Are You the Next Great American Writer? We’ll Probably Never Know.

Last week, two of the largest newspapers in the country both highlighted a systemic problem in the arts today: the near-impossibility for unknown writers to ever see their works published or produced.

Katherine Rosman of The Wall Street Journal draws attention to the banishment of the “slush pile”- the enormous quantity of unsolicited manuscripts received by a publishing house. Popular writers like Philip Roth, Anne Frank, and Judith Guest all had their work rescued from the slush pile. But today, an unknown author’s chances of such attention have dropped from slim to virtually none.

Rosman reports that most film and television producers and book publishers now refuse to read any script that has not been pre-approved by an agent, due to a lack of manpower and a fear of being accused of stealing material. Rosman bemoans: “It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.”

Some of the most popular literary works of the last decade almost fell victim to this new prejudice against the unknown writer. Harry Potter was rejected by 12 different publishers before Bloomsbury finally accepted it. Vampire sensation Twilight would have been turned away, were it not for an assistant who unintentionally didn’t follow protocol and asked to see the manuscript. Together, these two franchises have pervaded popular culture, yielding endless merchandise and enormous profits. Such examples beg the question: what other potentially great works have been ignored because their authors were unknown?

The New York Times‘ Patrick Healy showcases a similar problem in the nonprofit theatre. Similar to their counterparts in the film and literary industries, theatrical producers are reluctant to perform new plays, especially those by unknown authors. David Adjmi, a struggling playwright, illuminates the issue:

“The reality that the study paints is true for many of us. I think that when theaters think about risk taking, they think about it in terms of financial risk. Does this play not have a star in the cast? That’s a risk. Is this a relatively unknown playwright? That’s a risk. There’s just a tremendous amount of cynicism and mistrust between playwrights and theaters right now.”

"Proof," the most-produced play of the decade.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Terry Teachout recently aggregated the American Theatre’s regular listings of the most-produced plays in America. Nearly every play on the list has received numerous accolades and official awards. About half have received the Pulitzer Prize and/or a Tony Award for Best Play. The “people who matter” have already given these plays their official stamp of approval; they are proven successes. While there’s certainly nothing wrong with producing critically established plays, there is a danger in producing only those plays. By ignoring the theatrical equivalent of the slush pile, what potential genius are we overlooking?

These reports paint a grim picture for the American author. In a vicious Catch-22, authors are only produced or published if they already have established careers. But then how could one possibly become established? To state the obvious, at one point every great writer was an unknown. The repeated recycling of the same author or the same works over and over again, no matter how brilliant they are, inevitably leads to a creatively stale environment. Such an atmosphere isn’t good for anyone- not for the artists and certainly not for the audience.

Read more:
“From Anne Frank to Stephenie Meyer: The Slush Pile” – By Katherine Rosman, The Wall Street Journal
“Playwrights’ Nurturing Is the Focus of a Study” – By Patrick Healy, The New York Times
“America’s Favorite Plays” – By Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

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Darcy Zacharias, CC ’10

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4 Responses to Are You the Next Great American Writer? We’ll Probably Never Know.

  1. Pingback: Lincoln Center Theater to Build New Black Box « CUarts Blog

  2. Tyler Buell says:

    Gee…this is depressing. I was trying to navigate to “the next great writer” website (where I publish my writing) and inadvertantly stumbled upon this unnerving bit of news. Perhaps the publishers should peruse the material on there (the next great writer website) from time to time and use it as the “slush pile”
    One thing I think we can count on though, things will change. They always do. Now they seem to change ever more quickly too.

  3. Tyler Buell says:

    Whoops! It’s the next BIG writer…that’s why I missed it…

  4. Emily says:

    That is why new initiatives like America’s Next Author writing contest is a great way for starting and well-traveled writers to test their career opportunities, reach new audience and get exposure by themselves. Potentially great works by unknown authors aren’t being ignored anymore! Readers, “the audience”, are given the change to get a glimpse of what is out there. I work at a community that helps and tries to inspire writers to keep writing and writing and don’t give up. Transparent contests like this are a new way of “free” promotion which is what we really encourage. It isn’t traditional, yes. These things are still being shaped but writers can DO something by themselves instead of being dependent all the time. There is never enough exposure.

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