Writing in the New Yorker in December of 1928, E. B. White recounts an encounter with a paid for hire writer. The writer is getting paid “fifty cents a word,” and is grimly disappointed when White advises that “willy-nilly” gets a hyphen, “at a cost of half a dollar.” Laura Miller, writing in Salon, must be getting paid per word, for her June 22 article, bemoaning the recent rise of self-publishing, is about twice as long as it needs to be. Ostensibly about her concern for readers deluged in the self-published detritus of a slush pile tidal wave, the piece laments the loss of the professional slush pile reader, the entry-level editor who combs through trash piles of unsolicited material like an astronomer searching the night sky for life on another planet. Several assumptions support Laura’s claim that the adulteration of traditional publishing by self-publishing is ultimately to the detriment of the general interest reader: professional writers are better than amateur writers; all self-published works result from slush pile rejections; traditionally published material guarantees quality, and this stamp of official approval saves readers from having to make that decision for themselves. But at risk is an old character, a kind of modern-day Bartleby, the professional reader, the slush pile expert who is now out of work, who has been laboring at the risk of blindness and insanity all these years on behalf of the general interest reader to ensure only works of the highest quality reach their book of the month club selection options.
We discovered Laura’s article in a post at HTML Giant, a relatively recent addition to our blog feeds, but yet another example of the kind of self-published material Laura bemoans. Roxane Gay presents a kind of opposing viewpoint to Laura’s piece, at least where the slush pile going public motif is concerned.
So what do we have to add to the already too long and boring discussion? Well, we were thinking of self-published music. Most of what we hear on the radio, in spite of its imprimatur, sanctioned by the traditional music publishing system, in other words, professional work, we find hackneyed, superfluous, and platitudinous. Or consider television – also full of terrible work sanctioned by professional license. And against these works place the street corner crooner, the independent label, the throwaway zine, the twice visited blog, the indie film. We don’t see self-publishing as the problem in the same way that Laura views it as the problem.
Writing again in the New Yorker, in December of 1948, E. B. White, under the title “Accredited Writers?” remarks: “Perhaps, as democracy assumes, every man is a writer, every man wholly needy, every man capable of unimaginable deeds.” As for us, we don’t mind taking the time to try to read what everyman, or everywoman, has to say, for every person has a story to tell. How well they tell it, how persuasive their argument, how lovely their prose or poetry, how surprising their style – these are our values, too, but, like Roxane, we also value the opportunity to compare and contrast, the better to evaluate for ourselves whose story for its honesty and originality bears repeating, for if every man or woman is a writer, they must also be a reader.