Monday, November 01, 2004

Looking for Henry James

No other business in America is conducted as wrong-headedly as the lit-biz. Their major motivation, be they on the Right or the Left, is to discover another Henry James. To them, James is the exemplar of American letters. The only problem with this scenario is that for most readers Henry James is a colorless personality and extremely tedious author who didn't excite readers even in his own time.

For those who enjoy intricate puzzle word convolutions this doesn't matter! They'll cling to their idol even if they take literature with them; even as the ship of literature sinks around them as inexorably as the HMS Titanic.


Jeff Potter said...

The influence of literature in America surely is in a tailspin, but what the literati are getting in return is a beautifully polished Niche.

They're watering their special little shelf at Borders and keeping it nice and green. So what if it doesn't grow, look how beautiful it is! Their books are like orchids: fragile hothouse flowers, suitable only for the few who appreciate how precious they are and how to care for them.

Sure enough, the fashions, poses and teapot tempests of today's literati definitely please their tiny little demographic. Everything works fine. These folks are professionals. They know what they're doing. Most every niche in Borders is worth a few million bucks---theirs is, too! Why, literature by and for the MFAers can indeed keep a dozen fancy lads in pink. Oops, if they also sell Hollywood options. That's a key part of today's recipe for literary success. Other niches are more robust than this, but what can ya do.

When I question the recent dominance of the niche paradigm in publishing with colleagues of mine in the biz they look at me like I'm nuts. Which I am, of course. They say: It works, man! Why rock the boat? We're all raking it in! (Or we've heard of someone who is.) Find your slot and mine it! Who cares that this is a recent development. Who cares that it's not examined. Yeah, it's a shame those indy stores all went belly up, but what can ya do. Find your demographic, buff and exploit it, and shut up! Get with the program or yer sunk, man! It's the only way to go. Why? Well, coz, that's how it works. Please the customer! What do you want to do, insult them? They have credit cards, you can't insult them! Can you think of any other way? What do you want literature to be if not a niche? ---Questioning the culture of publishing is like doing anthropology on anthropologists. It's not done. Well, it's done but in the standard professional way, with surveys on making your niche more successful: it's a closed loop.

You know a culture is in trouble when an alternative can't even be IMAGINED. And believe me: no one in publishing can see anything beyond where the shimmery carrot seems to be leading them. They don't care that they're being led into a marginalized, tiny box canyon: it works! People out there are making money! At least some are (so we hear) the rest are being crushed, you don't want to be one of those!

The Gambino Crime Family said...

Actually (he said, speaking to absolutely no one, the internet equivalent of dead air), James enjoyed long stretchs of popularity in his day. Of course, this was before he entered his later phase, but lots of ordinary Americans enjoyed reading about his characters' adventures in Europe, a land most of them would never see.

Besides, he's actually a pretty good read. A little (ok - a lot) sentimental but I can still pick up Portrait Of A Lady or The Ambassadors any time and be entranced. And I don't even have a MFA.