Why writers still need gatekeepers
Even in this new chapter of writing being for the masses, publication should remain for the few
Published 01/04/2013 | 05:00
It seems that everyone's a writer nowadays. No longer the preserve of tweedy public-school types, and those pesky gatekeepers in snooty publishing houses, writing, at last, belongs to the masses. Whereas once upon a time, the 'writer' was a semi-mythical figure, who wafted around the lofty halls of academe, now you can hardly set foot outside the door without tripping over someone finishing a novel or publishing a poem, or uploading their fan-fiction on to a website.
It would take a truly mean-spirited person not to applaud the democratisation of writing, the idea that people have the opportunity to express themselves creatively, to be supported and validated along the way. Everyone has the right to write, after all.
Well, do they? And if they do, what about the writing?
When I started out as an editor in London, unsolicited manuscripts used to come in thick brown envelopes, addressed to 'the editor' in a variety of handwriting styles, with neatly typed letters inside, explaining why the author had decided to write a novel about the colonisation of Barnsley by aliens, or from a retired gentleman who'd decided to masquerade as a Dorothy or Doreen, and write a steamy blockbuster about a girl who'd clawed her way to the top with nothing but guts and a certain cunning in the bedroom (this was in the days before political correctness).
Sometimes the letters were written in red pen on the torn-out pages of a copybook, in block capitals, indicating that the writer wasn't familiar with the norms of the business letter, to put it politely. Sometimes – more often than you might think – the envelopes would arrive at the office accompanied by the author, whom we would find standing in reception, in some kind of damp raincoat, his or her life's work in their hands. We would always take the material and have a polite chat, then trudge upstairs and place it on the tottering heap of submitted manuscripts. Never was Yeats's maxim to 'tread softly' more apt.
The thing was, there was a tacit understanding that 99.9 per cent of this material would never see the light of day, because it wasn't good enough. A polite letter would be dispatched to this effect and that would be the end of it. There were no writers' websites to encourage the owners of the damp raincoats, there weren't even that many writer's groups – there were hardly any writing classes to speak of. It was like natural selection: only some would ascend to the lofty heights of publication, because writing was difficult, challenging and very few succeeded at it.
In the 'anyone can do it' age, it seems that all you have to do is join a creative writing group, or upload a short story on to one of many websites, or chat to your friends on author forums and hey, presto. But while writing courses can encourage a certain standard, can make you aware of point of view and plot development, can equip you with the skills to compose something that resembles a novel, they can't make you a writer. They can't give you that extra something that lifts a work out of being just a humdrum collection of words into something special, that magic that only a very few possess. That's not to say that you can't have fun creating and enjoy the process of writing and the fulfilment that comes with it, but in terms of quality, nothing has changed. Writing is the same as ever, a demanding challenge at which only a few succeed and which requires the kind of talent that can be nurtured and encouraged, but simply can't be created, no matter how good the writing course.
And what's missing from the whole 'anyone can write' idea is a yardstick of quality. The imprimatur of an experienced, skilled individual saying, 'This is good enough to be published', and lifting the standard of literature in the process. The kind of skill that used to be displayed by the late, great David Marcus, who curated his New Writing pages with insight and the kind of high standards that didn't always please writers, but earned him their respect.
Nowadays, such 'gatekeepers' as they are called, are frowned upon, the implication being that they exist simply to stop real talent from being discovered. And, sure, the literary world is rife with stories of undeserved rejection and authors not given their due – think of the tiny advance paid to JK Rowling for her first Harry Potter novel, or the multiple rejections of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces.
The fact remains that creative talent can't be judged objectively and what one editor will rave about, another will dispatch to the wastepaper basket. That's the thing about taste, it's personal and therefore fallible, but it is entirely necessary, because the alternative is crowd-sourced, X Factor blandness, a blancmange of 'stuff' without any real distinction or any notion of what's really good.
The enjoyment of writing can and should be for everyone, but publication and the achievement of a certain standard of quality, isn't a democratic process, a fact which no amount of fan-fiction websites or self-publishing can disprove. And no, it isn't fair, but it is right.
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