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. 🙂