I think all of us came into the business with a mental image of that great camaraderie between writers, particularly writers of sf/f, which seemed perfectly natural.
After all, each of us grew up feeling profoundly weird, just on the writing thing (the only reason I didn’t get pounded for going “oooooh” in an ecstatic way when a story or essay was assigned is that I was twice as large as the other kids in the school – Portugal in the sixties and seventies wasn’t known for tall people – and because, frankly, I was the one people were scared of. [Never without provocation but though this might not be obvious from this blog, I have a TEENY temper.]) but also on the science fiction thing.
So I always figured out that though I was like a squid-headed (Take THAT Margaret Atwood) alien among humans, if I could go into a group of my own kind – which to me always implied being published in the traditional way and having credibility and all – I’d be received like the prodigal daughter and welcomed…
Only, it didn’t work out that way. To some extent, I think it did in the days of pulps – note, I said to some extent – and after that too, at least in groups. Yes, SF/F is known for the kind of epic feuds where people don’t speak to other people for years “because of what he said at the WF banquet in 1976!” but that in itself is almost heart warming. All big families have these riffs, and come on, it’s not any different than having a big feud over “what they said about our Maudie.”
But by the time I entered – and, again, I was gratified by noting that Kris Rusch has identified the time I came in as well into the “crazy years” of publishing. I mean, the poison of misapplied statistics “numbers” started almost ten years before I broke in – it had devolved into something bizarre.
It was – I’ve been reading a lot about the Soviet Satellites during Soviet rule (Well, there is a reason, relating to the next novel I post here in installments – at least if the gamble on this one pays off in both contributions and advance word of mouth for the piece, the second being more important than the first) – a lot like the terror regimens that always seem to follow the French/Soviet style of revolution.
It makes sense in a way, because it’s what happens when things start going disastrously wrong on a society with utopian aims, (and most people involved in publishing are academic-utopians of a form or another) and it crashes head first into human nature in an undeniable way. Then the idea that human nature must be suppressed, worked upon and elevated becomes the value, since you’re not going to achieve nirvana anyway.
And publishing was running bad when I came in, in the same way early utopian revolutions run bad. Yeah, you have your great slogans, but the money is running dry. So, of course, the people at the top decided that what they should do was pick winners and losers, since, meh, the numbers the way they were being used were rife for manipulation.
This is much like a tyrannical regimen picking winners and losers, particularly when you consider that most of those picks were “for agreeing with the editor” though editor-politics are often odd, as they’re often single-issuers. (Unfortunately for most of those editors the single issue is misandry, in which I cannot concur. In fact I can’t even pretend and still look at myself in mirror every morning.)
Of course, editors and publishers couldn’t have you killed and all your wealth confiscated, but they could block you from publishing, which for a lot of writers is worse than death, and make sure no one saw your books, ever.
And while some of the books that made it to the top were good, no one who saw how the sausage factory worked on the other side, can have the slightest belief that these workings are in fact even vaguely “fair” or that traditional publishing is in any way a meritocracy.
In fact it was more like a “Meritrocracy” in which we meretriciously tried to ingratiate ourselves with the powers at the top, who could make or break our career even while resenting their power and often insane decisions. Because we couldn’t do anything about them, we often turned on each other, both as a way of competition and because we had to take it out on SOMEONE.
The field has always run on gossip, but now it was gossip on steroids. I know there are several people in the field who plain won’t talk to me, and I have to assume it’s because someone told them I said or did something about their Maudie, and I have no CLUE what. (In the same way that some people, as I came into the field went out of their way to attack me, even though I was in no way in their way and could in no way affect them.) This kind of crazy-making and paranoia leads to spying, friend telling on friend and the opposite of fellowship and camaraderie. You were jokeying for position in the field, always afraid that having friends in the band that editors didn’t like would make you one of the d*med. Yes, people dropped friends because the friends were not in good odor with publishers. Yes, people had massive fights because they SUSPECTED (on the flimsiest evidence) other writers of messing up their relationship with a publisher. And that was among beginners and midlisters. I have enough bestselling friends to know that at their level, behind a facade of comity, it could get WAY worse. And yes, we all engaged to some extent in double think.
Look, I used to think that was my experience. That I was the only one who felt cut-off, paranoid (always a tendency for me) and engaging in double think so I didn’t throttle the living day light out of people whose power over and indifference to my career drove me batty.
Turns out, as the gates are inching open, no. Not so much so.
And though it’s very early days yet, as the possibility of having a career without jumping through crazy-making hoops, is starting to dawn, I’m starting to see relations between writers change. Instead of the insane competition and trying to avoid being near those who are slated for career-death, we’re starting to cooperate in small ways and go “Hey, you know, if you use this editor, he’s cheap and good” or “hey, this program works better for the conversions” or even “Would you give me a blurb for my indie book?” And we’re starting to relax a little around each other and admit that yeah, our real anger is at the publishers – all of us, even the ones who are doing well, know someone who was screwed over for no rational reason – not at each other.
Of course, up from that – and a while from that, I suspect – there will be a time when the publishers too see that there is a gate out of the way the system has entrapped them, because they too had to do things in a way they’d rather not, because of distributors, mega chain bookstores, etc.
What’s really heart warming and startling is seeing writers of different political stripes collaborate in trying to figure out the new model. I’d always assumed crazy politics were a part of my field, but maybe it’s more that because the publishers and editors cared we had to, also. Heaven knows in other professions people are friends across political lines. But we were in mode “must not be seen with x or will be sent to publishing gulag.”
I’m not saying that traditional publishers will ever completely reform (or that all writers will become buddy-buddy). But I think it will become more of a meritocracy in competing with a more open system. And that’s enough (most of us can at least stop the gladiatorial combat.) Oh, okay, when dictatorial regimes fall anarchy follows for a while, but afterwards there is at least the chance of “Something better hereafter.”
And we’re living right at the cusp of it. We few, we happy few, we band of writers…