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The Objective Standard Fallacy
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[This is the second of five entries in which I reflect a bit on Michael Allen’s long essay on randomness in the publishing industry, On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.]

If you can accept that a book’s merits, or lack thereof, are simply a matter of opinion, much of what goes on in the publishing industry – particularly the “unfairness people insist on seeing – becomes a lot more explicable. To a great extent, authors are merely playing the lottery. Perceived “unfairness” is little more than bad luck. Or, more accurately, lack of exceptionally good luck.

However, writers, editors and especially critics, have a hard time coming to grips with the uncomfortable fact that books do not possess objective "literary," "professional" or "publishable" qualities. In every writing venue in which I’ve participated there have always been those who insist, loudly and unbendingly, that there exists some sort of absolute standard by which writing can be measured, but the only ruler these people ever produce is their own opinion. Grumpy Old Bookman, Michael Allen addresses the subjective nature of literature in parts of On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

“If you and I are presented with a piece of string, and are asked to guess its length, you may say that it is 15 inches long, and I may say that it’s 18 inches. In order to resolve our disagreement, we can measure its length against a ruler and come to a conclusion which all sane parties will accept as correct.

“But when you and I are faced with a novel, and asked to say whether it is a masterpiece or an overblown piece of self-indulgent nonsense, there is no universally recognised scale against which we can measure the book and come to a clear conclusion. Judging a novel is a matter of taste and sensibility, and you are likely to maintain that your taste and sensibility are superior to mine.”

Similarly, glance at the page for any bestseller. You will invariably see, in the readers' comments, dozens of varying "measurements" of the book's quality ranging from "masterpiece" to "trash." Now take a look at where the book's physical dimensions are mentioned and ask yourself could these dozens of readers possibly argue, in the same manner, about whether or not there are really 324 pages in the book or whether the cover is actually the size described? Of course not. Because, unlike the book’s quality or lack thereof, the measurements are facts.

I guess I’ve felt compelled to restate the same thing twice out of sheer habit. Most people just won’t accept that there are not objective standards, no matter how many times you point out what strikes me as obvious.

It is easy enough to understand why critics might like to present their personal preferences as objective standards (and don't we all favor our own opinions?) but even editors spout this nonsense. Long ago (when I still occasionally attempted to commit sf) when Gardener Dozois began editing Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine he used a rejection form telling the recipient that there is some subtle quality called professionalism which separates the truly professional story from the merely amateur effort. I would suggest that subtle quality Dozois mistook for "professionalism" was nothing more than whether Dozois liked the story.

The very idea that a disparate group of editors, confronted with a stack of manuscripts, would each sort out exactly the same ones as being "professional," as unerringly as if they were using a ruler to determine whether the manuscript sheets were a certain size, is ludicrous. But if there were really a quality of “professionalism” that would necessarily follow.

Admittedly, this is in itself an opinion, as I'm not aware that such a test has been conducted. Allen, however, offers a great deal of anecdotal evidence concerning editors' strange inability to agree on even the most basic standard -- that of publishability. Notoriously, editors for every major publisher in Britain made their "objective" measurements of the first Harry Potter book and found it not even worth putting into print. Perhaps the manuscript eventually picked up that subtle quality of professionalism by passing through so many skilled hands?

Unfortunately writers will believe this nonsense (don't I know it) and thus get carried away with the erroneous idea that there is some bar they must clear, some certain, identifiable level of skill they must attain, and, worse yet, that once they manage this their efforts, being "professional" will sell. Such a misapprehension is liable to lead to frustration because a great many perfectly sellable books, by all evidence, don't sell at first or ever. A writer who is producing work that many editors might like, failing by chance to find the right editors quickly, may conclude he or she does not have the requisite skill and prematurely abandon the attempt.

The widespread insistence by so many in the publishing field that books can possess some objective quality – whether termed professionalism or publishability or literary merit – causes writers to waste their time questing after a beast that does not exist.

In fact, Dozois' old rejection form had it exactly backwards. An editor does not buy writing because it is somehow "professional," rather, writing becomes "professional" (by definition) by the fact -- and only by the fact -- that an editor has decided to pay for it.

Nevertheless, although there are no measurable standard for writing quality, I'm not sure the selection process is entirely random, which is what I'll pontificate upon tomorrow.

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