Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The "Expert" Proliferation: Should We Be Worried?

There is a worrying (at least to me) phenomenon out there, and it's growing: the proliferation of the "experts".
For a fee or (rarely) for free, they will let you use their services to find a job, find a publisher, find an agent, find a contractor, find a house, find love—find whatever it is that you were looking for, and even what you didn't know you were. As I recall it from my anthropological studies, this phenomenon would be embodied by a person, or group of people, granting or denying access to a particular culture to the outsider/anthropologist who is in the field to study, live with, collect information about that culture. This person of group of people are called in anthropological speak "gatekeepers", and it seems that today we have more and more of them holding the keys to the gates we need to walk through in order to reach our goal.
As if it were not enough that agents have become the almost exclusive gatekeepers to publishers—these days, even most of the small, "avant-garde" presses don't take direct submissions from authors any longer—now writers also have to go through the services of multiple agencies that purport to help with the bothersome process of steering the writing in the right direction. These services will not only give you editing and proofreading help, they will also create a database of magazines and contests and journals and agents for you; will customize your resume and your book proposal; and will keep these files running for you.

Now, I say to those of you fellow writers who have no time to manage these things on your own, by all means use these services if you can afford them. But let me play devil's advocate a little: apart perhaps from the fresh and expert pair of eyes offered by editors and proofreaders—and you could still get this kind of help without the whole package, or even for free from well-read, trusted friends or fellow writers—none of the things these services can do for you are things you could not do for yourself.

Anybody with Internet capability can research literary journals and magazines; I have a list of over a hundred of them, American and Canadian (yes, I'll gladly share it with anybody who asks): I bookmarked their sites on my computer, and also cut and pasted their link and submission information into a Word document that I keep in a "Writing Submissions" folder on my desktop. In the same folder, I also have a separate Word file with upcoming deadlines for competitions and/or general submissions; and I have yet another file where I track the results of my submissions.
Likewise with agents: once I'd done my homework—which you must as it will be a waste of time to send your proposal to an agent who is not interested in your genre—it was easy to build up a file of suitable agents to whom I plan to submit. Again, there are plenty of free resources on the Internet to help you research agents and write a proper query letter.
Yes, to get all of the above started did cost me a lot of time; but once you do the preliminary work, to keep it updated doesn't take too long—a few minutes a day, an hour a week. And of course you could use an Excel file to order all this data more efficiently, but I'm the technologically inept person who just happens to hate spreadsheets and prefers to do it the hard way.
Just think of all the paperwork the writers of old had to write and keep on file to remember where and when they sent off their stories or manuscript... With our computers and cut-and-paste capabilities, we have it really, really easy today.

I'm not trying to take work away from all the under-published or unemployed writers who are running these services for other writers: I'm just trying to point out that they are offering us a valuable service on the one hand, and perhaps a minor disservice on the other, by contributing to the ever-growing field of "experts" who ensure that the gates between us, the artists, and those who might be willing to look at/read and buy/publish our work become more and more impenetrable.

It's not just about writing, or art in general: these days, there are all kinds of special schools that teach you how to do all those jobs that once upon a time were obtained through the time-honored craft of apprenticeship. Today, this proliferation of gatekeepers and experts means that people with lifelong experience of any given things will probably never get the recognition they deserve because they do not happen to possess the "right" credentials.
In a field other than writing but equally dear to my heart, food, I have for years been troubled by the claim to "expertise" on "Italian" food staked by so many chefs or food critics only by virtue of their having mastered a few recipes at culinary school; or having taken a cooking class in Tuscany; or having spent a couple of months in Italy.
Now, I've been cooking for 21 years but I never went to cooking school and if a chef saw me in the kitchen he'd probably be horrified by my knife skills or the mistakes I occasionally make. And yet, my knowledge of "Italian" food is an insider's knowledge: it is the knowledge that comes from having been born and bred in the country; from a heritage that is Italian generation upon generation going back thousands of years; and also from the self-education about food I obtained from living, eating and cooking outside of my country for the second half of my life.
These days it is almost common place to say that there is no such thing as "Italian" food but only regional and local food; outside of Italy, this knowledge did not exist until a decade or so ago, but it has always existed for me as innate cultural knowledge. From my studies of food history, though, I have also learned that many of the recipes Italians now think of as "traditional" have only existed for a couple of hundred years; and yet, most Italians today think of them as eternal and are loathe to tamper with them—which is exactly how the concept of tradition is understood in most cultures.
This double-sided knowledge—the insider who instinctively knows which shape of pasta goes with which sauce and the intellectual who knows that tomato sauce is a product of the colonial invasion of the Americas—cannot be learned at school or acquired so quickly or easily. Yet this knowledge of mine counts for nothing in today's world: I have no certification, no CV of cooking experience and no appearance on the Food Channel to validate it—only my daily, quiet and quietly enjoyable, work in the kitchen.

I may have a personal axe to grind because I'm too old to jump on the "expert" bandwagon and therefore I might remain forever unemployable, but I'm worried about the phenomenon of "expert" proliferation—it makes for a culture financially broke as people attempt to buy the means of expertise for themselves; for a culture of constant dissatisfaction because the phenomenon of expertise makes the things we desire more difficult to obtain and prompts us to envy those who obtain the status of experts.
It also makes for a spiritually empty culture as we devalue the irreplaceable preciousness and uniqueness of life experience in favor of the quick fix of an experience validated by a piece of paper, and glorified by public appearances.
The proliferation of "reality" shows today might seem to belie my claims; yet if we look at them, what matters is not the real life experience that the participants come with, but rather the set of skills they will acquire and the changes they will go through in order to become "better", different people. For a while, when I lived in Canada, I watched "Style by Jury" on TV in fascinated horror, as scores of people whose appearance, for better or for worse, was quite unique and outstanding were transformed all into the same samey bland brand of "attractive" by a team of experts who gave them a fashion, beauty and psychological makeover (dig getting over a major childhood trauma in just one week of therapy!)

Back to writing, I nostalgically long for the "good ole days" (I'm not romanticizing them—I know that it was difficult for writers back then too) when you could just write, and then send your stuff off to an editor who would eventually send you a personal letter back, with not too many middlemen involved.

I would love to hear from you, fellow writers, gentle readers, to know what you think about all this: too many experts out there? Does it bother you? Or do you feel you have to read and listen to all of them?

1 comment:

  1. One problem with all this expertise is that it increasingly undermines the confidence of the individual. Perhaps the kind of expertise we DO need more of is one that empowers an individual to critique and engage experts. But the messages from experts often have the opposite effect. Just the other day I was watching a news program -- listening to yet another expert yapping on and on about the on-going economic troubles in America. At one point he said that "most Americans in general simply don't understand the complexities of the world we live in" and that they "fail to take these complexities into consideration when forming opinions." I winced when I heard that. True, he has a point -- but the general impression I got from his self-serving rant was that modern day economics is way too complicated for us ordinary folks, so we should just sit back and let experts like him yap on and on about it.

    I certainly don't have an "answer" to this problem. Many of us are way too busy with our lives to read up on everything under the sun in order to critique everything the experts have to say. Of course there are times -- when we're ill or injured, for example -- when we really do need the skills and knowledge of experts (and even then we need to be wary.) But in matters of public affairs we shouldn't be so easily cowed down by people who want us to feel immobilized -- even if we do not or cannot "confidently" navigate our way through the labyrinth of contemporary discourse on war and global warming and the ups and downs of the market. Maybe, for example, one doesn't need to be an "expert" to be suspicious of wars that don't end and seem unwinnable in the long run. We certainly need experts to tackle these problems -- indeed, we elect them to political office, but if the problems go on and on we need to hold them accountable and not let the endless yapping of experts silence and immobilize us. We need sense and confidence to respect expertise, and sense and confidence to hold experts accountable. But alas, I do feel most of us feel overwhelmed and undermined most of the time. Everything does indeed seem too complicated. And there's too much talk, talk, talk.