Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Demographics Part II


REQUEST ad information from prestigious literary publications like Granta and New York Review of Books, as I did in the late 90's, and they'll send you their demographic profile emphasizing the upscale nature of their readership: high income level combined with genteel tastes. The point made is how UNrepresentative their readers are compared to the American population as a whole.

This is fine for narrow-interest literary journals. The problem is that the same attitude, the same concept of literary "taste," has carried over to those who write for book sections of daily newspapers.

IN THE DAYS when newspapers were gaining relentlessly in circulation they appealed to the common man. They sought a mass audience; i.e., everybody. This was certainly true even from a literary perspective. Lest we forget, O. Henry's short stories were published first in daily newspapers. This was a time when the short story and newspapers were both wildly popular. O. Henry wrote not for a refined crowd, but for everyone.

Today, one gets the impression that too many newspaper journalists would rather be respectable than read. It's much safer to cover make-no-waves literary editors who are completely predictable, than rabblerousers like those in the Underground Literary Alliance. Newspaper book reviewers write as if they're trying to impress a creative writing instructor. Their primary focus isn't the casual newspaper reader, but their own career and reputation. This is easily enough proved by the name of the organization of newspaper book reviewers: National Book Critics Circle. Critics! not reviewers-- and don't forget it.

And so, their writing operates under strictures and limits of their own making-- limits the ULA intends to smash with our upcoming redone new book review blog.

The status quo reviewers of the status quo NBCC have a bunker mentality. They have a marked hostility to change-- change now falling from all directions upon them.

What this means for writers like those in the ULA is opportunity. The NBCCers are like a failing auto company cranking out the same stodgy models they've produced for years. Their car lot with dusty pennants of fading colors across it arouses from the general public yawning indifference. Their salesmen do their best-- "Look! A new Richard Ford"-- but the potential customer, having experienced Ford's predictable blandness and low horsepower, passes on.

Down the street is a brand new dealership whose sales people wear loud suits with colorful handkerchiefs stuffed in their pockets. They present for perusal new, more exciting models of remarkable design, not stamped out by cookie-cutter MFA assembly lines. The new dealership of the ULA is eager to compete for public attention across-the-board. We know what appeals to the potential audience because we come from that audience. That's why the future is with us.

1 comment:

King said...

A point I plan to stress again and again is the origins of ULAers-- readers who began writing because we were disappointed with the mainstream pap being handed us as fiction and poetry.
We come from outside the literary System, and well know what appeals to the average person.
By contrast, the NBCC crowd are noteworthy for existing in the mindset of literary "things-as-they-are." They're fully within the System, and so are unable to criticize it.
As example, I took a quick look at the backgrounds of a few of their leading personages.
Rebecca Skloot, for instance, comes from a literary family. There's no way she would not fully identify with the codes of operation of the present system. Her father is a published writer; a writer, moreover, who regularly feeds at the system's trough. (This isn't to knock him for doing so-- we all have to survive, somehow-- but it illustrates the Insider nature of this crowd.) In just the last few years Floyd Skloot has received the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association Book Award, the 2004 PEN Center USA Literary Award, the 2004 Independent Publishers Book Award, and has done residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation's study center at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio, Italy, and the Heinrich Boll Cottage on Achill Island, Ireland. Quite an impressive resume. Either he's the best writer to come around since Dylan Thomas or Ernest Hemingway, or he writes that which appeals perfectly to the powers-that-be in literature, and which definitely disturbs nobody.
Or, Jane Ciabattari, who has received fiction fellowships from the NY Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, has worked as an editor at Redbook, Parade, California Living, DIAL, McCalls, San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle et.al., has taught at numerous colleges and conferences, for Parade traveled to Paris, Rome, Hong Kong etc., and divides her time between Sag Harbor, NY, New York City, and Windham NY.
The point is that these people are fully INSIDE the present System. They identify fully with it, are congenitally incapable of changing it as well as unable to understand criticism of it. They represent the status quo. They represent, in these changing times (as does a writer like Richard Ford), the literary past. They're screaming because they see threats to their unfree market gravy train, understandably so, but it's ridiculous for them to expect other writers for whom change is opportunity to jump on their decrepit bandwagon.