Why have I belabored the point about the changes to Tom Bissell’s essay on the ULA? Because the changes give the game away about how the literary system in this country actually operates. Rather than being “one of our finest essayists,” as commentators have called him, in reality Bissell is a propagandist for the system. For the status quo. For whoever’s employing him—in this case for The Believer, for both original essay and essay collection. The task becomes giving the client what the client wants. In this instance and in other instances Tom Bissell did this, and he did it well.
This is an area seldom talked about, which in itself is curious. Writers are voluble, but they’re not voluble about that. Yet system writers well know how the game works. They’re masters at playing the game; at finessing the bureaucracy.
I have limited knowledge in this area, but I have some. I wrote a review in 2000 of a book by J.T. Leroy for a major publication because no one else would give the editors at the time what they wanted—which was, a positive piece; seeing as Leroy was a protege of one of the individuals involved. I liked the gritty subject of Leroy’s book, but even I hedged in my piece—so that small changes to my review by the editors had to be made. This is a minor, minor instance. For me it was telling. It exemplifies more than it tells.
The entire literary system operates like a bureaucracy. Literary agents and editors behave like bureaucrats. The system has an overarching mentality. The job of bureaucrats is to enforce the mentality; the will of the system. Those who make it into the system become obsessively loyal to the system, as Bissell and others of his kind are loyal to it. They’re ambitious writers. Those who gave Bissell’s book puff piece reviews no doubt believed what they said. Their job is to convince readers. This involves first convincing themselves. Their job also, whether they’re writing a review for the New York Times or for a system oriented literary web site, is to “please the client.”