In Defence of the Gatekeepers

The self publishing debate has so far centred on whether self publishing is good for the writer. Lots of internet writers say it is: I say it isn’t. Laura Miller takes the question beyond this with an essential article on the effect of self publishing on the reader.

She notes that the conversation has so far centred on the self publishing revolution and ‘how gloriously liberating it will be for authors.’ What about the reading public? ‘How readers feel about all this usually gets lost in the fanfare and the hand-wringing.’ She then goes on to the psychic damage that can be inflicted by bad art:

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.

Miller argues that the gatekeeping industry (agents, publishers, editors) exists as a vital filtration system that protects the public from slush – that, in other words, protects you and I from the messy, incoherent, self-absorbed id of humanity. ‘[I]t’s a dirty job,’ she says, ‘but someone’s got to do it, and if the prophecies of a post-publishing world come true, it looks, gentle readers, as if that dirty job will soon be yours.’ 

She points out that if and when traditional publishing falls their gatekeepers will simply be replaced by the gatekeepers of the underground, which are no less fickle and cliquish than those of the mainstream. The new model could well be ‘a literary marketplace in which a handful of blockbuster names capture most of the sales and attention, personal connections are milked for professional success, and relatively few authoritative voices have the power to lift some artists into the spotlight while others languish in obscurity. Writers who are charming in person and happy to promote themselves and interact with fans will prosper, while antisocial geniuses may fail.’

Without the gatekeepers, fiction will be devalued. Without financial incentives to plough shit for diamonds, people will simply give up reading: it’s not as if there’s no competition from film, TV drama and video games in turns of fictional stimuli.

A few days of reading bad manuscript after bad manuscript has a tendency to make you never want to pick up another manuscript again, but when finding new talent is your job and your vocation, you keep at it until you’re successful enough to hire someone else to do it for you. If, on the other hand, you’re a civilian, and reading is something you turn to, seeking fun or transcendence, during your precious hours of free time, how long will you persist when book after book has exactly the opposite effect, crushing your spirit instead of refreshing it? How long before you decide to just give up?


One Response to “In Defence of the Gatekeepers”

  1. Julia Smith Says:

    I really liked your point about other forms of art: if you’re only good enough at playing guitar in a pub band, you won’t get offended by not headlining the main stage at Glastonbury. But if you think you were born to be mentioned in the same breath as Tolstoy, Thompson and Orwell, it is easier to cry controversy when the limo fails to arrive.

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