Thursday, 7 February 2008

Laugh or cry?

I was directed to a short story today and read it with growing disbelief. I am not going to name names because the last time I did that I got jumped on by the faithful and called all sorts of nasty names. Suffice it to say this was a piece of genre writing by a BIG name. The story had appeared in one of the leading magazines in the field. It has been nominated (and for all I know it has won) an award.

The disbelief came from the fact it was a truly shite piece of writing. I don’t mean dire in an angsty-teenage-nobody-loves-me-paint-the-walls-of-my-bedroom-black kind of way. Awful as the finished product may be, such writing does have psychological merit for the writer (and their psychiatrist if they need one). This was shite in a way that was stunning. The piece lacked pace, the characters were… well who cares about them? The story was poorly constructed and full of false sentimentality. And the sentences were dull, dull, dull. If this had been handed me by a student I would have handed it back and asked them what they thought they were playing at.

And if it wasn’t bad enough that this was turned out by a BIG name, the other implications are terrifying. To begin with, the editor of a well known magazine thought it was suitable for publication. Perhaps the editor was out to lunch. Perhaps the editor was so pissed when they got back from lunch… Who knows what they were thinking, other than the fact that this was a BIG name and would help with sales figures. It is certainly happening in literary magazines. Where newcomers once stood a chance of having their work considered and showcased, they are being squeezed out whilst editors stick in any old garbage as long the author is well known.

Now, I know I am no literary genius, but I wouldn’t turn in a piece of work like that or expect an agent or editor to do anything with it except chuck it in the bin if I did.

So think about this for a moment. Authors and editors, agents and publishing houses, anyone who allows this sort of rubbish into print is sticking two fingers up at the reading public. Whether it is out of malice or, more likely, out of cowardice, I don’t know, but it is time it stopped. There are thousands of good writers out there, producing high quality work – short stories, poems, novels, novellas, screenplays, teleplays, radio plays, stage plays. And what happens? The shite gets into print because the gatekeepers (the agents and editors) have lost their bottle.

I know these people have to earn a living, I know publishing houses have to make a profit, but why are they trying to do it by flooding the market with sewage? The good books that do get into print (and there are many) are swamped, the good writers who are ‘unknown’ don’t stand a chance, the reading public are being insulted.

There are times when experimental, cutting edge work fails and we have to allow that. Anyone forging a new way of working, a new way of writing is bound, at the beginning to miss the mark. But their work deserves to be in print because such experiments help other writers to gain new perspectives and a new understanding of their own work. The work I saw today failed because it was lazy and contemptuous of its readers. And when that sort of work gets printed and nominated for awards, we know it is time for a revolution.


Vague said...

Speaking as a wannabe writer and a fully-paid up member of the reading public, may I request the privilege of holding your coat?

Graeme K Talboys said...

Bless you. You'll probably just see me get a severe kicking from the establishment. But at least my coat will be clean.

I just get so angry about this sort of thing.

Perhaps time to stop being angry and try to do something about it.

Anne Brooke said...

I entirely agree with you and it makes me angry too. We just have to keep plugging away attempting to produce and support high-quality work. Someone somewhere will listen one day.


Graeme K Talboys said...

Very true. Though I'm sure, as I hinted, it is something we will have to do for ourselves. There are many good publishers, but there are many more who have lost sight of the importance of what they do (books) and the people who produce them (writers).

Ali said...

You took the words right out of my mouth! Of course, speaking as a yet-unpublished writer, I may be a little biased. ;)

Did you happen to read Ursula K. Le Guin's essay, "Staying Awake," in the recent issue of Harper Magazine? In it, she discusses the way publishers and editors have come to view literary work as a commodity, rather than an art, which leads them to stick with Big Name successes of mediocre work and to abandon too readily any author whose sales aren't consistently high. While publishing houses used to maintain a reliable backlist of modest but steady earners, turning these profits over to fund riskier and more experimental work by new writers, now they're constantly and obsessively in pursuit of the next big "blockbuster" and will ignore anything that won't top the bestsellers lists.

A sad state of a affairs, but I think the responsibility lies just as much on the writers out there who see writing as a quick ticket to fame rather than a craft to which a life's work must be devoted. (On the other hand, I'd like to think I'm too young to be so bitter, so I try to shrug it off, smile, and keep on keeping on.)

Graeme K Talboys said...

I've not had a chance to see the whole of Ursula le Guin's essay, but I've read a few comments and quotes. It seems to hit the mark.

And do, please, keep on keeping on. I've read some of your work and it's great.

Lane said...

We (the great unpublished) are constantly being told that if we're good enough, we will eventually make it out of the slush pile and into print. As a 'wannabe' I live in this bubble of optimism but I must say I'm starting to wonder.

When is the revolution and how do we join:-)

Graeme K Talboys said...

I do believe there are good publishers and there are things moving in places where the bad publishers wouldn't even think to look. I just worry for all those people with talent (whether it is literary erudition or the ability to tell a ripping yarn really well) who don't get the chance because of the fixation with a wholly false view of the world that some publishers and agents seem to have.

But please stay optimistic. It's only me mouthing off and I may be wrong.

Kate.Kingsley said...

"This was shite in a way that was stunning" ~ love it!

i know you're not naming names but I think I might have an inkling, cos it didn't impress me much either ~ wasn't in the saturday review section of a national paper by any chance, was it? ;-)

Graeme K Talboys said...

I suppose it might have been, but that's not where I saw it (online). But then, there's a lot of crap about.

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Great rant! Let's have the breadheads up against the wall!

Graeme K Talboys said...

Wow. Haven't heard that expression in a long time. ;-)

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

Thought you'd know it, seeing as you listen to Hawkwind ;-))