Will someone please give Jeff VanderMeer more work? I swear he's in a race with Jay Lake to see who can post the most. Doesn't Jeff have an evil monkey he needs to tend to?
Anyway, Jeff has made a long post on The Triumph of Competence. I can see his points here, but I think the industry is suffering from self inflicted wounds.
Everywhere that I read editorial opinions I see that they want stories that will surprise them, take their breath away. Or, alternatively, I see admonishments about, "the good old days, why doesn't anybody write them like that anymore." Then you go to those magazines and read their submission guidelines where there is the inevitable line about, "reading the market to see what the editors like."
Well, this is the same thing as women's magazines having headlines about "Drop twenty Pounds in Twenty Days" right above, "Best New Delicious Cheesecake Recipes." Seriously. Very big contradictions are going on here.
When in doubt, the submission guidelines win out. We read what you've published, and we feed it back into the system. Your slush readers are tuned to your tastes so they feed up those stories that they know have worked before. Editors know their reading audience so they give them what worked before. Mediocrity reigns supreme.
This isn't the only industry suffering. My (former) day job suffered from "mining the past for ideas" and "everything looks like last year's award winners." Well, it's how we were trained, how the clients respond, how art directors direct, mediocrity is process and institutionalized.
Young writers are told to explore and do weird things. So we do, and we don’t get published. Eventually we learn by reading what has been published, by learning the ropes, by getting more competent, and those wild hair stories drop by the wayside as we move on to eventually get published. I wrote a post earlier in the year wondering if I would get published for my mil fiction if that would lock me out of other things. The same thing happens with this process. "Oh," says the just published writer, "you liked that story. I can do more."
It's a self-feeding cycle. If editors want to see new stories that take risks, they have to publish them. They have to see that some writers may need help with basic skills but have those wild hair stories, grab them at that point. Help them with edits. Publish the wild ones and more will come. Continue to wait until all the ducks are lined up and you don't have to develop the writer, and you'll get the preprocessed stuff that's out there now.
Not everything published falls into this trap. And those stories set me on fire. They're what I want to write. Are they what the editors want to publish though? Especially from a brand new writer? Or will you only try those stories with established writers, the ones where most of those wild ideas have been suppressed to get publishable stories.