Very often new writers will try to gain the approval of literary critics, writing books that become more and more obscure and difficult to read, so that the average reader ends up not liking them. They try to load their books with (often simplistic and foolish) metaphors. I call these folks the FRM crowd because they are “fraught with meaning.” Remember: critics don’t buy books. They get them for free, and their tastes are not necessarily the same as the average person.
As many of you know, Dave’s son, Ben, was in a serious long-boarding accident last week. He is 16 and suffers from severe brain trauma, a cracked skull, broken pelvis and tail bone, burnt knees, bruised lungs, broken ear drum, road rash, and is currently in a coma. His family has no insurance. We are having a book bomb this Wednesday on behalf of Ben Wolverton to help his family out. You can view the event’s facebook page here. For those that don’t know, a book bomb is an event where participants purchase a book on a specific day to support the author, or, in this case, a young person in serious need: Ben Wolverton. Many of you have expressed sympathy for Dave and Ben and have asked if you could help. Now you can. We need you to help Ben get the most out of this book bomb. Right now we are focused on spreading the word and telling others about it. If you could share this event on facebook, twitter, pinterest, your blog, or through email, please do. This is a way everyone reading this can help, whatever their financial situation. On Wednesday, we will have the book bomb. If you haven’t yet purchased Nightingale or Million Dollar Outlines, please consider doing so on Wednesday. If you have already purchased them, you can donate money to Ben and his family here. If you have a blog and would like to do a post about this book bomb, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will send you some information you can use. Please consider “attending” our event on facebook. Thank you.Much of the material in Million Dollar Outlines was covered in the workshop I took with Mr. Wolverton in 2011. I can vouch for its value. However, I haven’t bought the actual book. It looks like I’ll be doing that on Wednesday.
end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography. . . . That all these genres are sterile, hopelessly sterile, is a reassurance to him rather than a defect. If they were genuinely realistic, which is to say genuinely imagined and imaginative, he would be afraid of them. Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time. And probably the ultimate escapist reading is that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report.Now this is a masterpiece of character assassination, and all the more because the victim is entirely imaginary. The American Male of this depiction never existed: not in 1974, when Le Guin wrote this rant against him; not in 1900, when imaginative and (in the old-fashioned sense) ‘romantic’ literature were being ruthlessly squeezed out of the limelight and into the backwaters of American culture; not in 1830, when American literature was just beginning to take a shape of its own, after the fallow half-century that followed the cultural severance of the colonies from Europe. Americans, of course, and even American males, are as varied a group as any other nationality you might choose to name, and more varied than most. There are Americans with the solid commercial practicality of the Dutch, the quick-witted rationality of the French, the dreamy and intermittently dangerous sentimentality of the Germans — to say nothing of the peculiar cultural complexions of the island nations of Europe. And that is only to count the immigrants who formed part of the cultural matrix in the earliest years of the Union. It leaves out the Slavs, the Mediterranean peoples, the Asians, the Africans (who were present in those early years, but forcibly prevented from contributing to the culture till later). For that matter, it leaves out the American Indians: Hiawatha and Black Hawk are as much a part of American culture and American history as Captain John Smith and Andrew Jackson. For all this variety, one can still draw a sort of composite picture of what we might call the culturally typical American; that is, of the cultural qualities that were thoroughly boiled down in the ‘melting pot’, and became the common property of the whole nation. Our composite American has never shied away from fantasy or the imagination. He loved tall tales long before he learnt to read; and since he grew up in a landscape of wild and wonderful possibilities, he did not much care whether the tall tales were strictly impossible or not. He is equally delighted with Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. He will swallow the feats of Natty Bumppo, which are flatly impossible without being magical, right along with the ghost stories of Edgar Allan Poe, which are magical and might not be quite impossible. He has the advantage of loving adventure stories, and the greater advantage of living in a land where adventure has never been banished ‘beyond the fields we know’ into the realms of fantasy. He likes to play at being a juvenile Don Quixote, like Tom Sawyer, or a juvenile Marco Polo, like Huckleberry Finn. He doesn’t believe in dragons — quite — but he has cousins who went West by covered waggon and turned back because they ‘saw the elephant’. He likes taking day trips into the future, conducted by the folks at the circus of science fiction, even though he knows that one day the voyage will be as permanent and estranging as Rip Van Winkle’s. He enjoys travelling abroad, where he entertains himself by pretending to be a barbarian to scandalize the snobs; he had great fun playing this game in King Arthur’s court. His chief official hero is George Washington, a real person credited with doing things that never happened, like chopping down the celebrated cherry tree. His unofficial heroes include Bugs Bunny and Donald Duck, entirely unreal persons who somehow managed to accomplish all sorts of perfectly real things. American adventure fiction takes reality and fantasy, magic and technology, sober exploration and wild travellers’ yarns, chucks them all up together in the air as high as they will go, and makes a glorious game of taking them just as they fall. It may happen to exclude the elements of fantasy in particular instances, but it has no prejudice against them; and neither, we must conclude, has its audience. This is the common or melting-pot American, in the particularly masculine form that Ms. Le Guin has singled out for castigation: and if he is afraid of dragons at all, he is probably afraid that they may be a shade too dull for him. Old-world etiquette requires him to be a St. George and kill them, but he would really rather climb on their backs, rodeo style, and see if he can stay on for the whole eight seconds. He used to be wonderfully served by what we may call his official culture, the Arts and Literature and Other Good Things with Capital Letters. Cooper, Irving, Poe, Melville, Twain, O. Henry — the earlier part of American literary history is a glorious constellation of tall-tale tellers who didn’t care a rap whether they were being ‘realistic’ or not. Moby-Dick is filled with painstaking detail about life aboard a whaling boat, but it is also the ultimate fish story about ‘the one that got away’; the great white whale is as mythic a figure as the fish that swallowed Jonah, and the one has sometimes been mistaken for the other. The same whale (I have it on good authority) used to go by the name of Fastitocalon, and lurk about in the mediaeval bestiaries, pretending to be an island until unwary sailors tried to land on him and pitch a camp. Fantasy and realism play together with perfect freedom, en tutoyant, neither of them putting on airs or pretending to dominate the other. It is sadly true, however, that the typical American, especially the male American, of the 1970s and thereabouts, as Ms. Le Guin knew him, did not have much time for fiction, except for the dull mass-produced stuff served to him by network television; and this phenomenon has got to be accounted for. He may not have been afraid of dragons, but there were certainly no dragons in his life. How can we account for this? The hypothesis suggests itself that it was the dragons who were afraid of the Americans, and not the other way round. Something frightened them off. In ‘On Fairy-Stories’, J. R. R. Tolkien remarks that fantasy came to be associated with children, not because it was peculiarly suitable for them, but because their elders had ceased to like it; just as the old furniture in a house would be banished to the nursery for the children’s use. But it was not only fantasy that was treated in this way. The whole tradition of adventure fiction — all the tropes and categories that descended ultimately from the mediaeval romance, and that were still called ‘romantic’ in English until that word was misappropriated and applied exclusively to love-stories — was quite abruptly banished from polite circles in the latter part of the nineteenth century, not only in the U.S. but in other industrial countries as well, and remained in exile until it crept back in through the new medium of the mass-market paperback in the years after the Second World War. If you want to examine the truth of this claim, you have only to consider the kinds of fiction that were regarded as ‘boys’ stories’ in the first half of the twentieth century. This is George Orwell in ‘Boys’ Weeklies’:
Examination of a large number of these papers shows that, putting aside school stories, the favourite subjects are Wild West, Frozen North, Foreign Legion, crime (always from the detective's angle), the Great War (Air Force or Secret Service, not the infantry), the Tarzan motif in varying forms, professional football, tropical exploration, historical romance (Robin Hood, Cavaliers and Round-heads, etc.) and scientific invention. The Wild West still leads, at any rate as a setting, though the Red Indian seems to be fading out. The one theme that is really new is the scientific one. Death-rays, Martians, invisible men, robots, helicopters and interplanetary rockets figure largely: here and there there are even far-off rumours of psychotherapy and ductless glands.Orwell is talking here about the British boys’ magazines, but the same subjects, with minor variations, predominated in the American pulp magazines. The pulps showed far greater specialization than the British boys’ weeklies; there were hundreds of titles, most of them monthly, against the ten papers that served the same market in the tight oligopoly of the British press; but then the American market was a bigger one, and it could be profitable to cater to quite small segments of it. Millions of Americans read the pulps for pleasure, and by no means all of them were boys; but the pulps were aimed at boys, edited for the reading-level of boys, and censored ferociously to keep out any subjects that might be thought to corrupt the impressionable minds of boys. It is this accident, by the way, that accounts for the remarkable sexlessness of ‘Golden Age’ science fiction. Clearly there was an insatiable market for imaginative fiction; clearly our ‘common American’ had not died out, or given up reading, or even altered his tastes. But his preferred reading-matter had been banished to the cheapest magazines; the literati sneered and called it trash. After the pulp magazines disappeared, their place as the lowest common denominator of narrative fiction was taken over by television: very inadequately, for where there had been hundreds of pulps publishing thousands of stories per month, there were only three major television networks, broadcasting no more than about eighty prime-time series at any given time. There was much less variety in the televised pulp fiction of 1960 than in the printed pulp fiction of 1940. Naturally, the literati sneered at television twice as hard, fearing its tremendous reach and influence (and profitability) even more than they hated its deadly sameness. But our common American stuck to his TV set and gave up, for the most part, even pretending to read ‘serious’ fiction, though he retained a certain taste for paperback Westerns and detective stories. The literati had not changed his tastes; they only managed to drive him out. They did not drive out his female counterpart, who was more interested in love-stories and domestic melodrama (which the electronic media call ‘soap opera’). They could not; they needed her money. In the years after the Second World War, more than ever before, American popular fiction became a women’s preserve. Those were the years that saw the rise of the Harlequin romance, and the mini-novel, ‘complete in this issue’, that was for a while a staple of the women’s magazines; but also the rise of ‘women’s fiction’, the ordinary bestselling novel that contained nothing imaginative in the wider sense, but pushed the emotional buttons of the average female reader within a carefully limited domain of ‘realistic’ domesticity. Ms. Le Guin, of course, has no more time for this stuff than she has for the television shows that the menfolk were using to pass the time:
[L]acking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and ‘true romances’, and nursy novels, and historico-sentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.But once again, it does not occur to her that the Common American (Female Division) simply took the ‘fodder’ that was actually available. The decision to push this kind of material was made from on high, in the élitist (and profoundly sexist) confines of the Higher Publishing. During what Ms. Le Guin herself has called the fifty-year halt of American feminism, women readers were not encouraged to read ‘serious’ fiction; but their interest in domestic matters and family drama (as old, and as evident, as the village gossip that has been with us since Neolithic times) meant that some of their interests could be catered to without risking the deep forbidden waters of the old-style romance. In these latter days, when women are perfectly free to range over the literary landscape however they choose, I have known any number of female readers who liked both ‘sickly fodder’ and ‘genuine imaginative works’ — women who voluntarily read (for example) ‘nursy novels’ in one mood, and science fiction in another, and find entertainment, even nourishment, in both. The readership of fantasy in the U.S. nowadays, I am told, is about three-fourths female. The same range of tastes, we may well suppose, was latently there in the women of fifty years ago; but the publishing business made a deliberate choice to cater to only one small part of that range. It begins to look as if we are faced with a deliberate plot; and already I can hear a chorus warming up in the wings, getting ready to call me a crackpot and a conspiracy theorist. I can only reply that there was such a plot, and that some of the original principals have confessed. In An Experiment in Criticism, C. S. Lewis professed that he had never heard anyone actually and explicitly say that works of pure imagination (such as fantasy) were per se not literature, or ought not to be read; but I have seen both those claims made. As late as the early 1990s, I could go into any ‘independent’ bookshop in my home town and confidently expect not to find any science fiction or fantasy, except for stuff like Nineteen Eighty-four or Lord of the Flies, which had been suitably disinfected by being taught as Literature — so much the better if it was unbearably depressing, as those two books are to most people. If I wanted such books, I had to look in the chain bookshops, where the staff and the distant owners were not too proud to carry ‘cheap commercial trash’. But where did this attitude start? I have elsewhere repeated Dave Wolverton’s assertion, which he can back with formidable evidence (as befits a retired professor), that it began with the American Socialist movement that arose around 1870, and in particular with William Dean Howells, the ‘father of American realism’. Here it is again, from ‘On Writing as a Fantasist’:
He claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about ‘interesting’ characters — such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings — places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where ‘nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story’. He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the ‘common man’, just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers.Howells was still alive, and still wielding that tremendous influence, in the first years of the twentieth century, when names like Henry James and Edith Wharton were the new giants of American letters. Howells’s disciples — it is not too strong a word — had risen to the highest positions in New York publishing, and the editorships of the most prestigious literary reviews. Together they founded what we might call the ‘secular Puritan’ school of fiction, dominated by the idea that strict realism is the only valid form of literature, because only strict realism is good for you. And how do you know that it is good for you? Why, because it is dull. There are those who profess to be fascinated by James’s and Wharton’s fiction, but they are well outnumbered, as I believe, by those who admire their technique, but admit that the bulk of their stories, considered as stories, are terribly and sustainedly boring. This attitude of studied admiration for deliberate dulness was appallingly common at the time; it is brilliantly lampooned in Saki’s short story, ‘Filboid Studge’, in which the world’s worst breakfast cereal becomes a daily staple precisely because anything that foul-tasting must be good for you — if not nutritionally, then morally. It was not only the younger writers who geared up to write literary Filboid Studge. Mark Twain’s last years furnish sad evidence of Howells’s power. Twain and Howells were close friends in those years, and Howells influenced Twain’s work, I believe, markedly for the worse. Among my books are two volumes of Twain from the Library of America: one containing a sample of his shorter pieces from 1852 to 1890, the other from 1890 to his death in 1910. They might almost have been written by two different men. The stories in the first volume are imaginative, wild, free, and nearly always funny, in the finest tradition of the American tall tale. Those in the second volume are increasingly solemn, sober, preachy, and depressing, and when they depart from strict realism, it is apt to be in the service of heavy-handed satire, like the attack on religion in The Mysterious Stranger. Among these latter pieces is a little screed that he wrote to glorify Howells. In this, he makes a great effort to convince us that a little word-picture by Howells (of menial labourers shovelling snow in the Piazza San Marco in Venice) is a masterpiece of poetic prose. It isn’t; it is a string of pretty words, prettily put together, and wasted on an utterly trivial object. But Howells would not have it any other way; he devoutly believed literature ought to be about trivial objects. He thought that snow-shovellers in Venice were worth writing about precisely because they were ordinary and prosaic, and because they were poor and downtrodden; and if only the art of literature could be engaged to make them seem fascinating and important, it would enlist the sympathies of the middle classes on their behalf, and then — hey presto! The Socialist Utopia would ensue. This method was followed by Upton Sinclair and others, and ultimately perfected by Steinbeck. One could call it ‘Socialist Realism for the bourgeoisie’. Such work has a powerful attraction for the literati to this day, for the literati are still Socialists for the most part, and are still, after all these years, waiting for their Utopia. The ‘sentence cult’, the habit of heaping extravagant praise upon works that combine exquisite prose with utterly vapid subject-matter, is as congenial to their ideology now as it was in Howells’s time. For it is the characteristic mark of the Utopian Socialist in particular (there are other and better kinds of Socialists) that he must be in a perpetual stew lest people hanker after the wrong Utopia. Even to find a modicum of happiness in this life is liable to be condemned by such people as ‘escapism’; and of course stories of fantasy and adventure are ‘escapist’ by definition. It does not much matter whether the stories are realistic or not, in the sense of being formally possible in real life. The Utopian view is that ‘realism’ requires an unrelenting focus on the dreary, the depressing, the degrading; that, as Lenin put it, the worse things are, the better they are — for it is miserable people who can be talked into backing revolutions. Happy and contented people are too liable to accept the status quo. The idea was perfectly expressed, back in the 1920s, by an American union organizer who complained because workingmen were buying motorcars:
The Ford car has done an awful lot of harm to the unions here and everywhere else. As long as men have enough money to buy a second-hand Ford and tires and gasoline, they’ll be out on the road and paying no attention to union meetings.But this kind of thinking — ‘the worse, the better’ — persisted strongly in Socialist parties all over the world until the 1980s, and in some of them it persists to this day. A genuine turning-point came in 1987, when another union leader — a British one, this time, the late Ron Todd — confessed that this whole method was mistaken:
What do you say to a docker who earns £400 a week, owns his house, a new car, a microwave and a video, as well as a small place near Marbella? You do not say, ‘Let me take you out of your misery, brother.’But misery remains a selling-point for the literati; as long as it is other people’s misery. The élite of the New York publishing business, and the élite of the famous reviews, all earned their élitehood by acquiring the strongest possible taste for Filboid Studge; they cannot possibly admit that the game is up, that the unwashed masses were right all along to take their nourishment from food that tasted good. It was these élites that fought to keep J. K. Rowling off the Times bestseller list (and succeeded in banishing her to a separate children’s list); it was their British counterparts who cried out that literature was dead because polls of the British reading public showed that The Lord of the Rings was regarded as the greatest novel of the twentieth century. According to the Filboid Studge theory, no work of fantasy (‘escapist trash’) should have been allowed on the list at all; the highest place should have been reserved for Ulysses, no matter how the vote had to be rigged to make it come out right. Tom Shippey tells a lovely tale about a famous British critic who said, on hearing that The Lord of the Rings had topped the poll: ‘Has it? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.’ Such things are not supposed to happen; and to a good Utopian Socialist, who still believes in the Marxist dogmas he imbibed in his credulous youth, such things cannot happen. History is the inevitable progress of humanity out of the ignorant past and into the glorious Marxist future. Fantasy is dead, the adventure story is dead, just as religion and laissez-faire are supposed to be dead; our glorious predecessors killed them a hundred years ago. If the dead are seen walking abroad, they can only be ghosts; and we cannot believe in ghosts. For a Utopian of 2000, the continued popularity of Tolkien was intolerable, as the victories of Thatcher and Reagan were for a Utopian of 1980. They refuted the theories; they confounded the prophecies. In 1974, when Ms. Le Guin wrote her snide attack on the taste of the American public, it was still just barely possible to believe that the Socialist Utopia was still inevitable; and rather easier to believe that the triumph of literary realism was complete. At that time, the publishing industry had convinced itself that fantasy was unsalable after all, that Tolkien had been a passing fad of the hippie culture, like tie-dye or acid rock. But it was only the publishers who believed it. The American public were never deceived. Many of them had never heard of Tolkien, or of any modern fantasy for grown-ups; the knowledge had been carefully kept from them. But the attitude that Le Guin fathers onto them, the contempt for fantasy and adventure fiction, hardly existed outside the circle of the literary élite and their hangers-on. Some people — it was a common thing in academia — hated fantasy because it was fashionable to hate it, because that was the way to get up and get on in their profession. Some had an honest distaste for it. Some people loved it. The great mass of the people liked fantasy, when they could get it; they enjoyed taking their children to Disney movies (often more than the children themselves did). TV programs like Bewitched were always popular. As fantasy goes, these things were pretty thin gruel; but a man will take thin gruel and be glad of it, if he can get no other food. But it was never true that the mass of the American people were afraid of fantasy, or of imaginative fiction in general. Just three years after Ms. Le Guin published ‘Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?’, the dam burst once and for all. In one amazing year, 1977, the film industry was changed for ever by the astounding success of a fantasy movie with science-fiction visuals — Star Wars. The biggest selling book of the year was The Silmarillion. In the same year, The Sword of Shannara and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever proved that Tolkien was not alone, that there was a huge pent-up demand for fantasy by other authors as well. By the early eighties, science fiction and fantasy books were frequent bestsellers, and SF and fantasy movies were reliable box-office hits. The Common American (of both sexes) was back; the American tall tale, in all its forms, was alive and impossibly well. Raiders of the Lost Ark showed that the pure adventure story, even without the trimmings of SF, had lost none of its old power to enchant an audience. The auteurs of the 1970s ‘new cinema’ have been mourning their lost glory and counting their losses ever since. They tried to conquer Hollywood for the kingdom of Filboid Studge — and failed. And since that day, the very citadel of Filboid Studge in America, the New York Literary Establishment, has been under siege. That, in brief, is the story of the American who was never afraid of dragons. He took to dragons with childlike delight, as soon as the dragons were allowed to get near him again. And sad to say, the people who were afraid of dragons all along — the people who went to war upon the dragons, and made the dragons afraid of them — were not the hated capitalists, the money men reading ‘that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report’. They were the literati themselves, the Progressives, the enlightened and cultured ones — people a lot more like Ms. Le Guin than the straw men she mistook for her opponents. Like Pogo in the famous comic strip (another masterpiece of the American imagination), Ms. Le Guin could aptly have proclaimed: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’
One problem I have with Friedman’s post was that she insisted on an artificial distinction between “literary fiction” — I’m guessing she means fiction that is written well but is not bestseller material — & “genre” fiction (e.g., romance, mystery, action, science fiction): until a few decades ago, any fiction writer published with the hope her/his book would get on the bestseller lists, that everyone would want to read the book. (I bet even Herman Melville wanted Moby Dick to be a best seller, & was disappointed when it sold poorly.) A work is classed as literature long after the author is dead in most cases, anyway.I reply: Actually, the ‘literary fiction’ racket has been going for over a century, and it is, indeed, a racket. It is based not on quality of writing (though, to keep its rights to the moniker ‘literary’, it does tend to insist obsessively on fine details of prose technique at the sentence level), but on exclusion. That is, it is intentionally designed to exclude anything exotic, anything highly dramatic, anything that might, for instance, excite a young reader or send one on an imaginative journey. Dave Wolverton, a.k.a. David Farland, traces this movement back to a deliberate decision made by William Dean Howells. In a very interesting essay. ‘On Writing as a Fantasist’, he describes Howells’ definition of ‘literary’ work in these terms:
[Howells] claimed that authors had gone astray by being imitators of one another rather than of nature. He proscribed writing about “interesting” characters--such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings—places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. Because Howells was the editor of the largest and most powerful magazine of the time (and because of its fabulous payment rates, a short story sale to that magazine could support a writer for a year or two), his views had a tremendous influence on American writers. But as a writer of fantastic literature, I immediately have to question Howells’s dictates on a number of grounds. Howells contended that good literature could only be written if we did three things: 1) Restrict the kinds of settings we deal with. 2) Restrict the kinds of characters we deal with. 3) Restrict the scope of conflicts we deal with.Oscar Wilde, whose plays are not often staged these days but whose fairy tales may live on for ever, had the good sense to laugh at Howells’ strictures and at the stories he liked to publish. He called them ‘teacup tragedies’. They might be called (for Howells was a good Socialist of the 19th-century type) ‘Socialist Realism for the bourgeoisie’. Like the Russian type of Socialist Realism, most of the stuff that fits in this narrow category is rubbish; but it is often very well-executed rubbish, and if you execute it skilfully enough, you can make a thundering reputation among the tiny circle of People That Matter, whilst being entirely ignored by the general public — whom you can then look down on as illiterate cretins. The American branch of the Modernist movement, and the tight claque of highbrow publishers and reviews that constitute the so-called New York Literary Establishment, can all be traced back to Howells’ circle of influence. If you pressed me to name a date at which the Howells school definitely became an Establishment, I would probably name 10 October 1896, the date on which the New York Times inaugurated its book-review section. Once the most prestigious paper in the United States began reviewing books on a large scale, that was a citadel worth capturing; and the Howells school duly captured it. From that time on, the Times has exerted its influence consistently on the side of the Modernists and their successors, and against works and authors that follow the much larger tradition of adventurous and imaginative fiction. Whole classes of books, for instance, have been systematically excluded from the Times bestseller list because the Times did not approve of their subject-matter. Whatever is left — whatever subjects the Times and kindred publications, in their awful and austere prestige, think Real Writers should be permitted to write about — constitutes ‘literary fiction’ in the technical sense. I am afraid that is an unflattering definition — but then, a definition arrived at by such a process is hardly deserving of flattery. In all this, the N.Y.L.E. and the Times have played the role of Benjamin Jowett in the satirical quatrain:
Here come I, my name is Jowett. All there is to know I know it. I am Master of this College, What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!
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.
The myth is simply that writers compete. Of course, this is so far wrong, it shouldn’t be even talked about, but alas it’s still out there and going strong. In fact, I recently made the mistake of wondering over onto the Kindle boards and wasted a bunch of hours before I came to my senses. By the time I was finished with those hours, I knew I had to talk about this, since new writer after new writer talked about how they had to compete with all the other writers to get their books read.He then goes on to paint a wonderful Technicolor picture of a world where there is an unlimited demand for fiction, pie for you and me and pasture for all the sheep, and the sky’s the limit, baby. Now, I do not know what religion Mr. Smith adheres to, but I am a lifelong devotee of what Kipling calls the Gods of the Copybook Headings. And one of the Copybook Headings, which people like Mr. Smith seem never to have heard of, is this: Trees do not grow up to the sky. Nothing in human affairs is infinite; no opportunity is limitless. It is true, and trivially true, that every invention, every industry, every product of human hands, creates its own demand. But it is also true, and trivially true, that this demand is subject to the law of diminishing returns. It is very easy to persuade most households to buy a motorcar. It is pretty easy (when there is more than one driver in the household) to persuade them to buy a second car. But once a family of three has four or five cars, they are likely to be keener on getting rid of a car or two than buying yet another. And if the family live in Manhattan or Hong Kong, they may be rightly reluctant to buy even that first car: the roads are already so full of cars that they are very nearly stacked on top of one another. Now, anybody who reads at all will desire a second book more than a second car. I have something over a thousand books in my flat, and am still buying more. I cheerfully paid money for my thousand-and-first book; I would not buy my thousand-and-first car even if cars were as cheap as books. We appear to have smacked up against the limitations of the analogy, so I hope you will pardon me if I abandon it for another. Up to the 1980s, Coca-Cola and Pepsi gauged their success or failure in business by market share: that is, by the percentage share that each of them had in the total sales of non-alcoholic fizzy drinks. Then an executive (I forget of which company, but I believe it was a Coke man) came up with the idea of looking at their share of all drinks, even including water. Instead of resting on their laurels because Coke had (say) forty-five percent of the fizzy-drink market and Pepsi had only forty, he exhorted his fellows to get to work selling their product, because it had only about a five-percent share in the quenching of human thirst. He christened this latter figure with the incredibly ugly name of ‘stomach share’. Both Coke and Pepsi have been hard at work increasing their stomach share ever since. Now, we writers, considered in the aggregate, are in a somewhat similar position. J. K. Rowling and James Patterson, for instance, have each of them a considerable market share out of the number of copies of novels printed and sold each year; but compared to the overall market for entertainment, that whole market is one pip in a watermelon. What we need here is a word that expresses how big we are compared not to the pip but to the watermelon, as ‘stomach share’ does for the drinks business. ‘Timeshare’ and ‘mindshare’ have both been appropriated by marketing people for other uses. For my present purpose, I shall use the term ‘clock share’, which is at any rate less hideous than ‘stomach share’; and if a better term is already in general use, I apologize for my ignorance. The term ‘clock share’ has at any rate this advantage, that it suggests the division of the day into hours, and also suggests a pie chart: a symbol to which all marketers and stomach-share people are much addicted. It also has at least one important shortcoming, which I will deal with before going on. The fact is that, like some of those who consume fizzy drinks, avid readers suffer from anticipatory gluttony: our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. Some people have hundreds of unread books lying about, which they had every intention of reading when they bought them; yet they go on buying more. The number of hours one has in a day for reading is not a hard limit on how many books one buys. But it is, I may venture to say, a soft limit. We may buy more books in a year than we read in a year; we may buy twice as many; but if we buy ten times as many, our bank managers or our spouses, or at least the clutter in our rooms, will tell us sharply to knock it off. There is then some linkage between the number of books we read and the number we may wish to buy. (Please note, also, that I am speaking of trade books, and especially of fiction read for entertainment. I myself have scores of encyclopaedias and dictionaries which I shall never read from cover to cover; but I bought those for different reasons. Reference books simply belong in a category by themselves, and I shall not even attempt to discuss them here.) Every day, every human being (it is an astonishing equality) receives a free gift of twenty-four hours. A billionaire in Beverly Hills cannot buy or even steal a single hour from a starving child in Somalia. Out of those twenty-four, about a third are spent in rest and sleep; another third to a quarter, on the average, in work. To these claims we must add the minor taxes upon our time that keep our bodies whole and our civilization functioning: eating, washing, using the toilet, paying taxes, cursing the government, and (not least of all) transmitting these useful arts to our children. There remain, for the average person, perhaps seven hours a day that can be devoted to edification and amusement. That is the clock; that is the whole market, for shares of which we writers have to compete. To some extent, we are also competing for money; but reading is actually a very cheap pastime. Orwell showed, in his essay ‘Books vs Cigarettes’, that even in the comparatively impoverished circumstances of wartime and postwar Britain, not many people were prevented from reading solely by a lack of money; they simply did not choose to devote much time to it as an entertainment. Every industrialized country today is richer than Britain in the 1940s; so are some of the countries that we persist in calling ‘the Third World’. Now, if every form of entertainment was equal, and people made their decisions solely by what was the cheapest way to fill the hours, reading would be enormously more popular than it is. Listening to the radio is virtually free; so is watching over-the-air TV. But both these pastimes are on the decline, chiefly because they leave you at the mercy of the men who decide what programs to broadcast. If you want to choose your own entertainment, you will have to pay for the privilege. An evening at the movies costs (in my part of the world) between five and ten dollars per hour. Live theatre, concerts, sporting events, and so forth tend to cost more, and fall into the bracket of luxury goods. High-speed Internet service, in these parts, goes for a dollar a day and up; for another $8 per month you can add Netflix. Or, if watching live shows (such as sporting matches) in real time is important, you can spend up to $100 or so on cable TV. A console video game may cost as much as $50, and provide anywhere from one or two evenings up to several hundred hours of amusement, depending on how open-ended the game is. The most open-ended games of all are the MMORPGs, which generally come with a monthly fee; you can amuse yourself with one of those for a dollar a day or thereabouts (plus Internet service). In short, leaving cinemas and live shows on one side, and considering only entertainment that is consumed in the home, you can amuse yourself more or less indefinitely for two or three dollars a day; more, if you want a variety of amusements, as most people do. Where does reading fit in? The average literate person, I am told, can read about 300 words per minute; though people tend to read fiction somewhat more slowly, because they want time to picture the scenes and hear the dialogue in their own minds. Let us, then, knock that figure down to 200. Allowing for time to stretch the legs, fetch drinks, etc., etc., and especially etc., we may suppose that a middling recreational reader goes through 10,000 words in an hour. A doorstop bestseller in a cheap edition may cost about $10 and contain as many as 400,000 words; which works out to 25 cents per hour if you read it only once. Shorter books cost more dollars per hour, but then, better books may be worth rereading, and give you more hours per dollar. We may suppose that it all roughly averages out. So, if all you do is read, and you buy all your books but don’t bother with expensive editions, you can fill your leisure hours quite easily for the price that most people are willing to pay for online video games or cable TV. It is not a financially onerous hobby, as long as you don’t mix it up with the horribly expensive and endlessly competitive game of being a collector. If you live near a decent public library, or read a lot of public-domain books, you can get by even more cheaply. I conclude that money, for most people in the richer countries, is not a significant obstacle. On price alone, reading can compete. What competes is habit. Some people will sit in front of a television set for eight to ten hours a day, never quite being bored enough to stir from the couch and do something else. Some people will play online games for stretches of time that nature never intended. And a few people, like C. S. Lewis in his palmy days, will, yes, read for ten hours per day. I don’t encourage people to do any of these things. But if one form of entertainment has 100 percent of a person’s individual clock share, that’s what it looks like. (Similarly unpleasant consequences can follow if Coke or Pepsi gets 100 percent of your stomach share.) Very well, then: We don’t want to conquer the world. We don’t want 100 percent clock share. But there indisputably is such a thing as 100 percent clock share, and therefore, reading is in competition with other entertainments. Robert A. Heinlein put it with brutal simplicity: He described his job as writing stories that kids would read instead of watching TV, and that Joe Sixpack would buy instead of beer. If reading ever became the dominant pastime of literate people, then writers would indeed be in direct competition with one another for clock share. As it is, most people are in the habit of spending their leisure time on other things. It takes a particular kind of book to catch a person’s interest and jar her into reading instead of watching American Idol, climbing mountains, knitting socks for the cat, or what have you. And the book that catches one person will leave another cold. Millions of people love The Lord of the Rings and reread it again and again; millions of others hate it and would pay to be excused. There are, believe it or not, even people who don’t care for Twilight. This will, I think, always be the case. The act of reading involves putting yourself into a mild trance state, and works well only if the physical and linguistic process of interpreting the words on the paper is largely automatic and subconscious. That requires effort. Then, too, storytelling actually involves a physical cycle of tension and release — the biological reason for stories to have plots. (David Farland explains the phenomenon well in his essay, ‘What Is Entertainment?’. Pay particular attention to the bit about Feralt’s Triangle. I’ll wait for you here.) The upshot of all this is that reading takes effort — not only mental, but to a certain extent, even physical effort, and very few people will spend all their free time doing it. So while there is a hard limit to the number of hours the collective human race could spend reading — about seven hours per day times the total population — the law of diminishing returns ensures that we will never approach that limit very closely. What we have left is a soft and squishy limit. Nobody can push beyond the hard limit, but a particular author, with a particular book, may get particular readers to push themselves far beyond the soft limit to reap the particular reward that suits them so well. Now let us return to our muttons, and to Dean Wesley Smith’s particular counterclaims. He goes on to say:
So, let me take a hard look at the reality of fiction writing by dealing with the four things I heard new indie writers say over and over. Indie writers think they are competing against 1) other writers, 2) other books, 3) traditional publishers, and 4) the noise (meaning the crowding of so many books.)Needless to say, Mr. Smith pooh-poohs all these claims. I think he exaggerates his case. Nearly all the truths you hear or read are half-truths, and most often the short half. Something is always left out when you try to express a truth in language, and the more complex and subtle the truth, the harder it is to express pithily. (Jesus of Nazareth’s reputation as a philosopher, leaving on one side his status as a religious figure, depends largely upon his brilliance at expressing subtle truths in pithy parables. It’s not as easy as it looks.) Consequently, if you deny one of these half-truths, you will probably be at least half right; but you leave yourself open to a just accusation of throwing out the baby with the bath-water. Let us look, then, at some babies. 1. Writers compete against other writers. In general terms this is not true, since the clock share of recreational reading is so much smaller than it could be. In particular terms it may be true. To take a trivial instance, I have often gone into a bookshop and wanted to buy more books than I had the money to pay for. I had hard choices to make, and each book I put back on the shelf represents an author who lost that particular competition. However, I am both a bigger reader and a poorer man than the average. Most people can filch enough from their beer money to buy all the books they really want to read. More serious is the problem of competition for attention from publishers. In the Dark Ages, that is, the years up to 2010 or thereabouts, the only practicable way for a fiction writer to reach a substantial audience was by submitting manuscripts to publishers. Every reputable publishing house receives hundreds of times more manuscripts than it can possibly publish. The competition for slots on the monthly or quarterly list was always keen. Many an editor has had to turn down books or stories that she would very much have liked to buy, simply because there was no room for them in the publishing schedule. For published authors, the competition is less numerically daunting but no less keen. The fact is that even within their lines, most publishers and imprints impose a rather arbitrary hierarchy. Each list has one lead title, which receives the lion’s share of the promotion budget. Co-ops, end-cap placement, promotional tours, all the gimmicks that New York and London publishers use to shove books into the channel in quantity — these are reserved almost entirely for the monthly list leaders. The rest of the authors on each list have to make do with the leavings. If you do reach the point where your books are routinely list-leaders, you are still not out of the woods. A well-known writer of my acquaintance was in the second tier of fantasy authors published by Tor Books. That is, his books did well enough that any new release of his was worth issuing as a leader, but not so well that he was in any danger of knocking Robert Jordan or Terry Goodkind off their tandem perch. It was, in effect, a matter of corporate policy at Tor that they should have two and only two superstar fantasy authors. My acquaintance (I have not asked permission to divulge his name) had therefore to agree to a particularly odious clause in his contract, in exchange for the privilege of being a regular list-leader. He was not allowed to publish a book with Tor for six months before or six months after a new release by either Jordan or Goodkind. On one occasion, Jordan and Goodkind released new books exactly twelve months apart. That meant that this poor fellow could not have a new book out for two solid years. Two years is a long silence in this game; an author who has published nothing for two years will have a biggish job to do in winning back his audience. The thing about these kinds of competition is that they are entirely artificial, imposed not by the nature of books or the nature of readers, but by the way that traditional book publishers choose to do their business. The bad news is that traditional publishers are continually thinking of new ways to make their business model even worse for writers. The good news is that they are no longer the only game in town, and we can bypass them entirely if we are willing to make the effort and take the risk. 2. Books compete against other books. Again, this is true only in specific instances; and much truer of nonfiction than of fiction. A book on a subject, especially a highly specialized technical subject, can be so definitive that there is no room left for a would-be competitor. In my own pet hobby of Indo-European historical linguistics, the definitive reference work is Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. It is over 50 years old now, and showing its age, but the overwhelming effort of compiling a replacement, then selling it to the universities and scholars that have invested heavily in Pokorny, has so far been simply prohibitive. Fortunately, writers of fiction do not have that to contend with. One story does not supersede another. My taste for Don Quixote does not inhibit my appetite for Gulliver’s Travels. Rather the opposite: when a reader develops a real liking for something, she wants more of it than any one writer can provide. Amanda Hocking has grown rich feeding the very audience that Stephenie Meyer could not sate. Isaac Asimov wrote five hundred books in his time, but there never was a reader who read all his books and nobody else’s. Again, what competition exists is largely artificial and arbitrary. One book competes with another for limited shelf space in brick-and-mortar bookshops — but Amazon’s shelf space, being virtual, is infinite. One book competes with another for the limited printing, warehousing, and marketing budgets of a particular publishing house — but it is trivially easy to start up a new house. And with ebooks, the problem very nearly disappears. (It is replaced by another, perhaps more intractable problem — but I will come back to that in a moment.) 3. Independent writers are in competition with traditional publishing. This used to be true, because the major corporate publishers — the Big Six, as they now are in New York, though in the days of their real power there were more — tried to operate as an oligopoly and a cartel. They exerted their muscle to exclude small presses and self-published authors from Ingram’s and the other major distribution channels; to keep them out of the New York Times and the New York Review of Books; to keep them out of chain bookshops and off bestseller lists. There was a real and bitter competition between the big corporate publishers and the smaller presses; but that competition is over, and while Goliath is not dead, David has clearly won. Nobody thinks any longer that a book must be worthless because it is published by a small press, and few people can even keep up the old prejudice against self-publishing. Twenty years ago, a self-published novel meant a novel that no real publisher would touch, and a deluded fool with a basement full of unsold books. Today, it may mean a self-made millionaire like James Patterson or the aforementioned Ms. Hocking. A New York colophon was never a guarantee of quality; today, we cannot even pretend that the absence of a New York colophon guarantees a lack of quality. 4. Writers are competing against the noise. This is the modern replacement for numbers 1 and 2 above. It is certainly true that enormous numbers of self-published books have burst upon the market, most of them drearily bad. The slush pile is out in the open. This is both good and bad. The bad news is that readers now have to do the job that editors used to do, searching through the slush for things worth reading. The good news is that they are no longer prevented from choosing the books they want, just because the author could not find an editor who shared that taste. A decade ago, I heard Mr. Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books, explain the factors that cause readers to buy a particular book. The most important factor, as I recall, driving about 30 percent of sales, was the author’s name: people who like one of an author’s books very often want to try the others. Word of mouth and the actual book cover were the next two on the list, and all other factors combined — reviews, co-ops, book tours, author interviews, etc., etc. — amounted to perhaps 25 percent. (Mr. Doherty told me these things in a casual conversation, and I did not note down the exact figures.) For self-published books, which are likely to be ebooks, the cover is perhaps less important; but the three main ways that a reader finds a book to buy are the same online as in traditional print. 1. Janet Stubbs reads a book by Helen Sweetstory and likes it. She goes out looking for other books by Helen Sweetstory. 2. Janet Stubbs tells her friend Joe Bloggs about this wonderful book she has just read. Joe is sufficiently interested to give Helen Sweetstory a try. 3. Janet Stubbs is browsing in a bookshop, and sees an interesting-looking book. The cover catches her eye, the title is intriguing. Approaching a little closer, she finds the blurb appealing. She leafs through the first pages, seeing how the story begins and what Helen Sweetstory’s voice ‘sounds’ like. Having sufficiently kicked the tires, she decides to buy. Of course, the online retailers have given us a kind of hybrid between 2 and 3, with the ‘You might also like’ feature. In effect, the virtual bookshop contains a whole section of books constructed on the fly for each customer’s amusement. We may go traipsing over a physical bookshop for hours looking for something of interest, but for all the technical wizardry of Amazon, virtual traipsing is not yet an option. So instead we have a charming throwback to the days when a travelling pedlar would spread out his wares in the customer’s home, selecting from his stock the things he thought she would be most likely to buy. Now, if you are a brand-new writer with only one title on the shelf, you may never overcome the noise; but that is because you are the noise. The signal consists of good books and consistently good writers. Each time someone buys one of your books, the virtual pedlar takes note and begins offering that book to customers with similar tastes. Each time someone tells a friend about one of your books, or writes a review in his blog, the signal is repeated and grows stronger. And each time you come out with a new book, you have added a potential starting point at which people can notice you for the first time, and another product for all your existing readers to come back and (we hope) buy. In effect, ‘People who buy this book also bought’, and the system of reader reviews at Amazon and other online shops, are ways to crowdsource the slush pile, and very ingenious ones. The recent history of the software industry shows that crowdsourcing is a highly efficient way to detect and correct errors; and from the standpoint of publishing, a worthless book is an error. In terms of information theory, it’s all a matter of filtering noise. The big losers in all this, perhaps, will be writers like J. D. Salinger or Joseph Heller, who were essentially men of one book. It was never very often that one book made a career; now it is bound to get even rarer. The filters cannot tell if you, the first-time author with a single new title in the system, have written Catch-22 (which millions of people will love) or What I Did Last Summer (which your mother will pretend to love). Thousands of sheer and intentional amateurs are flooding Kindle and Smashwords and Createspace with the kind of books that they would once have sent to a vanity press. This is advantageous for them, since they no longer get stuck with that basement full of unsold books; not so good for the rest of us, and very bad indeed for the Salingers and Hellers of the world. For the present, it is still possible to boost your signal above the noise with one book, by selling it to a prestigious New York or London publisher. If you really are a man of one book, or such a slow writer that your second book will be long in coming, you might be well advised to avoid the noisy signal and do things the old-fashioned way.
Considering how cerebral our genre is, it’s startling how seldom you hear a reviewer say, ‘I didn’t unnastan it.’ Perhaps it’s precisely because sf is so cerebral these days, so hungry for serious consideration and academic respect, so desperately fleeing the drooling spectre of Buck Rogers, that we have blundered headfirst into the chasm of what my pal Steve Thomas calls the E.N.C. Syndrome. . . . ‘E.N.C.’, of course, refers to the emperor’s new clothes, and the syndrome finds its most perfect expression in the statement, ‘If I don’t understand it, it must be Art.’ God knows that sf is not the only art form to become entangled in the E.N.C. Syndrome—but it’s right up there with the worst of ’em. Remember the first time you admitted to someone that you didn’t understand what the hell was going on in Dhalgren? The timidity with which you confessed to your English teacher that you couldn’t make head nor tale of Barefoot in the Head? The secret shame with which you bounced off a Phil Dick novel? The uneasy suspicion that maybe you just weren’t intellectually rigorous enough to grow, that the New Wave was leaving you behind with the rest of the lowbrows? Reviewers in particular, me among them, will go to incredible lengths to avoid saying plainly, ‘I didn’t get it.’ Perhaps we fear that saying this will establish us on some fixed point, below the upper levels, on the intellectual hierarchy, and thus disqualify us as critics. Surely a critic ought to be someone who understands everything? Cow custards.Now, writers of intellectual pretension use all kinds of monkey tricks to turn out stories that will baffle the critics into submission, but for the most part they rely upon three devices, which I now propose to mock. The first is the irrelevant allusion to obscure sources. In Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler heaped scorn upon the semi-literate apes who afflict us with irrelevant allusions to the commonplace:
There is indeed a certain charm in the grown-up man’s boyish ebullience, not to be restrained by thoughts of relevance from letting the exuberant phrase jet forth. And for that charm we put up with it when one draws our attention to the methodical by telling us that there is method in the madness, though method & not madness is there for all to see, when another’s every winter is the winter of his discontent, when a third cannot complain of the light without calling it religious as well as dim, when for a fourth nothing can be rotten except in the state of Denmark, or when a fifth, asked whether he does not owe you 1/6 for that cabfare, owns the soft impeachment.We all know people whose conversation, or what is worse, whose writing, is a kind of desolate beach littered with the hulks of unseaworthy clichés that have washed ashore over the years, so that it becomes nearly impossible to pick one’s way along the strand. This is a tiresome kind of scenery, but not half so bad as the bizarre landscape produced by the literary specimen-hunter who specializes in raising ancient and forgotten wrecks to decorate his coastline with. The irrelevant classical allusion was long favoured for this purpose, for tolerably obvious reasons. Until the late nineteenth century, English universities based their curricula soundly upon the classics, and derided the notion of granting a degree in English on the grounds that it needed no great erudition to master the merely vernacular literature. The would-be literary snob had to furnish his obscurities from Latin and Greek texts, or else be thought dreadfully common and uneducated, and so fail of his intent. This kind of curio-chasing had been going on ever since Hellenistic times, growing more self-referential and more Talmudic with each passing century; the pale final flowering of pagan Roman literature in the fifth century A.D. consisted of little else. Joyce, whose Ulysses is perhaps the most sustained and exhaustive compilation of difficult classical allusions in modern English, would doubtless have been grossly offended to be compared with the fifth-rate poetasters of collapsing Rome, but the comparison, though unfair, stands on its merits. But once English literature received the approval of academe as a fit study for a liberal-arts major, the field was thrown open to the infinite variety of irrelevant modern allusions. Indeed, some Modernist authors seem to have earned their reputations chiefly by writing gnomic works alluding to sources not merely obscure but entirely unknown, except to an inner circle of cronies and simpatico critics. William Carlos Williams’ most-praised poem, like Mona Lisa’s smile, derives nearly its entire reputation from the fact that it is impossible to tell what it is actually about. As Dave Wolverton wrote in Tangent a few years ago:
The realist movement quickly developed a trend toward elitism, gaining a certain snob appeal, that I find very distasteful. Under the influence of Ezra Pound, the imagists began writing in the early 1900s. Taking his cue from ancient Chinese monarchs, Pound sought to capture the essence of a story in one or two concise, overpowering images. Thus we end up with poems like this one by William Carlos Williams: ‘The Red Wheelbarrow.’ so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens Now, for those of you who have never heard that poem before, I beg you, what does it mean? Please tell me. ‘So much depends upon’ it. . . . Of course you can’t figure it out by studying the text. The clues aren’t there. This poem was meant to be appreciated only by a chosen literary elite, only by those who were educated, those who had learned the back story (Williams was a doctor, and he wrote the poem one morning after having treated a child who was near death. The red wheelbarrow was her toy.)Now, this story about the origin of the red wheelbarrow may be true, or it may not. It is at least plausible, unlike the reams of absolute drivel written by academics and critics who simply don’t want to admit the obvious: that the poem is effectively meaningless, because it is impossible to identify its referents from the clues in the exiguous text. Perhaps the poem really does refer to a little girl’s toy, and perhaps it refers to something else. It could even, as Julio Marzán insists, have arisen from a kind of bizarre topological transformation from another of Williams’ poems:
To arrive at ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, Williams translated the relationship between Elena, the poet, and her physical surroundings into visual images. The soul-dead Elena, who held in her hand the empty pitcher from which she had poured out the regenerative vitality of water, is compressed into the idea of something on which so much pende (‘hangs’).But the smart money is on Wolverton to win, and utter arbitrary meaninglessness to place. Henry M. Sayre notes: ‘It is crucial that Williams’s material is banal, trivial.’ It speaks volumes for the pretension and phoniness of Modernist literary criticism that he actually means to praise Williams by saying it. Surely no emperor was ever so blatantly and admittedly naked. In the very next paragraph of his article, Wolverton takes a potshot at Joyce’s use of this kind of impenetrable allusion:
Similar elitist fiction was touted as a higher art by James Joyce, who used voice rather than image to astonish his readers. Practically no one today can even understand, much less appreciate the ravings of Irish bar patrons in Joyce’s tales. One student who complained to Joyce that he had read his works and didn't understand them was told, ‘You can only understand my works if you spend your own lifetime studying mine.’A study that no sane person, not even Joyce himself, would ever bother to undertake. Sarah Huntrods recently inflicted one of Brian Aldiss’s lesser books upon me: Report on Probability A. This book was highly acclaimed by the SF literati in its day, for reasons that are now hard to understand until one knows just how slavishly devoted to E.N.C. Syndrome were the critics who praised it. On the back cover, I find these lapidary blurbs:
‘A mindwrenching conception that forces one to question every common notion of human awareness, space-time, and perceptual reality’ —Tribune ‘Devilishly clever . . . . an exuberant imagination meets a passionate intelligence in this text’ —GuardianIn fact, the only thing that a really critical observer would be led to question by this book is whether Mr. Aldiss was in full possession of his faculties when he wrote it. The story, if it can be called that, is ridiculous in the extreme. Three servants, a gardener (‘G’), a chauffeur (‘C’), and a secretary (‘S’), all male, have been dismissed from the service of one Mr. Mary, presumably because they are all madly obsessed with his wife. In page after tedious page, Aldiss describes every least detail as each of them spies upon Mrs. Mary from his hiding-place in the outbuildings of the Marys’ house:
At present the face was in movement; it lay within the circle of vision of the telescope with its mouth at the centre of this circle. The mouth moved. The lips moved; the lower lip seemed to be plump, yet as it moved it extended itself slightly so as to seem less plump. These lips were viewed through six thicknesses of glass, four consisting of the little lenses in the telescope, one consisting of the square of glass that formed the central panel of the nine glass panels together comprising the round window in front of the old brick building, and one consisting of the openable but closed portion of the kitchen window. So near was this closed portion of the kitchen window to the moving lips that the breath issuing between them had fogged the pane. . . .And so on and so forth, ad infinitum, ad nauseam. It would be difficult to convey the tedium of this book in a short excerpt; it is all on just this level; in fact, Aldiss returns obsessively, over and over, to the deeply absorbing question of how many thicknesses of glass Mrs. Mary is being watched through. Yet he is incapable of attending to the most obvious details of internal consistency, starting with the important question of point of view. Ostensibly the ‘report’ is a detailed write-up made by an observer from another dimension, watching G, C, and S, and trying very hard not to make any assumptions about their psychology or even their humanity by superimposing his own prejudices upon the bare facts. (Why did he not simply videotape the observing apparatus, thereby removing all possible elements of the subjective, instead of battling to record in writing merely the things he personally happened to observe? Only, one guesses, because then Aldiss would have no story to tell.) The watchers are watched by watchers from another world, who themselves are being watched, etc., etc. And as far as the plot goes, th-th-that’s all, folks! So we have occurrences like this among the watchers:
Domoladossa pencilled a note in the margin of the report: ‘She was singing.’ He wanted to add, ‘She was happy,’ but that would be carrying the job of interpretation too far.And yet this report, supposedly drawn from the excruciatingly objective observations of someone watching the physical movements of G, C, and S through an unspecified interdimensional viewer, contains whoppers like this:
G’s clock had been specifically designed to indicate the passage of time; it was his clock, for he had bought it with part of his wages in the days when Mr. Mary was paying him a weekly fee. On its face, which formed a circle, were the arabic numerals from one to twelve and a pair of hands. The smaller of the two hands pointed at the lower lobe of the figure eight, while the larger hand pointed at the space between the nine and the ten. These two hands had been at these positions, maintaining between them an angle of fifty degrees, for a period of something over eleven months.Now, we are told elsewhere that the watchers only discovered Probability A a week ago, and that events in Probability A have been moving synchronously with their own subjective time since then. How could they possibly know that the clock has been stopped for eleven months, or that G had bought it with the wages from his long-vanished employment? But it gets worse, for this nonsense immediately follows:
Although, when his attention encompassed the clock, G entertained the theory that the clock still worked, he was reluctant to test the theory by attempting to wind the clock mechanism.This is probably the closest that Aldiss comes in this dreary book to attempting a joke. At any rate, I smiled slightly when I read it, it was so gratifying to see him unbend for a moment, remembering that he had readers, and condescending to give them a moment’s entertainment. But if the author of the Report could tell all that about G just by observing the movements of his body, he was the greatest mind-reader that his world (or ours) had ever seen. His superiors had no such capacity:
Domoladossa thought, ‘We’ll have to decide. . . . I’ll have to decide — whether these people have human responses.’He even speculates that the very physics of the air molecules in G’s world may be different from his own. In short, the whole performance is built upon an epistemological assumption that is casually violated on almost every page. It does not hang together, and the text is so excruciatingly boring that none of its parts are worth the trouble of hanging separately. Now, maybe Tribune’s reviewer had a system of metaphysical beliefs so flimsy that Aldiss’s tedious book-length jape could compel him to fling his philosophy to the winds. Maybe the chap from the Guardian really could find something ‘exuberant’ and ‘passionate’ in a 148-page description of aliens watching paint dry. More likely, I think, they knew that Aldiss was one of the Great Names in British SF at that time, and that to criticize him honestly when he produced a turkey would be more damaging to their own careers than to his; and so they praised the Emperor’scouture to the skies, using the biggest lies that could be forced through the neural pathways to their typing fingers. In every generation, there are a few authors, perhaps a score, who are attended by a sort of halo of intellectual inviolability, and while it lasts, the critical consensus on their work is largely compounded of sycophancy, hagiography, and bollocks. Now, Aldiss’s obscurity is much less ambitious than Joyce’s, though perhaps comparable to Williams’, for it depends not on recondite references to works that only the elite have read, but on sheer boredom. Few readers could resist the deliberately soporific quality of Aldiss’s prose long enough to spot the obvious fallacies underpinning the work. I would not have bothered myself, had not my friend so earnestly exhorted me to read it and form my own impressions. Well, Sarah and I are agreed: Report on Probability A is rubbish. But like ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’ and the rest of the arty-pretentious wing of twentieth-century literature, it is rubbish with an ineradicable patina of genius, for it, just like the pseudo-philosophical twaddle of Ayn Rand and Dan Brown, is So Deep. Which, as Spider points out, is often just a way to avoid saying, I don’t unnastan.