Publishing and the gatekeepers’ understandable fear of the penalty: what if we vetted and corrected people before they could speak?

Imagine that you were an editor at a London publishing house, circa 1930 — effectively a gatekeeper at the sacred portal of literature. Would you give these lines an up or down vote?

Extract 1    [ from a poem sent to Thomas McGreevy, 4 November 1932 ]

see-saw she is blurred in sleep

she is fat she is half dead the rest is freewheeling

past the black shag the pelt

is ashen woad

snarl and howl in the wood wake all the birds

hound the whores out of the ferns

this damnfool twilight threshing in the brake

bleating to be bloodied

this crapulent hush

tear its heart out …

Extract 2    [ from a poem sent to Thomas McGreevy, 13 May 1933 ]

Donabate sad swans of Turvey Swords

pounding along in three ratios like a sonata

like a reiter [for ritter] with pummeled scrotum atra cura on

the step

Botticelli from the fork down pestling the transmission

tires bleeding voiding zeep the high road

all heaven in my sphincter

müüüüüüde now

potwalloping now through the promenaders

this trusty all-steel this super-real

bound for home like a good boy

where I was born with a clunk with the green of the larches

oh to be back in the caul now with no trusts

no fingers no spoilt loves

belting along in the meantime clutching the bike …

I found those parts of drafts of Samuel Beckett’s poetry (included in his magnificent collected letters) invigorating, even when they were not forcing bursts of oxygen from uncontrollable laughter into my lungs. My fingers danced, typing out thought-streams nearly eighty years old. Yet it is strange to consider that even now, they would earn their author, as a writer still unknown, a long string of rejections.

Because modernism was well established decades before most readers of this blog and I were born, you might take it as a foregone conclusion that Beckett’s wordy jiggle-juggling would delight any lover of literature. But in literary chat forums on the net these last few years, I have been surprised to find that too many arbiters in high positions in publishing or the teaching of literature still dismiss rambunctious free verse very like that – when unattached to any famous name – as nonsensical, pretentious or illiterate (or all three).

Why they do that would take a conversation of several pots of coffee to sort out. All I will say, for the moment, is that every day, it becomes more absurd to think of anyone being paid to decide what collections of words and thoughts should be admitted to the public domain and backed with large or small sums of money, and marketing sweat.

Pity the poor gatekeepers. They must decide which texts meet the prevailing literary standards. They must both cater to contemporary taste and anticipate its evolution. They risk becoming Frank Sinatra mocked for pontificating that ‘Rock ‘n’ roll has no future.’

What if people’s accents, intonation, vocabulary and grammar were vetted and corrected every time we opened our mouths to speak? … Well! Now that everyone can tap out unmediated texts in some form all day long, that is exactly how absurd the gatekeeping enterprise in publishing will soon seem — in a future so close that it is very nearly our present.

In addition, only fools setting up as publishers will presume to decide what is appropriate reading matter for whom. This has been on my mind since I read the following paragraph on the New York Times site yesterday:

In 1962, when “A Wrinkle in Time,” after 26 rejections, was acquired by John Farrar at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, science fiction by women and aimed at female readers was a rarity. The genre was thought to be down-market and not up to the standards of children’s literature — the stuff of pulp and comic books for errant schoolboys. Even today, girls and grown women are not generally fans. Half of 18- to 24-year-old men say that science fiction is their favorite type of book, compared with only one-fourth of young women, according to a 2010 study by the Codex Group, a consulting firm to the publishing industry. And while a sizable portion of men continue to read science fiction throughout their lives, women don’t. Thirty-two percent of adult male book buyers are science-fiction fans compared with only 12 percent of women. When Joanna Russ, one of the few successful female science-fiction writers, died last year, her obituary in The New York Times referred to her as a writer who helped “deliver science fiction into the hands of the most alien creatures the genre had yet seen — women.”

A Wrinkle in Time is a children’s book by Madeleine L’Engle that went on to win more than one literary prize. It has never been out of print.

Yes, stories like this are tediously familiar. Why should anyone but the author of a text be asked to bet on whether it can defy stereotypical reader choices?

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