Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Literary Laments and the Future

Many people are currently writing what I call literary laments.  These essays mourn the passing of traditional publishing models in which editors and writers work together to make great literature.  The one I read most recently was by my acquaintance Daniel Menaker at Slate.  Menaker is a former New Yorker fiction editor and former top editor at Random House.  He joins in the witty but pessimistic decrying of what e-books and other electronic devices are doing to literature– with emphasis on the great shapeless surge of bad, self-published novels.

Dan knows, of course, that the days of Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s ended long, long ago, and that dedication to “moving the units” started well before Smashwords.com and the other digital self-publishing juggernauts. We all hated what Barnes & Noble did to the book world before Amazon became the bigger, badder boy.

The collapse of the old model of well-edited and genteelly marketed  literature was well underway by the early nineteen-eighties when the traditional commercial publishers began selling out wholesale– lock, stock and barrel– to enormous non-literary corporations. Supporting yourself as a book writer even then was tough for serious mid- listers, and that particular way of making a living isn’t even a dream for most of us now.  Even Dan Menaker thinks there are (or did he say were?) only a double handful of editors truly supporting letters. “In my judgment,” he writes, “there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who—along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps—have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters.”  (See piece at Slate).

So it seems that we can all agree that commerce was always king, at least on this side of the Atlantic.  There were never many of these literary editors, and even agreeing (as I do) that there still are some wonderful editors finding wonderful literature, there aren’t many of them, and I would add– equally important to me– that even the best of them represent a small subset of possible tastes in literature. It seems to me that many powerful, beautifully written stories (especially ones representing groups and views out of the mainstream) have gone begging for a long time past. Sometimes there will be a publishing fad– stories of immigrants, for example have been popular for a while– that brings wonderful writing to the mainstream, but books that earn profits in the low single digits are not considered commercially viable.  Period.

Of course I agree that the many versions of self-published e-books called Vampire Zombie Sex Addict Love Story are abominably written, stupid, and mind numbing. So what?  Let a million skunk cabbages bloom and rot.

The serious issue to my mind is what comes next?  If we can’t depend on Dan Menaker at Random House to bring us the good stuff anymore, where do we find our literature? Where are– or better, how do we create–  new paradigms and new gatekeepers, perhaps with more diverse viewpoints than the old New York City literary establishment?

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