Told by an idiot, No. 8

There was a time, still within living memory, when indoor plumbing was a luxury for the upper classes. Nowadays, of course, indoor plumbing is an evil conspiracy by the American cultural imperialists; but that is neither here nor there. The point is that back in the day, certain members of the English upper classes held that bathtubs were too good for the masses. It was usual to attribute this attitude to old ladies from Brighton; and the classic form of the sentiment was this:

‘What ever would be the use of giving bathtubs to coal-miners? They would only use them to keep coal in.’

This, of course, is proof positive of how evil and reactionary the old ladies from Brighton were. Not, mind you, because they believed such things; a person may believe all sorts of things, and act on those beliefs, without opprobrium. No, no, they were evil because they said them, and that just will not do. Anyway, they erred by aiming their sentiments at the downtrodden industrial proletariat, instead of venting them upon a worthy target.

So in the spirit of the old ladies from Brighton, suitably corrected and brought up to date, I should like to say a few words about this monstrous plague of self-publishing. The publishing industry, as everyone knows, was divinely ordained to be the sole curator and seller of literature to the world. By taking their business directly to readers, these self-published cads represent a terrible threat to publishers, to all that is right and noble – to Culture itself. Of course it is impossible that this threat should ever amount to anything, because the publishing industry, being divinely ordained, will obviously exist in its present form for ever and ever. But the sheer impudence of the attack is an affront to every right-thinking literary person. It is for this reason that I offer a rebuttal.

The cads defend their horrible activities on the grounds that they are giving more money and artistic control to writers. This is a feeble excuse. For what ever would be the use of giving money and artistic control to writers? They would only use them to write fan fiction.

I intended to say more, but I have an urgent deadline to meet. You see, I am under contract with a very prestigious publisher to write a brilliant and slyly referential homage to Gabriel García Márquez. Only it’s not fan fiction, because we don’t call it that when it is Literature.

   H. Smiggy McStudge


  1. Stephen J. says:

    Your post has helped me crystallize a thesis, which I set out as follows and call “The Gatekeeper Cycle”, and the applicability of which to this topic should, I hope, be self-evident:

    “All life is about filtering signal from noise, a process which, because it requires actual human judgement, will always be time- and attention-consuming. Anyone known as a ‘gatekeeper’ is simply someone to whom this labour has been outsourced as a specialty on behalf of a larger group. The advantage of the gatekeeper to the group — and a nearly indispensable one once overall noise passes a certain inundation level — is the convenience and efficiency he offers. The disadvantage is the fact that by definition the group does not see what he has filtered out, and it thus becomes very easy for the gatekeeper to gradually substitute his own standards — or his industry’s — in place of the standards the group originally gave him.

    “This produces a cyclical tension born of two inexorable and fundamental tendencies: the tendency of gatekeepers to become corrupted by their authority, thus leading initially to their replacement and ultimately to their discarding, and the tendency of the group to become tired and bored of doing their own gatekeeping and thus institute new gatekeepers. Thus any phase of history in which ‘gatekeepers’ are overthrown is inevitably followed by an overload of content leading to the effective installation of new gatekeepers, who will be overthrown in their turn; and because this cycle is driven by the unremoveable human elements of corruption and apathy, it cannot ever be ended.”

    • This, I think, is true; but also, in this iteration of the cycle, I think there has been a permanent change in the nature of the gatekeepers.

      The old-style gatekeepers were concerned above all to keep the bad art out of the marketplace – to let only the best wares into the city, so to speak, so that the public could buy nothing without the gatekeepers’ approval. The new gatekeepers are there to invite the good art in, to focus people’s attention on what they see as quality work, without trying to forbid entry to those they personally find unworthy. This is a much more democratic way of keeping a gate; and also more foolproof, because good work can still find a market even if the gatekeepers of the day don’t happen to appreciate it themselves. The old gatekeepers were border guards; the new ones are tour guides.

      I need hardly add that these are only my own opinions. Smiggy disagrees – violently.

  2. *grin*

  3. It’s the warped priorities.

  4. Surely there are points in the cycle where an astute observer can sneak into the privileged places before someone notices? Points like equinoxes between gatekeeping and spam.

    Watching for such a space.

    • Unfortunately, if you can sneak in, it’s not privileged. It’s like Yogi Berra said: ‘Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.’ When the real élite travel to London, so I’m told, they don’t stay at the five-star hotels, but at places so exclusive that they don’t even have signs on the front door, and a passerby would never guess that the building had a hotel concealed inside.

      The gatekeepers will keep gates, even if they have to build the gates themselves. And they will pride themselves on keeping out the riff-raff, even if nobody ever goes inside – or wants to.

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