As friends, acquaintances, various bartenders, and my wife all know, I am obsessed with the idea of literary fiction. Not with deciding whether a given novel meets some predetermined set of criteria for admission into the literary pantheon, but with the distinction between novels that are written expressly to fill a marketing niche and those that are written from some deeper place. Most published work falls somewhere between these two extremes. The market-driven novel, the sort of novel that excites agents, editors, and sales reps, is not something I am interested in reading.
Nor do I usually keep track of literary prizes. Nevertheless, I was taken up short when a horse player I know informed me that this year’s National Book Award for fiction had gone to a virtually unknown author whose book about a down-and-out racetrack in West Virginia was published by a small press. Now, as a racing fan and occasional bettor, I enjoy reading about that self-enclosed world, anachronistic and hard-bitten as it is. But this was not what immediately caught my interest. I fully intend to read Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule. I have not had a chance to do so yet.
What intrigues me is that both the 2010 National Book Award and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction have gone to novels from small presses that no one—including several of the judges—had ever heard of. Something rather revealing is going on here.
Earlier in the year the Pulitzer went to Tinkers. This visionary novel by Paul Harding is published by the Bellevue Press, most recently listed as publishing exactly two fiction titles a year:
George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.
Any editor who read this passage and didn’t think this novel was at least worth considering for publication is really in the wrong business. Either they are simply incompetent, incapable of recognizing the real thing when it is in front of them, or else they simply have no interest in literary fiction. How many editors at major publishers turned down Tinkers? How many turned down Lord of Misrule?
I would like to believe that at least one or two editorial assistants or lower-level editors fought for these manuscripts and were shot down by the people above them (“Who is the audience for this novel?”), but I have my doubts.
The major book publishers cannot have it both ways. They cannot dedicate themselves to the maximalization of unit sales and still claim a role as the gatekeepers of literary culture. At this stage of the game, book publishing and literature are mutually exclusive terms.
It’s worth remembering that publishers, regardless of what they might say or even believe, don’t actually write novels. They sell them.
Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for fiction, is published by McPherson & Company.
Tinkers, by Paul Harding, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is published by Bellevue Literary Press.