Monday, December 21, 2009

Literary What, Literary Who?

What exactly is a literary novel? A large number of agents claim to represent literary fiction, but a quick glance at their client lists will show they clearly do not. Presumably there’s a certain prestige value to claiming literary fiction on the agency resume. But when faced with the real thing, most agents will flee.

The easiest and perhaps most accurate definition of a literary novel is a book that isn’t expected to sell many copies. If the author is well known, he or she may be successful with reviewers, with other writers, and with a core readership, but the sales figures will be several orders of magnitude lower than those for a mainstream bestseller. These are simply the economics of publishing as currently constituted.

Beyond that, literary fiction can be defined in a variety of ways.
I would suggest that a literary novel is one that involves a certain level of complexity and an approach to narrative writing that isn’t usually seen in mainstream commercial fiction. Novels on the bestseller list really are written according to certain formulas. Commercial fiction stresses plot above all else, even to the detriment of character development. There’s something else, something more insidious. The aim of commercial fiction is to seize the reader’s emotions and to twist, very hard. Engaging the reader in a dialogue or allowing him or her to think is distinctly discouraged. The exception is the well-written mystery, where the reader’s intellect is called upon, albeit in a highly stylized way.

Now there are several problems here. Those of us who read books like to think of ourselves as more refined, more intelligent than people who don’t. For decades, television has been blamed for a general lowering of our culture’s intellectual level. Why? Because television directly engages and plays upon the viewer’s emotions, because television turns the viewer into a passive thing, because television offers a level of easy excitement or easy relaxation that books don’t always achieve. And so, bestsellers have been targeted to duplicate the experience of television or high-budget films without possessing the technological weapons these media possess. What pass for literary novels these days are simply novels that don’t completely follow this commercial approach. That isn’t necessarily a good thing.

We live in a culture where television programs are increasingly varied, pitched both lower and higher on the intellectual scale than in the recent past. One can watch a reality show, or one can watch Mad Men. Unfortunately, novels seem to be set at an increasingly lower level of intellectual sophistication. Few currently published novels are as good as Mad Men, a show that certainly leans on literary sources (eg, Cheever and Marquand, among others.)

Europeans—and no doubt the rest of the world—regard Americans as dull-witted and supremely ignorant. The English intelligentsia are particularly acerbic about this. It’s easy enough to look at reality shows as a prime example of the depths to which our culture has fallen. But what if we examine the allegedly higher levels? What if we examine the books written, music composed, and paintings exhibited in a given year? What if we took the arts and book pages of The New York Times as our evidence?

I would like to make the somewhat counterintuitive suggestion that by refraining from publishing difficult work, by discouraging the writing of complex fiction, book publishers have made a significant contribution to what is colloquially termed the “dumbing down” of our culture.

If a novel makes no demands on a reader’s intellect, is it really all that superior to a television show? Might it not be significantly inferior both intellectually and artistically?

Literary Who?

Can anyone honestly say that the later novels of Norman Mailer are literary novels? What about John Updike? What about…

No, I don’t mean to suggest that this question has an absolute answer, merely that the answer is a bit slippery. Was Dickens a literary novelist? What about Balzac or Jane Austen? The later Henry James, James Joyce, Proust—the answer is pretty clearly in the affirmative there. Who else?

(If I were to attempt an answer, I’d say that Dickens, as much of a bestseller as he was, as much as he played upon the emotions of his readers, should be considered a literary writer because of his attention to language, an intensity of nuance we simply don’t see in current bestsellers or even in the majority of fiction that is currently construed to be “literary.”)

Then again, one can imagine revising Flaubert so that Madame Bovary reads as a novel with a lurid plot that is tone-deaf to the resonance of language. You’d have to change the ending though—a homicide rather than a suicide is in order, I think.

One can imagine Henry James without the moody introspection and the long sentences, but why would one want to?

When we get to Henry Miller and William Burroughs, the question starts to devour itself. For if William Burrroughs was a literary novelist, then isn’t Sapphire, author of Push, a novel that deals in a very different form of transgression but has what is arguably an innovative approach to form?

Then there’s crime fiction. Not just literary mysteries, but hard-boiled, street smart crime. Raymond Chandler and Richard Price—might they be considered literary writers simply because they write as well as they do?

Finally, I would like to say that writing about one’s personal relationships or the personal relationships of one’s characters does not necessarily make a literary novel. Writing about the new immigrant experience isn’t essentially literary, nor is writing about art, politics, race, or technology. Descriptions of outlandish wealth, grinding poverty, outrĂ© sexuality, intravenous drug use, or simple drunkenness do not necessarily make literature. How one writes about these things is what counts.

What if we were to say that complexity and sharpness are the hallmarks of literary fiction, even to the extent that these qualities may be viewed as opposing each other? What if we were to say that a literary novel is a novel that makes us think?

Now that should really confuse the issue…

Due to the holidays, the next posting of the blog will be on Wednesday, January 6. I would like to wish all my readers Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and all the best for the coming year.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Issue of Pacing

Grosset and Dunlap would have gone out of business no matter what. But it’s worth noting they didn’t go broke by publishing literary fiction or avant-garde poetry—they went broke by chasing trends to a ridiculous extent, with celebrity biographies and other mainstream titles that failed to sell.

Even at the time, I realized that Grosset was in no way emblematic of the publishing industry as a whole. The thing is, nearly 30 years later, the industry is a lot more like Grosset and Dunlap than it cares to admit. Incompetence coupled with greed, in search of the ultimate bestseller.

Many people in publishing appear to have an obsession with pacing. Their fear is that today’s readers will lose interest if they are not immediately sent on a linear trajectory, that we are all afflicted with a severe form of ADD. They fail to realize that what intensely interests one reader will completely bore another. Each reader is different, an idea that is anathema to marketing people and to sociologists.

In the Postscript to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco reveals how he had to fight to be allowed to keep the first hundred, deliberatively slow-paced pages of his novel intact. His aim was to immerse the reader in the daily routine of a medieval monastery without advancing the plot to any appreciable degree. Eco’s reputation in Italy was such that he was ultimately permitted to do this. It is virtually impossible to imagine an American writer being allowed to do so. Neither Henry James nor Proust would be published in today's environment.

It seems not to have occurred to publishers, editors, or agents that while technology has exponentially sped up our lives, it also allows us to select the rate at which we process information and entertainment. Many readers—perhaps most—will want a novel they can curl up and relax with at night. Which is to say, a book that is not as frantically paced as the rest of their lives.

In a era when even television shows have extremely complex, nonlinear plots, (eg, Mad Men, Battlestar Galactica, and Lost) the publishing industry seems intent on enforcing the idea of simple linear plots and fast pacing. The thing is, a paperback book can never be as fast-paced as a movie on a large screen with fully dimensional sound effects. Then again, this is the industry that turned down Tom Clancy's first novel (“all that boring techno stuff”), even as it was searching for fast-paced thrillers.

Writers are always asked for changes in their manuscript, many of which are arbitrary, and some of which are reasonable but not necessarily appropriate (ie, they take the book in a different direction, one the writer isn't interested in.) No writer can afford to be implacable. If a passage is boring, or incomprehensible, or if it repeats a description that appears on a previous page, then it needs to be rewritten or deleted. Making things happen more quickly is a useful technique, but it is not a universally applicable one. Drawing out a narrative can add layers to it, even when the layering is not immediately apparent to the reader.

Publishing people are surrounded by mountains of words—they are subsumed by them—and are thus forced to read rapidly and superficially. And so, they approach works that offer a substantial degree of complexity and try to simplify them. Much editing is an attempt by the editor to put his or her stamp on a manuscript, without fully thinking through the narrative repercussions of their actions.

The reading of fiction is a highly subjective experience.  Each
of us, by virtue of relying upon different experiences and assumptions, will read a passage slightly differently. Some readers revel in complexity, others do not. That is why the superficial reading and superficial judgment of a piece of writing don’t really work. Unless one is looking only for superficial readers and superficial writers, that is.

What we really need, rather than Wordsworth’s “Intimations
of Immortality,” is an "Ode to Superficiality." Perhaps we could have a reality show where contestants from across the country attempted to create one.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Publishing Kingpin

Contrary to popular belief, I have in fact worked in book publishing, albeit many years ago as a freelance copy editor and proofreader. It was an exciting time—John Lennon had been shot and killed by a crazed fan, which should have told us that celebrity culture wasn’t as innocuous as it seemed. Ronald Reagan and the Pope were each victims of assassination attempts but survived. It was 1981—New York was a cold and uninviting place.

The publishing company I worked for was the once venerable firm of Grosset and Dunlap, then located in the New York Life Building. Grosset was on its last legs, living off its back list, which included the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew for younger readers, Berlitz language titles, astrology books, cook books, and yes, celebrity biographies. The management had given up on the idea of publishing adult fiction, presumably because they were incapable of selecting titles that would sell. Not even their celebrity biographies sold—few made back their advance. No personal computers yet, but clunky IBM electric typewriters and a moderate amount of cigarette smoke framed the office.

If anyone reading this currently works in publishing, perhaps the remainder of scene I am about to describe will be more familiar:

Every project turned into a disaster. I mean every project. It was a rare book that came out when it was scheduled to do so. I wound up working, with several other copy editors, on a cardiovascular health book for consumers. This had been written by a renowned cardiologist. The manuscript wasn’t terrible, but nor was it well written or well organized. And so, it required a considerable amount of editing. The problem was that when each round of edits went out to the author, the manuscript came back with major rewrites, deletions, and new material. Some of this was unavoidable, as the field of cardiology was advancing, far more rapidly than we were, it seemed. The book was stuck in the editing process for three years, a sort of permanent turnaround. No, it was never published.

A minor revelation occurred when I was proofing the next year’s edition of an astrology paperback. In doing so, I discovered that the text of the horoscope for Aries on July 25 was identical to that for Scorpio on March 12. This made me laugh out loud. I then found numerous other examples. The author, a famous astrologer, had clearly taken a series of texts and randomly matched them with multiple dates, in a way reminiscent of John Cage.

But the most memorable book of all was Mafia Kingpin. This 500 page manuscript was written by a man who claimed to have been a major player in the mob, a "made man." At least it was supposed to be his life story, as told to his loyal girlfriend, a former exotic dancer. The problem was that although he no doubt had dealings with members of the Mafia, he had never actually been one himself. Rather, he was a con artist, a thoroughly entertaining one. Much of the book was cribbed from The Valachi Papers and other similar works, but the main narrative technique was the author’s time honored approach of attributing every story he had ever heard to himself, thus becoming a sort of Forrest Gump of crime. The writing style came off as unintentionally funny.

What the executive editor who signed the book should have realized was that had the author indeed “spilled the true story of the Cosa Nostra” he wouldn’t have been walking around alive. Nor did those of us who worked on the manuscript think it likely that the author had slept with Jacqueline Onassis or that the sex was as good as he claimed for either of them. We did know one thing—the two coauthors thoroughly enjoyed the five hundred thousand dollar advance they received.

And so, I was there the day Grosset and Dunlap folded, purchased by Putnam for its back list. There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth, as many of the people who were let go had worked at Grosset for many years. Putnam was subsequently sold to Penguin, which is in turn owned by the Pearson Group, publishers of The Financial Times. I still look back on the year and a half I worked for Grosset with a sort of amazement.

It took them a very long time to cut my last paycheck.

If any readers would like to share their horror stories of working in publishing, I would encourage them to add them below as comments. Tales of incompetent editors, illiterate or
ill-mannered authors, doomed projects, low pay, and general hellishness are welcome.