In the past week, one of my friends posted on Facebook that she had been recently rejected by The New Yorker. Cue for most of her friends to reassure her that eventually the magazine would take her work. Well-meaning, of course, but I noticed two subtexts in most of them: one, the majority, was that those idiot editors just didn’t recognise talent when they saw it, but surely would in the end (though what grounds they had for such optimism, I don’t know). The other one was that she just had to persist with her writing—in effect, that her writing wasn’t quite good enough yet, and all she had to do was be patient and perfect her craft.
It’s possible that either view is correct, or both. I haven’t seen the work she submitted so I can’t offer my own opinion. But another explanation came to me. For some time now, as my friends have agonised over why they’re getting rejected, and like me, most of them seem to be getting rejected more now than they used to, the recurrent question is ‘Is my writing good enough?’ But what if that’s the wrong question? What if the criteria for acceptance no longer have much to do with quality? What if in fact writing very well has actually become a liability now? What if you are being rejected because your writing is too good?
Consider the current state of literature, and particularly fiction. The explosion of the small magazine market in the past twenty years, largely owing to the possibility to publish digitally and thus without significant cost, has led to an exponential increase in the quantity of published work. But what about the quality? Do you know anyone who thinks short fiction published today is better than it was twenty years ago, or thirty? On the contrary, the rise of the Creative Writing BA degree, and the fact that MFAs are nearly always successful cash cows for universities has meant that we have far, far more ‘writers’ trying to get published, nearly all of them without any background in literature, the majority of them not even fully confident in their usage of the English language, and thus most stories coming over the transom at any magazine are likely to be written with simple syntax, in the cool vernacular affected by most younger writers, and dealing overwhelmingly with the same woke themes. In short, they are simplistic and predictable. (Of course this is a generalisation! I’m aware there are glorious exceptions.)
Then consider the book market. Unlike what’s happened with magazines, the number of large or reasonably large book publishers has contracted massively since the industry crash of 2009. It’s true that to some extent that this reduction has to some extent been balanced by the proliferation of small ‘indie’ presses, and some of these struggle heroically to publish good literature. But few of them have the means to promote their books, and thus nearly all of the more ambitious or innovative works go unnoticed. Meanwhile, the five big publishing houses have become far more conservative, aesthetically speaking (while becoming far more ‘liberal’ in terms of identity politics), and take far fewer risks on newer authors. Because identity politics and victimisation are ‘in’, on the soi-disant progressive left, which publishers have decided is their market, perhaps rightly, as most of their customers are university-educated, middle-class women, that’s what most fiction is about. And it’s also who most fiction is by, as even a cursory list at awards lists and best books of the year lists will show you. That’s not to say that it’s all bad, but it is increasingly formulaic, predictable, and unchallenging. Because publishers want mass markets, because they need bestsellers, they don’t want writers who use complex sentences or have a vast vocabulary. They don’t want erudite authors, and they definitely don’t want authors who require erudition of their readers. Maybe that’s why the successful novels of the past few years resemble YA novels, and often are YA novels.
It’s been asked before, but bears asking again. Would Faulkner get published now? Would Conrad, Woolf, or Joyce? Compare them with the current crop. How many challenging writers, who clearly love language and are masters at using it, are successful these days? In other words, given the philistine age we live in, when so few people have the time or attention span to read anything difficult, should you be asking yourself if perhaps your writing is too good? Look at what The New Yorker is publishing. (I used to be a subscriber, but gave it up ten years or so ago, when they were no longer publishing almost anything of quality, but instead were clearly going for the fashionable.)
Try dumbing it down, my friend, if commercial success is what you seek.