Steven Beattie on an intersect of the sorts of factors that constitute a “perfect storm” of controversy in Canadian letters, both at his own site and at Quillblog. Note as well some of the accompanying comments.
A while ago, I wrote to Dan Green to ask him some follow up questions to an article he wrote entitled “The Standard of Literature” which appeared at his website. In that piece, Green argued against Alison Walsh, who had previously published an article in the Irish Independent on the need for gate-keeping in literature.(Walsh is a semi-regular contributor to the Irish Independent, and generally writes on the publishing scene there.) The question at stake is a rather complicated one, since on the one hand it hinges on issues of taste and on the other rests upon very commonly held — one might almost say axiomatic — beliefs about the great proportions of amateurish junk that get produced in any society by people who dream of being professional artists but do not possess the requisite talent. For Walsh, it seems, this axiom is incontrovertible. Or to be more precise, for Walsh, the axiom justifies gate-keeping as it is commonly practiced by the publishing industry. For Green, this justification is questionable; the true determiner of a work of fiction’s worth is the reader, and the conventional gate-keeping model — driven by profit motives as well as personal aesthetic taste — is not adequate to ensure the production of what the publishing industry claims it produces: the best novels, short stories, etc., that are being created by living writers.
I wrote to Green with some follow-up questions after he posted his article, and he was kind enough to answer. I’m going to post some of that discussion here. I’m also going to ask a few more questions on top of my original ones.
When I emailed Green, I first asked this:
My main questions re: the Walsh piece are, first, that it seems to me her essential argument doesn’t seem so wrong-headed. After all, since anyone who has any experience reading amateur writing knows, the lame stuff exists and is plentiful. So what sort of model are you proposing? A great deal of publishing (via conventional publishers, self-publishers and other variants that may materialize (Hogarth Press-like quasi-collectives)), followed by readers making up their own minds? If so, this tenable?
The lame stuff certainly is plentiful, but isn’t it lame enough that most of us are able to see that pretty readily? Readers “making up their own minds” is actually a sound enough principle, but of course what makes it difficult to practice for most readers is the sheer amount of reader-seeking fiction that’s now available, so that having a “gatekeeper” to sort through it for us seems an attractive option.
However, it seems to me at best an unfortunate necessity and at worst hopelessly inadequate to cede the gatekeeping function to editors, the latter for the reasons you yourself cite. Where books are concerned, the job description for editors in today’s publishing environment inherently prevents them from filtering for quality, since quality by no means insures commercial success, which is the book editor’s ultimate goal. Indeed, the absence of quality more often seems to be the prerequisite for commercial success. There may or may not have been a time when some book publishers felt an obligation to support non-commercial, “literary” writers, but if this form of implicit patronage once existed, its time has long since passed.
Green continued that the current situation was “only going to get worse, unless the profit imperative in American capitalism is suddenly abandoned” — something he didn’t “foresee happening” … an observation which, in itself, might be considered axiomatic.
I agree with Green in a general sense, and find his lack of awe in the face of the publishing industry’s mystifications refreshing. There is a rational reason for wanting to move beyond the current system of manuscript selection/publication: a lot of the lame work that is out there is, naturally, self-published (since that is everything that is not in conventional print), but a lot of the lame work is published. There has been a marked deterioration in the “brilliance quality” of published work as writers – coincidentally or not – become more and more integrated into MFA systems of production. One still finds a great deal of competent work; the present system is masterful at generating that kind of material. However, one does not find much that is, to use Loren Stein’s term, vital. The work the houses produce a great deal of has become product. It talks, so to speak, it does not sing. Furthermore, the agents and acquisition editors who select manuscripts for publication are quite open about the degree to which marketing decisions are now essential to their choices, and that they do in fact reject good material. Is the good material simply meant to crawl away and whither in oblivion?
However, while I am glad at Green’s open-mindedness about reading new work, I find myself still unclear about how the model he proposes would actually work. Would it mean certain critics accepting self-published work (something some do in any case, within the bounds of reason and with the unspoken understanding that they will rarely comment on – review – it)? Would it mean critics spending a significant amount of time scrolling though online publications … most of which remain “curated” (i.e., not self-published) but, as Green points out, not entirely removed from self-publishing when they are the products of “professional” writers who teach creative writing and need venues in order to justify their contract renewals? It seems to me that very few critics would actually perform much of either action – and one can hardly criticize them for bowing out from this duty; the amount of extra work it would entail would be overwhelming.
Near the end of his response to my question list (I had three), Green remarks that he, too, favours gate-keeping, but one that is at odds with Walsh’s defense of acquisition editors and agents being the one with all the power. For him, the essential criteria is that these more open-minded gate-keepers would regard any written work in terms of its success as literature:
any plausible gatekeeper should be concerned not with what gets published (or printed or posted or whatever) but with what gets taken seriously in its implicit claim to be literature. We actually need more of this kind of gatekeeping, which simply takes what is available, by whatever means of publication, and considers its merits and weaknesses
In a general sense, the practical questions remain: Should there be a tithe system, by which – as in the visual arts scene – reviewers read a certain percentage of “outsider” work? Should there be a different version of valuation, so that a writer who proves him or herself an intelligent person of letters (say, by writing some criticism) earns an “allowance” to have his work read, even if it is unpublished?
How would an alternative to Walsh’s gate-keeping system be made workable?
1 V. S. Naipaul has declared there are not any important writers anymore, Philip Roth has predicted the novel will become a cult activity, Peter Stothard has asked if fiction writing simply used to be better, Cullen Murphy, David Shields, Lee Seigel, and Geoff Dyer have all stated that non-fiction is superior to fiction. The list of people of letters who apparently have lost faith in literary fiction goes on an on; it is clear that an elementary questioning of the novel is not a passing cultural phase. What is your opinion? Does the novel have a future? If so, what kind? And will e-technology alter the very form of the novel? If so, how?
I am reading a novel now, started a couple of days ago. And I do feel like I’m in a cult, so Roth may be right on about that. It’s called spaceboythenovel, and it’s by this retired St. John’s professor I keep bumping into all around town. I’ve seen him at a lecture on Hegel at his former college, a showing of Orpheus at the newly revived Jean Cocteau Theater, and most recently at The Santa Fe Hotel where, improbably, he was serving as the auctioneer (in full patter) of one item that didn’t sell at any price, an incredibly awkward little auction held before a talk Henry Wright gave on his archeological digs in Madagascar last summer—mice bones and rice seeds and cane-decorated pottery shards recovered from the depths of Time.
Afterward, the novelist opened his briefcase and laid the sole copy he had in there on me, and without even reading it I felt a little Nabokovian tingle travel up my spine. Excitement and delight in the gift we give each other when we live inside our creativity and share the fruits of that aliveness with others. So, yeah, it’s a cult. But it’s a damn fine cult!
I imagine novels will be most prized in the post-peak oil future coming soon to a planet near you, Finn, especially big fat ones with lots of pages. People will need them for fuel, to reinforce the soles of their boots, and to stuff in the linings of their coats. E-books won’t help much in this regard; pixels will be a memory, like old Tzarist rubles. Of course that future is already here for many people. I visited a friend in Las Vegas, New Mexico the other day, and he told me that for warmth his neighbors burn garbage, burn tires. He knows, because he’s smelled it—the refuse, the rubber. I expect those conditions obtain in parts of South Korea, as well.
2 Are the very significant structural changes taking place in the publishing industry having an effect on novel writing? If so, how?
I don’t reckon it’s much fun to be toiling in the publishing industry at present. And misery does love company. To the extent I come in contact with them I find novels from corporate publishing to be often toxic, oftener dreary, lifeless, one way or another suspect and unreadable—no rhythm, no challenge, no wit. But of course I’m very selective, that’s why I’m here.
3 Is the cutting back of mid-lists and a general cautiousness about taking risks on new or relatively unknown writers affecting the caliber of writing that does manage to get into print?
The effects of people losing their livelihoods, their dreams, or both, can be traumatizing. From my encounters with NYC publishing professionals, and please remember I lived in Manhattan for twenty-seven years, most of them are on medication for depression and anxiety, or both.
I did a reading at The Sunday Salon reading series with Tony D’Souza—my first book, his second. He confided in me, sweetly, that he’d just learned he was going to be a father. Congratulations, I’m so happy for you, I said to him. I’ve been criticized for being effusive, but in this case it was warranted. We were both smiling, standing close; it was so bitter cold that night, everyone was huddling–joyful. Tony told me that I was the first person in his NYC lit acquaintance to have been glad for him. And worse, agent and publisher types had told him that maybe it wasn’t such a good career move to have the baby now, maybe he should wait until after the next book, those sorts of things.
Well, like I say, I had lived there a long time, so my ears didn’t fall off at the telling. But, Finn, they don’t even understand how crass they’ve become.
I can still hear the hurt in the voice of a novelist whose publisher told her that any future works would have to be published under a nom de plume, her own name no longer held cachet; they respected her talent but not her saleability.
Or the shock of betrayal of another writer whose agent had fixed the auction of her book to her detriment, simply ignoring the higher bids. Fortunately she was tipped off and able to undo the damage, damage to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars.
Or another who was already mentally spending the six-figure advance under discussion at Knopf—enough back and forth had gone down to induce a certain amount of justifiable fantasizing—only to have the whole thing nullified by Sonny Mehta. She spent the better part of a year in bed watching Law and Order re-runs, popping Paxil.
4 Do you have an author’s website? Does it help you sell books?
I don’t, but I blog and I suppose I should mention somewhere on the blog that my book is still in print. And of course it’s featured on www.carolmrp.net, but that’s not been substantially updated since publication in 2007, which I kind of love—website as snapshot of a moment in time.
5 In your heart of hearts, how do you feel about running an author’s website? Do you feel its a labour of love – or an annoying imposition? Or something else altogether?
For my next book, I’ll probably do something on Facebook if I’m still enjoying my Facebook as much as I am now.
6 You once commented at Dan Green’s site that the the idea that literary fiction “is a meritocracy is risible”. Is the selection system for novel and short story manuscripts fair? Should it be made blind?
I probably wanted to use the word risible in a sentence. I don’t think I ever had occasion to before, and it’s such an authoritative word. Not everything I wrote there made total sense (though that I think was a cogent remark). My nascent blog commentary, I regard it now as almost a kind of asemic writing that got me from point x to point y in my intellectual growth. And everyone was very kind to me, I think, because they could see me working so hard to grow. I had written this fabulous, bold and fiercely comedic feminist novel in almost total ignorance of the great post-Modernists and meta-fictionists, and to properly join the conversation about literature going forward I had to remediate that lack.
That site had me running weekly, sometimes daily, to the Rose Reading Room in the New York Public Library to read the one copy of Sukenick’s 98.6 or Federman’s Double or Nothing or Kathy Acker or Percival Everett or Robert Coover or Donald Barthelme or James Purdy or David Markson or William Gaddis or Stanley Elkin or Gilbert Sorrentino, authors not very well-known except to seekers.
Those blistering sometimes quasi-ecstatic reading experiences opened worlds, reorienting me toward the expanded possibilities of literature that had been hidden from me. I understand that the harsh critique some of us make of corporate publishing can sound like sour grapes from outsiders barred by the professional gatekeepers who know best, until you read those other far more fascinating underground works. Then it’s hard not to keep quiet.
It was a special time in the litblogosphere, and not just for me.
7 Are factors such as racism, sexism, ageism, classism and/or looksism factors prejudicing the choices agents and publishers make? If so, can these be ranked in terms of perniciousness? Or is all of this irrelevant insofar as selection systems are either always fair enough or always unfair enough that one should — as a conscript of letters — soldier on?
Perhaps so, judging from the results. Racism is the worst because it’s so totally unjustifiable and it has caused so much grotesque suffering. No, I don’t think it is irrelevant, Finn. I think the current system should be plowed under. We can do so much better by writers and readers alike, and have such better books to enjoy reading. In my view we don’t have a publishing industry problem or a book selection problem, it’s far more serious and fundamental. You could say we have a democracyism problem and a capitalism problem—too little of the first, far too much of the latter.
8 There is something of a European — particularly French — feel to some of your work, with its free associations and (for want of a better phrase) psychoanalytically-informed recklessness of style. At the same time, some of your work is quintessentially American. Does this jibe with your own thinking about your work? Who are your influences?
This question really excites me, Finn. Because when I first saw it I was listening to a lot of Mahler, so when I read “psychoanalytically-informed recklessness of style” I was, like, fuck yeah! Yes, as a teenager some of the first literary works I reached for were works by Colette, Nin and De Beauvoir (her Blood of Others is still on my shelf). I read the men too—Gide, Camus and Sartre—but thrilled to the women, primarily because of their explorations and openness around female sexuality. I could probably draw a straight line between DeBeauvoir’s themes of personal political responsibility and my novel Cooperative Village. Zora Neale Hurston was/is a huge influence because of her earthy exuberance and anthropological sensibility—an exquisite kind of listening. There’s a certain relentlessness in works like Knut Hamsun’s Hunger that I’ve integrated, as well. I can’t help thinking the many—too many— holocaust narratives I’ve grappled with—Etty Hillesum’s An Interrupted Life, for example—both informed me early on about well, you know, “humanity,” and helped me personally to go for broke as a writer. Ambition for something way beyond personal gain.
Caryl Churchill’s unapologetic intellect and engagement with big themes in a carnivalesque style were a revelation to me after the domestic melodramas of Lillian Hellman and Wendy Wasserstein’s neurotic shtick. Living in Manhattan I saw productions of Top Girls, Fen, Cloud Nine, and Mad Forest, and not just once. I studied playwriting with Tina Howe in the period Pride’s Crossing was opening at Lincoln Center—the play, about swimming the English channel, ended with a muscular headlong leaping dive into the unknown but wet future, not unlike the protagonist in Cooperative Village. The Diaries of Judith Malina—1947-1957 are a record of the great risks she took in life and art and serve as an artifactual bridge between daring theatre-making, living and belle-lettres. She signed a copy for me at the Gotham Book Mart back in the day: “To Frances, In the hope that this glimpse of the past gives you a little moment of shared experiences with me—to bring us closer. Love, Judith”
9 According to media reports, e-book sales now represent a significant percentage of overall sales. But small bookstores see them as more a threat to their survival than anything else, and a lot of book people remain print people. Are you enthusiastic about e-books? Do they hold the potential for a renaissance in literary publishing? Or are they over-rated and too susceptible to piracy?
It’s not piracy I worry about so much as potential future tampering with the text. After the outrageous and cowardly erasure of the word nigger from Twain’s classic Huck Finn, I started to fear for the future integrity of my own work, which also has an artful use of that scapegoated word. Could it be sanitized too? Steven Augustine (of Berlin), one of the foremost contemporary fiction writers using the black American experience as his ostensible subject, compared my writing in that passage to (something like) “drops of mercury dancing on a sizzling skillet.” I really wouldn’t want to lose the text’s ability to create that effect.
10 What do you think of literary prizes? As Jason Cowley has commented, they reduce our culture’s ability to think in a critically complex fashion? Do they suggest, “this book is worth reading and all these others aren’t?”
In Farmington, Missouri, where I recently lived for two years, four months, and twenty-four days (but who’s counting?), I’d go into my insurance agent’s office, and he’d have prizes all over the walls and shelves—best agent, community service awards, sports trophies, etc. The shining brass placques were mounted alongside the antlers and stuffed heads of the creatures he’d hunted. These were there to inspire confidence, not only in him personally as he relieved his clients of hefty payments for auto, life and real property insurances, but also confidence in the legitimacy of the industry as a whole, to psychologically mitigate the pain of the rip-off.
Same dealio with lit prizes.
11 What are you working on now that you’re excited about?
I’m excited to be blogging again, my powers seem to be increasing in that regard. Reviving the blog was a result of being in South Korea and wanting to honor my experiences there by sharing what I found valuable. And Finn, having been in your part of the world I feel I can feel your work a little better. That I have a fuller sense of the atmospherics, the street life you depict in your own fictions.
I’m in docent training at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, so I’m intensively immersed in learning how to read her visionary works more completely, the better to help others have a richer experience encountering the art she brought forward. It’s expanding my perceptual powers, and you know that’s going to translate into some powerful writing—descriptively and compositionally. That’s the hope, anyway.
Plus, the activism we’re doing here throughout New Mexico with community rights ordinances (the CELDF model) is revolutionary. So, I’m living that dream too.
Lastly, I’m working on myself—mind, body and spirit. Particularly on acceptance and enjoying life more and more and more and more, even as it slips away.
bio.Bio: If I were one to rest on my laurels, I guess it’d be these:
I’m the author of the novel Cooperative Village and have adapted and performed the work in a one-woman show of the same name. I blog at Written Word, Spoken Word where I sometimes publish my own short fictions. I published a free alternative community newspaper in the Missouri Bible Belt for a brief but charged while. I’m proud of the plays I’ve written and performed in. I’ve led social justice campaigns; I hope to do more of that. I’m pretty good at it—helping people, myself included, find their courage and stick to it. I live in an adobe casita in a high desert of savage beauty. Oftentimes, in the dead of night, I hear foxes tearing their prey from limb to limb. It’s wild here. I’m changing.
Last week, put the finishing touches on the edits of my Hiroshima novel. That brings to four the number of interconnected screenplay module fictions I have finished (one mega-project and three conventionally-sized mss.)
To see a bit more about this project, go here, or here to see pictures specifically of the Hiroshima hybrid graphic novel that is the project’s most recent module.
The screenplay novel is an idea that I’ve been experimenting with for some time. I’m still convinced that it — both as a hybrid graphic fiction and as a method of writing text-only narratives — is an idea whose time has come. I’m certainly not the only writer to experiment in this way, and, in any case, as with any experimentation, there has been a lot of trial and error involved. However, in terms of the project having a holistic aspect — in terms of it not being a slap-dash exercise in wannabe amateurishness but actually being able to compete with other works in the contemporary canon — I think one of the strongest arguments in favour of the screenplay novel is its format. Once I’ve finished an manuscript, I insert artwork, photocopy the entire thing, then bind it. The novels are in their text-only version, in effect, un-produced screenplays; with images, they become something else altogether — filmic experiences, but films that are not susceptible to the financial pressures of real-world films. In other words, these are movies in which auteurship is, once again, liberated. More on this particular aspect of the project here.
From a year-and-a-half back, Mark Medley on Marc Côté‘s move from Cormorant to Thomas Allen. That is a long time in a cultural industry (even publishing), and there have been changes since then; a recent visit to Thomas Allen’s website describes the company as now being a distributor, not publisher, and its fiction selection is thin. More alarmingly on a general level is the sense of pessimism is gripping the industry, as well as the idea that these days “only a prize” is sufficient to win a novel — especially one by a new writer — the sort of audience it needs in order to succeed commercially. In Quebec, where the literary culture has evolved differently than in anglophone Canada and there is less of a blockbuster mentality, authors also feel under siege but more in terms of their royalties: they are fighting to standardize book prices.
Yet comparatively, publishing in the US seems to be doing fairly well: increasing ebook sales have given the majors profits that, in the words of one exec, are “fatter”. There is no recession. Brick and mortar booksellers — under pressure — nevertheless survive. People are buying and reading books, even if the aggregate numbers of titles sold remains what it typically has been. Furthermore, the US houses are taking chances: consider the recent advance for Garth Risk Hallberg’s immense social novel (described by Russell Smith here).
What’s going on? Is there a publishing industry? Or a series of publishing industries divided according to nation and/or language?
Thomas Hodd on Eleanor Catton and the question of cultural nationalism. Being both a Canadian expat and a cultural nationalist I fall somewhere outside Hodd’s insistence on residency as a prerequisite of being a Canadian author. I’ve also found that cultural nationalism comes with a few caveats: for one thing, it’s not the same as what might be called “individual nationalism”; second, it is not the artist’s duty to serve as a mouthpiece for nationalistic-chauvinist ideologies … quite the opposite, actually. All the same, Hodd hits a bull’s eye — actually, a few bull’s eyes — with his overview of some disturbing trends in recent Canadian publishing. Overall, an interesting article — I hope it will lead to a sustained discussion.