Filters Are Elitist … So What?

Standing Out From The CrowdI have suggested before that the best way to improve blooking (or blog fiction) would be to implement some form of editorial process on the web. This is a problem for a few reasons: 1, some people come online to escape the constraining editorial process in the traditional print world; 2, an editorial process (or a way to separate the chaff from the wheat) sounds just like something a traditional printing house would do. It is, however, an easy way of introducing first time readers to good online fiction. Editors who know what they’re doing and a website that highlights the best blog fiction out there can go a long way in solving the drought of quality blooks we have at the moment.

Now the main accusation thrown at me when I suggest this form of filtering is that of elitism. Editors?! You kidding me? And on and on. And I’m sick of this, really. Elitism on the Internet as applied to content is quite different from elitism as a political concept – it is, in fact the thing that has kept culture growing for a very long time.

Elitism As A Form Of Quality Control

Before the Internet the only way to get publish was through a traditional publishing house. These houses were very serious about editing (and they still are, thank God), and the books they published met certain minimum standards of quality we have come to be used to – proper vocab, proper spelling, (mostly) polished stories. At this point some of my friends have argued that there are crappy books published by traditional publishing houses as well, but I have to point out here that these crappy books are far less than if Penguin published every Tom, Dick and Harry without going over their books with an editor and a smoking gun.

There is a problem with this model, of course. Traditional publishing houses run very tight businesses, and they often do not publish good books that they think are not financially viable. I wonder how many publishing houses would publish Das Kapital for the first time in the 21st century – I don’t think any would considering how nonfiction today is published based on the initial proposition of an idea to a publisher before the book is written.

But that is an extreme. For the most part the publishing industry and its minimum level of entry has pushed writers and poets all over the world to constantly evolve and bring something good, or new, to the table. The editorial process may be elitist, true, but when applied to culture it is a very effective tool for solving the signal to noise ratio.

Populism As A Form Of Quality Control

Football and chess piecesWhen we look at the Internet we will find another effective tool I will call – for the sake of argument – populist. Google makes use of links as ‘votes’ to see if a topic is relevant to your keywords, and Digg makes use of public voting to decide if a story is appealing or not. This model works because it harnesses collective intelligence to make sense of a sea of information – and it does this quickly and easily. Editors don’t have to spend entire lifetimes sifting through the millions of news stories that break every day on the Internet – they just have to throw this decision to the readers. And the readers will choose what they want to read.

But populism fails when it comes to choosing important stories. The crowd often cannot tell if an article is groundbreaking new thought – simply because it is powered by the lowest common denominator. We don’t have to look far for such an example. Digg’s and Reddit’s stories are almost entirely selected based on broad appeal – and we all know that broad appeal alone does not determine a good article. There is an example in The Cult Of The Amateur where Andrew Keen points out the following:

As I write, there is a brutal war going on in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah. But the Reddit user wouldn’t know this because there is nothing about Israel, Lebanon or Hezbollah on the site’s top twenty ”˜hot’ stories. Instead, subscribers can read about a flat-chested English actress, the walking habits of elephants, a spoof of the latest Mac commercial and underground tunnels in Japan. Reddit is a mirror of our most banal interests.

Filters May Be Elitist … But They Work

The two models I have outlined above already exist on the Internet. 9rules, the blogging network, uses the elitism model (3 ‘editors’, to be exact) to select good, quality blogs. And it got famous quickly because it provided readers with a one-stop location to find good content to read.[1]

Now, I’m not saying one model is better than the other. I have already shown you the failings of both, and how they can miserably backfire as a way to filter content. But when it comes to online fiction I believe there is a distinct need to create a place where editors have a final say in what is good and what is bad. Broad appeal matters, sure, but to eventually get to a place where we can challenge offline, real page fiction we have to set an ever escalating bar of quality for ourselves. This is one idea I’ll be frequently coming back to, but actual implementation will have to be put on backburner for a bit.

Before I close I’d like to point out that ‘elitist’ is often used as a generic insult, not because of its meaning but out of general animosity towards a subject. People call the editorial process elitist out of spite, because many can’t get in. But what author hasn’t secretly dreamed of landing a book deal? I certainly have, despite being a proponent of the Internet as a publishing medium. We shouldn’t let all we hate about traditional publishing houses mar what could be a good alternative to the broad appeal camp.

Because, I don’t know, the Internet might end up nicer for it.

Update: I realize just how vague my proposition is, so here’s my explanation from the comments below, copied and pasted for clarity:

Let’s say we have a website that accepts the ”˜very best of blooks’. These blooks are picked by a bunch of editors, who not only do the preliminary selection but also follow up with quality control. Then we built this website to such a stage where people respect and value the short stories and the blooks which are showcased there. People want to get in. In order to get in, they have to meet a minimum standard of quality.

A good bunch of published authors today (in the traditional book world) learned their craft in little magazines, where an editorial process (and a ton of rejection letters) spurred them to continually improve. We don’t have this on the web – anyone can put up stuff, and since we don’t have to be good to be published there isn’t as much motivation to get better as before.

1.Disclaimer: Novelr is a member of the 9rules blogging network.

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Category: Publishing · Writing Web Fiction