The Occam’s Razor Theory of Literary Rejection
Nick Mamatas, who apparently has some preternatural sense when it comes to finding interesting characters online, points us to an aspiring writer who is apparently having difficulty selling his work to publishers, and has come up with a theory to explain his lack of success: There’s a conspiracy in publishing against men — fomented, of course, by women.
The statistics suggest that women purchase 60% to 70% of the books. They read more than men. But why? Are men less literate? Or is it that they are ill-served by the book market because it is dominated—dare I say, controlled?—by women. One look at any list of literary agents will confirm my assertion. There are certainly men among the ranks of agents, but it seems that too little fiction is written that is appealing to men… I guess women prefer not to read about them. Or am I mistaken and is it the feminization of the book business that prevents everyone from reading about them in greater quantity?
This conspiracy against men is apparently aided and abetted by the author’s belief, expressed in his comment section, that the publishing industry doesn’t actually make money, nor apparently is intended to. Leaving aside the fact that this is an assertion which I suspect will come rather as a surprise to most of the editors and publishers I know, I’m not entirely sure I’m following the logic there. Publishing is controlled by women, and therefore it won’t publish work for men, and that’s why it doesn’t make money? Because it’s not supposed to make money, publishing is controlled by women, who won’t publish work for men? The dark feminist conspiracy won’t let men publish their work unless they check their testicles at the door, and enter the room bearing fruity drinks and amusing coupons for foot rubs? Something along those lines. It’s kind of confusing to me.
This fellow’s argument for a female publishing conspiracy against men is founded on an ignorance of the publishing industry and a clutch of logical fallacies, so it’s not terribly surprising that every published author who has come across it seems to get a giggle out of it; it’s almost charming how clueless it is. But the argument does serve to illustrate a point, which we might as well call the Occam’s Razor Theory of Literary Rejection, which is: All things being equal, the simplest reason that your work has been rejected is usually the correct one.
For example, let’s say I am an unpublished male writer whose work is continually rejected by publishers. Which of these two reasons is more likely?
1. There is a vast and grand conspiracy within the publishing industry, engineered by women, to keep men from being published;
2. My work isn’t worth being published.
The vast and grand conspiracy, of course, is the more emotionally satisfying answer; it removes the blame for my lack of publication from me and sets it on someone else, and not just someone else, an entire phalanx of clandestine queen bees, working subtly and stealthily to turn literature into a redoubt of femininity, leaving no room for the rough and ready prose of men such as myself. The problem with positing such a conspiracy is that it quickly runs into reality: Men are published all the time, and some rather successfully, writing books that are designed to appeal generally or even wholly to other men. And they’re even published by women: Someone should introduce this fellow to Toni Weisskopf, who was the executive editor and is now the publisher of Baen Books, perhaps the single largest stockpile of testosterone in all of genre publishing.
And while we’re talking about genre publishing, let’s note that of this last year’s Campbell nominees, half of them were male, including one guy who wrote military science fiction, the most “manly” of the SF genres; he won the award, too. All the nominees for the Hugo Best Novel award were also men. The winner of this year’s Nebula award was also a guy. So was the winner of the other Campbell award, come to think of it. So, all the major awards for novels in science fiction and fantasy this year were won by men, save the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, which hasn’t been awarded yet. However, inasmuch as five of the six nominees for that award are men, I suspect there’s a better-than-even chance it’s going to a guy, too (go, Hal!).
Basically, if there’s a cabal of women in publishing trying to stifle the presence and success of men in the field, they really really suck at it.
Rather more likely, then, that the problem isn’t the publishing industry, but what I am writing. All things being equal, it’s probably likely that what I’m writing isn’t up to snuff, but even if it is, sometimes even that’s not enough; as Teresa Nielsen Hayden notes in her justifiably famous “Slushkiller” essay, sometimes a writer can do everything right and still not get their work taken. It surely does suck when that happens, but even in that case it is not necessary to construct the existence of a conspiracy to hold down an entire class of people; it’s merely necessary to note that the book is, alas, not right for that particular market at that point in time. The simple explanation is usually the correct one.
Now, there’s no point telling this fellow these things; he’s already determined that his own writing can’t be at fault, so the problem must be elsewhere, and it seems unlikely that any application of logic will dissuade him from that opinion. And, well. Whatever. I hope he has fun with that. However, for the rest of you, it’s worth remembering the Occam’s Razor Theory of Literary Rejection. It’ll keep you out of the tin foil hats, and that’s a good thing.
And more than that, it should give you hope. After all, there’s very little chance that you could defeat a grand cabal designed to keep writers of your sex, race, age, religion or sports team preference out of the publishing world. They are many, and you are few; their organization is just too damn big, like the Vatican or Mary Kay. But you can work on your writing. Indeed, compared to battling a shadowy conspiracy, improving your writing is a piece of cake. So, you know. Get to it.