When every author is a marketer, only marketers will be authors.
Here’s my question for you all to start you off philosophizing this week while I’m in San Jose: if no one notices bad writing is bad, is it still bad?
One of the things that’s been bugging me since about 1989 is the decline in the quality of what sells in this country. I know everyone always complains about their society going to the dogs as they get older (even the Ancient Greeks threw up their hands in horror when they thought about what the younger generation was doing to their culture. . .of course, considering modern Greece, they may have had a point). But it’s hard not to notice that in the 1960s you couldn’t have gotten on the best seller list without at least knowing one end of a sentence from the other.
I have been—I must say—deeply mollified to learn in the past year of the buy-out of American publishing companies by European corporations due to the deliberate devaluation of the dollar in the 1980s, as well as the 1979 Thor Tools vs. the IRS tax law that ushered in the era of the automatic destruction of backlists. At least these are facts. They explain something. They explain why publishing stopped, somewhere in the mid-’80s, being about a bunch of neurotic book-lovers like Harold Ross bumbling around New York City in a martini-induced haze and became about squeezing that last drop of blood out of the stone of every single solitary pathetic little published manuscript. They explain urban legends like books turning up on the New York Times best seller list before they’re even written. (Of course, nothing really explains the New York Times best seller list. . .)
Before I learned about these historical events in publishing, I was just one more baffled wordsmyth walking around for years and years demanding of complete strangers on the street, “How come Danielle Steel is a millionaire, and I can’t sell one stupid well-crafted, deeply-considered, carefully-polished poem?” (After 1994, this was actually a lie. I did sell one poem. To The Cream City Review for five bucks, and I still have that check framed, in a box up in the attic, along with the first dollar my husband ever made as a busker.)
It wasn’t just me, either. I knew other writers—amazing writers, dedicated writers, real talent, starving away on hot dogs and Miller and minimum-wage jobs. It never made any sense. Why, in this one industry, would consumers honestly prefer to spend their money on shlock rather than a job done right?
Now that I’m an independent editor, it’s gone from being a source of righteous anger to real grief. The writers I meet through this business, the extraordinary dreamers and crafters and grapplers with language, the thinkers and creators, the hope of literature as we know it. . .and their competition is not only published tripe, but the gazillions and gazillions of wannabes who see writing not as a particular art form special to that handful out there who find weird validation and spiritual sustenance in its pursuit, but as their rightful avenue to riches. The bottleneck. It’s like that scene at the end of The Day of the Locust when the herd of movie-goers stampedes and tramples the weak and innocent under their ruthless heels.
My client (and a dedicated literary powerhouse) Kathryn has said she’s afraid I hold the bar to good writing so high her fingers will be bloody by the time she pulls herself over it.
Do I ask too much of good writing these days? Am I fighting a losing battle here?
If the number of us who recognize bad writing as bad dwindles increasingly every year, as the calm acceptance of what sells in the check-out lines at Target and Wal-Mart grows, does that mean literature itself is not falling into a slump out of which it can be pulled, but that it’s actually evolving into a form no more related to the so-called “good” writing of the twentieth century than salamanders are related to sticky-toed geckos?
What’s the truth of our situation, people? What is good writing these days?