Standard system “literary” writers don’t believe there’s an established monolith or machine for producing literature because they don’t feel like they’re part of a machine. They don’t see it. If they have their MFA degrees, they’re still on their own. The writing life, unless they get a university teaching gig, remains for them, as for all writers, an uncertain, struggling life.
They don’t see the machine because they’ve been trained as writers to focus on the personal and the particular. On “the well-written sentence.” They’re incapable of stepping back and taking a larger view of society, and the interworking pieces of society. It’s a subject, anyway, seldom covered in their art.
But established literature is manufactured by a machine, just as all things in society are manufactured, on any large scale, by machines. For established lit, it’s an interworking system of various institutions and bureaucracies. From university writing programs, to mediating layers of literary agents or other screeners, to the “Big Six” publishing companies which are in turn owned by a handful of monopolistic media giants, to outlets for publicity: from leading loyal literary sites and blogs, to cultural sites like Salon.com, to the big glossy magazines like Vanity Fair, or the few remaining large circulation newspapers like the New York Times. This is a system. Writers gain entrance to the system at various points.
What’s noteworthy about the history of the founding of McSweeney’s, is not how “indie” it was, but how quickly and assiduously Dave Eggers worked to embed his fledgling enterprise within the operating literary machine. He did this in various ways—one by cutting deals with the various book giants, which he continues to do. Perhaps his first deal was his Simon & Schuster advance for his memoir. Another thing Eggers did was to use care in who he published—unknowns mixed with a few of the trendiest, most connected names in the literary game, individuals like Susan Minot and Rick Moody, which gave his publication credibility with key outlets like The New Yorker. One could research the entire story and write a book on it, I’m sure, but it’s the nature of the lit game, and its timidity toward figures of power, that such history won’t soon be written—unless as a propaganda piece by an ally or part of the McSweeney’s empire itself. (Tom Bissell quickly volunteering.)
Those operating within any part of the overall literary machine, whether as agent, reviewer, author, or critic, have an unspoken loyalty to the machine. It stems from the very nature of being part of a beehive—even if it’s a beehive they refuse to see. Whatever their little personal disagreements among one another, they all carry the same premises, assumptions, and prejudices about literature and what constitutes literature—premises that conform with the machine. This is how such diverse individuals as Katie Ryder, Garth Risk Hallberg, Maria Bustillos, and Heather Schroder could read Tom Bissell’s ULA essay and not see a single thing wrong with it. Bissell wrote what they already believed, conforming to the assumptions about writers, and nontraditional writers, that they brought with them to the essay. Every part of that essay, from start to finish—from “we’re all outsiders” to “our critics are genocidal maniacs” to “don’t pick on the poor university professor” to “zinesters are bad writers” to “witness my empathy” was what they wanted to hear. He didn’t match ULA thinking—not in any way—but he sure matched the mindset of his literary system audience.