Thursday, July 15, 2010

Missing the Trees for the Forest

I've seen the same idea presented about three hundred times in the last five hours, so I feel like I should say something; people seem worried that the rapid growth of people who consider themselves writers is making it less likely that good work (read: their work) will find the audience it deserves. This is another situation where it seems like people are speaking more from fear than from knowledge or experience. The incarnation I've chosen to highlight comes in an otherwise good post from Submishmash, because it's the least obnoxious version I've seen.
Submishmash would add only that “the basic capability” to publish is itself no longer so basic, thanks also to oversupply. The surplus of choice that afflicts audiences also afflicts publishers. There is an oversupply of writing both published and unpublished, an ever-present risk that as readers both amateur (in the bookstore or on the internet) and professional (trying to filter our submission stacks), we are missing the good stuff amid the surplus of output from (often charming) eight-year-olds.
Navigating the twin challenges of oversupply—how to attract and maintain an audience with too many choices, and how to filter an ever-expanding mass of submissions effectively—constitutes the central struggle of the publisher in the digital age. It will take inspired curators, certainly, to thrive under these conditions. It will also, we believe, take new technological tools and ways of thinking.
A couple things. First, when you've got a hammer -- and especially when you want to make sure other people go get their own hammers, everything tends to look like a nail. Or, in other words, when you've got an online submission management system, the challenges your system is meant to deal with will probably tend to look like the biggest, most important issues in publishing. I don't mean to pick on Submishmash -- they provide an incredibly useful service, for free, with tech support that's downright aggressive in its attempts to help (I've gotten e-mails from them making sure I'm comfortable with the program, etc., simply by virtue of using it), and I appreciate that tremendously. But when they say that dealing with the problem of too many submissions is on par with the problem of attracting readers, it seems to reinforce the publisher-centric model advanced (unsurprisingly) by most people in publishing. In this mindset, it's the writers' and readers' faults that this oversupply has what sometimes feel like distressing results. It's not that publishers need to do their job better, it's that writers and readers need to this. This mindset leads to exploitative relationships with writers and a failure to attract readers.

Secondly, I don't know how anyone who's read slush can seriously worry that great writing is being passed over because of a surfeit of crappy submissions. If there's a remotely decent piece of writing that fits the aesthetic priorities of the magazine I'm reading for, you'd better believe I find it. All the other stuff? The stuff I don't care for? It makes me that much more grateful for the good stuff when I find it. I will seize instantly on any clue that there's a piece I like in the pile. Every time I see a title I like, a writer whose work I've enjoyed in the past, a competent opening sentence, a strong first paragraph, I get excited. I think, Maybe this is the one! If you're sending us good work, you can be sure there are at least three or four seconds of joy in the reading of it. Does everything good get accepted in any one place? Of course not. But it's not because of the lack of quality work. When that happens, it's because of a surplus -- if I can afford to turn your great story down, it's only because I've got thirty more great stories right over here that I like even better.

To be sure, there are some places where I think mediocrity holds sway, but even there it's not the excess of submissions that leads to trouble, it's the poor taste of the editors. If, meanwhile, you're convinced your own work is in this category, let me propose a few possibilities: 1) You haven't been doing this long enough. I've written six novels and dozens of stories. Only recently have I started to find publishers receptive to my work, and some of my favorite material seems unlikely to ever find a home. It takes a long time to get good enough! 2) You're not being fearless enough. If your work is easily mistaken for bad work, it's a good sign you haven't found a unique voice yet. The pieces most likely to be buried under mediocrity are mediocre -- they're imitators of Raymond Carver that don't have the courage to be something more than that. They're poems written in pursuit of trends rather than greatness and passion. 3) You're just having bad luck. The math is on nobody's side. Personally I think it's exciting to live in a time with so many great writers doing great work -- a period that I think students of literature will look back on with something like awe. And I'm fairly certain this energy comes from the increased accessibility of community, education, and publishing.

Honestly, I suspect most good work is finding a home these days. There's such a broad range of venues sharing such a wide variety of work. Sometimes not as quickly as we might like. Sometimes, maybe, never. But I think the biggest reason this happens is that writers give up. They fail to keep chipping away at their work, they fail to learn as much as they could learn from each story. My advice then would be not to give up as long as you still love writing. But this advice will, of course, if followed, lead to more "bad writers" persisting to swim amid the slush. That's fine by me, of course, and I wish we could accept it more generally.

Some seem to find it more comforting, though, to blame their challenges in running a publisher, or their challenges in finding a publisher, on the writers who only want to be a part of their world. It must be those "bad writers." Who are these bad writers? Not me, of course. Not you. But they're out there! And it's all their fault.


  1. This is so well said, Mike. As of late the venom, weird backlash, etc. against those "bad writers" who dare to want to be published has made me sick to my stomach. I get the sense that there is a fear, that good writers are in a castle and they need to pull up the drawbridge. I don't understand why people seem to feel threatened. Good writing will always, always find a way to make it through the transom. I believe this to my core as both a writer and an editor.

    Excellent, excellent post.

  2. "a period that I think students of literature will look back on with something like awe."

    Completely! I think the most notable thing, historically, about our "era" is the way literacy has finally expanded (and continues to expand) to those other than the supremely privileged. (And the resulting explosion of varieties of good work.) Would those that complain that there are "too many writers" rather have it how it used to be—where mostly only white males of privilege had the means to devote their life to reading and writing? Besides, less writers would only mean that editors would be forced into being less choosy, making it even more likely that they wind up publishing shit.

    Every time I see the "too many writers" line it feels to me that they are essentially saying that being an editor is really really hard work, and they are no longer so crazy about doing that work. How is that the writers' problem? Either delegate it, or simply do something else. . . .

  3. Thanks, guys. Roxane -- it's getting to me too. The discussion on the possibility of Brevity turning to submission fees had a lot of this going on. Bunch of commenters trying to buddy up or something by saying "Sure! Charge away! That'll shrink the pool and help you see how great my work is!", sometimes literally. Felt gross to read.

    Ryan -- I suspect a lot of these writers would like that, as many seem to suffer from White Guy Who Thought He Would Be the Next Joyce/Melville/Whatever Syndrome. I also find it suspicious when editors think having less work will help them do their job, because I have access to a pretty massive slushpile at Puerto and only through careful solicitation and constant vigilance can I build a magazine of high enough quality from that number. Doing it with Uncanny Valley's much smaller slush is proving to be a real challenge -- solicitations (and our long-ass lead time) are again proving vital.

    Ultimately it sounds like laziness to me too. Some bitching is human, but the amounts I see in some places just makes me wonder why they bother. I'd love to have their slush. They can forward it all to me!