Interesting conversation. I'm generally in sympathy with coalescent's take on this whole thing, especially where it intersects with and is informed by Matthew Cheney's. And Mr. Cheney's note that it's a phrase often used as code for "I didn't like it and you shouldn't, either."
I'm not sure self-indulgent is such a dirty word, though. There are a lot of very good books that are tremendously self-indulgent, which is to say that one gets the impression that the writer wrote them the way she did in large part because it amused her to do so.
It's not such a sin to have a little fun with a book, you know.
Barbara Hambly's Bride of the Rat God? Completely self-indulgent. And an absolute pleasure to read. Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver is an enormously self-indulgent book. It's also a very good book, but it's completely, unapologetically, over-the-top and makes utterly no bones about it. Ulysses, James Joyce? You don't get more self-indulgent than that.
Improv jazz is self-indulgent. Frank Zappa was self-indulgent. Jethro Tull is self-indulgent. Especially this song. My book One-Eyed Jack is completely and unabashedly self-indulgent, and I make no pretenses it's anything else. I still think it's a heck of a lot of fun, mind you.
There is, however, a difference in degree so extreme as to approximate a difference in kind between Quicksilver and the seventeenth book of the Interminable Quest Fantasy epic of your choice, wherein the writer isn't even pretending to move the plot forward any more. What I'm saying, I guess, is that there's good self-indulgence and bad self-indulgence. And, in fact, a book can be good because it's self-indulgent. Take, for example, Moby Dick. Dude. I am all about the whaling chapters. The Last Unicorn? Bit self-indulgent, with its playfulness and whimsy and little frills and arabesques--but those frills and arabesques make the book.
Take the self-indulgence out of Lovecraft, and there's nothing left.
But there is, as coalescent notes in slightly different terms, a level beyond which self-indulgence edges into self-absorption, and the work becomes progressively more and more opaque to more and more readers.
It's a balance, I think--between self-indulgence, and discipline. Between conversation and masturbation. As it were.
Or, as the often self-indulgent but generally brilliant John Gorka once noted: What works for me may not work for you.
ETA Maybe that's why blogs are so much fun. They're an excuse to be utterly self-indulgent....
Well, mine is.