Tuesday, February 12, 2008

You'll Never Go Broke Throwing Stones at the American Publishing Industry

This morning's Pasadena Star News features an essay by Diana E. Sheets, a novelist and critic who writes at the website Literary Gulag (As an aside, why is it acceptable to use the word 'gulag' with impunity? Nobody would accept a website called "Literary Concentration Camp" nor should they, yet for some reason 'gulag' gets a pass). The essay bemoans the demise of that elusive beast, "the Great American novel." Ms. Sheets' argument goes something like this: American publishing companies, owned at an increasing rate by foreign conglomerates like Bertelsmann, News Corp., and Hachette, have lost sight of the American marketplace, with its inherent craving for great literature that tells of the "American experience," and have instead foisted an increasing amount of "literary tofu" on said market.

Early in the essay, Ms. Sheets makes it clear what she considers to be great American literature:
By the 1980s, fiction that was meaningfully engaged with America had all but disappeared. Yes, there are a few writers in their seventies and eighties today still committed to storytelling with its finger on the pulse of society - think of Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth. But is this departure from telling the American story because readers of great literature have declined or have publishers simply decided that audience is not worth pursuing? Or to pose the question differently, do publishers really have a sense of our national marketplace or have their global predilections for "literary tofu" dramatically altered story selections, thereby ignoring the desires of readers hungry for truth or excellence to be found in American exceptionalism? And, most important of all, have these misguided selections contributed to the demise of the great American novel?
First of all, I resent the implication that tofu is somehow fake or phony. Maybe if she had referred to this new literature as "literary meat substitute," I might have tolerated it...but I digress. Sheets' continues on to point out that five multinational conglomerates control 54.3 % of the publishing market. She argues that the global character of these companies prevent them from fully vetted the greatness of American literature. In her words, "Profit is paramount, American exceptionalism of little consequence." Consequently, "innovative novels presenting the American story have all but died. They have been replaced by feminized "virtue" and sanctimonious mulit-culturalism devoid of truth or excellence."

There's no doubt that the consolidation of power into fewer and fewer companies is a dangerous thing. This is true in every industry, from books to software to food production. Diversity is a great thing, a vital thing, and having more avenues for publication accepting a more diverse range of material would be a good thing. Beyond that point, however, I'm afraid Ms. Sheets loses me. Let's start first with her argument that publishers publish more "literary tofu," as she calls it, than ever before. The titles she mentions by name are, not surprisingly, A Million Little Pieces and If I Did It. (The mention of the James Frey title leads Sheets to a non-nonsensical argument about "ethics" in publishing.) I don't have statistics on this, but these types of books -- trashy, sensationalist or whatever you like to call them -- have been around roughly since man began putting words on paper. Publishers publish these books because they sell. Regardless, they certainly haven't been published at the expense of literary fiction. Are there too many books published? Yes, there almost certainly are, and that can make it difficult to find the truly great books, but they are in fact out there.

Ms. Sheets states that no great American fiction has been published in recent years. "Under these circumstances, no great American novel can be published." This simply isn't true. Has Ms. Sheets read a novel published in the last ten years? Has she read The Corrections or Tree of Smoke or The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao or The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or What is the What or The Known World or Gilead or The Echo Maker or Everything is Illuminated? These books, American books and winners of awards or bestsellers all, are merely the "big" books that have been published in the last few years. I'm not suggesting that these books are all terrific or the equal of everything Saul Bellow wrote, but they can't be dismissed as "literary tofu." And I haven't even begun to list the dozens of books by authors who don't have quite the profile of these titans, authors like Tom Drury, Kate Christensen, Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, Kathryn Davis, and Nicole Krauss. To suggest that American fiction is in decline, pushed aside by feminist concerns or mulitculturalism, is so wrong as to be offensive (In fact, if one looks at the list of "big" books I conjured off the top of my head, one will notice a certain monochromatic male quality to it, no? Maybe this says more about my literary consciousness than the country's, but considering that I work in the book trade and live with a female fiction writer, I doubt it. No, I would say we need a little more multiculturalism, not less.).

Part of the problem is this talismanic quality she ascribes to the "American novel." As she says at one point, "The reader...no longer has the inclination or the palette to recognize, let alone savor, innovative fiction engaged in telling our story." Whose story? I love Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, but all I have in common with them is that I'm American, I have a penis, and I spent a fair amount of time at the University of Chicago. Otherwise, their experience isn't my experience. I enjoy their books anyway. To insinuate that there is only one American experience (and to further insinuate that said experience is male and white) is silly. The greatness of American literature resides in its diversity. How different is a book written by a white man from Mississippi than one written by an Asian woman from California? This is what gives American literature its vitality. Maybe the answer is to stop looking for the "great American novel."

Ms. Sheets, herself a fiction writer, seems bitter to me. A quick search of the Book Sense catalog produces no listing for either of books The Cusp of Dreams or American Suite. So the argument, I suppose, is simple -- her books aren't published, therefore the American publishing business is broken. While wailing against the lack of avenues for new writers like herself, she overlooks a venue she's already using -- the internet. More and more bloggers and authors known for their web presence have begun getting publishing contracts. Perhaps the same will now happen for Ms. Sheets. I applaud her for putting her opinion out there to be read, and I think she's right to take matters into her own hands, so to speak, but I'm afraid I can't agree with her polemic.


At 11:54 AM, Anonymous Edan said...

Excellent post, and I agree with you that Sheets' desire for a specific kind of novel which tells "our story" (and whose story is this, exactly?), means that many other kinds of novels cannot exist. Doesn't that go against the diversity she claims to want?

And although the publishing industry should be more diversified, the interested reader can find wonderful small presses out there, publishing terrific and innovative stuff.

At 4:42 PM, Blogger larry said...

patrick, i agree with you as well. you go to her web site (literary gulag) and you find that she has two unpublished novels that she thinks are great and that others don't. here is her groaner of an explanation -- my god, i'm writing a novel myself, but could never imagine telling readers they will be "laughing and sighing at the folly of the american predicament" while they do so: "My second novel, American Suite, is comedy. It is the story of the lives of an American family and the reader comes to realize that this family is representative of our society. Two adult daughters and their mother each present their perspectives through their diaries. Each, in turn, writes her memoir. Readers come to understand the deceptions inherent in memoir while laughing and sighing at the folly of the American predicament. It has been called a Jewish novel and reflects my paternal heritage. American Suite was represented by a New York agent and has been read by major houses. Excerpts have been published.
"Despite receiving a glowing endorsement by one of America's finest writers, neither novel has obtained a publisher. I am currently working of a third novel, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi about the loss of cultural memory."

best, larry wilson, public editor, pasadena star-news

At 4:46 PM, Anonymous larry said...

er, sorry, by "while they do so" above i mean if they were to be reading my book.

At 10:10 PM, Anonymous Diana Sheets said...

Patrick, delighted you read my Op-Ed. It's not that I don't read those "titans." But if you go to bookstores to read the prose before buying, you can't help noticing that the style and range and types of stories are diminished. Fiction, these days, is saturated with consciousness. It has rejected the real world and all those unsavory characters and messy circumstances for an idealized rendering devoid of grit or asphalt. And in turning its back on the world, it has relinguished its ability to tell the story of where we are and where we're headed. Too bad, because it's going to be quite a ride. And I intend to write it. Looking forward to stopping in at Vroman's the next time I'm in Southern California and hearing your impassioned counter-argument before buying a book or two.
Diana Sheets


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