

A New Perspective on "Vanity" Publishing

One of the phrases that people always use as a derogatory term about self-publishing is "vanity publishing," as if the reason someone wants to publish a book is to get attention and praise. I'm sure there's an element of that desire in publishing any book, whether it goes through the traditional channels or is self-published. I recently read a self-published autobiography that on the surface would seem to be a perfect example of publishing for "vanity"; however, there's a reason for publishing the book that goes beyond simple vanity.

The book I read was written by an older man who was looking back at his life and recounting his career in the Air Force. It doesn't really have a narrative structure - no rising plot action, no climax, just a series of anecdotes and year-to-year chronological events. At first, I was sort of frustrated by it and counting how many pages were left. It seemed so pointless and a true exercise in vanity. Why should I care about the type of equipment some guy worked on during the 1980s? But a friend at church who knows the man had given the book to me to read, and I didn't want to lie to a church friend and say I'd read it when I really hadn't, so I kept going.

Eventually, though, I began to look at the story differently. Sure, there was no "plot." Sure, there were plenty of trivial details. But that's true of life, too. Although it may not have what we would normally see as literary merit, I don't think the story is without merit altogether. Ernst (the author) says in his preface, "I would highly encourage everyone, especially those over about 50 years old, to generate a similar book to document their life helps future generations from your family to better understand their ancestry."

His point is a good one. What better way is there to learn about our history and our culture than by reading the stories of people who really lived that history? I've learned enough about the publishing industry to know not every story is going to get the financial support it takes to get published; only those stories that publishers believe will sell plenty of copies are going to be published. That gives us a limited range of stories to tell our history and to teach us about our culture - and that is our loss!

So I'm glad I read this book, all the tedious details about radar sites and the disconnected anecdotes about his friends and his work with the Boy Scouts. And I'm glad he published it, and I agree with him - I would highly encourage everyone, especially those who are older, to put together the story of their life and times and to find a way to publish that story, at least for family, but even better, for all of us. I would also encourage the rest of us to seek out and read some of these stories.

I've got a good one you can start with - my mother wrote a memoir of her childhood during the 1940s in rural Arkansas. She has a much better sense of "literary merit" than Mr. Ernst, so her story fits together as a story, along with being a good cultural record. The story is called In the Shade of the White Oak. She didn't publish it to a general audience, but I bet I could set you up with a copy if you want to leave a reply.


Ephemera said...

In a way, your blog is a story of your life in its own right, don't you think?

Along that line of thought, I've often wondered how long internet writings, like blogs, will hang around after they're abandoned by their writers. Will they be there "forever" or will Blogger throw everything out if they decide to close their doors?

There is something to be said for a printed book, isn't there. So long as someone owns it, and keeps it safe from moisture, bugs, and mice, the story will endure. :(

Not at all related to your post, I know, but I'm feeling kind of strange tonight and just thought I'd toss that out.

Augustina Peach said...

I agree. A person should keep a copy of blog posts saved somewhere.

But think what a great resource something like a blog post would be for historians in the future! I wish I had some blog posts from early settlers in Lovely's Purchase.... :)

Ann Turnbull said...

Not quite the same thing, but this might be of interest:

My husband is currently on the sixth volume of his memoirs! It's only for the family, but he researches the decade he's writing about so that he can incorporate world events, news, songs and films, etc.

Augustina Peach said...

Ann - The Great Diary Project is so cool! Thanks for bringing that to my attention.

It's also cool about your husband's memoirs. I wish more people would do something similar (even if on a smaller scale) for their families.