Wednesday, June 23, 2010

More on slush and the future of publishing

Was surprised and gratified to find, by way of a tweet from Submishmash, a new article at Salon about slush. Laura Miller's argument is disappointing, however, not only because it is slush-negative (this is a little like being sex-negative) but because it traffics in ideas about writing, reading and publication as stale and unpersuasive as those it criticizes. First, let's look at the bits about slush:
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. Recovery is possible, but it'll take a while (apply liberal doses of F. Scott Fitzgerald). In the meantime, instead of picking up every new manuscript with an open mind and a tiny nibbling hope, you learn to expect the worst. Because almost every time, the worst is exactly what you'll get.
The snobbishness here is normal among those editors who read slush, and I find that very sad. As I conceded in my last post, most people will not like most of the slush. And, let's be honest, writing a book is hard -- most people will never do it, and among those who do the ability to write a good one is extraordinarily rare. However, one cannot know in advance if one has the necessary talent and skill; one can only write the book. And, having written the book, having poured in months and years, the author is faced with two problems: First, people are notoriously bad at evaluating their own work. It's a well-established fact that the better you are at something, the more you see your work's flaws -- and, conversely, the worse you are, the more you think your prose sings. (Of course, there is also probably a level of competence at which one can evaluate one's own work accurately. And good luck finding it.) Second, as anyone who's written a book knows, the act simply isn't consummated until someone has read it, and probably not until it's been sent out to a publisher or agent or two.

Under these circumstances, bitterness at the slush isn't only cruel, it's a product of selfishness and arrogance. It may be that Miller isn't as good a writer or a reader as she imagines. (Certainly I'm not impressed by her prose in this article -- it strikes me as repetitive, joyless, and trite.) It may also be that any emotionally mature adult going into publishing should go in with the understanding that it will mean reading things one doesn't like. If we were all Salingers and Becketts the world would be a lovely place, but it would also rather obviate people like Miller. Existing in our world means constantly witnessing mediocrity and failure, and it also requires the understanding that mediocrity and failure are not objective facts, but conclusions we make about the books we read -- conclusions that often differ from person to person. While any one major publisher can indeed probably only take one out of ten thousand novels or story collections or whatever from its slush (well, ten thousand sounds like a lot, but I'll take her word) you have to go in with the knowledge that some of the things you reject will be found, loved, and bought by other people. This should have a humbling effect. It should remind us that we aren't reading shit when we read slush -- we're reading someone's best effort. You don't have to like it, but you do have to take a moment now and then to recognize that you, a flawed human being, are in no way above the slush pile.

You are the slush pile. Perhaps it's the recognition of this fact, especially among those who would have been authors could they have gotten past their fears and insecurities, that makes the slush so reviled.

The main argument of the article is that a world without gatekeepers -- a world of self-publishing -- will be even worse for readers than this one, in part because they'll be exposed to (GASP!) the slush. The following paragraph is the nadir of this arc:
Did I mention that there are a whole lot of these books? Bowker, a company that tracks industry statistics, calculated that, in 2009 alone, new titles published outside of "traditional publishing and classification definitions" numbered 764,448. Yes, you read that right: upward of three-quarters of a million books in a single year. Not all of those books were intended for a general readership, but if, say, two-thirds of them were, you could just barely manage to read the first page of every single one of them in the course of year -- provided you also gave up eating, sleeping and bathing. (I calculate about one page per minute; your mileage may, of course, vary.) And this is the situation even in the days before we've come close to hitting the crest of the new, technology-driven self-publishing boom.
While tech utopians need to get a grip -- it's likely that the future will feature a wider array of publishing opportunities and strategies, but deeply unlikely that gatekeepers will disappear or even change too significantly in how they do business -- Miller is exhibiting an equally bizarre perspective. What could possibly have made her imagine anyone trying to do something so inane as to actually read everything published in a given year? This impulse only makes sense if you have a very silly view of reading. If you think there are X worthwhile books a year, and that they exist so that we can (and by "we" I mean the few thousand elites who can afford such a lifestyle) read them and talk about them over wine, then yes, a comprehensive understanding of what's being published must not only seem possible, but necessary. The rest of us generally live content in the knowledge that there are whole worlds beyond our knowledge, and that literature is richer for them, even if we cannot personally master them. (In fact, especially because we cannot master them.)

In a world where self-publishing is common, things will go on much as they did before: only our spouses and close friends will read our novels, our mothers will pretend to, and our grandparents will be proud (in a very abstract way) we made the effort. The average reader will not contend with the slush or anything like it. Those who choose to do so, however, should be humbled by the vastness of human endeavor, rather than snidely clucking and thumbing their noses at those who had the gall to try and make something beautiful before the grave. If they haven't got the energy, the humility, or the empathetic capacity to manage such things, they should probably keep it to themselves.

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