In my usual browse of article headlines on Feedly this morning, I stumbled across this gem from Hannah Giorgis in The Atlantic. Giorgis declared that much of what’s on Netflix these days is mediocre, and that we’re allowing our boredom to get the best of us when it comes to selecting what we watch.
I can’t say I necessarily agree with Giorgis–even if the content is well done, much of it relies on popular plot structures that are as worn as grandma’s 1947 couch cushions. The predictability can be a turnoff no matter how artistic the approach might be.
But of course, you have to ask, who ultimately gets to decide what “good” content is, not just in film and TV, but in all art?
In lots of cases, it’s just a few publishers or producers from a few big companies. In book publishing, for example, that means the big five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan).
Lots of writers dream of sending in a book query and getting a contract with one of the big five. There’s some prestige to it, the idea that your book was “good enough” to stand out from this enormous pack and get noticed.
The trouble is, the big five want sales. And much of what is on their list has nothing to do with how you write and everything to do with what the public happens to be buying at any particular time. They want stories that are going to yield a profit. And so when they look at manuscripts, if they don’t think it’s going to sell, they’ll pass.
Need an example? Try Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, who had publishers tell him that the books were “too positive” (heaven forbid we have some positivity as mental health concerns are on the rise), that the title was stupid and that people don’t read short story collections. He was rejected by 144 publishers, and even the 145th made him prove via signatures he had interest in the manuscript.
Sometimes, publishers flat out miss the mark about what the public is open to. 500 million copies later, Canfield’s earned the right to tell them they were about as wrong as it gets.
So here is the conundrum. We have a very small set of gatekeepers who, for all their talk of wanting something fresh, by actions prove that what they really want is to keep reproducing what seems to work from a sales standpoint. But in maintaining that model, the gatekeepers automatically ensure that the public can’t engage with good variety easily. Perhaps the public would get out of the rut and buy other stories, if the gatekeepers would only allow them into the market. It’s hard to know.
So perhaps the problem is not the mediocrity of the manuscripts that are rejected at all. Sure, there’s a lot of you-know-what that probably wouldn’t hurt anybody by staying in the bottom of a drawer or getting corrupted on a hard drive. But perhaps there glorious flowers we can’t see because we’re not truly allowed in the garden.
As a writer, I can say that the most agonizing element of this situation is that writers never really are sure whether they are the weed or the rose. Perhaps they are spectacular and have been rejected dozens of times simply because what they have written doesn’t fit the model. But perhaps, the rejections lead us to consider, the writing really is subpar and beta readers just tried to spare our feelings. It’s easy to get discouraged and confused.
My biggest fear with this system of things is that our most fragrant and rare blossoms are never cultivated. I would not be at all surprised, for instance, to see a publisher reject a modern Georgette Heyer (a romance writer critiqued as as close to Jane Austen as you can get), simply because “the writing is too archaic”. Perhaps that grossly underestimates what the public is capable of enjoying and understanding. Or perhaps, in a worse scenario, it suggests that the system has denied our experience to such a degree that we really do need some schooling on what mediocrity actually looks like.
In either case, I see independent and self-publishing as increasingly necessary. It is only through these channels that the bias of the gatekeepers can start to have less of an influence on individual and overall public choices. But alongside that, we also need systems that are going to make access to those books easier for everyone at every level. That can mean more e-readers or libraries, or it can mean more writing English programs, tutors, book clubs, etc.
But it also means reexamining what it means to be eloquent, how to recognize and reject plot tropes and how to create tension and conflict that doesn’t require an on-screen explosion or special effect. That is more complicated to build, because it butts up against other social issues and nuances, like the way we teach or even racial and income disparities.
Reading and any other art is for everyone. The minute that the critique and development of it falls into the hands of a privileged few, our ability to determine what has merit becomes incredibly diminished. But if we become more democratic, if we educate ourselves away from the gatekeepers, mediocrity will lose its grip. That, I think, is a vision that can’t turn to reality fast enough.
In the meantime, be open to practicing and improving what you do, and if you have excellent feedback from beta readers on a consistent basis, don’t give up. Find a way to get what you’ve made out there. When your sales prove you were right, hold your profits in your naysayers’ faces.