The Business Rusch: Standards
The best essay I’ve read so far this week comes from fantasy writer Tom Simon using his H. Smiggy McStudge persona. H. Smiggy McStudge writes little posts called “Told By An Idiot,” and whoa boy, it gets a bit pointed from there.
This week’s takes on a head-shaking post on the Huffington Post by someone named Dr. Jim Taylor (really, that’s his byline), an adjunct professor of something or other at some California college. Taylor’s post is really all about him trying to figure out what makes his writing feel legitimate to him, which is a tough thing for a writer to do, even when showered with accolades and lots of sales.
Unfortunately, the post is a bit snobby and it has this paragraph:
The self-publishing industry has allowed anyone with a computer and a small amount of money to call themselves authors. Not long ago, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times (unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find it when I did an Internet search) that questioned whether self-published authors should be called published authors. Rather, the article suggests, they are book writers who have their books printed. There is, I believe, a significant difference between authors published by traditional houses and self-published books in that the latter lack the processes that we can count on to ensure a minimal level of quality, both of content and style.
Simon (or should I say McStudge?) wrote a brilliant response, using the unfortunate Dr. Taylor’s own standards against him. By Taylor’s standards, well, let me quote:
Now, Fifty Shades (of Grey) is high-quality literature, for it meets the standards of the Industry; and so is The Da Vinci Code, and so is Mein Kampf, and so is Shore Thing by Snooki: for they all have the seal of Industry approval — a real live publisher’s colophon! On the other hand, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not literature, but a vile, inferior, self-published product. It was published by the author, the reprobate Samuel Clemens, under the transparently phony name of Charles L. Webster And Company.
The post goes on from there, and honestly, I wish I had written it. It’s marvelous. Go see.
But that post, plus some other things I’ve been reading, got me thinking about standards. What else have I been reading? Let’s give you an insight into my magpie brain, shall we?
This passage from a Vanity Fair article on Martha Stewart:
One often sensed that Stewart was embarrassed by her association with Kmart. She once referred to its executives as “K-Martians” and publically sniped about the low quality of the store’s products. “I paid the price for going mass,” she testified in March. “Very early on, the garden club of Greenwich canceled my speaking engagement because they didn’t want me to talk because I was selling product at a mass market store.”
And this from a fascinating book on the French language, The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow:
[Amadou] Kourama’s first novel, Les soleils des indépendances, is written in French, but the syntax is heavily influenced by that of his mother tongue, Malinké. The title itself is a regionalism: Soleil in Ivory Coast means an era, not just sun. To speakers of standard French, Kourama’s writing can seem unsettling, even unruly. In the 1960s, two dozen French publishers turned Kourama’s novel down before a Quebec house decided to publish him. [The novel] went on to be a classic of francophone literature.
And this lovely little bit of snobbishness in The New Republic from literary agent Andrew Wylie (who, I must say, is not unique among agents for his attitudes):
The biggest single problem since 1980 has been that the publishing industry has been led by the nose by the retail sector. The industry analyzes its strategies as though it were Procter and Gamble. It’s Hermès. It’s selling to a bunch of effete, educated snobs who read. Not very many people read. Most of them drag their knuckles around and quarrel and make money. We’re selling books. It’s a tiny little business. It doesn’t have to be Walmartized.
All of this loveliness came together in my head as one thing: these three diverse topics—Martha Stewart’s country club (poor baby), two dozen French publishers, and the ever-so-charming Andrew Wylie—are focused on a quest for standards.
And not just any old standards, either. But easily defined standards.
All of this disruptive technology has blown the old standards system to smithereens. As the rather vicious Vanity Fair article points out about Martha Stewart:
Today it’s hard to remember how pioneering [Stewart’s relationship with Kmart] was, but it would help transform the retail business, paving the way for upscale branding efforts by stores like Target, and, some say, changing American taste and style.
If fashion designers sell a low-cost version of their $5,000 dresses at mass market retail outlets, then does wearing a designer label impress any more? If anyone can, in the words of our friend Dr. Taylor, can “print” a book, then does holding a printed book with your name on it impress any more?
How in the world can the garden clubs of America figure out who to look down upon any more? Especially if the bastions of taste—publishers like Simon & Schuster—publish Snooki alongside Stephen King and Mary Higgins Clark and…oh, wait…those are authors who get sold at Wal-Mart. According to our lovely friend, Mr. Wylie, they aren’t authors at all.
If the gatekeepers go away, who determines the shorthand? Who decides what celebrity gets to speak at the garden club? Will anyone care about the garden club any more?
When you read articles from the point of view of the gatekeepers, you can see them spinning, trying to figure out how they belong. Take this from The Financial Times, analyzing Tina Brown’s departure from The Daily Beast:
Her departure from the Beast, which she founded in 2008, is as much a comment on the shrunken state of traditional journalism as a career turning point. She tried to revive Newsweek three years ago when it was merged with the Beast, but that effort failed. Magazines are thinning and news websites with vast traffic lose money. In these straitened times, it is harder for a brilliant, capricious, high-spending, old-school editor to thrive….Tina Brown is still big. It is the media that got small.
I love that last line, because it’s exactly backwards. The gatekeepers are small; it is the media that got big. And easy to access.
Damn the populace! When offered a choice—a real choice—they chose the things they wanted, not the best of the crap that was offered.
I feel for the gatekeepers. I do. Those who are truly defending the garden club against women who are not Our Sort, the country club against those awful non-WASPs, the publishing industry against the knuckle-draggers who, surprisingly enough, can actually read.
I feel for those gatekeepers because I’m old enough to understand how it feels when everything you’ve been taught, everything you know, and everything you do, is no longer of value.
I grew up in a world of gatekeepers, of standards, and my entire life has been about watching (via a medium that had no value when it started, television) those standards disappear. Among my earliest memories—Civil Rights lunch counter protests, women railing against glass ceilings, students demonstrating against a world that demanded they fit into a mold. The world shifted, then shifted again, and keeps on shifting.
The United States is not the same country that I was born into and each difference, each change, came with a fight against gatekeepers. When I was a child, those gatekeepers were chubby middle-aged white men who would stand in the ruins of their tiny empires and wonder what had just happened to them.
Now change has come to publishing, one of the last bastions of that system I was born into, and it’s agents, editors, and publishers who are standing in the ruins of their tiny empires wondering who let the riff-raff in.
Technology let the riff-raff in, just like it has been for the past hundred years or so. When people could get into a car and drive, they began to understand that the world was larger than the little farm they grew up on. When television news aired images of children getting sprayed with fire hoses and attacked by dogs for simply existing, people who had never thought of civil rights began to believe in and act on the cause.
The internet has been disrupting major entertainment systems for more than a decade. The music industry felt it first. The film industry has tried to combat it for years. The television industry is trying to figure out how to live with it.
And publishing—that world of garden clubs and “effete, educated snobs”—has just learned what public education did to America more than 150 years ago. Public education taught Americans to read. And when provided with books they actually want to read—oh my—they actually buy those books.
They look into the doors of the garden club, at the members in their little hats, holding their tea cups with their perfectly manicured pinkies extended, and wonder why in the world anyone would want to go into that place. Or they start their own garden clubs, with its own standards and its own hats.
Really, we’re not facing a decline of the gatekeepers so much as the disappearance of the shorthand created by snobby standards. If the Right People can’t agree on what Good actually is, then what happens to Good? Are books printed items or are they curated by the Right People?
How can we tell at a glance what Quality is any more?
Those are the real questions that people like Dr. Taylor are asking. They don’t want to know if their work is good as much as they want to know how they can impress someone with their work if there are no standards any longer.
How can you be an instantly recognizable Big Fish if the pond turns into an ocean?
The answer is, of course, that you can’t.
You need to figure out for yourself what matters to you. And if the opinion of others is all that matters, if having agreed-upon standards is what makes you comfortable, then get out of publishing.
Because the standards are gone, except for one standard and one standard only:
The readers will buy what they like, when they find it, and when they want it. Not one moment before.
How do you find readers? Publish your work. Keep your work in print. Be patient.
And forget about the gatekeepers. You’re beginning to get a sense, if you read the above posts and quotes, of what they really think about you.
Why in the world would you want to impress those people? It looks like they can no longer even impress themselves.
No gatekeeper has vetted this blog. No one has told me what to write or how to write it or where to publish it. I make the decisions here, for good or ill, and I must take responsibility for them. No more saying that my publisher made me do it, my agent thought it was a good idea, or my editor revised that sentence. It’s all me, folks.
And I’m so glad that so many of you have decided to visit this blog on a weekly basis. I greatly appreciate it, since I know how many demands there are on your time.
Thanks for the links, thanks for the e-mails, thanks for the comments, and thanks for the donations. Honestly, the donations make the blog possible. Without them, I can’t continue because the blog does need to earn its keep.
So please, leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: Standards” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.