Monday, November 30, 2009

Is Poetry a Whore?

The truth is that literature is not a bouquet of flowers, nor is it a prize. The so-called literary life is a disaster. Roberto BolaƱo notoriously remarked that “poetry is a whore.” (“La poesia es una puta.”) Then again, maybe he didn't. Aside from the curious personification employed, there is nevertheless a point here, particularly if we take poetry to be shorthand for literature. The prizes, financial and otherwise, that await the successful writer are not innocently acquired. Most writers are failures—I am tempted to say, “all writers.” David Foster Wallace was a highly successful novelist, but he failed at life, as least in his own estimation, tragic and untrue as that may seem to the rest of us. The writer who fails to get his manuscript published fails at both writing and at life.

As someone who has written for a living for many years and is attempting to get a novel published, I would say the possibilities are slim or nonexistent.

Publishers and agents are not intellectuals. Nor are most book publishers particularly good at business, at least not in the sense that their operations are overwhelming profitable. Publishing companies function as minor subdivisions of large media conglomerates. They exist to bring out the film edition of a paperback. Those of us who read because we love books are an eccentric minority, viewed with suspicion. Writers are beneath contempt, existing at the lowest level of the food chain.

What I really want to know is this: who was it who decided that the writer gets a 10% to 15% royalty on the price of a hardcover book, while the publisher gets approximately 40% and the bookstore another 40%?

Now, I can picture the interested parties sitting around a table—publisher and editor, representative of a large bookstore chain, maybe even an agent. Everyone except a writer, who couldn’t make it that day. Or maybe the writer just couldn’t find his voice. What I can’t imagine is any writer willingly saying, “Right guys, we writers want the smallest piece of the pie.”

To state the stunningly obvious, without writers, there are no books. And if anyone thinks publishers are indispensable, think again. Publishers as we know them only came into existence in the early nineteenth century. Before that, there were printers and booksellers, who were often the same person in eighteenth century London.

Back in the Spring, I attended a panel discussion at NYU, “Is there a Future for the Literary Novel?” The panel consisted of several editors, a writer, and a learned professor. The problem was, no one could offer a convincing definition of what a literary novel was. At least Jonathan Galassi of Farrar Straus attempted one: his formulation was that a literary novel was one that a writer would write no matter what (ie, whether he or she was published.) This made sense, until I thought about it a little more. I know several writers of crime fiction and of science fiction who write novel after novel without being published. They don’t write “because they enjoy it,” and clearly they don't write for financial gain. They too write because they have to. Thus, Galassi’s definition is a purely psychological one and does nothing to define the literary novel stylistically or to separate it from other genres of fiction.

I will attempt my definition of literary fiction in a future posting. In the meantime, I would suggest that literature and publishing are diametrically opposed, that book publishing is the enemy of literature, and that literary fiction is the neglected stepchild of the book trade.

Were I giving advice to someone starting out in life, I would tell them to never, ever become a writer. Heroin addicts, transvestites, and whores receive more respect.

And so it seems, poetry is a whore only on a good day, when there are buyers.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Dead Wood and Creaking Gates

Now the thing is this—I love and indeed obsess over books as physical objects, examining both their beauty and their minute imperfections. To some extent, I could even be said to collect them, but at various points, they have forced me out of house and home.

When I moved apartments two years ago, I owned approximately 2,000 volumes, some located on bookshelves, many in precariously tall piles rising from the floor, some under the bed, and hundreds more in boxes stacked in every available corner. There was a minor flood, with water damage and ensuing mold. A number of books—surprisingly few—were irreparably damaged

I envy Alberto Manguel his 30,000-plus volume library as well as the barn he has restored to house these titles. For those of us who live in small apartments, this sort of universal library isn’t really possible. When I finally moved, I took some 400 books with me, put 800 in storage, and disposed of the rest. “Disposed of” is something of a euphemism. I was able to sell or donate approximately 100, but the remaining 700 or so volumes I simply threw out, after much soul searching. True, I put them in clear plastic bags and placed them downstairs in my building. There they often sat for a week, before the super took them to the street to be picked up for recycling. My neighbors were welcome to take any of the titles they chose. Few did so. Two years later, I’m still paying for storage.

Nevertheless, I remain emotionally attached to books as physical objects that possess an aura (vide Walter Benjamin’s essay, “Unpacking My Library.”) But we all have to ask, does this intense attachment make sense? Is it in any way rational?

As for the human beings involved in book publishing, I cannot be said to love publishers, editors, or agents. Nor do I hate them. Despite my unfortunate interaction with the agent Ms. X, I don’t particularly want to disparage publishing people as individuals. But I do take issue when they function as gatekeepers who employ faulty criteria to judge literary work. By “faulty criteria,” I mean reliance on last year’s partially successful marketing parameters to select next year’s books, a sort of “one size fits all” approach to fiction. Each strong novel is different. Unfortunately, a genuinely unique and innovative novel won’t by definition conform to anyone’s marketing plan and won’t conveniently fit any publisher’s list.

The essential text here is in the collection Misreadings, by Umberto Eco, “Regretfully, We Are Returning Your…” In this piece, a reader at a publishing house quite reasonably rejects work after work of Western literature. He or she simply doesn’t understand what the authors are aiming at—the titles don’t fit either current marketing strategy or the reader’s preconceptions. And so, The Bible, The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Don Quixote are all rejected. I can see Dante posing a particular problem—The Inferno would be acceptable for its sex and violence, but would offend religious sensibilities. The Purgatorio and Paradiso might work as religious tracts, but would bore the general reader. As for Don Quixote, it is simply too long and uneven.

As for myself, I do not claim to have written the next Don Quixote (vide “Pierre Menard,” by Borges), but nor have I written the next James Patterson or Dan Brown novel. I therefore request that I not be judged by the same criteria. After all, I’m not even remotely attempting to do the same thing.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Is Book Publishing Dead Yet?

People in publishing are running scared. Many have lost their jobs, and those who haven’t are afraid they will, or that their imprints will close down entirely. This despite the worldwide success of Dan Brown’s books, of J.K. Rowling, and of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. Such fear does not bode well for an unknown writer with a fiction manuscript, or for anyone else. The higher up one inquires in the corporate structure, the more pronounced the fear.

Publishers and editors know they work in a dying industry. They are fearful of and obsessed with Amazon’s Kindle. Their main complaint is that Amazon is selling electronic copies of titles at a loss, thus insidiously inducing millions (well, okay, thousands) of unsuspecting consumers to lay out several hundred dollars each for an electronic reader. The power of the technology is disconcerting, and the sneaking suspicion that Jeff Bezos is far more astute than anyone in New York and has a better business plan is a bitter thought indeed.

They are all missing the point. Book publishing is dying because it does not adequately serve the needs and desires of either readers or writers. It is a sclerotic industry that stifles innovation and is collapsing under the weight of its own pompous self-regard. For public purposes, book publishers speak as if ideas mattered to them, when in fact they nearly all privately admit that they exist solely to publish crap. A publisher would reply that he is merely giving readers what they want. This is similar to replying that only fast food should be available in restaurants, since it is what the vast majority of people prefer to eat.

There is a further problem. Publishers are addicted to chasing cultural trends, specifically, pop cultural trends. Never—absolutely never—do they set trends. Although this is more a problem for nonfiction titles than for fiction, it is a pattern of behavior that is endemic to the industry as a whole. Chasing trends can be extremely profitable. More often, it leads to being stuck with a warehouse full of leisure suits the day everyone decides to dress punk.

Then there is the environment. How many trees are slaughtered to publish the Sunday New York Times? Is this more or less than the number of trees required to manufacture the hardcover edition of the latest Dan Brown novel? I don’t think we will see these figures anytime soon in Publishers Weekly or The New York Times, but they should give one pause. Is the printed book, whether hardcover or paperback, an economically viable entity when it has to be manufactured from wood pulp, printed, and then transported to stores?

Which is more important then, the physical object or the text? Who is more essential to the creation of a work of literature, the publisher or the writer?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Thanks But No Thanks

For those of us who have dedicated our lives to the pursuit of literature but earn our living as hack writers, it’s been a rough year. In my case, I finished the revisions on my novel in the Spring. After negative responses from a number of agents, one finally replied that yes, she “liked it.” Listening to her voice on the answering machine, I knew this wasn’t going to turn out well.

“Is she drunk?” asked my wife. “No, that’s just the way she speaks,” I replied.

It was a sort of pseudo upperclass accent, a manner of speaking I thought had gone out of fashion decades ago. It was as if she couldn’t be bothered to be polite or businesslike or to fully pronounce her words.

When I spoke to Ms. X the next day, the casual dismissiveness of her voice was unmistakable. “Where’s it going?” she snapped. I replied that I could tell her the ending if she wanted, but what I really should have told her was that I had already sent her a brief plot summary and that the premise and plot of the novel were outlined there. What she appeared to like about the work was that one of the chapters was set in a famous resort in the west of England which she and her husband had visited on their most recent vacation. This appeared to be the only thing that interested her about the manuscript, an entirely self-referential reason for liking a book if there ever was one. It struck me that she had read sixty pages and had not understood a word. As it turned out, she was going on vacation for the next month, would be in New York for three days in August, then would be on vacation again. We could talk about the manuscript when she was again briefly in town.

When August came around, I half-heartedly attempted to make an appointment with her assistant, only to learn that Ms. X was “seeing an old family friend” and could only speak on the phone. My feeling was that explaining a complex work of fiction required a face to face meeting. Ms. X replied rather rudely that she was only available for phone calls while she was in town. I sent her a diplomatic but mildly sarcastic e-mail saying “thanks but no thanks.”

Now, the manner of a spoiled and faintly ridiculous woman should not have enraged me, but it did. Throughout our exchange, I felt as if I were being interviewed for a position as a domestic servant, her family’s nanny perhaps. We most definitely were not equals—her time was far more valuable than mine, at least in her own mind. It struck me as particularly bizarre that she not only didn’t want to meet in person, but was only willing to have a phone conversation during a three day period in August.

The truth is, she simply wasn’t that interested in the book. But more to the point, I would not have wanted someone who was unprofessional to this extent representing me. People who work in book publishing have enough problems without having to deal with Ms. X.