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Monday, December 27, 2010

Now's a good time for a week-after-Christmas rant

Now that Christmas is over and we're heading into a new year I figured I would chat a little bit about a story I recently read in the New York Times about yet another humiliation modern writers have to experience on their way to publication, an evil thing called Pitchapalooza.

Now, the story is written from a "gee-whiz-look at the new-fangled way agents and publishing houses are creating to find new talent" angle, but I see this as the modern literary equivalent of gladiator sports, hundreds of writers duking it out in no-holds-barred combat to determine who gets the "honor" of an audience with a real-life agent. It's the lottery. From the writer's perspective they get a one in five hundred chance at maybe getting listened to; from the agent/publishing house perspective they get 500 chances at finding a hungry author they can exploit for the cost of renting out a small meeting hall.

What bugs me most about this (and it bugged me about the music industry too) is that the modern artistic economy is requiring the artists to multi-task. Artists these days spend less and less time making the art and more and more time being business people, which if they wanted to (or had the proficiency to) be business people then they wouldn't've gotten into art in the first place. Therefore the ones who get most noticed are the ones who are best able to market themselves in gladiator-style mass bouts like the one in this story, and are not necessarily the ones making the best art. I blame Warhol and Dali for this...and Capote and Ginsberg. Before them artists and writers could be total weirdos who couldn't be taken within twenty yards of polite society, now they have to be polite society (or at least be a pretty good mimic) in order to even get a foot in the door. Sometimes artists are great marketers of their art, but most often not.

It used to be that "paying your dues" meant you had to work really hard at your craft and pay attention and write really good shit. Now it means you have to write something that will pop and then make sure you go to as many pitch sessions as possible and subject yourself to as many humiliations at the hands of insensitive and over-worked agents and agents' interns as possible and you have to hone your "15 minute commercial" so you don't stammer and you have to make sure you have a sharp suit and that you know exactly who your demographic is and what publishers you think would be good for your type of work. And after you've done that enough times you might get someone to actually read your work. But before that you've been rejected so many times based on the way you look and how you talk about your project that you start to actually believe those things have something to do with the actual words you put down on the page, which they don't, but most people in the publishing world seem to have lost focus of that in the push for blockbuster authorial brands.

Maybe I'm being too harsh, but it seems likely to me that the best-written, most affecting story in that scrum was not necessarily written by the person best able to articulate it in front of five hundred people. And making authors compete in formats that take the bulk of the authorial world severely out of their comfort zone doesn't seem like the best plan to find new talent. If writers were extraverts they wouldn't've gravitated toward an art form that requires then to spend huge amounts of their lives alone creating little worlds that only they can see.

The best plan for finding new talent is actually the hardest and the one with the smallest profit margin. Read the work and publish what you feel is best. Rely on agents to point you in the right direction if you have some good ones that you trust, but for goodness sake don't make writers "pitch" their books in front of a live audience.