What happens once the self-publishing revolution really gets going, when all of those previously rejected manuscripts hit the marketplace, en masse, in print and e-book form, swelling the ranks of 99-cent Kindle and iBook offerings by the millions? Is the public prepared to meet the slush pile?
You've either experienced slush or you haven't, and the difference is not trivial. People who have never had the job of reading through the heaps of unsolicited manuscripts sent to anyone even remotely connected with publishing typically have no inkling of two awful facts: 1) just how much slush is out there, and 2) how really, really, really, really terrible the vast majority of it is. Civilians who kvetch about the bad writing of Dan Brown, Stephenie Meyer or any other hugely popular but critically disdained novelist can talk as much trash as they want about the supposedly low standards of traditional publishing. They haven't seen the vast majority of what didn't get published -- and believe me, if you have, it's enough to make your blood run cold, thinking about that stuff being introduced into the general population.
Everybody acknowledges that there have to be a few gems out in the slush pile -- one manuscript in 10,000, say -- buried under all the dreck. The problem lies in finding it. A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also -- as is less often admitted -- emotional and even moral.
It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters -- not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés -- for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that's almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn't been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue. You walk in the door pledging your soul to literature, and you walk out with a crazed glint in your eyes, thinking that the Hitler Youth guy who said, "Whenever I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my revolver" might have had a point after all.
[. . .]
Perhaps this system will work better, but I'm not so sure. Contrary to the way they're often depicted by frustrated authors, the agents and editors I've met are in fact committed to finding and nurturing books and authors they believe in as well as books that will sell. Also, bloggers or self-appointed experts on particular genres and types of writing are, in my experience, just as clubby and as likely to plug or promote their friends and associates as anybody else. Above all, this possible future doesn't eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed. How long before the authors neglected by the new breed of tastemaker begin to accuse them of being out-of-touch, biased dinosaurs? (Laura Miller, “When anyone can be a published author,” Salon, 22 June 2010)
Watch when they get the vote, and then you'll see!
Re: "Contrary to the way they're often depicted by frustrated authors, the agents and editors I've met are in fact committed to finding and nurturing books and authors they believe in as well as books that will sell. Also, bloggers or self-appointed experts on particular genres and types of writing are, in my experience, just as clubby and as likely to plug or promote their friends and associates as anybody else. Above all, this possible future doesn't eliminate gatekeepers: It just sets up new ones, equally human and no doubt equally flawed."
Probably would have been better to have written, "Though they ARE clubby and likely to plug or promote their friends' works, the agents and editors I've met are also committed to ..." As you wrote it, the bloggers or self-appointed experts take the big hit you ostensibly meant to be spread all around. Also, I gather you didn't mean to have us thinking of the ghastly accumulation of oil spillage when you referred us to this horrific massing of slush, but given all the inertia and choking and pure ugliness we've endured of the former "spread," we may be a bit more primed to agree with your argument that we might otherwise be -- for what American is going to readily assent to the aristocrat's / gentleman's point-of-view: "Friend of democracy, are you? .... let me show you some of the nincompoops of this navel-gazing mob you so want to champion but completely misunderstand, and we'll see if you'll still desire they be given the vote any time this millenium!"
Sometimes the fall of a system represents evolution of HUMANITY, of spirit, not just technology. There are huge hordes of bloggers / writers out there that will create something WAY WORSE, more punitive and self-serving, than what's currently in place, as they strive to find their way to become what they've always loathed and misapprehended (the gatekeepers). But there are good bunches of people out there who sense that the current conception of, the realities of, the publishing industry, though better than other possibilities, is still insufficient to, unreflective of, their own conception of democracy and brotherly / sisterly love. They want the idea of the author, the publishing house, to go bye-bye, as it currently works against the realization of what they sense could be our democratic world. I'm with them.
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I have a friend who is a wannabe writer-
- and one of the things she has mentioned is that sheer hostility to writers from the publishing industry. Especially beginner writers, who make up the vast bulk of the slush pile.
I always thought she was exaggerating a bit, but after reading this article and the comments, I'm not so sure.
What other art form, what other activity, is it perfectly okay (in fact, almost expected) to dump on people for the sin of being novices? Words like "garbage" and "really, really, really, really terrible", "dreck".
What other kind of artists would take this kind of casual abuse but writers?
And she isn't saying that the vast majority of manuscripts are not bad, she's saying they are bad because, by and large, they are by beginner writers, so why all the hate? (Tobbar, response to post)
I disagree that the problem is just that they're novices. If that was the problem, Laura would have pointed that out -- she is very much one to recognize and champion novice writers. What she is thinking of, and has herself been damaged by experiencing, are the ghastly multitudes of damaged people who believe they've got what it takes, but who really are in truth sadly undeveloped, deformed people with worse than nothing good to say -- to the point that "you're" left stunned that they aren't on, even in the smallest degree, to the gaping extent of their own awfulness.
But I don't trust that publishers, editors, have the stuff to recognize and praise work that makes them uncomfortable. I think they would begin to become uncomfortable, be less genial, with a competent but novice writer if s/he ventured into areas, ways of writing, they find inexplicable, beyond disproved and everyone-knows asinine -- there are so many things you're simply not allowed to say these days: what have the last twenty years been about, if not that? If they had their say, s/he would be disowned, removed from the conversation and forgotten about. And that's not good enough.
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I’m going to have to disagree with your disagreement of my original observation re: hatred of novices. I think that Laura Miller champions a few select novice writers who are already published or well on their way.
To use a borderline racist term that my friend assures me is all the rage in the publishing world, Laura Miller seems to champion the “special snowflakes” who have managed to rise to prominence.
Further, although Ms. Miller may be sympathetic to novices, you yourself do not seem to be: “ghastly multitudes of damaged people who believe they've got what it takes, but who really are in truth sadly undeveloped, deformed people with worse than nothing good to say -- to the point that "you're" left stunned that they aren't on, even in the smallest degree, to the gaping extent of their own awfulness.”
Honestly, how can you know this about these people? Beginner yoga students are probably undeveloped (flexibility-wise) with worse than no skills in regards to knowledge of poses, and may even be unaware of their shortcomings, but is it standard practice in yoga studios to dump so savagely on those beginners?
Again I have to ask—why the hate? Why the language that seems to thrive on denigrating the writers?
As to your last comment about editor’s lack-of ability to risk reading outside of what they know, or maybe even what they already like, I can’t really speak to that, but you bring up a good point. What is that old saying, the surest way to lose the present war is to re-fight the last one? (Tobbar, response to post)
Re: "Honestly, how can you know this about these people? Beginner yoga students are probably undeveloped (flexibility-wise) with worse than no skills in regards to knowledge of poses, and may even be unaware of their shortcomings, but is it standard practice in yoga studios to dump so savagely on those beginners?
Again I have to ask—why the hate? Why the language that seems to thrive on denigrating the writers?"
It's not hate, Tobbar -- I'm just being real. I've read enough of Laura's work to know that if most submissions were inadequate mostly owing to the fact that their writers were still at the beginning of their journeys, she would never have written her piece this way, as she has always wanted to believe that in everyone out there is, or could be, an inspired artist (or art appreciator) waiting to be born. She doesn't so much believe this anymore because her long experience with what is put in her hands -- and her strong hold on sanity -- has shattered her preferred and high estimation of the average Sue submitter's capabilities, as she has come to conclude that something very wrong lies in emotional / cognitive makeup of these people. My experience of people, of what has happened to them after near 30 years of social assistance withdrawal, of enduring the realities of a meaner society, has made clear to me that many people out there aren't so much better than Hogarth's gin-drinkers, that we've pretty much forced them to devolve to the point that you figure it's pretty much done for them, and you're mostly hoping they don't have too many kids. We're not all blank slates. Whole bunches of us are near born, filth-smeared and broken. I'm figuring many of these might estimate themselves a genteel author, and do the pre-requisites (send the finished masterpiece to a reputable publishing house), but also that you'll meet nary one of them in your average yoga class.
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Also, about the gifted writer / thinker who puts forward the uncomfortable: Lloyd deMause's books have all been self-published, and they've proven amongst the most important I've ever read. His version of psychohistory was something you could almost get away with in the more permissive, free-wheeling 70s, but even then, though a few prominent and even universally respected names (the historian Lawrence Stone comes to mind) were considering giving his unusual ideas credence (Stone eventually backed away), most historians were affronted whenever his essays found their way amongst more preferred takings of history, and his longer works had to be self-published. Today's "Lloyd deMause" would have it worse: even in Laura Miller's trepidation in an author arguing a king would envision "the nation as a version of his own body and vice versa" (a bit from a book review of hers), I saw how the palest version of a kind of exploration I find most meaningful and fruitful, has become more bemusing than Freud's most far-fetched. If it's psychohistory, and it's published, it'll be the most tepid, backpedalling of stuff -- there is no other option. Self-published -- it might just be a prompt for where we can go next. So I'm for self-publishing, and seeing what self-publishers might just be up to.