Friday, 18 September 2015

Writers and Reality Checks

Kate Taylor had a column in the Globe and Mail of August 29, 2015 entitled “When writers had reality checks”, under the general headline of Publishing.  She makes some interesting points about how publishing and therefore writers have changed over the past couple of decades.

She begins by reminiscing about Urjo Kareda, former artistic director of Tarragon Theatre in Toronto.  He was an unusual “gatekeeper”, one who took his role very seriously indeed.  He read hundreds of unsolicited scripts (for plays) every year, and gave feedback to the writers, up until his death in 2001.  According to the article, this could come to hundreds of scripts per year, over a span of twenty odd years.  His assessments were reported to be honest, though often sharply worded.  Kate Taylor rightfully lauds him for his going above and beyond the call of duty, in terms of his position as a “salaried cultural arbiter”, by acknowledging the aspirations and creative endeavors of hundreds of budding playwrights, who might otherwise have received little attention at all. 

She then contrasts this with the current situation, as she sees it: “Self-publishing, print-on-demand and the fan fiction phenomenon have eroded the distinction between amateurs and professionals in the literary industries”.  She also recognizes that this is, at least in part, the fault of publishers, who relinquished their curator role to literary agents, rather than accept the responsibility themselves, even if their previous acceptance was little more than having (often unpaid) interns read through a slush pile.

This is really the nub of the problem of course.  How do you ensure that literary culture is properly curated, if there are no objective standards for the profession of writing?  Obviously, literary agents aren’t the answer – they are business people at best, and often not even qualified at that, as there is no actual certification to being a literary agent.  Being a literary agent is like many informal professions – you are one if you say you are, and can convince others of the claim sufficiently to make some money at the job.  There is no university degree to prove your competence, no college of professionals to vet your claim, no admission tests, not even entry fees.

The old publishing practice of interns reading the slush pile is hardly better, perhaps even worse.  Again, there were no real standards for the job, though one assumes that a B.A. in English was probably a common educational requirement.  But it seems odd, to give the “first gatekeeper” role to the people who have the least experience in the business.  It would be as if scientific journals such as The Astrophysical Journal let high schools physics teachers have the first say in whether some new astrophysical research deserved a closer look. 

Speaking of scientific journals, perhaps the closest example to a truly “curated” publishing world is found in academia. The curation is accomplished in two main ways:

  •  Generally speaking (there can be exceptions), submissions are only accepted from people with advanced degrees (PhD mostly, unless it is a medical specialty) and who are connected with a university or reputable research center.
  • Submissions are then vetted by (unpaid) referees, experts in the field with which the paper is concerned.  If the referees encounter problems, as they see them, the author is advised to address them.  This cycle can go on for a while, until the paper is accepted for publication.
  • University librarians and other academics determine which journals to stock and which journals to read, based on reputation and acceptance by peers.

Even with these checks and balances, there can be problems – valid research might be rejected if it is ahead of its time, and invalid research can be accepted if the referees don’t know the subject well enough, or if the author is considered such an authority that people are unwilling to raise objections.   It should be noted, too, that the cozy world of academic publishing is also threatened by new technology and new ways of thinking - for example, the PLOS journals.

If the non-academic publishing world wants to take its role as a cultural gatekeeper seriously, it would have to do something along these lines:

  • Accept only works from people with established writing records and/or degrees in a suitable subject, such as English literature.
  • Have all submissions by the above reviewed by competent referees – i.e. successful, published authors of longstanding reputation.
  • Limit retail access to these books to sites that specialize in works published under this model and are therefore not mixed in with inadequately curated works, whether traditional or Indie.

In a sense, that is what the playwright Urjo Kareda was doing, at Tarragon Theatre.  At any rate, he was providing his expertise to address the second point.

It is clear, though, that this model would be impractical for the publishing industry as a whole.  There would be too much danger of ignoring a blockbuster written by a non-degreed person, and it would be impossible to find enough referees to take care of that function, not to mention the problems of professional jealousy and mutual backscratching that would be likely to arise (as it already has in the practice of blurb writing).

For any particular publisher, though, it might be an idea worth pursuing.  It might provide a measure of market segmentation that would appeal to some readers.  There could be a non-trivial audience for books that are assured to have been written by English majors and that have been vetted by successful writers.  Who knows, like Apple computers or high-end autos, there might just be people who would pay the extra money for books that they considered high-status, in a cultural and intellectual sense.

In contrast to traditional publishing, the modern world of self-publishing has devolved the gatekeeper task to “the market”, also known as readers.  There are, of course, no standards for that role either, other than an ability to read and a willingness to spend some money.  The market is fickle and its tastes and its ability to recognize literary quality are questionable.  It can be manipulated (e.g. sock puppet reviews and other ways to “game the system”), as could the old model (e.g. insider contacts, management backscratching, etc.). 

Luck also plays a huge role in both models, though luck under the new system seems somehow fairer and less biased.  Under the old model, you might have needed to be lucky enough to catch an editor’s eye on a day when he or she was in a good mood, thus breaking into the business; under the new model it might be a matter of being lucky enough to catch a few dozen random readers on a day when they were in a mood to experiment, which might snowball from there into Indie success.  In both cases, the probabilities are tough, but the new system seems to “give people their shot”, while the old model almost always denied that.  In life, that’s often all that people want, really – a chance , even if it is only a slim one.

In conclusion, nostalgia for a bygone model that didn’t really function as a cultural curator is beside the point.  For better or worse, it is readers who are now the “ultimate reality check” for writers. 


And here’s a comic, which is a good example of the prospects for a newbie writer trying to contact an agent or editor, under the old model (from Google Images).

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