In 1999, during a talk at MIT, the late, inimitable Douglas Adams quipped that “getting a movie made in Hollywood is like trying to grill a steak by having a succession of people coming into the room and breathing on it.” I’m of the strong opinion that the book publishing industry, especially in the US, has for some years now been heading in the same dubious direction, a trend exacerbated by both macro-economic factors and the present turmoil within the industry.
Let me begin with my cards on the table: I’m biased. I prefer the real over the idealized, the purity of the artist’s original vision over a heavily-massaged corporate product; similarly, I believe true beauty is better appreciated without pancake makeup and every strand of immaculately-styled hair tucked perfectly in place. In the same way that a perfect world crafted by committee would be an intolerable, saccharin Disneyland, a book produced by committee with the cynical purpose of making the most bucks is not going to appeal to me. It may—may—be a smashing success, and that’s okay if you want to live in a world of Dan Brown thrillers: I don’t. I want some verisimilitude in a book, and that includes protagonists that sometimes aren’t proactive, characters who might not change, and loose ends that don’t get tied up in a pretty ribbon. I’d bet my dog and lot that the warped notion that an unholy alliance of agents, editors, sales and marketing people, and (shudder!) accountants will improve an already good book rather than turn it into processed mush is about as intelligent as the dream of the Edsel. And we know where that ended up.
This isn’t to say that developmental editing doesn’t have a place: of course it does. Even the best authors can be too close to their own work and benefit from educated and intelligent input. A good agent and editor can be an invaluable asset to any author. But the process has got entirely out of hand, with more books than ever being rejected or twisted out of shape because of bizarre preoccupations over category, marketing demographics, and inherited assumptions of what readers want.
Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take the case of Science Fiction in film. Those of us who love Science Fiction literature know very well that even the best SF stories and novels (Philip K. Dick, anyone?), in the process of being scripted and filmed, have most of their intelligent content ripped out and replaced with gunfights, explosions, chases, and slo-mo kung fu. Why? To target that all-important adolescent male demographic, of course. Now, proving this happens to manuscripts is less easy, but every one of us who works with or is a writer has seen it at first- or second-hand. While I don’t think we’re yet at the woeful state of the movie industry, I do think that the US book industry is pretty far along the road to a lockstep conformity dictated by factors that have little to do with good writing and everything to do with perception and factors unrelated to quality.
A couple of years ago at the World Fantasy Convention in San José, I asked GOH Zoran Živković why non-Anglophone SF (‘World SF’) typically has very different thematic concerns than US/UK SF, and is often far more vibrant, political, allegorical, edgy and even surrealist. His reply was both insightful and telling: “The publishing industry in the US is very powerful,” he said, “and its strength is what determines the market. In the rest of the world, writers write what they want to write, not only what is marketable.”
Aliette de Bodard, in a superb and heartfelt 2011 blog post on the prevalence of US tropes in storytelling, addresses the same issue from a slightly different angle. This pressure to conformity, originating from purely commercial concerns, is warping the literary landscape and spreading like a cancer. Again, let me qualify: there’s nothing wrong with the book industry attempting to pick winners and make a profit, but there’s a great deal wrong with marketing people and accountants dictating a book’s final shape; not only that, but—like Hollywood—they’ve proven over and over that they’re not very good at it, because otherwise every book would make a profit.
To conclude, not all artists or writers have 20-20 vision; there are plenty of bad indie books out there, just as there are plenty of bad indie movies. But, given a good cut of beef in the first place, I usually find that a steak grilled on a high heat by an experienced hand tastes a great deal better than one cooked over months by having a succession of people breathe on it.