In praise of good curation
Large publishing houses have long been American literature’s gatekeepers, and they aren’t doing a very good job, in large part because many are owned by conglomerates who view them as “assets” rather than as stewards of literature. These houses limit the range of what gets respectably printed, even as they churn out more titles than ever before. More than 3,500 books are published each week. It’s the spaghetti approach to publishing: throw the noodles against the wall and see what sticks. This gives enormous power to gatekeepers at the other end of the publishing process: chain store buyers who determine which books get serious shelf space and those celebrities and reviewers powerful enough to tell large numbers of people what to read. Granted, the majority of the 150,000 or so books published each year don’t even aspire to literature, and some of these titles cover the costs of publishing prestigious but poor-selling literary fiction and poetry. Increasingly, though, debt-saddled companies need each title to earn out—and want each title to break out. Serious literature is no longer granted a routine exemption from earning its keep, yet real support is given only to those titles showing immediate sales promise. Most of the rest slide down the wall.
This is not a situation friendly to risk-taking. It’s been awhile since individual editors had the power to acquire a novel by themselves, and the committees that choose which books get published (and which of those get pushed) have grown larger. Sales and marketing departments play an ever-powerful role in acquisitions and editorial decision-making. Mix in members checking Book Scan figures on their iPhone, and life gets harder for writers who don’t write books with widespread popular appeal and (to quote more than one editor) “characters we can cheer for.”
I am not arguing that great books never survive this process. They do, and when one does it’s usually to the credit of someone whose love of literature keeps them working in the publishing industry. (Despite conglomeratization, brilliant and imaginative people will always be found working where books are near.) Yet a lot of fine books don’t make it through the gates—either the editorial-committee gates that allow a book to be published or the gates that published books must walk through to find a sizeable readership. Much of what does survive is repetitive and unremarkable. Sometimes the best that can be said is “Nobody hated it and some of us thought it would sell.” What would have been called middle-brow in Max Perkin’s day is tagged as literary fiction with crossover appeal, and no agent wants to even whisper the word experimental in midtown Manhattan. This is a world in which the marketing department sits in on an editorial meeting at which a National Book Award finalist is encouraged to “lighten up” the ending of his next book, and print runs can’t be set until after Sessalee Hensley weighs in.
There are now agents who specialize in debuts, because first-time novelists are an easier pitch than a critically acclaimed author whose books have “under performed.” The University of Michigan Press (which, incidentally, is going digital) started a literary prize particularly for fiction writers who have published a book with a commercial publisher and now cannot. And it’s not unheard of for a well-published author to submit a book under a pen name, posing as a literary virgin. The idea that an author’s past sales predict that author’s future sales is not statistically supported; it is, however, recited as Truth. This would be hard enough to swallow if book marketers were actually right; it’s a recipe for insanity among writers in a world where huge advances are doled out to books that flop (but whose authors went to Yale with their editors) and sleeper hits miraculously defy the often self-fulfilling prophesy of poor marketing. It turns out you can underestimate the intelligence of the American reading public.
Some writers respond to the business practices of commercial publishing by becoming shameless self-promoters. (It’s tempting to name names, but instead I’ll suggest that you stop by Facebook for a small, sour taste.) Others commit suicide—either John Kennedy Toole’s speedy version or the more routine slow poisoning by alcohol. Some writers stop writing and go on to live happy lives. Increasingly, many take matters into their own hands.
It’s not hard to argue that the internet, as a self-publishing tool with no quality control, has led to the dissemination of some truly horrible—indeed unprintable—poetry, fiction, and book reviews. Yet there is much great writing to be found on line, as well as interesting experiments in collaboration, formatting, and serialization, to name some. Many of this country’s best literary journals have at least some of their content available on-line, making contemporary literary offerings even cheaper and easier than a stroll to the public library, while giving writers a potentially huge (and international) audience. As newspapers die off or go digital, the internet is increasingly the location of both serious and frivolous book reviewing. (A diversified literary culture continues in non-virtual venues as well, in print publications of varying circulations, on campuses, in houses, and at poetry slams—though even this is increasingly dependent on social media to obtain even a modest level of attention and participation.)
The danger of this democratization of publishing is its lack of quality control. Technology enables the production of more words at the same time it gnaws at our reading time. In a country where one in four adults claims to be writing a book, there may soon be more books written than read. And those of us who do read may have to spend enormous amounts of time wading through the flotsam unless we have trustworthy gatekeepers. We don’t want the whole country to be reading the same handful of books, but neither can we read everything out there to determine what’s worth reading. There’s a reason that most commercially published novels are at least better written than most self-published novels; it’s a shame that so many of them are identically inoffensive. We need editors and agents and booksellers and reviewers, and we need them to be dependable judges of quality. Yet we also need them to be diverse in their tastes and sensibilities or we’ll all be rooting for the same few characters in the same few books, chosen for us by the same few people and purchased at the same few places.
Offering real promise for both variety and excellence in American literature are our independent presses and literary journals (whether digital, print, or both), which comprise a diversified and decentralized network of literary gatekeepers. (I prefer not to use the word “filter,” which was all the rage in the heated debates over the future of publishing at South by Southwest Conference held in Austin in March.) They promise a literary world situated in the ideal middle between a low-quality DIY publishing free for all and a tiny cadre of market-fixated large publishing houses. Many of these independent publishers value both quality and originality, and many are willing to invest in an author’s career over time, allowing their writers to create and be judged by a full body of work.
Yet most independent presses are also, necessarily in our culture, commercial enterprises and will fail without profits. (This is true of many literary journals as well. Though some are supported by the universities that house them, by their publishers’ day jobs or trust funds, or—let’s admit it—by the entry fees to the contests run to extract dollars as well as literature from their submitters, others need commercial support in the form of subscriptions and/or advertising.) The viability of independent publishers will depend on whether or not they can support themselves financially, and the ongoing closings of many of the independent bookstores who hand-sell their titles do not bode well. Certainly independent publishing is aided by a decentralized literary landscape. New social media allow publishers and authors to speak directly with readers, and independent publishers can increasingly command the attention of independent booksellers. Newsletters, blogs, and zines may well rescue book reviews as newspapers yank their book pages (or shutter up altogether), and on-line book exchanges and groups often point readers to books that will never climb onto a bestseller list or be stacked on the front table at the strip-mall chain bookstore.
The future of independent publishing also depends on reader behavior during this period of technological change and digitalization—and on how publishers respond. While I certainly hope the book endures as an object, literature can survive a change in delivery format. What it may not survive is an absence of reputable gatekeepers and venues. What it will not survive is an absence of readers. Artists, including literary artists, have more often than not struggled to feed themselves. If there’s no money in writing, perhaps fewer people will try their hand at it. Depending on who is scared away, that may prove a good thing. In any scenario, literature will still be written. It will be penned by the leisure classes, by those of us lucky enough to have university sinecures or choice fellowships, by writers who marry for patronage, by poets and novelists with day jobs as nurses and carpenters, by those of us who just can’t help ourselves. An absence of money is not itself the problem, but since we are a capitalist society with little state support for the arts, a failure of commercial publishing will mean the disappearance of skilled gatekeepers and, perhaps, of a readership for literature beyond its own makers. There still exists a general readership for literary fiction (and some sliver of our poetic production) and even real money to be made for those who can, to quote Joyce’s scold of a wife, “write books that people want to read.”
In this country we are free to write whatever we want—so long as we don’t expect to be published in a form that others will take seriously. So my question is this: can we support a diversification of quality literary gatekeepers, distributors, and venues so that more of us will write books that reflect our freedom, rather than books we think we can get published and legitimized by a few editors who must answer to their marketing departments? How will such books find their readers? Will we sometimes write books that only a few people want to read, or will we write for the common denominator? Will we write in a way that is worthy of and exercises our freedom of expression, or will we write with the goal of landing the right agent, winning over the book-club crowd, and making a buck? Might many of us give up trying to reach a public altogether and merely write poetry for our Facebook friends or 140-character stories for our Twitter followers?