An artist and a scientist are walking along a country road. The artist stops by a field and exclaims, “Look at those beautiful white sheep grazing in the meadow!”
“You think so?” the scientist asks.
The artist is astonished. “You don’t think they are beautiful?”
“Well, they could be beautiful,” the scientist concedes. “I just don’t know if they’re all white.”
The artist studies the sheep, then says firmly, ”They’re all white.”
“No,” the scientist points out, “they’re all white on this side.”
Imagine a proof scale: 0 for leprechauns/eternal youth; 10 for death/taxes. Now think about where on the proof scale a concept must score before you believe in it. As far as I know, my ancestors never set foot in Missouri, but at heart, I’m a Missourian through and through. Before I trust that something is true, I must have personal experience or significant proof.
While the proof scale serves us well for empirically evaluated things like electricity and pound cake, it is all but useless when it comes to people. We are not perfect, or even consistent. People have even been known to obfuscate and outright lie for personal gain. And yet the urge to trust people is irresistible. We depend on each other for survival. The entire world suffers from a kind of Stockholm syndrome, our psyches split between the desire to trust and the fear of trusting too much.
The other day at the library, a man who appeared to be a good and nurturing father in all other respects (though he could have been a sadistic monster for all I knew) left me in charge of his disabled eleven year old foster son while he went out to his car to get his wallet. He trusted me for a score of 2 on the proof scale: older woman (1) who appeared to work at the library (1). Maybe a 3 if he knew internet volunteers must be vetted by the police. But he couldn’t have known I spent twenty years out of the country. I might have been a raging pedophile in the Netherlands, or even better India, which is where pedophiles go on sex vacations. Hell, I could have been one here in Canada who just hadn’t been caught yet. I’m not, of course, and spent my twenty minutes of custodial duty listening to obscure facts about Willie Wonka and Oompa Loompas while the boy, as open and trusting as his hero Charlie, surfed google images looking for the perfect picture of the Golden Ticket.
Most of us need a higher proof score than 2 or 3. We tippy-toe toward trust, sharing harmless personal tidbits about ourselves, weighing those we receive in return, keeping an ear out for rumor and gossip. Personally, I won’t offer trust for any score less than 9, and I award proof points grudgingly. You’re a heavily decorated war hero turned fireman who regularly risks your life running into burning buildings to rescue puppies? Maybe half a point - if I heard it from a reliable source.
Because I award proof points so sparingly, I am always shocked to learn my trust has been misplaced.
When I decided to try selling my book to a publisher, I had no idea how to go about it. Reluctantly, as anyone who has read my diatribes can attest, I turned to the internet. It took weeks of searching, evaluating, comparing, to find the voices I felt might be trustworthy. Then I spent more weeks reading through their blogs, winnowing out the overly optimistic. I like my advisors to be realists, willing call a spade a spade. Eventually, I settled on four agents and followed their advice slavishly, dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”. Their advice was sound and it worked.
Earlier this week, one of my publishing gods announced on their blog that their agency had opened an e-publishing branch. This is a pretty hot topic in publishing circles nowadays. Within minutes, the comments section filled with horrified exclamations about conflict of interest and accusations of scamming hopeful writers. I was incensed by this. How could they accuse this agent - this pillar of integrity whose sound advice had set the feet of so many writers, including this one's, firmly on the publishing path - of being a scammer? I hopped over to the new e-publishing site, determined to collect ammunition that would prove those sniveling, ungrateful whiners wrong.
But I couldn’t, because the dismal list of services offered in exchange for a share of the profits are obtainable elsewhere, either for free or at a reasonable onetime cost. I know this because my writing buddy JR, whose techie chops were just above those of a banana slug when he got started, recently used them to e-publish his book. Devastated, I returned to the comments and read through my former hero’s feeble attempts to stem the tide of outrage, hoping to find some spark of honest explanation. I found a lot of double-speak and yak-around, the same stuff that drove me out of corporate America into early retirement.
Here’s the saddest thing for me. This agency really does have something worthwhile to offer as a publisher: their nose for a good book. The list of clients they have helped find success in traditional publishing is long. Any book vetted by their agents is probably worth buying for those who enjoy reading in the genres they represent. If they had stuck with that, I’d have awarded them yet another proof point for honesty. Instead, they chose to sound like every other scammer in the literary marketplace and I am reluctantly deducting 5 proof points from their score.
Times change. Common wisdom becomes folly. Our circumstances, our needs, our goals, have all the permanence of those funky bubbles we blew through plastic rings when we were kids. So now I’m out in meadow, walking around all my other sheep, checking to see if they are still white on the other side.