Slush fatigue: the flip-side of easy self-publishing

Paul Raven @ 25-06-2010

Via Eric Gregory (who got it from ElectricLit), here’s a counterpoint to Nathan Bransford’s prediction of the happy demise of the rejection letter: Laura Miller at Salon isn’t quite so sure that the imminent ‘golden age’ of self-publishing will be a great thing. For a start, she too has met the slush pile, and bears its scars:

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.

I can’t argue with that, based on my own experiences. But why worry – surely the audience themselves will take up the task of panning the gold from the silt, as Bransford suggests?

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?

Furthermore, as observers like Chris Anderson (in “The Long Tail”) and social scientists like Sheena Iyengar (in her new book “The Art of Choosing”) have pointed out, when confronted with an overwhelming array of choices, most people do not graze more widely. Instead, if they aren’t utterly paralyzed by the prospect, their decisions become even more conservative, zeroing in on what everyone else is buying and grabbing for recognizable brands because making a fully informed decision is just too difficult and time-consuming. As a result, introducing massive amounts of consumer choice leads to situations in which the 10 most popular items command the vast majority of the market share, while thousands of lesser alternatives must divide the leftovers into many tiny portions. This has been going on in the book world for at least a couple of decades now, since long before the rise of e-books: Bestselling authors continue to sell better and better, while everyone else does worse and worse.

Miller suggests that there may come a point where readers presented with a sea of crap eventually decide to stop reading entirely. I suspect that’s highly unlikely; the rise of new (or slightly altered) gatekeeper systems is inevitable in such a crowded field, because reading fiction for pleasure isn’t going to go away any time soon, and so there’ll still be a need for someone (or something – Amazon recommendations, maybe, as a worst-case scenario?) to act as the filter.

But then again, maybe there won’t – as the success of Dan Brown (and many others) indicates, the general reading public don’t hold fiction to the same standards that critics and (some) editors do. To be honest, I wouldn’t be hugely surprised to find that things don’t really change much at all in the long run, as far as the relationship between sales figures and quality are concerned…

… which means we’ll at least still have unwarranted successes and underappreciated masterpieces to argue about. 🙂

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10 Responses to “Slush fatigue: the flip-side of easy self-publishing”

  1. Chad says:

    I am all for the removing editors, agents, anyone else that currently selects which books get published. I find so few books worth reading now that I doubt a more open system with new gatekeepers could be any worse.

    The fact that Ms. Miller references an old dead “great” in Fitzgerald highlights exactly what I hate about the current literary gatekeepers. They all look back instead of forward. Find me a current good living author and quit thinking about the “good ole days”, which were never as good as you think.

  2. Paul Raven says:

    OK, this is a genuine question, as you’ve talked about this before: if the Good Old Days weren’t so great, and you find few authors worth reading among the New Turks, what do you read? Who do you feel is overrated, and why? Is it the style of writing that puts you off, or the themes, the politics, the sf-nal devices and tropes? I’m trying to get a grip on what you do like, in other words, because I suspect that its absence is nothing to do with the editorial process.

    I mean, seriously, I’ve read slush, and most of it genuinely is unreadable – not just bad stories, but bad stories being told by someone who can’t tell stories yet. I’d be genuinely surprised if a world where everyone who wanted to be published was a world where you found more books to love; indeed, I suspect you’d find less, because the haystack has become much larger while the needle stays the same size.

    That said, I agree that literature in general – and sf in particular – valorises a lot of ‘classics’ that are really very crappy books. Nostalgia and the personal Golden Age of the reader are a huge factor, of course, but so is the conformity of a long-running subculture. I suspect Asimov in particular is responsible for putting far more people off sf than he ever encouraged to read more.

  3. Chad says:

    Valid questions given my negativity. I tend to go “glass is half-full” on subjects I really like.

    Let’s start with the easier question, which may answer a few of the others on the way. Who puts me off/is overrated? Three names in SF that put me off are Ian M. Banks, Kevin J. Anderson, and Charles Stross.

    I think Banks has a fairly good overall idea for his Culture Universe, but for me fails to deliver on plot and characters. Especially on characters. I will admit I have only read Consider Phelbas, but it was such a disappointment considering how much Banks is talked up, I couldn’t read anymore of novels. By the end of Phelbas I just didn’t care who survivied, as I wasn’t invested in any of the characters, or the story for that matter.

    Kevin J. Anderson probably isn’t overrated, as he doesn’t get the rave reviews Banks does. However, he does get a lot books published, and it baffles me. He, like Banks, is story/plot and character deficient, but unlike banks has poor overall ideas. The Saga of the Seven Suns being a prime example.

    Stross is a little different. His characters didn’t seem shallow or bad, but the overall setting isn’t to my liking (though, his overall themes do seem more likely to actually occur). Now, I knew this going into his books, but figured with all the praise he was getting he would make up for it in some way.

    Authors I like? Alastair Reynolds, David Brin, Peter F. Hamilton, and Frank Herbert. There are others, but those jump to mind the quickest. I lean towards the bigger broader settings and harder/space opera stuff I guess, which doesn’t seem to be very popular right now. And, I lean away from steampunk (I admit I haven’t read Wind Up Girl or Boneshaker yet, though I plan on giving them the chance considering the praise), alt histories and hate urban fantasy. All of which seem to be dominating the shelves right now. Just look at the Amazon bestsellers under SF. I don’t think there is one book in the top 25 I want to read (maybe David Drake). I actually stopped going to the book store because, in my opinion, they don’t carry SF in the SF section anymore. At the very least they don’t carry SF I haven’t already read.

    Thus, I figure if the big publishing houses, who are almost the only ones left, are barely publishing anything from authors I like or on subjects I enjoy, I have little to lose hoping the current system falls apart. Maybe the new gatekeepers would be worse, but it’s hard to imagine how they could be.

  4. Chad says:

    Sorry, meant “glass is half-empty”….makes a little more sense.

  5. silviamg says:

    “I find so few books worth reading now that I doubt a more open system with new gatekeepers could be any worse.”
    Oh, it could be a lot worse. As in, bad grammar, bad spelling, plots that don’t make any sense, etc. I have also gazed at the slush pile and seen its mysteries.

    If you want to get an idea of what your reading would look like without those so called gatekeepers, read fan fic. There’s some great fan fic, but there’s also lots of stuff that’s just not good because it lacks lots of basics, from a copy-editor to an editor to reign in the writer. Thus, even when it comes to fan fic, it is often easier to a) Go by the recs of people you trust b) Read stuff by someone that is tried-and-true. It saves you lots of time from clicking and opening stuff that isn’t up to snuff.

    I suspect a world without gatekeepers would be similar to this fan fic experience, which requires a lot of clicking and closing windows if you don’t have a rec-list or a recurring author to latch on to.

  6. Ciro Faienza says:

    This actually conforms to my own ideas about the role of the curator in the age of democratized art. The previous post seemed to step in line with all the other wide-eyed media futurists that claim that experts/polished art/expensive art/producers/insertwhateverhere will disappear, because people will be able to find the stuff themselves. Except anyone who’s watched YouTube knows that isn’t the case, that you spend most of your time looking at utter nonsense unless someone links you to something you care to see, or unless you happen to be following a creator you like.

    The point is that once you expand the field, the curator becomes MORE important, not less. Videos and such are accessible and easily digested, so the cloud has some limited success as a curator, but short stories? Fiction? This is not quite as accessible, and calls for a greater time commitment. The cloud will not function well to find the 1% of good stuff among the slush, because it will take to long and contribute to a reduction of the perceived regard (i.e. I’ll get frustrated with reading all the horrible and assume it’s not worth it to continue looking.)

    I too have done slushing, and it simply doesn’t compare to the my experience of finding good music or video clips. Fiction is a rarified art form. The vast majority of curating is saying “no” to the bad stuff, especially in a system of submissions. I already consider myself a curator when I go trolling through the e-zines looking for good fiction, most of which is merely acceptable rather than extraordinary, and it’s already been vetted. I hate to think how it would be for me as a reader if I didn’t have the first gate of the slush reader, who must invariably spend most of her time sending out rejection letters.

  7. Chad says:

    “I already consider myself a curator when I go trolling through the e-zines looking for good fiction, most of which is merely acceptable rather than extraordinary, and it’s already been vetted.”

    This is my point. The current so called “gatekeepers” are failing us, or there are too many outlets and they just keep slaping in bad stuff because they need something.

    “If you want to get an idea of what your reading would look like without those so called gatekeepers, read fan fic. There’s some great fan fic, but there’s also lots of stuff that’s just not good because it lacks lots of basics, from a copy-editor to an editor to reign in the writer. Thus, even when it comes to fan fic, it is often easier to a) Go by the recs of people you trust b) Read stuff by someone that is tried-and-true. It saves you lots of time from clicking and opening stuff that isn’t up to snuff.”

    A and B are what I already do with the current “gatekeepers” in place, so how would my experience differ? I’m not sold on the “experts” protecting me argument, as “experts” seem to fail rather often.

  8. Paul Raven says:

    The way I see it is that “expert” becomes a label that the consumer applies using his or her own criteria, rather than there being a limited number of experts enfranchised with a means to communicate that expertise.

    Or, to put it another (ever so slightly self-aggrandising) way: you read and comment here at Futurismic a fair bit, right? So haven’t you kind of granted it an “expertise” in finding stuff you enjoy reading and discussion? That’s how I see the gatekeeperdom of the future: anyone can do it, but no one’s obliged to pay attention; meanwhile, WOM (and other recommendation and data-collating methods, be they digital or social/biological) clues people in to gatekeepers they might find more to their definition of “expert”.

    I think the webzine fiction scene is a little too easy a target, though, partly because it’s still so young (in cultural terms, at least; in internet terms, it’s practically an institution). There’s a real advantage with ezines, in fact, in that they’re (mostly) free to read, so there’s less of a psychological barrier to bailing on a story you’re not enjoying. And that response then feeds back into the equation through readership stats and the ad prices they command, and (theoretically, at least) the market will develop leaders based on a roughly consensual definition of “expertise” in curation, but with subdivisions and ranking biases within that market for specific tastes and foibles in the consumer…

    I think the core issue is that Sturgeon’s Law will always pertain with creative work, and as much as lowering the barriers to public availability may push some hidden gems into the limelight, there’s going to be a proportionally bigger lump of crud floating out with it, and searching through it all for what you really want may not be worth the time it takes for the results you get.

    Or the TL;DR version: if your gatekeepers are failing you, surely that means you need a better (== “more in line with your taste”) gatekeeper rather than more unfiltered flow? (Genuine question, BTW; I can see your logic, but it just doesn’t chime with my perceptions.)

  9. Chad says:

    I would agree Futurismic could be considered expert/gatekeeper for me.

    “if your gatekeepers are failing you, surely that means you need a better (== “more in line with your taste”) gatekeeper rather than more unfiltered flow?”

    The gatekeepers I was referring to were the people who actually pick what gets published. I can’t realistically replace them, and it’s possible I shouldn’t if they really don’t miss many good books (I don’t see what they turn down, so I admit my criticism of them maybe misplaced). If they trully don’t miss the good books then I have to wonder why I can’t find more of what I like? Maybe I’m too picky, have different tastes than the mainstream, maybe we don’t produce enough creative people, etc. It’s just been along time since I read something as good/engrossing as Dune, Ender’s Game, or the Uplift series from Brin in the SF section. I have found a few good books, but nothing great recently.

    Maybe the unfiltered flow wouldn’t replace the current poor gatekeepers/publishers (at least in my mind) with better ones, but in a lot of ways I’m ready to give it try.

  10. Paul Raven says:

    Hmmm. There might be an argument along the lines of “writers write what they think will sell” (which I suspect is a part-truth in most cases, with a considerable variance from author to author), in which case your theory could hold true to some degree. But seriously, most (though admittedly not all) of what gets bounced in slush isn’t “close, but not trendy enough for right now”; it’s generally just badly written, full stop.

    But hey, this is the fun of living on the edge of the future – give it a decade, we can all come back to this post and compare notes. 😉