THERE’S A GROUP of well-hyped well-esteemed well-approved American writers whose identity and credibility are based on their stated scorn for commercial publishing. They disapprove of the “McWorld” nature of the industry which places profits and sales over quality.
Their argument and their credibility are undercut by the fact that they themselves are published by this same industry. Though their books don’t sell all that well (most are awful) they’re the industry’s favored pets.
They have their own power base, of course—this group of writers. Their own bureaucracies, if you will, namely the literary nonprofits like PEN, National Book Foundation, National Critics Circle, and the like. Do they use these bases of leverage against the detested book monopolists? Not at all! In fact, these foundations are so intertwined with the big book companies as to be indistinguishable from them. (Think of the ending of Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”) PEN gets its books published through outfits like the Murdoch-owned HarperStudio, for instance. Their monetary awards go to writers published by the bigs.
When you examine the individuals who work as publishers and editors for the conglomerates, you find they’re largely the same crowd as the group of writers who feign opposition to them. They attend the same schools and frequent the same swanky parties and benefits. There’s no actual opposition to the giant corporate bureaucracies anywhere to be found. The opposition is feigned—a fiction.
Bureaucracies strangle art. Ever has this been so. Our literature today is captive of various sorts of bureaucracies—corporate, foundational, academic—whose memberships overlap and feed one another, and whose aesthetic premises are of one piece. If our literary culture is stagnant—there are no great writers visible anywhere right now—then the blame can go only onto them.