Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Us vs. Them

Or maybe it's just a gussied up version of writing as art or business, but I've already talked about that. So I'll set aside that aspect of Scarlett Thomas's essay about women in publishing. For some thoughtful discussion about the point of this essay, try here or here. I'm not going to discuss the point of this essay because I really couldn't find one. Thomas herself doesn't even seem to know what point she's trying to make. At the end of her essay, which is actually the transcript of a speech she gave at the Exeter University Feminist Research Network, her summation paragraph starts with this gem: "I’m not sure what this tells us about women in publishing."

I think what she's trying to say is that the formulae of commercial fiction is a prison for writers who want to be writing "deeper" stuff because they're not allowed to write anything other than the formula (and that the industry is actively involved in keeping things this way, even so far as to "trick" writers); and, it is much easier for men to escape said prison because they are less pigeon-holed by the formulae. This may or may not be true, and Thomas gives little in the way of supporting evidence for the latter aspect of her point. Also, her supporting evidence for the former is primarily a recounting of her own experience and sharing a few anonymous anecdotes. Therein lies my problem with this essay: her conclusions trend more toward conspiracy thinking when there is a more simple solution based on the information she shared.

Here's what she said about her experience in getting published:
I wrote my first published book during a month-long tantrum, to be honest. I have never admitted this before. In 1997 I had had my first proper novel turned down by a woman I had been sure would become my agent. This novel, Dog & Clowns, was a surreal story about three people who decide never to leave their house again. It had been turned down, and I was cross. ‘I am going to write a women’s crime series,’ I declared, quite randomly, to my partner. I’d seen these sorts of books on my mother’s shelves Marcia Muller, Val McDermid, Sara Paretsky. I have always liked puzzles, and mysteries and Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe. I was, at the time, very into 'playful' texts that messed around with genre or style. I was thinking, I can knock these things out. I can follow rules. I can SUBVERT rules.

She had a book rejected once by an agent. Granted, it was the agent she felt would be her best fit, and it would be wrong to assume that, just because she only mentions this one rejection, this book didn't have other rejections. Still, this sounds like the classic "brand-new" writer problem: it gets rejected once and the author either decides the book is utter garbage and never writes again or the book is perfect and the publishing world will never recognize it. At least Thomas decided to take her rejection and do something as productive as write another book. Unfortunately, she approached that book by looking down her nose at the genre she chose to write. And that's not the only problem she had when she decided to write the book.
In just one month (which involved lots of 18-hour days) I had completed the manuscript for something called And the Circus is Through, a novel introducing an amateur sleuth called Lily Pascale. ... The agent loved it. A week later, I was meeting an editor from Hodder & Stoughton for lunch in London. ... I was wrong about so much, then. I didn’t even know that the woman with whom I was having lunch was responsible for something called a ‘list’, and that on her list she only had female authors, and that these authors all wrote something known in the trade as ‘commercial women’s fiction’, a category governed by rules and conventions as precise as those governing Mills & Boon novels, or pulp westerns. I half-listened to what she said about how I should change the book (she talked about love interests and damsel-in-distress type things) and went home. Then I signed up for a three-book deal with this publisher.

Did you catch that? She didn't know anything about the editor or the publishing line. And given this as well as her insterests as desribed above, I'm thinking she didn't so much as read even one chapter of the novels on her mother's bookshelf. When she met with the editor face-to-face to discuss the book, Thomas admits to only "half-listening" to the editor's thoughts on revisions for making the book ready for the intended marketplace. Yet she still signs that contract. That's like buying the first car that crosses your path without looking at things such as brand, model, gas mileage, what other dealerships might be selling it for, how the brand performs, how its rated for things like safety, etc.

But she's admitted that she was desperate to be published and "wrong about so much then" so maybe we'll get some advice on what she did wrong? Maybe something about the need to research your market? No, these are the words of wisdom she has to share from the experience:
It’s hard for me to relate now to the person I was then. I would have agreed to anything if it would mean I would get published. And this is actually the kind of advice I give people now: don't do things just to get published. Write something you believe in. Of course I know now what I didn't know then, which is that you may as well try to get something you believe in published, as you are going to be asked to write almost the same book again and again and again..."

Well, there's something good in that advice. If you don't believe in your books, and, say, look down your nose at what you're doing, chances are you aren't going to sell very well. Readers are pretty keen at noting when they're reading something that the writer had no passion in writing. But to then take that good advice and warp it into a criticism of the repetitiveness of genre fiction--particularly serial genre fiction--makes me wonder if, in her drive to be published, she ever stopped to consider what such a thing meant.
I spent the next couple of months refining my manuscript. ... After she had read the revised manuscript, the editor sent me a 17-page letter, asking for more precise changes. ... the night before the editor came down to see me I sat at my computer and hammered out what is now the first chapter of the first Lily Pascale novel. I did it when I was angry, and I did it to show this editor that I could write exactly the kind of fiction she had in mind (I just didn’t want to). ‘I love it,’ she declared after she had read it. ‘Now, if you can make the whole book like this...’

I trust you noticed the "I just didn't want to" bit. Hello? If you've figured out what the editor wants, that you can provide it, but you don't want to, what the hell are you doing at that house?

But she eventually did "escape" to a literary house, where she would have known she belonged in the first place had she actually done any research into the business of publishing. From her safety on the other side of the fence, she decides to tell it like it is. That it wasn't her own damn fault for trying to do something she despised just to get published in a field she really didn't want to be published in. No, no, she has no blame in all of this except giving in to the "corporation rules" her previous editor adhered to. The real culprit behind her struggle through the darkness and into the light is the publishing industry's discrimination against women.
While women are stuck writing formulaic genre fiction for publishers that won’t let them do anything else, occasionally hiding their great ideas, observations and writing inside these books, men do the reverse: disguising often mediocre genre fiction as literary fiction. And it works! Look at Jonathan Franzen, selling us a family saga as if it was something new. Of course, feminist critique has moved on from simply pointing a finger at what men are doing and saying, ‘Why aren’t we allowed to do that too?’ and in publishing it isn’t that simple anyway but yet it is true that women are kept out of certain areas of publishing, including one area close to my own heart, the category loosely defined as ‘cult literary fiction’.

And then she combines her two points in a strange way that continues to make me think she doesn't understand the business of publishing at all and never will.
Of course, as long as different sorts of writing are contained in these prison-like ‘categories’, and the ‘market’ determines what gets printed and put on the shelves, it is unlikely that women will break out of restrictive popular formulae, or the female ghettoes within the Science Fiction, fantasy and crime genres.

I'm sorry, what else besides the market will determine what gets put on shelves? The market wants a good story, but even the best story won't sell if it can't find its audience, which is the purpose behind those "prison-like 'categories'" otherwise known as genres. Publishing as a market-based business is not going to change, not if publishers want to make money. Fiction categorization just may change, though, because more and more of the market doesn't adhere to compartmentalization in their reading tastes.

Scarlett Thomas's overall argument can be summarized in this excerpt:
Once you start talking to these authors you realise that most of them don’t want to write formulaic fiction at all, but once they sign their contract, they find that this is what they are required to do. Another editor I interviewed said, ‘Just as there’s a place for five-star restaurants, there’s a place for McDonald’s.’ But do the authors know they’re supposed to be the equivalent of McDonald’s?, I asked. ‘Not always,’ admitted the editor. It would seem that far from being a representation of ‘real’ women’s experience - which is how they defend it, by the way - chick lit is an exercise in suppressing it. And I do wonder if a similar thing is happening in women’s literary fiction; that if you send in a manuscript to a publisher that isn’t a contemporary saga, or a novel about relationships, it goes on the ‘no’ pile. After all, what would they tell the sales department? Originality? No, thanks. ... What if all women writers refused to write according to the formulae made up by people who think the public are stupid and that we should keep giving them the same old crap again and again.

This is not the right argument to be making to change anything about how commercial fiction is sold or how women are perceived/treated in publishing especially because, as Thomas reported in her personal anecdotes and implies with the whole golden arches analogy, the women who get "suckered" into writing formulaic stories don't bother to research their market and the houses to which they are submitting their work. And it's further evidence of that same ignorance of how the business works to suggest that any women's literary fiction novel that isn't a contemporary saga or a novel about relationships is automatically rejected because editors are only looking for projects that adhere to a formula they push on the market because they think the "public are stupid." It's even more ridiculous to make such an assertion given that Thomas herself in the same essay remarks how women are kept in their genre ghettoes because "the 'market' determines what gets printed and put on the shelves."

As I mentioned above, others are talking about the essay as if it really addresses concerns about publishing and women in publishing. And they are discussing it thoughtfully enough that I think Thomas must raise some valid concerns despite logic holes you could drive lorries through. This must mean that there are a good number of "cult" women fiction writers submitting to the right agents and houses, or are being upfront and candid about what they're trying to do with their current agents and houses in their book proposals instead of trying to sneak some literary stuff past their commercial fiction editors and hope they don't get caught and feel unfairly confined and restricted when they do. That leads me to conclude that there really isn't enough good discussion generated about this topic and so otherwise intelligent people are "taking what they can get" and trying to stick to the big issues in a flimsy argument.

How unfortunate. Equality in publishing (in the sense that women and men should both be able to follow their writing desires--much like boys and girls should be able to learn according to their tastes rather than be shunted toward and away from topics deemed appropriate or inappropriate to their perceived societal roles) is a laudable goal. Different ways to publish to a market or even just publish to make a profit that reduces the need for formulaic fiction is a great concept. Neither topic is presented in any coherent fashion in Scarlet Thomas's essay.

Not that it was necessarily meant to. Thomas was speaking to a sympathetic audience in an undisclosed capacity (i.e. maybe she was invited just to share her story and some dirt on the industry). She clearly doesn't like the way the business of publishing runs today. She also clearly doesn't like the way society still has wrinkles in how women are perceived and treated by society. The end result, then, is a speech that is more an extended whine with a few possibilities for coherent discussion rather than a "lecture" designed to inform an audience and generate an atmosphere for change.

While the former can be fun and has its place, I was expecting the latter since the subject matter (equality in publishing, flexibility in publishing) is so weighty.

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