THE METAPHYSICS OF PROFESSIONALISM

What is ''professional"? Who is a "pro?" We tend to assume that these things exist but that their definitions are debatable. When Gardener Dozois began editing Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine he used a rejection form telling the recipient that there is some subtle quality called professionalism which separates the truly professional story from the merely amateur effort.

Like Dozois, most of us believe in the existence of some actual quality which can be labelled ''professional''.Or at least we act as if we do. We admire the Pros who can produce this wonderful thing. Some of us strive to do the same ourselves and despair at our own lack of whatever personal qualities it takes to make the magic.

But are we mistaken? Is there really such a thing as "professional''? Have we been asking ourselves questions that can't be answered?

A couple of years ago I performed an experiment. I attempted to sell, professionally, a dozen essays I had written for fanzines. None of the essays had appeared in a fanzine with a circulation greater than 150. Most had seen only the blurred ditto print of 65 copies of my own zine Groggy. I managed to sell about half. I say ''about" because the word "sell'' turns out to be not much easier to define than "professional''.

The fact that I managed to sell any fanzine articles at all renders meaningless Dozois' idea that amateur and professional writings are distinguishable by means of some almost mystical quality present in one and lacking in the other. "The Joys of Staying at Home" the article I was paid for and that appeared in Baby Talk (circulation 1,000,000) was word for word the article I wrote for free that appeared in Brian Brown's Sticky Quarters (circulation 150), By what means could anyone prove that in SQ the article was anything but ''amateur" or that in Baby Talk it was anything but "professional''? If some quality of professionalism exists how had the ''Joys of Staying at Home'' suddenly acquired it? Had it crawled into the envelope somewhere in New York City?.

But could it be that the article had been ''professional'' all along but wasn't revealed as such until I sent it to Baby Talk? What sort of ''quality" isn't readily apparent to all observers? Is ''professionalism" like the colour red, which most people can see but which a colour blind person needs someone to point out to him? In the matter of professionalism then are editors the only truly sighted individuals in a world of the blind?

If so, how can I explain the fate of ''The Day the Cows Got Out'' which was rejected by 8 (blind?) editors before it sold to Upstate Magazine? How can there be a quality which is dependent for its existence upon the particular observer?

Apparently we are not talking about a quality at all but about a judgment. And not just a judgment either. Would we accept the word of an editor that a story is professional without his or her buying it? I once had a letter from George Scithers at Amazing unreservedly praising a story I'd submitted. Unfortunately, he told me, "I can't buy it because we're overstocked." Scithers' opinion alone hardly rendered the story professional.

It seems that whether a piece of writing is professional depends on some inherent quality only to the extent that there is something in the writing that convinces someone, somewhere, to make some sort of judgment and do something about it which convinces us to call the writing professional.

What an editor usually does, to convince us of a piece's professionalism. is to buy it. but even if we say that professionalism isn't a quality but is a label we attach to something as a result of its selling, there remains the question of what constitutes a sale?

Were the articles I sold to Festivals just before it went out of business and which consequently never saw print, as professional as the articles which had appeared in the magazine earlier? Does a real 'sale' require that an article see print? What about "The Artist in the Sticks" written for Dave Locke's Time And Again and accepted by Weatherwise but never paid for or used since I couldn't obtain a release from the article's real, but fictionalized protagonist? Surely a real sale requires payment. (Editor's update: after this was written, years after the article in question was sold, Weatherwise finally printed it. On the other hand, the biggest payday I ever had while I was writing nonfiction was for a short piece I sold to OMNI which never did see print.)

But what kind of payment? Is the subscription I was given by Festivals sufficient? It was a thoroughly professional magazine. Its editor was paid, its secretaries were paid. I was able to pick it up at a Rochester newsstand. Did the absence of money render my sales nonprofessional? If professionalism depends on monetary payment is the mini comic I've collaborated on with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles artist Mark Martin, and which has sold all of 70 copies at a dollar each, out of my basement, more professional than the articles I wrote for Festivals?

Is it a matter of how much is paid? If so who decides what level of payment is professional? And how could it be that a script I wrote for a comic book which sold 2,000 copies is more professional, based on the amount of payment, than an essay I did for a magazine with a circulation thousands of times greater?

Maybe it isn't enough that the magazine pays. Maybe we should be looking at whether the magazine buying the material is itself professional. But what do we base our determination on? Circulation? In that case Baby Talk is more professional than The Magazine Of Fantasy And Science Fiction. Is there simply a circulation figure below which a magazine cannot be considered professional? What then about those respected literary magazines with circulations in the hundreds? Look at the copyright page in any collection of contemporary short stories and you will see that short story authors regularly scatter their work between The New Yorker and obscure journals most of us have never heard of? Are some of their efforts professional and others not? In this desktop publishing era we certainly can't base our judgment on how professional a magazine looks Maybe we should base our judgment on distribution and disqualify magazines like Baby Talk, given away in department stores.

But is distribution a better criterion of professionalism than payment? And what sort of distribution scheme are we looking for anyhow' Hundreds of black and white comics are sold exclusively in comics shops and their creators and publishers are making living producing them

It would appear that not only is there no real inherent quality we can point to as "professional" but that it is not even possible to specify criteria that in every instance make something "professional''

The latest Stephen King novel on the bestseller rack is most likely professional while ''Admiral Rod of the Space Patrol'' in longhand in a fifth-grader's tablet is, probably, not. But it is hard to say exactly where the nonprofessional becomes professional. Most of my work has fallen into that twilight zone in the middle which is why I've used it as an example.

We can't meaningfully say "This is (or isn't) professional." We can only say that something is professional in the sense that it meets whatever criteria of professionalism we have decided to accept for the purpose of evaluating the particular work, at the particular time, for whatever reason.

So the next time the discussion in a fanzine turns to whether a magazine is a prozine, semi-prozine or a fanzine or whether a piece of writing is of professional quality, or what it takes to write something professional, you'd be better off ignoring the gibberish and concentrating on problems more susceptible to solution -- like who sawed Courtney's boat or whether Yngvi really was a louse.

Eric Mayer March 1990, first published in John D. Owen's Shipyard Blues 4




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