Crowdsourcing and Literary Merit

crowdsourcing_title

Crowdsourcing: good thing, bad thing? The FT has an interesting, if short, piece on one lucky author who benefitted from the arrival of a very Web 2.0 phenomenon in the literary world. Miranda Dickinson’s Fairytale of New York was one of more than 10,000 manuscripts uploaded to an online “slush pile” launched in September 2008 by publishers HarperCollins. The putative authors submit to having their work reviewed by some 135,000 online readers, who, says the FT, have replaced “the handful of editors” who used to perform this task. Ms Dickinson’s work failed to reach the top 70 but was nevertheless spotted and her literary career has now begun.

We asked a reasonably well-known, long-published British author for her views on crowdsourcing in the literary realm. Her response was not as condemnatory as we expected, though it may nevertheless ruffle a few feathers:

“Everyone knows that publishers’ slush piles are traditionally overseen by pretty young things with thirds in English from indifferent universities. They read the first sentence of an MS and if by some miracle their attention is not diverted by discussion of what happened at the cocktail bar the night before, or the appearance of a handsome postboy, they might even read a whole paragraph. If, by then, they are still vaguely absorbed they will read another paragraph or two, but even then plenty can stop them from turning the page. If they do, and find they like what they’re reading, they refer it on to someone who actually understands literature, an editor. If they don’t, they have the power to write the “Thank for thinking of us but your novel is not suitable for our list – best of luck elsewhere” rejection letter. The point is that the process by which a literary work surfaces from the slush pile is hopelessly hit and miss. Crowdsourcing is probably an improvement on this.”

Our author pleaded for anonymity, and we will respect her wishes. It seems to us that though her views are trenchant and somewhat cynical, she has a point. However, one man who isn’t so keen on crowdsourcing is Canadian writer Bill Casselman, at whose eminently readable website we discovered the arresting image above. Casselman specialises in Canadian etymology but has some hard-hitting views on crowdsourcing.

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