LAST OF A SERIES
The literary System as it exists today, as presented in Jeff Herman's book and others like it, is like an ideology or religion. The giant edifice is constructed on faith. The odds of a fledgling writer enrolled in a writing rpogram of being meaningfully published are 1 in 50,000, yet the person believes that he or she will be one of the Chosen few. (Never mind that the writers whose books are backed and hyped generally are well-connected, chosen from the outset.) Forget the odds: the would-be writer believes! Take away that belief and the entire structure would collapse within a week.
How do we know the System is ideology, is religion?
In Herman's 991-page book there is not one contrary opinion, not one dissenting voice, not one word condemning the unwieldy process itself. It is total unquestioning mindlock.
Indeed, in the entirety of the System of many thousands of writers, teachers, editors, agents, publicists, commentators; a billion dollar schooling program feeding a billion dollar industry, from leafy campuses to gigantic Manhattan skyscrapers, you'll find scarcely one dissenting voice. Oh you'll find exhaustion, frustration, complaints-- but not directed at the System itself. Those few who dare to speak against it, as my blogs, or the handful of literary rebels in the Underground Literary Alliance, at the edge of the literary universe, find themselves scorned and ostracized.
The all-powerful System produces jobs for many and profits for some, but it also produces massive artistic failure. There is no way of knowing whether they're getting the best writers-- only the best funded and most compliant; the most UNimaginative to be able to accept and survive the process. No one knows how many Thomas Wolfes, Scott Fitzgeralds, or Jack Kerouacs are in the rooms of the slush pile; tossed there because their envelopes were improperly or sloppily addressed, or the manuscripts contained coffee stains, or beer stains, or misspellings on the very first page, or were in an unfamiliar voice or tone or milieu (think of Bill Blackolive), and so presented the preppy reader a vastly new, disorienting, and uncomfortable world. The manuscript might even attack the demi-puppet reader himself!-- and so would have to be immediately tossed back into the stacks, hands which touched it washed thoroughly afterward.
No one knows how many John Kennedy Tooles have committed suicide in the frustration of knowing their book, no matter how good, would never find print.
No: the massive process is massively unwieldy and massively inefficient, when you consider that, by the admission of the System's own acolytes like Jeff Herman, 99% of the work produced never sees daylight. It ends up not in slush pile rooms but slush pile warehouses. So much wasted effort.
A BETTER WAY
How much better for literature, for writers, and for the culture if even a fraction of System writers were instead creating their own zeens; putting their words, their ideas, and their imaginations THERE, in quirky colorful and relevant uniquely individualized craftings; then sold the literary artworks-- encompassing many aspects of art-- THEMSELVES, whether in zeen stores or through snail mail networks or publications like Zine World: A Reader's Guide to the Underground Press-- or, as many have done, on buses or at rock shows or in saloons and on streetcorners. You would have an army of writers bringing their literature directly to the public. The most creative of them, with the freshest voices or most striking ideas, would find their audience. There would be no gatekeepers; no judges of authority in metaphorical black robes passing sentence. People who'd never read a book in their lives, never stepped inside a Barnes & Noble, would be introduced to the joys of reading and writing. Those zeensters who didn't find an audience might instead discover a network of fellow literary adventurers, and, at least, for his or her efforts, would have at the end of it not yellowing typed pages moldering in a distant warehouse, but a real creative accomplishment.
This is exactly the milieu within which I jumped into literature in the early 1990's-- a tremendously exhilarating underground scene. In its way it's a different literary religion to the all-powerful and hierarchical System one, but how liberating! It's a literary revolution alright-- a revolution of the mind.
It's not too late to kickstart this rebellion of the word again-- not too late for YOU the writer to jump into it; to discover the freedom and joy of being a pathfinder, of discovering the entirely new. With thousands of literary zeensters reaching the reading public directly, the top-heavy monopolistic status quo publishing industry, like an obsolete dinosaur, would collapse from its own weight.
Literary happiness-- that's all any of us wants.