Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Breaking through the slush pile

I'm not normally a fan of "ambush journalism," but this report from today's New York Times really pulls it off: it both confirms a previously held belief that you never quite put into words, and it tells you how bad things have become. (Which are really the twin goals of all ambush journalism.)

In all truth, I think that the Times has it wrong. The natural conclusion is not that today's editors and agents couldn't tell a great writer if one landed in their laps. In all truth, the more natural conclusion would be that today's editors and agents are shockingly poorly read, (I would have expected at least a letter or two with stern warnings of the consequences of plagarism) but there is an even simpler explanation.

The slush pile isn't being read (or, more accurately, isn't being given more than a cursory glance). I think this is true here in the US, and I would expect it to be even more true in the UK (keep in mind that the London Sunday Times actually conducted the experiment in question), where common wisdom has been for ages that publishers will publish reams of crap from an established author before even looking at a new talent, no matter how promising.

The real lesson is that no aspiring writer should look at any publisher as their knight on a white horse. Whitman famously self-published (so, for that matter, did Tom Clancy), perhaps we should as well.

1 comment:

Tim said...

One thought I had was "Hmm, maybe the Booker Prize was given to some really crappy books in the '70s." ;-)

Seriously, though -- isn't it plausible that an American literary editor or agent in 2005 is looking for something different from what the Booker committee was looking for in the UK thirty years ago? Not only do tastes and markets both change, I think anyone would be justified in being less than thrilled by something that read like a competent but old-fashioned imitation. How well are Stanley Middleton's books selling these days?

I mean, I could pull out manuscripts by Sully Prudhomme, Theodor Mommsen, and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (the first three winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature) and shop them around as if they were mine, but I wouldn't expect anyone to be interested.