Tuesday, December 19, 2006

When Books Don't Sell - 1

[This is part one of a piece I wrote a few months ago]

Laura Miller is a journalist who frequently writes reviews for Salon. For my money, she's one of the best literary journalists around. She has a direct, unaffected yet highly intelligent style that usually gets to the heart of the matter.

Recently, she wrote a column entitled "Rank Insubordination" on the New York Times list of the best American novels of the last quarter century. Or rather, she wrote on the compilation of literary best-of lists generally, and the fact they raise as many questions as they answer. (Miller's conclusion was while a single best-of list may have made sense a few decades ago, the reading public has become so diverse that what is really required is a series of best-of lists; a recognition that standards are not absolute, and have become more varied as reading audiences have become more diverse.)

I wrote her an email in response to this piece. I agreed with the column and its conclusion, so what I focussed on instead was my own opinion that part of the problem with achieving diversity in literature was that the major publishing houses were now walling themselves off from emerging writers. That is, emerging writes who don't have an agent.

I can't remember exactly how I worded my argument, but it was along these lines. This question of how the major houses process (or refuse to process) work by lesser-knowns is connected, I think, to the question of canon formation ... which in turn is what lists like the NYT's effectively influence. Furthermore, the fact that major publishers are not looking at any work by emerging writers has received almost no critical attention. It seems to me the lit-world's equivalent of the Patriot Act: shave off a few traditions and liberties here and there ... what's the big deal?

Essentially, what has happened is this: the major publishers have killed the slush pile. You know the slush pile -- it was that means by which an emerging writer could submit his/her manuscript to a publishing house. There, it would be read by a junior editor with negligible influence over final publishing decisions. But at least it offered a small ray of hope. And it is this hope that generations of writers have clung to during the early phases of their career. Once upon the time, the slush-pile was "just how things are done". Well, those days are gone now, at least as far as the big houses are concerned.

And this change has gone unannounced: some houses simply pretend that no one is interested in submitting to them and evade the issue altogether, but a few major publishers will state clearly at their webites that they simply will not consider unsolicited work. This doesn't mean they will consider a cover letter and a sample chapter (this was the way it worked until just a few years ago). It doesn't mean they will consider even a cover letter and CV (this is how some agents work). It means they will consider ... nothing -- nothing that does not come through an agent. But here's the thing: many agents do not consider unsolicited work these days either. The Catch-22 is obvious.

[to be continued]

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