The digital age certainly has changed the publishing industry. Yet for all the subjectivity of the consumer, agents and publishers alike continue to flex their self-professed objectivity.
Samuel R. Delany is a science fiction author I grew up reading in the 1960s. He is, even today, considered one of the finest writers of the twentieth century. When I stumbled across an interview he did for the SF Site a few years ago, I sat up and took notice, and I saved the words:
Above all things, the story, the poem, the text is—and is only—what its words make happen in the reader’s mind. And all readers are not the same.
Any reader has the right to say of any text: “But I didn’t think it was that good.”
Only this morning, I talked to one of my graduate writing students, whom I’d suggested read Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple—one of the greatest pieces of French prose by one of the giants of early modernism. It’s a tale that, the first time I read it, struck up tears in my eyes; as well, I felt that I had been exposed to—no, I’d been struck to the center of my writerly being with—illuminations of the structure and texture from this single woman’s life in the French provinces a hundred-fifty-odd years back. It’s as close as work from a human hand can bring you to that imagined moment where the Judeo-Christian God pulls back His hem to reveal, beneath it, a moment of starkest suffering and the human redemption into which the heart can recreate it.
“So what did you think?” I asked.
Frowning behind his glasses, my student told me: “It was an okay story. But there was just so much description …” The most carefully observed and meticulously organized account of lived provincial working-class life in any language in the world, I’m thinking: and to him, it’s “just so much description.”
But the point is, when the writer turns to address the reader, he or she must not only speak to me—naively dazzled and wholly enchanted by the complexities of the trickery, and thus all but incapable of any criticism, so that, indeed, he can claim, if he likes, priestly contact with the greater powers that, hurled at him by the muse, travel the parsecs from the Universe’s furthest shoals, cleaving stars on the way, to shatter the specific moment and sizzle his brains in their pan, rattle his teeth in their sockets, make his muscles howl against his bones, and to galvanize his pen so the ink bubbles and blisters on the nib (nor would I hear her claim to such as other than a metaphor for the most profound truths of skill, craft, or mathematical and historical conjuration)—but she or he must also speak to my student, for whom it was an okay story, with just so much description.
Delany gets it, whereas the publishing industry only thinks it gets it. If they got it, maybe they wouldn’t be losing so much money year in and year out.
Let’s face it: publishing is a business first and foremost. Even Ty Cobb understood that baseball was a business—“If it isn’t,” he once told Grantland Rice, “then Standard Oil is a sport.”
So I ask, what makes a bestseller? Well, if I knew the answer to that I might well be a bestselling author. But do agents know? How about publishers? Come on, it’s not rocket science, is it? Or maybe it is. If were simple there’d be more bestsellers, right?
I recall reading many years ago that the Beatles were turned down by a record company because, in the words of the record company: “We don’t like your sound and guitar music is on its way out.” No doubt were the Beatles trying to break into music today they wouldn’t stand a chance. The publishing industry, like the music industry, wants everything to fit into neat categories to facilitate sales to a predefined audience.
But what happens when the audience likes the dissonance of Monk, the grittiness of the Rolling Stones and the complexity of Mozart?
The truth is no one can know what effect a text will have on an unsuspecting public.
P.T. Barnum said, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” which is a more crass way of saying there’s a market for everything.
I stumbled upon Delany as a teen and I was struck by his love of language and his imagery—all the things today’s emerging writers are told to eschew.
When I started writing it was Delany I tried to emulate. But in the forty years since I discovered him I’ve come to embrace a host of other writers—some have become favorites while others were akin to a one-night stand, a love affair through 350 pages, and when we met again, between different covers, I found the affair had lost its allure.
Readers, like writers, evolve; but it seems the publishing industry remains the same: riding on the notoriety of a handful of giants, remiss to take a chance on an unknown, incognizant of the fact that Rowling was at one time an unknown, and ignorant of the reality that bestsellers don’t just happen. Bestsellers are created.
What they term “an okay story with just so much description” is, to some of us, a masterpiece.