Panning for mica

J. A. Konrath wrote an ebook called The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing, chock-full of good advice when written; but alas, it is two years old now, and a geological era out of date. I don’t want to make a bad example of Mr. Konrath, who has done a beautiful job of keeping up with the times; his blog remains a valuable source of information and insight. But I want to quote this from the Newbie’s Guide, because it contains an important truth about the traditional publishing business, and a cardinal fallacy about salable fiction:

Consider the agent, going through 300 manuscripts in the slush pile that have accumulated over the last month.

She’s not looking to help writers. She’s panning for gold. And to do that, you have to sift through dirt. It might be some very good dirt she’s dismissing. But it is still dirt.

Be the gold.

The best way to get published, or to win a contest, is to shine. Don’t be mistaken for dirt. Don’t do anything that lets them reject you — because they’re looking to reject you unless you can show them you’re brilliant.

This all sounds very well, but in practice it has a terrible flaw. Mark Twain knew what that flaw was. He learnt it the hard way, and wrote about it in Roughing It:

By and by, in the bed of a shallow rivulet, I found a deposit of shining yellow scales, and my breath almost forsook me! A gold mine, and in my simplicity I had been content with vulgar silver! I was so excited that I half believed my overwrought imagination was deceiving me. Then a fear came upon me that people might be observing me and would guess my secret. Moved by this thought, I made a circuit of the place, and ascended a knoll to reconnoiter. Solitude. No creature was near. Then I returned to my mine, fortifying myself against possible disappointment, but my fears were groundless — the shining scales were still there. I set about scooping them out, and for an hour I toiled down the windings of the stream and robbed its bed. But at last the descending sun warned me to give up the quest, and I turned homeward laden with wealth. As I walked along I could not help smiling at the thought of my being so excited over my fragment of silver when a nobler metal was almost under my nose. In this little time the former had so fallen in my estimation that once or twice I was on the point of throwing it away. . . .

[He returns to camp and tells the other prospectors about his ‘find’.]

“Suppose some person were to tell you that two-thousand-dollar ledges were simply contemptible — contemptible, understand — and that right yonder in sight of this very cabin there were piles of pure gold and pure silver — oceans of it — enough to make you all rich in twenty-four hours! Come!”

“I should say he was as crazy as a loon!” said old Ballou, but wild with excitement, nevertheless.

“Gentlemen,” said I, “I don’t say anything — I haven’t been around, you know, and of course don’t know anything — but all I ask of you is to cast your eye on that, for instance, and tell me what you think of it!” and I tossed my treasure before them.

There was an eager scramble for it, and a closing of heads together over it under the candle-light. Then old Ballou said:

“Think of it? I think it is nothing but a lot of granite rubbish and nasty glittering mica that isn’t worth ten cents an acre!”

So vanished my dream. So melted my wealth away. So toppled my airy castle to the earth and left me stricken and forlorn.

Moralizing, I observed, then, that “all that glitters is not gold.”

Mr. Ballou said I could go further than that, and lay it up among my treasures of knowledge, that nothing that glitters is gold. So I learned then, once for all, that gold in its native state is but dull, unornamental stuff, and that only low-born metals excite the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that.

The trouble is that most agents and editors don’t know gold from mica, and let their eyes be attracted by the superficial glitter. They often turn up their noses at gold, but they buy mica by the ton. This sounds like fantasy, but it is the petrified truth. No special education is required to become an editor or an agent; there is no licensing body; little on-the-job training is available, and what there is has little to do with recognizing commercial fiction. Most editors and agents judge a story by gut feeling, and those with the most accurate guts rise the highest and last the longest. That is one reason why only one book in five from the big New York publishers makes money; and that one book has to pay the publisher’s bloated corporate overhead and subsidize the losses from the other four. Even the most accurate gut is wrong most of the time.

A good many editors and agents, it is true, have degrees in English or American Literature. This, I fear, is often something worse than useless. Many literature professors teach literary theory, rather than literature as such; and most theory, nowadays, is descended at greater or lesser remove from the New Criticism of the 1940s, which was solidly based on the practice called ‘close reading’. In close reading, you analyse the text minutely, sentence by sentence, and deliberately distance yourself from any emotional participation in the story. The average literary theorist (and most professors, considered as theorists, are terribly average) actively sneers at emotional participation in fiction: he dismisses it as ‘the affective fallacy’ and flunks students who allow it to contaminate their readings of a text. But the average reader wants emotional participation. She buys fiction because she wants to feel something, not because the sentences glitter. She is after the gold of emotional payoff, not the mica of a pretty prose style.

This, by the way, has nothing to do with the old and rather spurious distinction between highbrow and lowbrow. Many people who are relentlessly highbrow in their tastes for art and music nevertheless turn up their noses at ‘literary’ fiction, and devour Harlequin romances or hardboiled detective stories instead. In the performing arts, and even in visual art, emotional appeal is still recognized as a valid element in artistic merit. There is no ‘affective fallacy’ in concerts and stage plays; the object of the game is to make the audience applaud. And the audience will not applaud unless you move its feelings.

Dave Wolverton, a.k.a. David Farland, writes about this emotional basis of fiction in his essay ‘Why People Read’. I cannot recommend it too highly. In another piece, ‘Analyzing Your Novel’s Audience’, he discusses his experience working for a company that green-lighted screenplays for Hollywood. His employers analysed scripts not by the quality of their sentences, but by breaking them down into emotional ‘beats’, and so calculating what audiences they would appeal to, and how strongly. (All this analysis won’t help when a director, a producer, or a script doctor changes a good script into a bad one after it’s been green-lighted. But that is another story, and one that has been told by experts much better than I could do.)

So how much of this kind of commercial analysis do editors and agents do before buying a book manuscript? The usual answer, as Mr. Wolverton has told me, based on his decades of experience in and of the industry, is unfortunately — None. Zip. Nada. Not a sausage. It is completely at odds with close reading, and right outside the experience of most publishing people. They go by their guts, or what is worse, by their heads; and then they turn down 17 consecutive novels by Amanda Hocking, because they don’t like her prose style and don’t notice that her stuff has the emotional beats of a perennial seller, and instead publish a non-book by ‘Snooki’, which got the whole megillah of marketing and promotion, was force-fed to bookshops to make it an instant bestseller, yet limped off the lists in a few weeks and will be forgotten a year from now. As Hollywood people would say, it had no ‘legs’: the glitter and glamour of its first appearance could not withstand the cold critical tide of negative word of mouth. Whereas Ms. Hocking’s books, self-published without fanfare and unavailable in any bookshop, had ‘legs’ galore. These are two examples off the top of my head; I could find two hundred for the mere trouble of looking.

Gold and mica; and New York chose the mica.

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