‘Man has continued to evolve by acts of disobedience […] daring to say no in the name of his conscience. His intellectual development was dependent on the capacity for being disobedient to authorities who tried to muzzle new thoughts and to the authority of long-established opinions which declared a change to be nonsense.’
– Erich Fromm, On Disobedience
The recent Twixter development with reference to the Eyewear Publishing’s abrupt fall from grace looks like a time-bomb waiting to go off for a few years now. (If you use social media, you can easily find out what I am talking about, so I am not going to revive it, for ethical reasons. It has already taken too much of my headspace, plus it is not the focus of what I am about to say.) Regardless of what is going to happen next, I cannot but bring up a wider issue – the present symptomatic state of the literary space, and, particularly, the publishing industry.
At a time when competition is supposed to promote quality and integrity, a well-oiled trophic chain keeps on growing; and the institutions building this up seem unable to ‘snap out of it’ as the pressure to ‘make it, and make it big’ has become a scope in itself. (I use the concept ‘institution’ in the sociological sense.)
The general turmoil is now backfiring on writers trapped between their need to get work published and the pressure to accept arrogance, humiliation and to conform, ad literam, to the publisher’s demand (in some cases). But if the book sells, all is forgotten and forgiven. Before you know it, it slowly becomes common practice. Then it is widely spread across, used as a functional business model and, finally, adopted as a cultural value. What for? Just to prove that neoliberalism works well.
There are many brilliant independent publishers too, with a natural propensity towards quality and excellence. Some are young, some are struggling to survive, and others are actually doing really well. I have admiration for all of them and I support their journey. The beauty in their work (and, ultimately, their success) comes from their ability to reject the established cultural food chain. But to break a system, one needs to create another. And why shouldn’t this system be about more agents which say no, which disobey, which continue to change?
As a writer, I can only keep my side of the bargain through writing and saying no in my own way.
I say no to submission windows, for instance. As I don’t write between nine and four with a lunch break and a bit of time for elevenses, I prefer publishers with ‘open windows’. I prefer to work with people rather than with systems. One has to recognise there is some scope in accepting submissions only at certain times. One must consider the publisher’s high volume of manuscripts, the financial constraints, staff availability and so on. However, there are two further considerations to make here:
a). some publishers recognise their struggle to manage two hundred submissions over a period of four months, whilst others, with less staff, manage over four hundred in two months. Is it a matter of grit, determination, passion, or just management?
b). secondly, rather more important to me, the problem of equality and diversity. The idea of preferential treatment to subscribers and their own protégées. And you can also jump the queue if you are Carolan Fluffy. What happens then with the young, the very young or the struggling writers unable to afford subscriptions, or talented writers at the very beginning of their career? They need to join the queue and wait longer to have their manuscript read. (And, in some cases, it takes months, if not years to get a response.) One would have thought that in such a competitive market things could have been more efficient, and more honest.
I say no to submission fees. This is simply based on arithmetic. Browsing through the writing competitions promoted via official channels, and adding up, the monthly sum for submissions is higher than some writers’ food bill. A high percentage of great writing and talent gets overlooked. And if this is not the publishers’ loss, it is certainly our cultural loss.
In a society where cultural losses are neglected, the freedom of expression has no meaning and obedience is identified as a virtue.
Maria Stadnicka, 21st July 2018