REPORTING UNDER RESTRICTIONS
It’s worth considering in the current climate just how the midlist and midlist authors are going to fare. About a thousand years ago - 1989 to be precise - Charles Platt was a columnist for Interzone, and one of his pieces was indeed titled “The Vanishing Midlist”. The concerns he was raising were ones which anyone who has even a passing interest in matters literary will be familiar with, although looking back it must seem that he had no idea of how good things were by comparison with today, or how bad they were going to get.
There is an argument that with increasing pressure on new authors to produce an instant hit, only the very good or the very commercial will succeed, and this can only be for the good of the reading public, who will be spared the tedium of wading through fiction - or any book - which is merely average. One of the most useful theories to come out of SF is Sturgeon’s Law, which of course states that 94% of everything is crud. That’s to say, 94% of any given category is at best OK. There is only 6% of anything - people, conversations, books, waking life - which is worthwhile. As I’m becoming increasingly resistant to anything in print which strikes me as having the potential to be less than terrific, this is a rule I apply on a regular basis. And in principle, you ought to have a very good reason indeed to draw people’s attention away from the likes of Shakespeare, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Cervantes - in other words, all the acknowledged greats who are read - actually read for pleasure and enlargement - by relatively few people. Me included, by the way.
The problem is that fiction - literature - story-telling - makin’ stuff up, call it what you will - just disnae work that way. The author cited by Platt as an example of being uber-midlist was Philip K. Dick, who wrote on the breadline an awful lot of the time, who produced novels which were often fatally flawed - even the good ones! - and who managed to make a living through writing but as far as I’m aware never got rich by it. But take the body of his work as a whole, get past the often clunky prose and bizarre plotting, and you have one of the true SF greats. Did he ever have a hit?
I came across two other example fairly recently. In his new introduction to Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks notes that hardback sales were unspectacular, and paperback sales not a lot better. It took time for it to become the enormous bestseller that it is today. The Amnesians even wanted him to move the action out of WWI - too old, too depressing. John Irving, in his memoir/essay The Imaginary Girlfriend tells of a conversation he had with his agent, asking him if he would take on today
In other words, it’s a slow burn. You don’t know when - or if - the big one is going to come along, and if you don’t give the writers a chance, it won’t come along at all. Moreover, you don’t know that the masterpiece will be recognised for what it is at the time, or even if it is, that it will turn a profit. Stevenson wasn’t financially independent until the age of 37, when his father died and he inherited money won from building lighthouses. That’s after writing
Finally, there’s the unavoidable truth that what we need isn’t always found on the heights. Three authors. To begin, Alan Garner. Alright, Garner defines the heights, at least for me, but Strandloper and Thursbitch wouldn’t have been published if it wasn’t for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Owl Service, which are acknowledged classics (and it should be noted that while Weirdstone drew plaudits galore on publication in 1960, sales were low). If you find a copy of Strandloper in the shops today, though it’s still in print, you’re doing well. Second, Edgar Pangborn, who is practically unknown today and never had really big sales in his lifetime either, though he had (and perhaps still has, in some corners?) devoted readers much in the way Garner does. Like Dick, flawed but brilliant, and treasured. I hold hopes that Davy will be published in the Fantasy Masterworks series. Third, a chap called Neil Ferguson, who got a bunch of stories published in Interzone in the ‘80s, and who wrote Bars of
The richness of literature comes from its variety. That includes the crud that allows the 6% to grow, bearing in mind that the 6% might be well be found in a novel - or a lifetime’s work - which is otherwise crud. As we kill off the midlist, our countries, our cultures, and crucially, our imaginations (wherein the other two are generated) are poorer, shallower, cheaper, and that is emphatically not what the game is about, folks.