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The Sad Side Effects of Literary Scandal

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Writer X, like all of us aspiring authors, reads the words of encouragement all the time. He sees interviews with editors and agents where they proudly proclaim that if you just keep writing, don’t give up, pay your dues, stay true to your beliefs, find your voice, make every word count, tell the story you believe in, produce strong work, and all the other platitudes, then it will be published. He has his good days and his bad days, but he tries to stay positive and have faith in the system without being naive.

Writer X deals with the disappointment of his latest rejection, he swallows the bitterness of his latest encounter with a “no unsolicited submissions” publisher, and he absorbs the financial loss of self-addressed-stamped-envelopes that are demanded but never used. He puts his head down, goes to work, and writes the best words that he can. He approaches each story as if it is the only story he will ever tell.

Then he reads an astounding news report about a seventeen-year-old signing a two-book deal with Little, Brown, and Co. Later, he reads further reports and book reviews that state the teenager’s advance was $500,000. The first printing for the teen’s novel was 100,000 copies.

Maybe Writer X burns with envy. Or, maybe he cheers the success of someone said to be “an amazing writer.”

Then, the accusations begin to surface. He reads about similarities with other published works and he learns about the role a “book packager” played in the sale. Finally, the wealthy teen author acknowledges  the similarities between her work and other previously published novels, explaining that she “may have internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words.” She apologizes for the “unintentional” mistake but the wronged author’s publisher ain’t rolling over that easily. Even Katie Couric doesn’t doesn’t seem persuaded by the teen’s excuses.

Writer X sighs at this most recent literary controversy. James Frey enhanced elements of his biography while J.T. Leroy and Nasdijj were created whole cloth, literary Frankenstein’s monsters stitched together out of mercenary and callous desires for book fame, fortune, and acclaim. Dan Brown successfully defended himself against charges of plagiarism but Brad Vice and other lesser known authors have been similarly accused in recent months. Almost weekly, a new literary scandal arises.

Is it any wonder that Writer X, and tens of thousands of aspiring authors like him, are distrustful of publishing companies? Is it any wonder why Writer X begins to think all the platitudes about valuing great literature are just bullshit?

The sad side effect of these literary scandals is to generate even more apprehension and frustration with the state of contemporary publishing. Aspiring authors are generally ignored by an industry that admits to the practical need to make money, but yet pays a great deal of lip service to the value of literary excellence. Editors and agents shrug their shoulders and laugh off the Nicole Ritchie and McCauley Culkin novels as an ugly necessity to pay the electric bill but they plead that deep down inside they are really chasing literary excellence.

The problem is that it seems being recognized for your “literary excellence” is only achieved by lying, stealing, and conniving.

To be certain, the vast majority of authors are honorable, hard-working people. They diligently ply their trade in a quiet dignity and would never dream of stooping to such questionable activity. And the vast majority of editors and agents are also honorable, hard-working people dedicated to the advancement of the written word. But the work of the majority doesn’t grab headlines or national attention. And those authors aren’t the ones Writer X reads about while he toils away on his work. 

The current state of publishing, book buying, and reading in this country (not to mention how the media chooses its stories) creates a situation where more and more of these scandals are going to surface. We’re all to blame, but that doesn’t ease Writer X’s frustrations.

Many sports writers have commented that everyone shares some guilt for the steroid era in baseball. The players, obviously, knew they were cheating by injecting chemicals in an attempt to hit more home runs or throw more strike outs. Even though Major League Baseball didn’t explicitly have a rule prohibiting steroid use, the players knew it was wrong, or else they would have shot up in full-view of the entire locker room. While Barry Bonds was swelling up to Michelin Man proportions, team coaches and trainers looked the other way, just happy to see RBI totals and on-base-percentages go through the roof. The league office was thrilled over the increased revenue and attention their sport was getting and the fans reveled in historical homerun figures that now seem laughable when viewed with any skepticism. The commercial might have said, “chicks dig the long ball,” but the truth is that everyone experienced the high from the sports chemical injections.

The current situation in publishing is the same way. Book buyers (ahem, certainly not the readers of this blog, but the general public) gravitate to more and more outlandish stories. Editors and agents, closely following the latest sales figures, court not just good writing, but authors with the best platforms and headline-ready biographies. And authors, like those athletes who yearned for the brightest spotlight or just to keep up with the guy in the next locker, are going to greater and greater lengths to get their work noticed.

It’s no one person’s fault. The public buys what it wants. Agents, editors and publishing companies are in business to make money and they need to produce what the public wants. But authors are being pushed to extremes in order to get anywhere. Which brings us back to Writer X.

He reads the platitudes, he listens to book conference speeches about how the best work will surface, will survive, and will succeed. But when the publishing industry is forced into a situation where they take it on faith that someone had root canals with no Novacain and where they think it’s a good idea to give a 17-year-old half-a-million dollars for a book that isn’t finished yet and is being handled by a “packager,” is it any wonder if Writer X doesn’t believe his work can find a way?

There is a growing divide between the agents, editors, and publishing professionals that comprise the industry and the sea of aspiring authors who submit their work. And although no one single person is to blame for creating the current situation, I do think the recent crop of literary scandals adds to the bitterness and frustration many aspiring authors feel.