Wednesday, February 07, 2007


TO WHAT EXTENT CIA involvement with the Paris Review influenced the magazine's content isn't something which can be determined in the course of a few minutes on this blog. We'd have to look at CIA influence on other lit-journals, like Encounter and Partisan Review, for clues and comparison. We'd have to examine many Paris Review issues and at the same time judge the overall context; the general thrust of the journal, including which writers and kinds of writers were discovered and promoted. We'd have to place Paris Review within the context of American literature as a whole.

The point is that this is a matter which should be examined, not run from. Until then, we don't know if the CIA was a "Ministry of Culture" or not.

Important literary figures like George Plimpton, over the past decades, created what's known and accepted (and acceptable) as American literature now.

One thing we know for sure: that certain kinds of writing (Tony Christini's "Social Lit" for instance); anything smacking of crude social realism, a strand of American lit and thought widespread in the 1930s; is today practically prohibited by the established literary world, by common agreement. It's not considered "literary" and scarcely considered literature. Since the 1950s official American literature has valued style over substance, craft over content; esteeming the "well-written sentence," often to the exclusion of all else. The focus of fiction and poetry has drastically narrowed-- matching the narrowed position of letters in our culture.

What role Paris Review played in this is worth looking into.


jimmy grace said...

Well, you let me know what you find, King.

By the way, congratulations to William Vollman for winning last year's National Book Award. I've always liked his stuff.

James Joyce Is the Greatest Writer... Ever said...

One thing we know for sure: that certain kinds of writing (Tony Christini's "Social Lit" for instance); anything smacking of crude social realism, a strand of American lit and thought widespread in the 1930s; is today practically prohibited by the established literary world

This is because most of it was terrible. Social Lit does not date well at all. There are a few rare exceptions like Steinbeck's work. It simply is not feasible to publish these days. People read non-fictions or academic studies when they want a dose of reality. They read literature to stimulate the mind or escape. Once again, there are rare exceptions like Dan Fante, John Fante, Bukowski, et al., but these were not social activists, but outcasts and burnouts.

There was national outrage when Gerald Ford pardoned Nixon. I can't name a single novel that revolved around that. I'm sure they exist, but the heat of the moment is of little relevance now. Fiction can propose a theory about the human condition but it has to stand the test of time.

jimmy grace said...

No, see, that's the CIA who has brainwashed you into thinking that social lit is bad. If the Paris Review weren't dictating literature for everyone in the entire world, then we'd all share King's aesthetic.

King said...

One would think naturalistic writing at least-- of the kind done by Zola, Norris, Jack London, and so many others, would at least have a place in the literary spectrum.
Ever read B. Traven's The Death Ship? Very strong writing-- but not the kind one can find anywhere among the mainstream.
Underground writer Fred Woodworth's Dream World is in this tradition. It's a better and more relevant novel than 99% of the mainstream books out there-- yet in style and theme could never be published by the book companies. (Instead we get Mitch Albom and Marisha Pessl.)
As for heat of the moment: A curious example, Ford's pardon, showing a tops-down perspective.
What SHOULD have been written about in "the heat of the moment" are such things as the bloody strikes and strike-breaking which have taken place over the last twenty years. Dramatic, heart-breaking stuff-- yet nowhere to be found in the pages of the literary world.
It's funny that to read about now I have to go back to a novel like The Octopus, which depicts the kind of ruthless spread of monopolies that my generation in cities like Detroit lived through.
In those pages you'll find very much "the heat of the moment"-- some of the most dramatic scenes in the history of American literature.
I'll have more to say about this in an upcoming post: about how today's literature has painted itself into a corner and is not covering the relevant stories of our time, our land, our people.

Jeff Potter said...

JJISGWE..."Social Lit" doesn't have to be a specific thing, a style we can litmus test for---it just has to be relevant. I don't know why you're looking at it as if it were square-jawed Soviet stuff. It's evolving like anything else. It's out there and it works by whatever standard you like. Heck, some of it is likely just as prettily polished as any hothouse flower yet it's also relevant.

We could be enjoying good work today that might soon be dated. Transitory lit can work, too. Who cares if it doesn't get rated as highly or highly in the same way. Social lit might also be found that was more enduring. New John Steinbecks are out there. Unpublishable, of course. But they have at least as much to offer today as he did then.

There's no reason why social lit wouldn't be stimulating, of high ideas, or entertaining. Escape into something relevant! It can be done. Sheesh. Why try to cut it from the herd? Don't fence me in!

King said...

Another point to be made is that most "literary" fiction and poetry today is terrible.
It's time to at least start groping for a new direction-- new ways to connect with the public.

King said...

Also: "People" read non-fiction blah blah blah, Mr. Joyce tells us.
But who are these people? He's really talking about one narrow segment of American society; well-educated connoisseurs of what's become "Literature."
The same people who believe all news and the only news is what they see in the monopolist media.
As if anyone outside the Washington DC environs gave a shit about Ford's pardon of Nixon. Did it effect how I lived? How you did? People were more concerned with gas prices and getting a job. The people who were horrified at the pardon are the same class of people whose lives, careers, and ideas are connected to the U.S. power structure. For everyone else in America the incident was as noteworthy as who won the World Series that year.
The death of Elvis (which in the "heat of the moment" caused Alice Walker to write one of her better stories)-- now, that impacted people.
(Was anyone really touched when brief-caretaker Gerald Ford died recently? Most people couldn't remember who he was! Yet we got around-the-clock nonstop coverage of that American nonentity.)
Give people-- the general public-- REAL short stories to read once again, real novels a la Steinbeck and Erskine Caldwell, and they'll not be reading non-fiction.

King said...

(It amazes me how representatives of the status quo are so full of crap. Excuse me for belaboring a point, Mr. Joyce-- but "people" read academic studies??? "People" do? Just how out of touch are you?
Recall also, sir, that John Fante and Bukowski were not being read much while alive. They're read now by people who teach at the New School, folks like Robert Polito who are glad to read and talk about underground writers as long as they're safely dead and from fifty years ago or more.)

jimmy grace said...

I see nothing on the ULA site that's as good as Jack London.

Vollmann, however, is a great writer, full of exactly the kind of realism and social commentary you supposedly love. He's published by a corporate house and won the National Book Award. How'd the CIA let that slip by, I wonder?

I agree that there's lots of crap out there now. I have no idea if it's more crap than the crap that came out when Jack London was writing. But Jack London didn't spend time whining about corruption. He made the art and took the money - just like Vollmann does now.

jimmy the hyena said...

When London was coming up the whole system wasn't as owned as it is today.

King said...

Isn't Vollmann more of a postmodernist?
I don't know a lot about him-- glanced at one of his huge novels once. (I know he was eviscerated in a review in n+1, for whatever that's worth.)
Vollmann may be fine-- which doesn't change the fact that the overwhelming preponderance of hyped authors today are publishing junk. But even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The publishing world was much different 100 years ago, in that many of the most esteemed and best-selling authors wrote with a social conscience (and were readable and exciting); Jack London, Frank Norris, Stephen Crane, and Rex Beach among them. (Upton Sinclair also, then Dreiser quickly thereafter. Not to mention O.Henry, who needless to say usually wrote about the lower classes.) These were only the most prominent of names among them.
Strangely enough, it was also a time when literature had real relevance to people's lives.
And you know something? These guys could WRITE. I'm not ashamed to admit that among the first writers I really got into, when I was very young, working a variety of jobs in marine terminals and railroad yards and often had time to kill, were Jack London and O. Henry-- the stories of each. Great friggin stories that stay with you. Unbelievably great.
That the short story interests no one today outside of MFA programs is a story in itself.
Look for me to compare a short story by one of the best writers of now, with a more classic tale. The difference between them is stark-- and tells everything about what's wrong with literature today. (One of many posts upcoming.)
(O. Henry's sole novel, about Central America, is one of the funniest things I ever read.)

King said...

p.s. "Grace," you're all about "taking the money," aren't you?
Vollmann doesn't change the fact that the current system is corrupt. (Aren't his parents professors? I've always seen him described as one of the overeducated "big brain" guys like Foster Wallace, whose intended audience is not exactly the average person.)

King said...

BY THE WAY-- just want to mention that even though "nobody gives a shit" about the CIA matter, someone did give a shit about it enough to mutilate the ULA's wikipedia entry, as well as mine.
Tsk tsk. Hit a nerve, did we?

King said...

FINALLY-- I should mention that James Nowlan's novel Security, just out by ULA Books, IS good enough to be ranked with the work of those great masters of 100 years ago, though it's uniquely different.
Don't believe me?
Buy it and find out.
(Grace of course is interested ONLY in his corporate buddies, and has shown no interest in the many great novels being written in the underground. He still hasn't bought the non-ULA Dream World, I'd bet.)

Jeff Potter said...

I'm proud to have published Nowlan's SECURITY.

We're going to wave it around and rant from it---it's worthy.

It's what you could call a novella---100 pages---$10.

Cheap, quick. Low barrier.

But it will smack you upside the head.

To me the anti-hero keeps an innocence. How? Why even, considering what happens to him, what he sees, what really goes down.

The LitRev link goes to my site:

King said...

Re: Vollmann. The review of him and his work is by J.D. Daniels, in n+1 issue #4, and it's devastating. (Includes a photo of Vollmann holding a pistol to his head.) The review also includes many excerpts from Vollmann's work. The excerpts don't show him as having much in common with what the ULA is doing. Vollmann in fact admits that few people will be interested in his books. Here's a quote from him about that:
"I believe that this book is worthy of standing in the shadow of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Few people read Gibbon these days, and doubtless few will make it through Rising Up and Rising Down. That doesn't concern me much . . . it's my life's work, and if it comes remotely close to realizing its aims, it should be classed in the canon of great books."
(Vollmann seems to be a bit of an egomaniac. Note the academic brainwashing about the canon. All that matters to these people is the canon!)

King said...

p.s. Daniels says that Vollmann "is not any kind of 'realist' writer." (I intend not to take Daniels's word for it, but from what I've seen of Vollmann's work, this might be right.)
As for the CIA letting that one (Vollmann) slip by: For all we know, based on his globe-trotting, Vollmann is in the CIA!:)

jimmy grace said...

The novels I've read of Vollmann are about hanging out with hookers in SF's Tenderloin district and riding the rails around rural California. I haven't read all his work but I think he's easily as good as Jack London and similar in many ways. Certainly nothing the CIA is pushing.

My point is that there's good stuff in the mainstream and good stuff in the underground. There's tons of crap and corruption, there always is, but there's room for all sorts of work if it's good and you push it. The idea that there's no way social novels could get published now is bullshit. I'm sure there was tons of crap in London's day, it's just been forgotten, as today's crap will be forgotten too.

I read underground stuff all the time. I just toured with a bunch of underground performance poets - and a mainstream writer, who apparently you've also trashed.

No, I haven't bought any ULA titles, because nothing you've posted on the ULA site appeals to me, and because you keep calling me a big sellout suckup. (Not much of a sales pitch, but then you don't care about your artists, really, do you? Otherwise wouldn't you excerpt these books you say are so fantastic?) "My corporate buddies" is the millionth time you've accused me of sucking up to bigwigs without being able to point to an instance of it. But that's how you work: outrageous claims, lots of noise, no backup, very little real art.

King said...

Well, you were just on defending corporate literature, weren't you??
You've bought the Handler version of events-- though it's obvious the letter was fake. That didn't stop you from various and many accusations against us.
In fact, here's the point, "Grace": You have come onto this site accusing us, and myself in particular, of many things, stating outright, falsely, that there was no substance to our noise.
Now, suddenly, because we defend ourselves, YOU'RE the abused party?
YOU, who are here posting under a fake name, and so don't even actually exist?
You've invested a ton of words in this blog. The vast preponderance of them have been aimed at derailing what we're doing, whether as a waste of time, that nobody cares, we have no talent, etc etc. And now we're not nice enough to you? Poor Jimmy Grace. How awful.
No, please, stop the con game. Months ago I mentioned Woodworth's novel and gave contact information. You had no interest. I'd bet you even have little or no interest in underground writers in your own area. The hot zeen in the Bay area after all is Zen Baby. Ever hear of it? Check it out.
IF you can pull yourself away from your corporate buddies long enough, that is.
Have a good day!
(The fact is that there ARE no Jack Londons being published nowadays. For one thing he's scorned by much of academia-- or haven't you noticed? Writers like him-- like those who are in the ULA-- who write in a non-"literary" style and have no connections or credentials-- simply have no access to the publishing mainstream. Certainly not to meaningful publication-- publication with promotional backing.)
Do you really doubt this?
The ULA campaign is in part a reaction to the truth of that.
(I hope you read the Daniels review in n+1 and comment on it. n+1 isn't completely to my taste-- and may not be to yours-- but it IS one of the few serious literary journals out there publishing thought-provoking critical work. Those seriously interested in literature today should be reading it. At least, it's miles better than something like The Believer.)

King said...

"no back-up": Curious that I've pointed to back-up time and again, beginning with the real facts of the Rick Moody Guggenheim matter-- which we still haven't gotten a straight response about.
Do you or not agree that rich guy Moody should give the money back? Yes? No?
The CLMP matter was well-documneted. All you've said is that nobody cared. Oh yeah, you're not corporate at all! Not sucking up to the big guys one bit. Okay, "Grace." Whatever you say.

Pat_King said...

Plenty of ULA writing and other underground writing at
you can find excerpts there soon, or, well, writing samples from the writers who have books out. Some stuff by Wred Fright of Emus fame forthcoming, though perhaps not an excerpt from his book. There's already been a bunch of stuff by James Nowlan put up.

King said...

(You know, when one listens to corporate apologists like Grace, who believe all is well and good in the literary realm today-- I guess because it's good for them-- I'm almost tempted to doubt what I've heard from writers about the literary art time and again. I could name many who've told me, as George Plimpton did, that art shouldn't be polemical, shouldn't be used as a mouthpiece for ideas, etc etc. That there was no place for my kind of work. What it boils down to is a way to shut vast segments of American society OUT of literature. What one can say about the CIA is at least they've always realized the importance of literature in creating the mind of a culture.
Vast segments shut out-- unless they prove their conformity through slavishly jumping through the various hoops of writing programs, seminars, conferences, etc, until all indpendent and creative thought is wrung out of most of them. I assume Grace is the exception-- though he's sure been jumping through the hoops for his masters on this blog!
Yes, the status quo always relies on such.
The Aristocrats depend on such stalwart defenders.
I'm reminded of Gone with the Wind, movie version, when Scarlett is in a bit of trouble while traveling through Shantytown. "Big Joe! Big Joe!"
And here comes loyal ex-slave Big Joe to rescue Miss Scarlett from trouble. "Miss Scarlett! Miss Scarlett!" Big Joe knocks out the miscreants!
In this case we have Jimmy Grace playing the role of Big Joe; with Rick Moody I guess in drag playing the part of helpless Miss Scarlett.

jimmy grace said...

Here we go - you can't argue coherently, King, so you change the subject to what a suckup I am. Without any backup, of course - like a single quote from my "ton of words" in which defend bigwigs.

Your original post claimed that realist fiction doesn't get published anymore, due to the lingering influence of the CIA. I offered Vollmann as an example of a great, gritty writer who DOES get published by corporate houses. You haven't read him, so you don't know...although you'll apparently take the word of a magazine you attacked for its "Intellectual Condescension or Cowardice" in your own fucking blog.

But you don't want to discuss your own post. You'd rather insult me than debate. Who said I was a victim? Nobody. Who said I'm an abused party? Nobody. I called Handler an asshole because he is - I just don't think writing to him constitutes revolution. I think Moody's a lameass - but I'm not surprised he gets money from his rich friends. Should he give the money back? So it'll go to some other rich guy? I don't fucking care.

(Zen Baby's cool. I've heard Robin read - works better onstage than on paper in my opinion. Do you know Justin Chin? God Pox? There's lots of great underground stuff in Oakland. I found this blog because I thought you'd be interested in stuff happening on the other coast. Boy, was I wrong.)

jimmy grace said...

"By taking issue with me, Jimmy Grace must be working for Rick Moody. There is no other possible explanation for thinking I'm wrong. Hardhitting realist fiction can't get published. Of course, I haven't read the hardhitting realist fiction that has been published, but that reminds me, Jimmy Grace is a slave."

King said...

But we ARE reaching out to the west coast, "Grace." You might want to look at some recent issues of Zen Baby. The ULA has quite a presence in it. Duh!
You didn't come here to reach out, scam artist. Your posts were antagonistic from the get-go. (And you STILL haven't directly answered the question about Moody's Guggenheim.)

King said...

A couple points to be made about the social realists of the 1890s and early 1900s: All wasn't milk and honey for them either.
Recall that Stephen Crane couldn't find a publisher for "Maggie: A Girl of the Streets" and had to publish it himself. He later he said he used many of the copies as fuel to burn in his stove for warmth during a cold winter. (Very ULA-like!)
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle couldn't find a publisher either. It was first published by Upton himself-- with help from Jack London!
The ULA is doing exactly what these guys did. We're also making noise against moribund establishment lit at the same time.
But guess what? So did they!
I suggest people read Frank Norris's essays on literature, which were a full-scale assault against the demi-puppets of the time. He didn't hesitate to mock and denounce the literary frauds of his time.
The literary naturalists/activists ended up losing the ideological battle for control over literature-- in part because the best of them died at early ages; notably Norris and London. (O. Henry also, whose tough life before he became a writer had worn him out.) While they were on the scene they were a very vibrant chapter in American letters.
(Even a cursory reading of Vollman shows he's not in their tradition. He's extremely self-involved, for one thing. He does not write to be read by the public, and admits it. His audience consists of academic lit critics. I do plan to read a couple of his books-- should be some fertile material there for this blog. He sounds like a caricature of political correctness in the history departments over the past forty years.)

jimmy grace said...

Well, since you prefer to abandon the subject of your original post, I'll say it again:

Rick Moody is a lame writer. I think the Guggenheim people should give grants to good writers. Therefore I don't think he should have gotten the money. Also, he's rich, so he doesn't need it. Do I think he should give it back? Yes, I think he should give it to me and my artist friends, because we're kickass. Also, I think Bono should give me all his money, because he's rich and lame too.

Now answer a question of mine: What is your Moody fixation, exactly? He's a rich guy who writes stuff nobody gives a shit about. If he didn't get a Guggenheim it would have been some other lameass. And yet, over and over you complain about him. How in the world does this advance the cause of good art?

Hey, when I'm in a bad mood I pitch about lameass artists who get a lot of press. But I don't think I'm a revolutionary when I'm doing it. In all honesty, how do your rants advance your cause?

King said...

Re Grace: A point to be stressed is that he sought us out, and attacked us from the moment he appeared. He made this his fight. Why??
I'd think he'd be better off letting Moody and Company fight their own battles. But then, why should they, when they have stooges like him to do their fighting for them?
For Grace or anyone to say that the literary world "has always been corrupt" as an excuse for corruption now, isn't good enough.
We need some admission that the CIA founding of Paris Review is an embarrassment to literature.
We need acknowledgement that candyass frauds like John Hodgman are an embarrassment to literature.
That over-hyped brats like Pessl and Foer are an embarrassment to literature.
That the smarminess and posing of the McSweeney's Gang are an embarrassment to literature.
That corrupt rich guys awarding taxpayer money to themselves are an embarrassment to literature.
It's time to clean house from top to bottom.
As for Mr. Grace: Hey, I think I hear someone calling for you.
Do you hear it?
A voice in distress?
I can hear it, faintly, then louder.
Can you make out the words?
There it goes again:
"Big Joe! Big Joe!"
Better start running, "Grace." Miss Scarlett is calling.

King said...

Re Scarlett, er, I mean, Rick Moody.
We focused on him because his was the first example of corruption we found after the ULA was founded.
I really don't have a fixation on Moody. I put out 42 issues of "New Philistine" in the 90s. He was scarecely mentioned. (There were plenty of other targets.)
Since that Protest was the founding action, it helped define our identity as an organization. It was in line with the Saul Alinsky advice to isolate your targets; to focus on one or two, which is what we did. Nothing personal about it.
All we asked from Mr. Moody is that he give back the ill-gotten funds, which he didn't need.
We're still waiting for him to do so, and obviously can't make "peace" with him until he does. That would discredit our entire history.
Was our Protest successful? Sure, in that it garnered needed attention to our cause, through several prominent articles. From a practical standpoint, as well as an ethical one, the Protest was right and just.
Beyond this: Moody hasn't modified his behavior one iota since-- in part because there are so many enablers out there who prefer to feel sorry for him or to look in the other direction.
His corruption wasn't a one-time affair, but has continued; including his awarding NEA grants to his buddies; including his chairing the fiction panel at a recent Nat'l Book Awards which gave the prize to rich socialite Lily Tuck; including his writing the foreword to a small press directory, in which his language is so obviously patronizing and false as to be comical.
Moody has made HIMSELF the Poster Boy of Literary Corruption.
We've simply noted the event.
Now, if you join the voices asking him to give the Gugg money back under your real identity, we'll have gotten someplace.

King said...

(There goes that darn voice again. "Big Joe. Big Joe!")

fdw said...

Hey Grace,
Why don't you put your money where your mouth is and
send some "kick ass" work for posting on the ULA's Literary Adventures Blog to:
Pat King ULA Director,
And tell yy friends you mentioned to do the same. Four,
"I am curious yeller."

James Joyce Is the Greatest Writer... Ever said...

1. King SaidOne would think naturalistic writing at least-- of the kind done by Zola, Norris, Jack London, and so many others, would at least have a place in the literary spectrum.

They have a place, and it is most often mid-list and middlebrow fiction. It can't dominate the market because people don't want to read much of it, when they do they go to the classics. Just as people aren't keen on reading 21st fables/epics. Writing standards have evolved.

2. King SaidEver read B. Traven's The Death Ship? Very strong writing-- but not the kind one can find anywhere among the mainstream.

Never heard of it. I'll see if I can get some info on it.

3. King SaidAs for heat of the moment: A curious example, Ford's pardon, showing a tops-down perspective.
What SHOULD have been written about in "the heat of the moment" are such things as the bloody strikes and strike-breaking which have taken place over the last twenty years. Dramatic, heart-breaking stuff-- yet nowhere to be found in the pages of the literary world.

That is just it. I'm sure there was fiction being produced about it, but none of it memorable. It is difficult to make lit stand the test of time. That is the biggest difference in the commercial/literary dichotomy.

4.Jeff Said We could be enjoying good work today that might soon be dated. Transitory lit can work, too. Who cares if it doesn't get rated as highly or highly in the same way. Social lit might also be found that was more enduring. New John Steinbecks are out there. Unpublishable, of course. But they have at least as much to offer today as he did then.

King Said "people" read academic studies??? "People" do? Just how out of touch are you?

It [Fiction] serves no purpose. If people are seeing it day-to-day with their own eyes they don't need to see out fiction to do it. And it is of no interest to the upper classes because those that are interested in such things do the same as those in the lower class: research and study. The idealism of the 1960s has gone by the wayside. Art is not going to be a catalyst for a social movement when the internet allows instant access to information that can allow a change.

Don't like abortion? A fiction book is meaningless. Scientific studies about physical sensitivity of a fetus is relevant. Access to philosophy papers (ethics, bioethics, etc) are accessible. Debates can be had. Networking and meeting likewise people. Fiction is low on the totem poem. Reading about an imaginary world does nothing to change reality. This is no longer the old days.

Politics, economics are distinct from art. Art can detail a problem until the artist dies. Those active in politics and philosophy change it. This wasn't always the case, and the internet is the main catalyst of change. The world is at one's fingertips.

Romance is the biggest segment of fiction (Sales wise). Consisting of upwards of 40% of popular fiction, while literary fiction makes up a paltry 4%. The reason is because fiction is used for escapism and intellectual refinement. Not social activism. It makes no sense in this day and age. An artist can be a social activist, but the art will preach to a small choir. Their is a reason that a certain subset of literary fiction is insular and self-sustaining, it is the only way to survive...


Romance fiction comprises 39.3% of all popular fiction sold. (Different from above, this figure includes not just paperbacks, but hardcovers and trade-sized paperbacks as well.)

To compare:
Romance fiction comprises 39.3% of all popular fiction sold. (Different from above, this figure includes not just paperbacks, but hardcovers and trade-sized paperbacks as well.)

Mystery/Detective/Suspense is 29.6% of popular fiction sales

General Fiction is 12.9% of popular fiction sales

Science Fiction/Fantasy is 6.4% of popular fiction sales

Religious, occult, westerns, male adventure, general history, adult and movie tie-ins was 11.8% of popular fiction sales

From the NYTIMES

Indeed, in 2005, almost half of all sales in the literary fiction category came from the top 20 best-selling books, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which tracks sales in 70 percent to 80 percent of the domestic retail market. The three top sellers in literary fiction were "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," by Mark Haddon (640,000 copies in Bookscan's sampling); "Memoirs of a Geisha," by Arthur Golden (560,000 copies, including the movie tie-in); and "The Known World," by Edward P. Jones (274,000 copies).

This top-heavy pattern makes promoting literary fiction a challenge. "You need 15 things to happen in the right order on time," said Bill Thomas, the editor in chief of Doubleday-Broadway, whose recent successes include "The Curious Incident," as well as Jonathan Lethem's "Fortress of Solitude" and, yes, "The Da Vinci Code." Those things include drumming up enthusiasm inside the publishing house, spreading the word to booksellers and reviewers by sending out manuscripts months before publication, and securing a front-of-store display at Barnes & Noble and Borders and prominent placement on To show booksellers you're serious, Thomas said, you have to ship a minimum of 20,000 copies to stores at the time of publication.

But literary novels rarely sell that many copies in hardcover, and the need for a high print run sets up expectations that can be difficult to meet. Printing 20,000 copies off the bat also requires the commitment of the entire publishing apparatus. To get "in-house support" for a book, editors vie against one another to win over the marketing and art departments so the book gets advertising dollars and the best jacket possible. That means literary fiction editors are increasingly called upon to become businesspeople and lobbyists. "The stereotype of the introverted book editor scribbling away in a dimly lit office may have once been true, but now if you're that way, your books fail," said Geoff Shandler, the editor in chief of Little, Brown, which publishes Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace.


King said...

This pessimistic assessment undoubtedly comes from someone inside the publishing industry.
Two points:
When people look at what percentage people buy what, they're taking a snapshot of things as they are now. Which means, already in the past. The world is in constant flux.
There's no anticipation of the market from them and no trying to lead the market.
What would your snapshot have said about roots/rock n roll music in 1954? Rock didn't register. The Big Four record companies had something like 85% of the market. Within a few years, rock, with new artists, had completely transformed the industry. The Big Four lost half their market share to hundreds of upstart independents because they were slow to move.
It's obvious that you for one don't have the imagination to look for anything truly different or new.
Second point:
Art is always the strongest catalyst for social change. This has been true throughout history. I don't think the historical laws have been suspended.
Seemingly the most influential book of current times is the Koran, at its essence a creative work of art. It seems able to convince people to do all kinds of things.
The last truly influential American novel?
Probably Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, which set the foundation for the conservative movement of the latter part of the 20th century; for ruthless capitalism, Reagan, and everything which followed. An extremely influential work.
There's no reason why fiction can't be influential again. None at all. It merely takes imagination from the decision-makers of literature, to look for strong work and to publish it.
Find that passionate provocative work, or someone else like me will-- and will wipe the current stagnant monopoly literature off the map.
(Your pessimism is in fact encouraging, "Joyce." It's clear that established literature is waiting to be toppled.)
(Kind of revealing that the mandarins of literature have no belief in the power of art!
Lawyers and business wonks with percentages and focus groups.)

Victor Schwartzman said...

I can't agree with almost anything in James Joyce Is The Greatest Writer's last post. I do agree with Karl's response.

To add to that response:

First, sure art is there to entertain. However, there is no excuse why any art form, any written genre can not have content. Content that is meaningful to our lives. Romance novels can have as much content as "literary" novels, as can westerns and science fiction.

To abandon content is to abandon a major purpose of art. Yes, people want to be entertained. But they can be provoked or challenged or even just tickled while being entertained.

It says a lot to me that most fantasy novels for the past fifteen or so years are about Kings and Queens in some distant world--it says a lot, that is, about the publishing industry.

As more and more smaller houses were bought out by the bigger publishers, and as bigger publishers themselves were bought out by Viacom, Warners and so on, the emphasis moved from a publishing house reflecting the personal tastes of an individual publisher to a house making money. I imagine most people in published want to publish great fiction--but the financial dynamics of running a big publishing house, and of the necessity to turn a profit because you are just a department of a larger company, leads inevitably to concentrating on mass sales. And to concentrate on mass sales means usually avoiding anything too controversial, which would limit sales.

The Da Vinci Code, which is not a literary work, and not a particularly well written book, still managed to have provocative content, be entertaining, and be a massive best seller.

It is not at all true that people do not want content that is meaningful to their lives, as Brown's book has clearly proven. Readers are just not being given that content.

Are very few book sales of "literary" books? Yes, and they likely always have been. Most people are not interested in "literary" books.

I'm not.

"Literary" normally translates into academic...writing interested in itself, not in the rest of the world.

However, if you read "romance" novels, which "James Joyce" likely disdains, you will find novels which include content about racism, abortion and other issues. Just like the classic tv show Star Trek was able to deal with controversial issues within a commercial context by, simply, disguising the content within allegory.

Mr. "James Joyce": don't be an apologist for more meaningless fiction. The real James Joyce would not have agreed with anything you have written in your lengthy post and its argument against content.

Oh...and about fiction about won't find Rupert Murdoch eager to publish novels praising trade unions. Nor will you find films (with the exception of "Salt of the Earth") from Hollywood which are pro-union, either.

And finally, I remember reading B. Traven in college, and the stuff was very good.

jimmy grace said...

Ayn Rand.
I think I've heard the most important thing about the ULA.

jimmy the hyena said...

Rand, a truly bad writer who goes on about stuff she doesn't have a clue about, like how housing projects are built or how they're demolished. Connected with groups who gave her an in because they probably thought she'd prove to be a usefull propaganda instrument and then of course she has to believe in meritocracy.

chilly charlie said...