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Very thought-provoking. Thanks for this and especially for sharing the video. I was not aware of her before. Such talent and exuberance! Wow.

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While reading this article, all I could think of was, "How many artists have we witnessed accepting their award, having broken all previous records and saying 'Look at this ... and know that every single one of you turned me down ... rejected my work. Someone finally put it out and look ... it was a HUGE HIT.' What does that say about the gatekeeping process ???"

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author

So true!!!!

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Nice article, Elle!

I find the whole argument of "gatekeepers are good because they avoid readers from having to wade through the muck" ridiculous. First, because it's very condescending (as if a reader couldn't decide what he likes). Second, because it's a straw man argument. I mean, it's not like there aren't enough book reviews out there that you can't figure out if something might work for you or not. And those can really help sift through the muck, heh.

As for the bit about losing in prestige by publishing through Substack... well, that of course is unless you draw a huge crowd and end up with a contract with one of the Big 4 ("The Martian" comes to mind) and then suddenly you're art? Wait, what?

People are strange... even Jim Morrison figured that one out ;)

PS. Lindsey Stirling is amazing! (and I don't even particularly like violin haha)

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This one resonates - I've been diving into the world of comedy/humor writing lately (gotta study up) and that sort of gate keeping snobbery definitely comes up.

An example from a podcast I heard: In the movie "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" Eddie Murphy plays basically everyone. He plays 7 characters, including a married couple, and does it well enough that viewers sometimes forget that it's all him. That's amazing!

Did he win a Best Actor award for it? Of course not, cause they don't give awards to people in movies like "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" no matter how well they act. It's not the right "art".

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author

Ooooh you hit me with the line "it's not the right art." And your Nutty Professor reference is a great example of it. What makes some performances art, and others not? In Eddie Murphy's case, his lack of recognition has nothing to do with how well someone has mastered their craft and everything to do with the subject matter of the film not being serious enough to be considered art. That the line between art/not art is so often drawn between genres (drama/comedy) makes no sense to me.

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I agree that there can be art in self-published fiction. I think the issue of art is entirely orthogonal. But I don't agree that it is all art. The distinction I would make is that there are other things of value in literature and entertainment besides art, such as virtuosity, spectacle, and courage. A work does not have to be art to be worthy, nor for the creator to deserve their money or their fame. When I sat down to express this, though, it became a whole thing and turned into my latest newsletter: https://gmbaker.substack.com/p/in-which-i-ask-if-literary-art-is. A good newsletter idea is worth its weight in gold in this business, so thanks for the inspiration!

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It's so funny because my article ALSO started as a comment on Benjamin Cain's article! It became so long I wound up turning it into my own newsletter. And now that sparked your newsletter! I love when this kind of thing happens!

So many people have wondered about that very same "perhaps it's all art," phrase. And I read your newsletter trying to understand if I am wrong in believing this. But every time I think "ok this is art because x, y, z" and "this is not art because z, y, x" I realize that someone else will disagree with me. The very thing I am saying is not art, someone else will say is art. And who am I to draw that distinction?

As you say in your article, even the gatekeepers are not qualified to make that distinction. "The elites are not fit judges of art," as you put it. Then two sentences later you say, "according to my definition at least..."

So if all of us define art differently, and none of us are qualified enough to define art, how can ANYONE possibly say that one thing is art and one thing isn't? To SOMEONE it will be. Which brings me back to, "perhaps it's all art!"

Thank you so much for the discourse, by the way, I loved thinking all of that through.

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Yes, here we get into the great debate over whether aesthetic judgements are objective or subjective. My own definition of art is open to this. Art helps us see better. Well, anybody can say that any work helped them see better, so by that argument it is all art to someone. Personally, I am of the objectivist school, following C.S. Lewis's argument in The Abolition of Man. But since there is no litmus test for art, the debate will remain.

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Ha, I suspect you've waded into controversy here, Elle. :P

Couple of thoughts -

I think there's always been a bit of an issue not so much with the 'gatekeepers' at the front of the process (the agents, the editors, the publishers etc), but at the other end: the critics. A critic's job and reason to exist relies too often upon ranking the creations of other people; as a role critics trend towards being elitist and exclusionary, beacuse without the ability to be declarative - "THIS is art!" - they lose the authority to be The Critic. If 'ordinary people' are just as capable of identifying and choosing the art they like, then what is the purpose of The Critic?

There are many amazing critics, of course, who don't go down this route. Mark Kermode in the UK is a wonderful film critic who is able to appreciate all kinds of films and does so always with an eye on the intended audience. John Walker is a video game journalist who celebrates all sorts of games without limiting himself to a certain subset.

Which brings me to my second point - video games are a bit of an anomaly here. The conceptual and cultural split between traditional and self-published simply doesn't exist in games. The notion of 'indie' can mean traditional or self-published and both are equally valid. A game can be made and released by a team (or even an individual) and made available via major platforms such as Steam, without support form an official publisher, and it will be regarded alongside the latest mega-AAA title from a major studio. Perhaps it's because games have self-publishing baked into their DNA from the earliest days in the 80s, before there even was a games 'industry'? Whether it's passing code around on disks, or copying it out of a magazine's pages, or sharing over a school network, there's always been more of a DIY culture there.

So while you have major publishers and studios in the gaming landscape, they've grown up in and around the indie and self-publishing equivalents. Self-publishing in gaming terms has been there from the start, one way or another, which seems to have educated the gaming audience into regarding both as equally valid.

At least, that's my perception of it! :)

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When I think about "the critic" as an archetype, I always think about the theater critic in the film The Greatest Showman. He can't even see the joy in the theater because he takes himself too seriously. I would make a truly horrible critic. I would love basically everything for it's uniqueness (unless it was depressing). I'm glad to know there are critics out there who still enjoy the craft.

I've never been a gamer, but the more I learn about the gaming industry the more I realize they have done everything right from the very beginning. I think the publishing industry has a lot to learn from the gaming industry (which is probably why so many of these apps that want to "gamify fiction" are popping up). You should write an article about things the publishing industry could learn from gaming! I would eat that one right up.

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I'll get on it. ;)

I'd never considered the comparative lack of stigma around indie/self-pub in the game world until I wrote my comment, tbh. It's a curious thing how different it is to the literature world.

I wonder if it's partly due to ALL of gaming being derided and dismissed for decades? The entire form was ridiculed and ignored for a long time - and still is in many circles - so perhaps internal divisions are rarer.

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Here's the article I read about gaining monetization. This model is FASCINATING and could totally be applied to fiction writing: https://creatoreconomy.so/p/game-design-and-monetization

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Interesting - I think a lot of caution has to be taken there, as the monetisation used by games, especially in the mobile space, is generally loathed by the actual players. When it tips into play-to-win you're in a bad place. The better systems keep the monetisation to cosmetic stuff (I think Fortnite does this), so that the core game is unaffected. That way player expression is tied to money, rather than activity.

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author

That makes sense. You don't pay to win, but you pay for extraneous parts of that world. I definitely see that being a similar strategy in the fiction world (i.e. Pottermore).

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Oh interesting. I didn't realize it was? Can we deep dive on this please? I really want to understand the whole gaming aspect of things. Apparently, they are also really innovative in how they are monetizing? Allowing the game itself to be free, but then building in monetizable features as the player plays? I'm very interested in how that all works.

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founding

“As though being low budget, so niche only a few people will like it, and so depressing that someone's bound to win an Oscar from it, define it as art—whereas the films people actually enjoy are decidedly not.” I laughed out loud. So frustratingly TRUE! Great article, as always. Thank you, Elle.

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author

Hahahahahaha. I must have horrible taste in art not to like any of those Oscar films....

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I really appreciate your thoughtful piece. Adds another piece to the puzzle of writing and publishing.

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I missed seeing the dare! Was that in the nonfiction section? Also, I love Lindsey Stirling! I expect the derision she faces from "true artists" stems more from jealousy and sour grapes than anything else, though I'm sure there's also an element of snobbery. Lindsey's work is brilliant!

I agree with your point of view completely. Dry, boring prose does nothing for me and calling something art because it fits that bill has always seemed unreasonable to me. Art, I believe, should be accessible, not only open to the few. That is exclusionary elitism. Definitely not my cup of tea.

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author

I'm with you 100%!

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When I first started self-publishing in 2014, it was pretty common to hear from people, "But you're not *really* published, right?" Last year I was speaking to Sarah Meckler of the GSMC Book Review podcast and mentioned it to her. She said (in effect), "I was hearing that kind of thing a few years ago. I don't hear it so often anymore."

It will take time, but I think more readers are coming around to the idea that traditional publishing gatekeepers are not the final word on what is art and what isn't.

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Elle, you raise some interesting and longstanding questions.

When I think of gatekeepers, I wonder "gatekeepers" to what? Culture? Correctness? Orthodoxy? The gatekeepers in publishing, I think, gatekeep their own economic viability, which they should do - it's their money/time, their skin-in-the-game, their risk be they literary agents or traditional publishers. Interesting also you picked Lindsey Stirling as she's highly skilled and is consumed in developing her craft and performance. I think that publishing now, in all it venues (not just traditional) has a good comparison in the world of food - there's haute cuisine, high-end chop houses, high-end/low-end chains, diners/drive-ins-and dives, fast-food, street food, specialty food trucks, and all types of ethnicities, even fusion. But what distinguishes one from the other, even in their niches, is a highly developed sense of craft and craft needn't be complex, but the right ingredients with technique. When thinking who could be the new "sifters", I hope they sift for craft.

Nice article.

Tim

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Yes, it's true that a publishing house is trying to be economically successful and there is nothing wrong with that. BUT the only guarantee they have that a book will be successful is if it already has an audience. In the fiction world, not many do, so they choose based on their own taste. It's still very subjective.

I'm with you. I very much value craft and I think Lindsey is a great example of that. She has worked hard to refine and develop and master her space. That being said, she had a lot of early adopters as well, people who loved what she was doing and followed her even when her work was more amateur than it is today.

I've worked hard to master my craft and I hope that the last book I ever write is my best work, while the first book I wrote is my worst work. That doesn't mean there won't be people who like my first or my middle book best. (Think about how many people say that a band's first album is their favorite one!)

Even if we spend decades mastering our craft, we can't control the response to it. Nor can publishing houses predict it! Which means that even if we can sift for craft, popular opinion (or even niche appeal) might still overrule it. Debut novels kill it all the time!

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True - debut novels change the rules. I believe the past year, especially with the subscription models such as Substack and others, independent publishing has turned a corner and is the best way to go. Didn't think that a few years ago. I like the idea of my own risk and my own dime. I think Mark Starlin said it well in his comment below about people who write what they love that doesn't fit in either the current commercial or literary market . . .

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Another great one, Elle. I'll be continuing this conversation in my next newsletter and will be quoting you all over the place.

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Oh yay!!! I can't wait to read it!!!!!!!

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Snobbery in the arts is alive and thriving as always. The desire to write great "literature" and win the accolades of critics is strong for many. The desire to write popular commercial fiction and make money is equally strong with others. Then there are those unfortunate souls who write what they love and it doesn't fit either "market." 🤣 But they also have the opportunity to do something unique and are not limited by the rules of traditional publishing. If they are smart and driven, they might even make a living (or fortune) doing it. 😉

Another excellent newsletter.

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You never know! Anything is possible! (Even for us unfortunate souls!)

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That is the hope! 😀

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founding

I love your take on this subject and how you presented it. Nice job, Elle!! I’m excited for your book release.

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Thank you Winston, I hope you like it!

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Ah, loved this one Elle. Lindsey Stirling is badass - I saw her in concert years ago at a big music festival when she was just getting started and she blew my mind. Had no idea she was such a successful artist, or about the NYT piece.

This piece makes me think the difference between "creators" and "artists." Creators, IMO, occupy attention. While artists contribute to society by adding beauty, pointing out its injustices, hilarity, profundity.

So Stirling cashing in with teens gets her labeled by the NYT as a creator, which I agree misses the point of what she's doing.

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Thank you, Alex.

She IS a badass!!!!! That is so incredible you saw her perform!

I see what you mean about creators vs. artists. I think you are using the word creator synonymously with influencer? And if that's the case, I completely agree with you. There are people who gain lots of followers on social media because of their lifestyle, rather than because of their art.

In Lindsey Stirling's case, she navigated social media to her advantage (which perhaps makes her seem like an influencer) but for the sake of her art. And she has certainly refined and perfected that art since you saw her years ago. Which in my mind makes her a true artist!

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Art that is targeted to teen girls is judged more harshly by critics and often ridiculed in our culture.

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