Filtering the Slush

To read a book is to engage in a private individual activity, but even the most solitary reading experience is embedded in layers of collectivity. To ignore the larger sociocultural context of reading is to accede to a divide-and-conquer ideology that separates readers from writers, from each other, and from the larger social ecology in which reading and writing happen. The divisions have historically been bridged by the book industry, and in some ways the industry’s mediation services have been a good thing. But it’s also arguably the case that the industry creates the gaps that it spans. And there is a toll to be paid, both figuratively and literally, when the industry mans the bridges.

In the book industry the agents and publishers and booksellers function as filters, sifting through the vast supply of manuscripts in their search for the chosen few while shunting everything else into the scrap heap. The filters aren’t writers; they’re readers. In a sense they’re acting as readers’ representatives, selecting books that they think have a good chance of appealing to a significant sector of the reading public. But they’re also acting as the investors’ representatives, selecting books that have the best chance of earning a positive ROI. It’s the confounding of these two representational stances that makes the industry filtering apparatus suspect. In selecting and promoting books, the industry professionals purportedly act on behalf of the writers and the collective readership, but their judgments are necessarily compromised by prioritizing the interests of their investors.

Not all the good stuff is unpopular; not all the popular stuff sucks. I like a nice hamburger as much as the next guy; I got a kick out of watching the nerdy science teacher break bad. Not everything that’s popular today stays popular – most of the tunes and movies and books that chart this week will be long gone a couple of months from now. By the same token, not everything that’s unpopular today stays unpopular. One of the problems with commercial culture is that a slow smolder gets extinguished before it has a chance to catch fire, being quickly replaced by some other commodity with a lower burn threshold.

The best-selling novel isn’t always a critical success; the politician who wins the election doesn’t necessarily offer the clearest vision or the broadest competency; the guilty aren’t always convicted; the truth doesn’t always prevail. A generation or two ago the gap between the good and the popular was a persistent source of consternation, but by now we’ve pretty much learned to accept our guilty pleasures. Here’s the first sentence from The Mirage of Social Justice (1976) by Nobel Prize-winning Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, widely regarded as the ideological father of neoliberalism:

In a free society, the general good consists principally in the facilitation of the pursuit of unknown individual purposes.

Giving people what they want is an act of benevolence; what people want most is what in the aggregate they’ll pay the highest price for; therefore, the more money I make, the more books I sell, the more good I’m doing in the world.

The distinction between High and Low Art used to make sense, but in a world that blurs the distinction between excellence and individual taste it’s hard to tell the difference. Take television: everybody used to acknowledge it was crap even as they sat on the couch flipping through the channels; now the programs that ironically poke fun at their own idiocy are what pass as sophisticated fare. In 1993, three years before his Infinite Jest was published and four before The Sopranos ushered in the era of the high-end television series, David Foster Wallace wrote an essay entitled “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” In lamenting the sorry state of TV, which by his own acknowledgment he watched a lot of, Wallace saw not a conspiracy of big networks and big advertising but the media’s adaptation to popular tastes:

It is of course undeniable that television is an example of Low Art, the sort of art that has to please people in order to get their money. Because of the economics of nationally broadcast, advertiser-subsidized entertainment, television’s one goal — never denied by anybody in or around TV since RCA first authorized field tests in 1936 — is to ensure as much watching as possible. TV is the epitome of Low Art in its desire to appeal to and enjoy the attention of unprecedented numbers of people. But it is not Low because it is vulgar or prurient or dumb. Television is often all these things, but this is a logical function of its need to attract and please Audience. And I’m not saying that television is vulgar or dumb because the people who compose Audience are vulgar and dumb. Television is the way it is simply because people tend to be extremely similar in their vulgar and prurient and dumb interests and wildly different in their refined and aesthetic and noble interests. It’s all about syncretic diversity: neither medium nor Audience is faultable for quality.

In short, commercial culture caters to what libertarian iconoclast Albert Nock called “the dreadful average.” For Nock, Western civilization had long since descended from its heights to mere “economism,” a society built around satisfying the material desires of the masses with a minimum exertion of effort. In his 1946 Memoirs of a Superfluous Man Nock wrote:

Economism can build a society which is rich, prosperous, powerful, even one which has a reasonably wide diffusion of material well-being. It can not build one which is lovely, one which has savour and depth, and which exercises the irresistible power of attraction that loveliness wields. Perhaps by the time economism has run its course the society it has built may be tired of itself, bored by its own hideousness, and may despairingly consent to annihilation, aware that it is too ugly to be let live any longer.

What choices are open to us other than to wrap our arms around the sludge pipeline in an ironic avant-pop embrace? Can’t we just walk away? Historically, those who have turned their backs on pervasive philistinism would try to conjure a zeitgeist from the past that could guide them into the future, a reactionary fundamentalism that would restore a lost Golden Age of civilization, where nothing is worth seeing or hearing or reading until it’s been around for a hundred years. There probably aren’t many beautiful dreamers around these days, whose visions of a future Golden Age are enough to sustain them through the decadent present. Most are probably resigned to the dreadful average, perhaps even cultivating it, trying to hold the line against further decline.

*   *   *

Instead of relying on co-opted industry pros to filter the slush pipeline, why couldn’t the readers themselves take on the filtering role directly, championing books that they themselves deem worth reading rather than relying on industry middlemen to separate wheat from chaff?

One obstacle confronting a possible reader-operated filtering process is similar to that facing writers as well as consumers of other commodities: readers are accustomed to acting as individuals, making choices based on personal tastes. But personal tastes aren’t all that idiosyncratic: they’re catered to and shaped and manipulated by the industry pros, not individually but collectively, as market niche segments. A reader won’t have been exposed to the thousands of author submission letters that inundate the agent’s email inbox, but a reader will have seen thousands of prepackaged books lining the shelves of bookstores and libraries, will have read maybe hundreds of books. Readers have acquired some expertise in selecting books they want to read and in evaluating books that they have read, even if they’ve never sorted out the criteria by which they make their choices.

Another obstacle to reader filtering is the supply-driven flow of books, with readers queueing up at the end of the pipeline to shop among the new offerings that have been preselected for them by the publishers. But agents and acquisition editors also make their selections after the manuscripts have already been written; they’re just positioned a little further upstream, before the manuscript is packaged into a “real” book. Could readers make informed choices if they weren’t able to rely on the prominent shelf placements and the blurbs and the reviews? Could readers move upstream, reliably identifying good books, books they’d want to read, even before those books hit the marketplace, even before they’ve been selected or rejected by the publishers?

Should they? It’s doubtful that the dreadfully average reader’s tastes are more highly cultivated than the average agent’s or pubisher’s and bookseller’s. “Art should never try to be popular,” aphorized Oscar Wilde; “the public should try to make itself artistic.” “There’s no money in poetry,” Robert Graves acknowledged, “but then there’s no poetry in money either.” The problem isn’t that the average are average; the problem is that the industry caters to the average because that’s where the money is. It’s not the average reader who objects to the selection lining the bookstore’s shelves; it’s the exceptional reader: the cultivated, the eccentric, the refined, the divergent. The book industry thrives on popularity, not artistry; on money, not poetry. Replacing the industry’s acquisition specialists with reader opinion polls or bestseller-ometer algorithms might be able to replicate the status quo for less cost. If you like X, you’ll like Y; people who bought X also bought Y: more convergence on the popular, less risk, less scatter. The average reader might welcome the standardization, the reliability of finding a good read on the shelves.

Scholarly publishing offers an alternative precedent for reader filtering in which the selection criteria are governed less by popularity and more by excellence. Articles submitted to academic journals are subjected to peer review, with specialists evaluating the merits and flaws of work conducted by fellow specialists. The writers of texts published in academic journals are also the primary readers of those same journals, their own research shaped largely by others’ research reported in journal articles, so it’s presumed that the writers and reviewers of scholarly articles subscribe to the same standards of quality. Publish or perish – scholars are paid to write. But it’s not the sales receipts that count: scholars are judged worthy of receiving promotions or large grants based on the perceived excellence and impact of their work on their fields of study, even if that work is so esoteric that only a few specialists read and understand it. Of course the peer review system doesn’t always work the way it’s supposed to, being subject to cronyism and competition and groupthink and the thousand other distortions that flesh is heir to. Still, the merits of peer review must give us pause.

What would it take for the writers of fiction to be rewarded for the excellence and impact of their work rather than its popularity? In an analogical system of peer review devised for fictional texts, manuscripts would be sent out for evaluation to two or three writers working the same fictional territory. Fiction writers are also fiction readers, their sensibilities as writers shaped to a considerable extent by fictions they’ve read, so they should be able to make informed reliable judgments about the quality and distinctiveness of other writers’ work. But, whereas the readers of academic journals consist almost exclusively of actual and would-be writers of journal articles, most readers of novels are not themselves also novelists. Consequently, readers might evaluate a novel’s merits using very different criteria from those espoused by novelists. That doesn’t necessarily mean though that readers will default to lowbrow sensibilities best suited for judging a popularity contest. Literary scholars devote their careers to analyzing and evaluating novels at a high level even without writing novels themselves.

Fiction writers do make money from sales of their published works, or at least they hope to. But fiction too has secured a place in the academy, with professors in creative writing programs getting their pay mostly from students’ tuition rather than from book royalties, with magazines that specialize in publishing short stories being read mostly by other story writers honing their craft or assessing the lay of the fictional landscape, and with a few nonprofit publishing houses putting out good highbrow books that might not have enough economic potential to interest the commercial publishers. Peer review makes sense in academic fiction, just as it does in other branches of scholarly pursuit. But if peer review were to replace industry review, readers might be confronted by a bewildering array of fictions created by “writers’ writers” whose works are as unapproachable by the uninitiated as are journal articles on the neurochemistry of sea slugs.

NYC versus MFA, the publishing industry versus the academy: both organizational models establish fiction writing as a profession, financed in the one case by readers and in the other by would-be writers. In both models the bosses and middlemen have a big say: in NYC it’s about who gets represented and published and publicized; in MFAs, it’s who gets hired to teach and who gets promoted and what classes the students are required to take. In both models a lot of money changes hands, while only a small percentage of fiction writers are able to make a living practicing the profession; in both models the bosses and middlemen take a big cut. Both models are tightly organized, hierarchical, linear production systems.

In contrast, the third way – self-publishing – comes across as undisciplined, unprofessional, hectic. Some might regard this unrestrained chaos as a mark of distinction, a bottom-up anarchic DIY movement akin to punk rock and Occupy. The implication is that systematic organization is a control mechanism imposed top-down by the capitalists and their running-dog bosses to keep the people in line. Review? Who needs it. Get your novel out there; let the marketplace decide whether it’s any good. But isn’t that just the sort of libertarian divide-and-conquer propaganda that the bosses might want to promulgate among the underclass in order to keep them from forming a united, effective resistance, or even a viable alternative?

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