The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


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 Irving’s first novel, which was published in the late 1960s. The agent hemmed a moment, and admitted that he probably wouldn’t.

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
Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

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 America, Double Helix Fall, Putting Out and, best of all, English Weather. All out of print, and none of them, except maybe for English Weather, what you could call great books, but there’s a humanity and a tenderness in his writing which is incredibly rare. Again, midlist. I can only say that I’m indebted to all of them.

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.


At 4 November 2005 at 12:16 , Blogger Yewtree said...

Also there's the undeniable fact that one person's idea of an unmissable work of genius is someone else's idea of crud.

And the fact that whilst sometimes one wants to eat dark chocolate with 75% cocoa solids, other times one just wants to eat popcorn. Great works of literature are not generally bedtime comfort reading. I can't imagine snuggling up with a Solzhenitsyn....

At 4 November 2005 at 12:17 , Blogger Yewtree said...

Though I did read both Strandloper and Thursbitch in bed...

At 6 November 2005 at 16:14 , Blogger Joe said...

As more than one publisher's rep or editor has remarked to me, the shrinking of the midlist is going to have dire consequences in the long term for readers, for authors and for publishers. If you don't take time to build an audience for a new writer (and as you point out many take years to build) then where will the bestsellers which help pay the bills for all in bookselling come from?

I remember first dealing with Ian Rankin when he was hardly known. Through some very good crime novels and a lot of hard PR work appearing in interviews everywhere Ian built himself up in Edinburgh, then Scotland. It was only then that his publisher really got seriously behind him on a national level and started to spend money on advertising his novels - although in all fairness Ian still does much himself to stay in the public eye.

The continuing existence of small publishers such Pendragon Press or Peter Crowther's PS Publishing show that there is still room and demand for authors at all scales - what worries me is that bigger publishers used to scour smaller indy press and jouranls like Interzone for the future talent for their own list; now they are only taking a few surefire winners. Now it is a business and I understand their need to create big selling titles, but if new talent is not nurtured then eventually those large publishers will be left looking urgently for new authors to replace older bestseller when they retire/pass on/stop selling. And if they haven't taken time to build up those new and midlist writers where will they find those new bestsellers? Oh, silly me - just take any old tosh and get Richard and Judy or Oprah to say it is wonderful... Who needs to build up your literary stable when a talk show soundbite can do it for you...

At 7 November 2005 at 00:59 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Yeah. Over the past five years it's become pretty clear to me that you can get a good review for practically anything, from someone. And yes, crud for one person can be creme de menthe for another - three years on and I'm still shocked that Sabriel got such a good write-up from Pullman, when despite a few nice set pieces it is fatally flawed by determinist plotting, really crude at that. (If the spell preventing Moggat(?) from telling Sabriel what's going on doesn't work when they're at sea - something Moggat conveniently forgot until now - and begins to take hold again as they're getting close to land, why in the name of Shub-Niggurath don't they just turn the boat around for five minutes?) Nevertheless, it seems to me that one can approach a consensus, and should try to, on what constitutes good, rich, resonant art in literature. If we fail to, we're left with marketing. Richard Hoggart has some energetic, although to my mind not thoroughly convincing, arguments on these lines - still, I agree with him. Of course, the canon can never be definitively established, and writers and their works fade in to and out of vogue, and are subject to sometimes fierce debate. (Tolstoy thought Shakespeare a sham, and himself the only person capable of seeing through it.)

Re: popcorn: well, I kind of agree and don't. When it comes to slumming it I like Pratchett and Gemmell and Robert E. Howard, and I read a thing called Serenade by James M. Cain earlier this year which many a reader would undoubtedly put down halfway through. If ever there was a flawed novel, this is it. But my God, the voice on it. What a talent the man had. Many people would call it popcorn, but I don't; or put another way, the good points are sufficiently good for me to get past the failings. It's a question of tone, and it's what I meant by coming off the heights: there's a satisfaction to be had in "with a speed and ferocity that no civilized man would be capable of, the iron-thewed barbarian..." etc etc which, no, you won't find in Hamlet. But the 6% is still in there - in this case the urgency of the storytelling - and it's what I always look for, at whatever register.


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