Monday, June 27, 2011

Kafka and the Metamorphosis of the Publishing Industry

Before I get started, by show of hands, how many of you have read Kafka? Any Kafka? Okay, yeah, that's what I thought. Before you feel bad, I haven't read as much Kafka as I'd like. In fact, I've only read The Metamorphosis, but it did leave me wanting to read more by him; I  just haven't gotten to it, yet. Unfortunately, Kafka is not someone I studied in school even with a degree in English focused on literature.

Also, before I get started, and this is something you'll want to remember for a later post, although I probably won't refer back to it, I got turned onto reading Kafka by my, then, 9-year-old son. Yes, my middle child has already been reading such things as Kafka, and he started that at 9. He learned about Kafka in The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones and decided he wanted to read something by him, so we bought him The Metamorphosis which he actually enjoyed even though he found it a bit odd. For those of you with kids, Young Indiana is a great show to invest in. Not only is it Indiana Jones, but it's full of historical accuracy, and the DVDs are loaded with documentaries about the history presented in the episodes.

Now the warning, there are going to be spoilers from The Metamorphosis. However, that should not spoil any reading of the work, because reading Kafka is more about the experience of reading Kafka rather than knowing what's going to happen in the story. It's  the difference between, when cold, looking at a coat and knowing that, if you put it on, you'll be warm and actually putting it on. It doesn't matter how long you look at it (how much you know in advance), looking at it will never make you warmer. Only the experience of putting it on (actually reading Kafka) will make you warmer.

In short, The Metamorphosis is about a guy that wakes up one morning to discover that he's turned into some insectoid monster. He doesn't know what to do about this, because he is the sole means of support for his family: his parents and sister. Basically, they never leave the small apartment they all share, and he's worried about how everyone will survive if he can no longer work. Although he has frequently felt overly burdened by his family, he also takes a perverse pride in his ability to keep all of them dependent on him and has done his best, over the years, to foster that dependence. However, his new condition has left all of that in chaos.

There's also the complication that he doesn't want anyone to see what he's become, and with good reason. When his family does finally see him, they are disgusted and drive him into hiding in his room. They are forced, now, to care for and support him. The family suffers a reversal, now feeling burdened by taking care of the bug creature that had once supported them. They take in lodgers in an effort to support everyone, since the sister has never worked and the parents haven't worked in years. This, of course, complicates everything as they have to take care of the bug while keeping him hidden from the people living in the house.

Eventually, the other family members must seek out employment and learn to become functioning members of society again. The bug takes their place in the dark, driving them out into the light. In the end, the sister states that the bug must not really be her brother, because, if it was, it would go away and not burden them so. Hearing this, the bug decides that she is correct. If he loves them, he will not inflict himself upon them any longer, and he chooses to allow himself to die, freeing them to pursue their own lives, although they have already decided to abandon him.

Now, I disagree with the general, surface interpretation of this work, so I'm not going to go into it. I'll just say that Kafka is a much debated subject in literary circles (not that he is much debated, but when he comes up, it is with disagreement and debate, so he's much debated). Most of his works are interpreted on a very surface level, although there are a number of scholars that have endeavored to interpret him based on a more holistic view of his life that often disagree with the more convenient views on Kafka's works. Oh, and to make it worse, Kafka very often intentionally used ambiguous wording.

At this point, I bet y'all are looking at the title of this post and wondering what any of this has to do with publishing and the publishing industry. Well, I'll tell you.

Once upon a time, way back in the infancy of publishing, writers were the driving force in the publishing world. Publishers were dependent upon writers as the son was dependent upon the parents. But the son grew up, and the roles changed. The son went to work to support the parents (and the sister (we'll call her agents, just for the sake of doing it)) and grew proud in his ability to do so to the point where he forced them all to become dependent upon him. He caused them to believe that they were incapable of surviving without him even to the point where they couldn't doing anything without him, even going outside. Everything they had came from him, and he made sure they knew it.

One day, though, the publishing industry woke up as a monstrous bug. This was horrifying and very difficult to come to grips with. It did its best to hide what had happened, and its authors and agents did their best to ignore the condition hoping everything would return to normal all on its own. Time passed, but the situation did not correct itself, and the large bug became more and more of a burden. This was especially true, because writers and agents had come to believe they were completely dependent upon the publishers.

This is where we are. The publishing industry has become this huge burden that everyone else needs to support in order to sustain it. It has become parasitic. No, it didn't start out that way, but that's what it's become.

Okay, I lied earlier. Here's the thing, most critics interpret The Metamorphosis based on the obvious assumption that the metamorphosis the title refers to is that of the son waking up as a bug. Everything is taken to be from the perspective of this poor young man who becomes shunned and abandoned by his family through no fault of his own. Although I believe this to be a perfectly valid interpretation, I think it's one that is too simplistic for Kafka. Remember how Kafka was intentionally ambiguous? I think this is one of those times. His writing often held a very obvious way of looking at things, but, if you looked a bit more, there was an alternate (or deeper) meaning. See, the story doesn't end with the bug's death. It goes on following the family and their emergence into the world much as a butterfly emerges from a cocoon. It is the metamorphosis of  the family that I believe the title is referring to. They have to learn to walk away from the bug and be their own people no longer tied to it.

The central moment of the book, the crux, is not the opening where the son wakes up as a bug but the moment when the daughter asserts that they have a choice: staying and supporting the bug which is killing them all or walking away from the bug and becoming. It's a scary step for the parents and the daughter, because they don't know what they'll become.

And, so, here we are. We writers. Digital technology has given us a choice. The choice to stand with the monstrous behemoth that is the traditional publishing industry, the thing that confines us and binds us into supporting it, the thing that lured us into dependence upon it or the choice to walk away and become. Agents have the same choice. Agents used to work for writers, after all, not publishers. They, also, don't have to be tied to the publishers. It's a scary place to be. I mean, maybe, just maybe, traditional publishing will figure out where they've made mistakes and take steps to change. To go back to supporting authors without demanding dependence. At the moment, I tend to doubt that. They still seem intent upon living off of the writers (and agents) that work for them.

Or writers can take that step. That step towards becoming. The step toward their own metamorphosis. Of becoming an independent entity. Stepping out into the light and making your own way is always difficult. There are risks. But it's living. Or, you know, we can choose to stay cooped up in the house and continue on the downward path of destruction with the large bug in the other room we're all trying to pretend isn't there.


  1. I have never read Kafka. But as a non-sequitur, I have read Neitsche.

  2. Great post! I've been thinking about this a lot and I love your analogy. I'm thankful with technology has improved and we have options!

  3. It is a great analogy - I like to think of the publishing industry like declining nobility. They still have the pomp, impress folks with their name, but ultimately, are a thing of the past.

    I'd still like to court that princess though, even if she's going to be out on the street in a few years.

  4. This is a marvelous post, Andrew. Admittedly, I have never read Kafka, but your description of The Metamorphosis reminded me of The Fly with Jeff Goldbloom. Love that movie. And not just because of the whole bug thing; the story beneath it all fascinates me. "I'm an insect, who dreamed he was a man and loved it. But now the insect is awake."

    On the publishing world... I didn't realize NYC publishers (and I only know about the romance publishing companies, so...) are only paying 25% until our summer workshop a few weeks back. And to think: Some online publishers are paying 40%. I mean, that's a pretty big difference! And you're right about making the choice for yourself, about taking that step. It's a huge decision to make, but necessary if you want to pursue this career.

  5. Interesting analogy! I'm trying to look around and see what there is to see out there, so I can make informed decisions once the time comes.

    I've never read Kafka, but I should.

    You've mentioned Young Indiana before and I am definitely thinking I need to find it for my son. He is 6 and is just hooked on Indiana Jones. It sounds like YI would be great for him! I wonder if I can rent it.

  6. Michael: I've never read Neitsche. I have read Mallory, though.

    Barbara: Yes, options are good. I think it's the belief that there are no options that cause more people the most problems.

    Rusty: Maybe not court her, then? Just engage in a brief fling? >grin<

    Alyssia: I haven't seen that movie in a really long time. I may have to re-visit it.
    And, yeah, 25-30% is pretty standard, and, often, that's what the author is gettiong before the agent gets their cut.

    Shannon: Netflix has some of the episodes available for streaming but none of the extras, which are definitely worth seeing. They have them for rent, also, but, often, they won't have the discs with all extras available for shows like that, so you might not be able to get them that way, either. I just bought the whole series. I figure it's a good investment overall considering all the history and stuff included.

  7. This post was so deep and real that i read it twice. Such a great post Andrew! I am not a technology fan maybe because I am in the technology field but I do agree that it is wonderful to now have other options to get your stories out there.

  8. Fantastic post. I have to read it again when my eyes are more cooperative- but I know I'm going to be thinking about it a lot until then.

    Oh, and I see you've written about POTC down a ways...have to come back to that. I didn't see the new one but I'm still disgruntled enough over the third one to make a comment or two about the franchise I'm sure LOL.

    Grow or die- get out into the sun and live- I am keenly aware of those choices right now, in my life and in my writing.

    The open sky awaits us all, if we are only willing to step into it.


  9. Jennifer: We're not big tech fans, either. My wife is also in the tech field, so she feels like you do. We do our best to limit or tech reliance. Other than the computers, we don't have a whole lot. Options, though, are always good.

    bru: It's always amazing to me how many people are willing to continue to live in their cages even when the doors have been unlocked.

  10. I definitely agree – The Metamorposis the title refers to comes from his family, rather than Gregor himself. And more specifically, his sister as the representative of the family, and ultimately, humanity. Though I guess I saw the metamorphoses as a negative turning away from anything different or alien, rather than a group of people learning to stand on their own and stop than leeching off someone else (which also makes perfect sense…AND has the benefit of being slightly less depressing). Cool analysis.

    P.S. Your son sounds like one very cool, Kafka-reading badass. You taught him well. Or he taught you…

  11. S.L.: I think you can look at it both ways, because, really, it is both ways. People tend to focus on the negative when they read Kafka, though, and I really don't think he meant things to be that way. People look at his life and just decide that he intended to be negative, but the things he said lead me to believe that that was not really his intent.
    Besides, he wrote in the same way I write from what I can tell. Or the same way I want to write. I'm only sorry he didn't finish more of the things he started.

    Mostly, I'm teaching him... I've been making it a goal to introduce him to things that are good for him to read or that I really liked, because I didn't have anyone to do that for me when I was a kid, and, thus, had to discover everything on my own. Which means I didn't read some things I wish I had. He's the most well read 10ish year old I've ever known.

  12. I think the negative outlook people take away often has more to do with their own frame of mind than Kafka's. At least it was in my case. I tend to think pretty bleak when it comes to human nature - at least, sometimes.

    You sound like my very literary parents. They were very VERY insistent that I get exposed to the best of science fiction from an early age. Maybe a little too early in some cases (my eight year old self had nightmares for weeks after seeing Terminator and Terminator 2). But I think it'c pretty awesome. I appreciate it so much now that I'm older and have such a wide literary and film knowledge. Bet your son will too.

  13. S.L.: I've been a bit slower with him with movies. I mean, other than Star Wars, what else does he really need to see, right? :P

    I know he appreciates the literature boost. He already holds it over his older brother's head that he's read more and better books than him. But his older brother just dismissed the suggestions when he was that age and spent his time reading crappy MG books. He now regrets that and is trying to catch up.