Speaking of Democracy + Writing

Laura Miller at Salon has written another article about the demise of literature as we know it. In this latest piece she argues that new technology has made it easier for "everyone" to publish and soon we will all be awash in the dreck from the slush pile.

A basic assumption of Miller's essay is that writers whose work lingers in a slush pile or who self-publish are simply not good enough to find traditional publishers. I don't know if that was ever really the case (certainly some writers have been marginalized because of biases within the industry that are unrelated to talent), but I know that Miller's assumption does not apply to many writers today. Ask any MFA graduate who was good enough to get into a prestigious writing program but who can't find a publisher to buy his book.

I listened to such a person this spring at a panel at AWP. He was a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop. He published over half of the stories in his story collection with traditional literary journals, but still could not find an agent or publisher who would take him on. He ended up scrapping the collection and publishing sections of his novel online with a site that specializes in audio podcasts. He found a huge audience who liked what he wrote. After finding a market, a traditional publisher became interested and published his work.

That writer was and is talented. His problem was not his writing, but the changing marketplace. The publishing industry is being reshaped by market forces just like the music industry, journalism, and the movie industry. If Miller's essay had not assumed that all unpublished writing is bad, the essay may have provided a less cynical view of how literature and publishing might flourish in our new technological age.

Besides, Ms. Miller, what's wrong with the "democratization of the slush pile"? If you don't like something, don't read it. It shouldn't matter if it's an e-book or the old fashioned kind. But I suspect that the real problem is the democratization of the gatekeepers.

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