One day a few years ago I started a blog post intending to answer for you the four questions I get asked most frequently: 1. Wordcount, genre, ‘dumbling down’: do I really have to? As well as 2. How do you know which freelance independent editors are good and which are shysters? and 3. What is this Line Editing thing of which I speak, and why do I keep speaking of it? and 4. What’s the inside scoop on the state of publishing these days i.e. POD, ebooks, self-publishing, multimedia, et cetera? I mean, what’s really going on out there?<
I completely forgot I was going to write about what I’d intended to write about, which was a talk I’d just given to my local writing club. But it worked out okay, because instead I wrote about pickles, and within a few hours it was all over StumbleUpon and I had a Pickle Revolution on my hands.
This kind of thing happens to me a lot—forgetting what topic I was planning to discuss. In fact, I was so sure it would happen that week when I gave my talk to the Writers Club (I’d just gotten back to town and had a headful of work I was still catching up on) that I sketched out notes and then downed a quick half-glass of wine about twenty minutes beforehand.
For the record: it worked. I talked non-stop for forty minutes before I even remembered I had notes.
Now I want to chat with you guys a little about the questions my local writers asked after my talk, because everyone everywhere has the same questions, and they’re really good questions, and you guys ought to be getting honest, straight-forward answers that make sense from industry professionals. But only too often you do not.
And although I originally wanted to cover all the questions from that talk in one post, it turned out I not only have too many questions, but my answers are way too long. So I trimmed them down to Four Questions, and I’m answering one a week for the next four weeks:
1. An agent told me to a) force my novel into a pre-set length, b) force my novel into a pre-defined genre, and/or c) “dumb down” my novel. What’s going on? Can’t I just write the best book I have in me?
Sigh. This is such a terrible situation, and you poor guys are like that excruciating character in the J.D. Salinger story, “The Laughing Man,” with your heads in vices until you come out all squished and looking like you’re laughing when you’re really screaming, “What is wrong with you people?”
The industry right now is a mess. Particularly since Black Wednesday of December, 2008, when the publishing houses, in a desperate bid to unload ballast as the unexpected shift in the economy began taking them down, laid off hordes of their in-house editors. What do you suppose happens to publishers without enough editors to edit their authors? That’s right! They wind up relying on cookie-cutter marketing stats to try to determine what to buy, hoping against hope this will allow them to continue to make money without contributing the literary value they were once relied upon to contribute.
Generic numbers. Rigid classifications. Ignorance.
The new publishing creed?
a) Yes, you must make certain wordcount milestones if you want a traditional publisher in these rocky times.
Tortilla Flats, The Postman Always Rings Twice, To the Lighthouse, Heart of Darkness, The Little Prince, all early Vonnegut and pretty much anything by Jean Rhys or Richard Brautigan or Camus, each and every one would be rejected out of hand as too short and therefore “unpublishable” by the number-dizzy of today’s agents.
Some of them are quite free with the information they won’t even respond to queries for novels under 70,000 words. Imagine being the one to casually dismiss the chance to publish half the classic literary canon just because those novels are too short.
But working within restrictions is part of the fun of craft, so this mostly means you just have to design your novels especially thoughtfully now, weaving in vivid, illuminating subplots for greater length or (even better) cutting and trimming down to the lean, mean tendons of your novel, the part that’s always, always moving your characters inevitably forward toward their doom. Thoughtful design has never hurt a novel. And it never will.
b) Yes, you must play the genre game to put your story into some prefab one or two genres.
Again, Louise Erdrich, Judy Blume, Anne Rice, Robert Heinlen, Madeline L’Engle, Raymond Chandler, Ursula K. LeQuin, Dasheill Hammett, J.R.R. Tolkien, all automatic rejects for their day’s genres according to today’s genre-fixated agents. So write what you want to write, make sure it is the best-written novel it can possibly be, and then call it by whatever genre predominates in it. (If it’s mainstream commercial or literary fiction, call it that.)
Be really clear on that bit: make sure it’s the best-written novel it can possible be.
Will agents notice you’re fudging? Who knows? At the very least they won’t. Or they’ll see the other genres in it and say, “Hey, why don’t we market this as blah-blah-blah instead?” and they’ll sell it to a genre imprint.
At the most you’ll discover you’ve serendipitously acquired one of the real agents, the ones who mean it when they say they’re looking for something “fresh and new,” something “challenging genre,” something “trendsetting.” They will notice, and they will love it. And you’ll do everything in your power to hang onto them, because they are the pros.
c) Make no mistake—aspiring writers are, indeed, being told by certain agents to “dumb down” their novels. In those words.
There is nothing we can do about this but stand shoulder-to-shoulder and refuse. Those agents are not savvy long-time professionals who have weathered the storms of the industry for decades. (If they are they ought to be ashamed of themselves.) They are mid- and entry-level grapplers on the sheer cliff-face of the business, buckling to mega-bookstore reps now infiltrating the publishing offices who don’t give a fig whether they sell books or T-shirts or cheap crap so long as they move merchandise off those Walmart shelves fast.
They’re welcome to foul their own nests scrambling mindlessly for ephemeral loot, reducing modern traditionally-published fiction to an unsightly blot on the landscape, if they like. But they’re not taking me down with them. If I can’t make my living upholding the standards of this craft I love, I will go into some other line of work.
And I have the whole history of literature standing behind me on this one.
Update: If you’re wondering who’s behind the shift in American publishing since the 1980s from literature to cheap crap, it’s actually a lot simpler than you might think. Bertelsmann.
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