Sunday, 13 January 2019

The problem of professional fantasy writers - the author-editor system

The greatest fantasy fiction has been written by 'amateur' authors such as Kenneth Grahame, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien; and therefore the fact that the fantasy publishing genre has grown to become a significant money-making activity has set a ceiling on quality, even as it has massively amplified the quality.

Admittedly that quality ceiling among professional authors is a high one; yet it does exclude the truly great work. The exception which proves this rule is Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, the only first-rate work of fantasy in recent decades - and one that was written by a first time author over a period of a decade.

Harry Potter may also be regarded as first rate at its best, albeit the quality is uneven and the series sags in the middle; and JK Rowling became professional, famous and wealthy during the writing. I do not think it is known for sure how much of the superb last volume (Deathly Hallows) was composed early in the gestation of the series - but even if DH was mostly conceptualised from the start, actually producing it under such unprecedented intensity of publicity and expectation was an astonishing achievement.

There are some obvious reasons why professional fantasy does not scale the highest heights. One is the volume of production needed to make a living as a writer: the continuous pressure of time. Another is that there is never very much work of the first rank, so that when a genre expands it almost inevitably does so by the increase in somewhat lower quality work.

But a significant fact is the publication system of author-editor collaboration - which the fantasy genre inherited from science fiction (and, I think, other high volume genres - and magazines such as the New Yorker). The author prepares a first draft, which he then 'turns-over to a professional editor, who then works on the text with the author; detecting errors, pointing-out weaknesses and omissions, making suggestions about structure - often at a very fine level of detail. This process may be repeated several times.

This author-editor system acts as a quality control mechanism and also increases 'efficiency' by allowing the author to concentrate on what he does best - which is seldom the kind of detailed and prolonged critical examination of his own creative work.

By contrast, the old system had no editor (although sometimes the author's agent would perfom some of the activities of a modern editor) - the author interacted with the publisher directly, and the 'quality control' was done by the author (and whatever method the author chose) and was official only at the level of the typesetting and proof-reading (where, for example, spelling was checked, and sometimes altered to the publishers standard form).

Grahame's Wind in the Willows is inconsistent to the level of gross incoherence - a modern editor would never have allowed such a hodge-podge to be published; yet the book is unsurpassed in children's literature. CS Lewis's fictions were mostly second draft and published unchanged. The Narnia Chronicles are riddled with errors - but that does not stop them from being first rate. Tolkien did his own editing for Lord of the Rings, which he hated doing - and greatly damaged his efficiency; but he did a superb job with his own work, and of course he produced one of the great books of all time.

As a strong generalisation; to be a professional author, a writer must be efficient. But mandatory efficiency is the enemy of human accomplishment at the very highest level.

Quantity comes at the cost of quality - but in a complex fashion. The lowest quality is filtered-out, average quality may rise, and the limit on quality is detectable only by the exclusion of genius.

Any system that increases efficiency will prevent first-rate accomplishment. It is as simple as that; and confirmation can be found in most areas of creative human endeavour - including science, medicine, teaching and scholarship.

Note: However, music may be an exception - at least up to the advent of Romanticism. Most of the greatest classical composers up to Beethoven were professionals, were highly productive - and they were efficient. I'm not sure why - but music often is an exception to other rules of creativity; perhaps because it depends so much upon sheer technical skill.  


Derek Ramsey said...

Fantasy authors GRRM and Patrick Rothfuss have very low levels of efficiency, but their works are highly regarded.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Derek - I am not saying that the author-editor system stops work being very good indeed - but that it stops them being first rate, works of genius.

I don't like either of the authors you mention - but I understand that their problem is the writer's block that comes from success, qualitative change of the lifestyle that produced the early work to the lifestyle of a celebrity, and the pressures of fan expectation.

Among modern professional authors I am very keen on Brandon Sanderson, I find his work extremely enjoyable - but not first rate (actually, his early teen novel The Rithmatist was almost first rate of its kind, except that it is an unfinished trilogy - so it doesn't end).

I spent most of last year listening to Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series (completed by Branderson) and got a lot from it - but it has all the flaws of professional writing, for example pandering to feminism (virtue signalling) to the exent of massive plot and motivational implausibilities.

I have read, re-read and enjoyed a lot of Terry Pratchett over 25 years - but his professionalism meant that he never produced a 'masterpiece'; and his work was eroded over time by assimilation with mainstream politics.

Richard Adams's Watership Down - which he wrote in his own time as an amateur, is one of the great books in English Lit; but when he turned professional there was a permanent drop of quality.

Part of it is regression to the mean - but the greater resources and opportunities might have been expected to increase quality. But another factor is the poison of political correctness, which adversely affects *all* mainstream cultural products, especially when they become visible and influential. And publishers (including editors), as part of the mass media, are a major source of deadly leftism.

Seijio Arakawa said...

Having observed the adverse selection & corrupting effects of competitive publication in several fields, and having felt the imprint on my own skin in one field, I would refine this analysis. In any competitive field of publication that is secretly selecting by bogus criteria other-than quality, there is a race to the bottom to find the least quality that is still publishable. (The least-publishable level of quality is determined by the gatekeepers' sense of what can be published without severely damaging the credibility of the field -- this can be low indeed!) Because competition on bogus criteria is zero-sum, all of the efforts that could be used to produce something of quality must eventually be redirected to finding ways to outshine other competing authors according to the secret rules of the competition. People who retain motivation to focus on quality are gradually retrained to stop doing so by a regular experience of frustration and humiliation (a constant sense of bafflement at "how did that guy get published and I didn't???"), or are gradually motivated to work outside the field, or give up entirely.

To see -- in a manner intelligible to Joe Average -- what the end state of such a race to the bottom looks like, look no further than award-winning professional poetry.

The standards of an entire field can be eroded if a sufficient plurality of participants decide to ignore them. They can only be restored if a much larger majority of participants were to decide to insist on them again. Or the field can be destroyed and rebuilt by a different set of participants, many of them outcasts from the corrupted field, or people who were never allowed access in the first place.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Seijio - "To see -- in a manner intelligible to Joe Average -- what the end state of such a race to the bottom looks like, look no further than award-winning professional poetry."

Yes indeed. What was taught to my kids in school as Poetry, just wasn't. Not even trying.

NLR said...

Perhaps part of the reason this is true for fantasy is that fantasy literature depends more than other types of writing on inspiration. If an editor doesn't really understand the inspiration underlying the story and doesn't have a "feel for" the setting and the world of the story, then they can't contribute much other than proofreading.

One paradoxical phenomenon is that since fantasy has become its own genre, the magical concepts have become more advanced for example, involving multiverses, complex magical systems, or elaborate pantheons. Also, the magic has become more flashy and on the face of it, more powerful and more magical for instance the idea of a spell that could destroy an entire country rather than the more subtle workings of the One Ring. Yet, despite all this the overall "feel" of fantasy is less magical, less fantastical than the early types of fantasy.

If there isn't a strong underlying spirit of the fantasy world that helps it hang together, which I believe is present in all first-rate fantasy, then fantasy becomes nothing more than a typical modern novel but with magic.

For instance, the difference between Tolkien's dwarves and elves that emerged organically as part of Middle Earth versus the view that sees them as part of a grab bag of fantasy elements to be thrown in to stories at will.

If an editor can only see fantasy on a superficial level: as a collection of common elements but can't respond to the underlying inspiration, the "feel" of the story and the world, then they will not be able to identify the first rate from lesser works.

As far as other types of creativity, this is just a guess because I have never composed music, but it seems possible that in some fields such as music and mathematics, as well as highly technical types of poetry efficiency can be combined with first-rate achievement because the structure can tell you where to go, so to speak. Once you have the first piece, harmonizing it with a larger musical or mathematical or poetic structure can help "fill in the blanks." One example would be Tolkien, whose technical expertise in philology was often a spur to his creativity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@NLR - Fair points; but I was not really talking about unsympathetic editors, but the system itself, even with the best editors. And the author-editor system clearly allows for a very high level of creative attainment, because the best of modern (post sixties) fantasy writing is very good indeed.

So I don't want to extend the argument too far beyond the point that the very greatest work would have been diminished by the involvement of an editor, would have had the edge taken-off; would have been made less distinctive and personal.

It is interesting that when new first rate work does emerge in a genre, it often is an author-only attainment, by the 'old fashioned' method - The Martian by Andy Weir (2015) seems to be regarded a modern first rate work of sci fi - almost a new sub-genre, yet apparently came from the author purely; being developed 'uncompromisingly' and individually, in a fan fiction context.

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