RUMINATIONS ON THE FIELD OF PUBLICATION
There must be, I think, a lot of literature which falls between the cracks and goes unrecognized. How do you know if what you are writing is good and is only being rejected because the vagaries and norms of commerce? You hear (not all the time, but you do hear) of people plucked from the slush pile and who go on to luminescent careers. Of course some of the stories are incomplete. We’ve always heard that Anthony Bourdain was fortuitously plucked from the slush pile, and I always envied such serendipity. But when I read the January 2020 obituary for his mother, Gladys Bourdain, some light was shed on the subject. Gladys Bourdain was a longtime copy editor at The New York Times, and happened to know one of its reporters, Esther Fein, who was and is the wife of David Remnick. Mr. Remnick had just become the editor of the New Yorker magazine. An article that Bourdain had written was brought to the attention of Mr. Remnick through this channel, and the rest is history.
You, go to the head of the line.
This is not to minimize the literary wit and talent of the late Anthony Bourdain. If the piece had been a piece of flotsam, David Remnick would have nixed it, (politely, I assume) and it would have been back in the line for Bourdain. It is folk wisdom that quality has a tendency to rise, and it’s opposite to sink, and my guess is that, sooner or later, Bourdain would have risen. But my point is that it’s just as often true that it’s not what you know or do, but who you know.
There is undoubtedly more to the game than those of us who feel cornered into self-publishing don’t know about. When there are things that you don’t know, what you don’t know acquires the sheen of enigma. When you finally learn the truth (or a truth) you’re apt to be as sanguine as Peggy Lee in her song, “Is That All There Is?”
One of many my favorite scenes from the early episodes of the first season of “The Black List” made reference to a writer named Fredrick Hemstead. Raymond Reddington, mastermind criminal played by James Spader, has invited Elizabeth Keen, an FBI agent, to a sit-down with Megan Boone at a secret apartment he uses as one of countless bases of operations.
“What is this place?”
“Something of a hideaway. It used to be home to one of the finest American writers who ever lived – Fredrick Hemstead.”
“Never heard of him.”
“No, you haven’t. Nobody has. Dear Fredrick was waiting tables when we first met. Strange little man, built like a fireplug. He was living here with his mother until she died. Poor Fredrick couldn’t afford to stay on, so I bought the place for him…Sadly, Fredrick died without ever being published, but this place is chock-full of his work. Manuscripts, poems, unsent letters, and lots and lots of this.”
“What is that?”
“No earthly idea. Some sort of distilled alcohol, I think. There’s bottles of the stuff stashed everywhere. Would you like me to pour you a few fingers?”
I love it. There are probably a number of Fredrick Hemsteads out there, I’m willing to wager, weeded out by impatient overworked and underpaid (if paid at all) slush pile speed readers and publishers working under deadlines and faced with an ever-increasing deluge of submissions. (I suspect that there are more writers than there are readers. Go figure.)
Decades ago, when I was preparing to sit for the California State Bar Examination, a notoriously difficult 3-day examination with a low passage rate, every instructor pounded into us that there was a formula which we needed to master in order for our exam essays to not get put in the “Failed” pile. It was pointed out that the readers for the Bar Examination were likely students still in law school, with part or full time jobs to boot, many with families. They were not paid to read and grade the tests in question, being offered concessions meant to make up for the lack of remuneration. But they had lives competing with their obligatory grading chores, and as such they were eager to get through their tasks as carefully but as quickly as possible. If by the first page of an essay they felt that the examinee was winging it or bullshitting their way around their ignorance, they cursorily skimmed the paper before giving it the grade they felt it deserved.
As such, the Bar Examination preparatory lectures alerted us to the fact writing even a threadbare outline of the rules of law in the area of the specific questions would get us further than shooting for expert think-tank caliber papers. Indeed it’s been shown that those examinees who actually already worked in the field of law and had real hands-on experience and understand were apt to fail. The examiners didn’t have the time for it. Do you or don’t you know the answer! We were taught shortcuts in writing passing essays. I saw many bright law student fail the exam while others who could barely speak English, let alone write it well, went on to become lawyers. Write an outline with hierarchical categories using capital letters and roman numerals was a good bet.
You need only read what is being published in the genre venues to see that there’s a mixture of good and bad. There’s so much to read that I can’t give a percentage, but the yearly anthologies show that there is a lot of awfully good stuff out there. There are many stories by the best and the brightest, names that by themselves will make me stop and read and buy. But there is a good quotient of dross and tone-deaf tyros, and some “professionals,” who are chosen. I recently saw an excerpt in Locus magazine, a two page advertising teaser meant, no doubt, to sell a famous writer’s new work. It was embarrassing: formulaic, clichéd, dull and lifeless. But it catered to what the masses out there who crave more of the same old same old. Witness the truly sad Dune franchise, an non-ending parade of drivel. It’s like Duncan Idaho in the original series: the technicians of Tleilax just won’t let him die.
How does this happen? I’m not sure.
All I know is that the gates are clogged with us wannabes, and we’re trampling over each other like a panicked herd at the Inglewood Forum. Not pretty.