The Politics of Success

I’D LIKE TO START by first ridiculing the idea of literature, especially American literature. Literature is a word professors use to anesthetize books that might still be alive otherwise. James Joyce preferred the word ‘poetry’ to refer to any written work that spoke to what is closest to the human heart; “the rest,” he said dismissively, “is literature.”

And the word literature here has been used to describe works that somehow sum up aspects of the American condition–our rootlessness and stupid optimism, our belief in the individual as a kind of sensuous deity (speaking of Henry Miller)–when the cliched truth is that as a nation we are so scattered and fractured that single books aren’t adequate to tell us who we are or who we were. There is no we. The idea of an American War and Peace that hack Tom Wolfe is always barking about is silly. To include even a sliver of this society in a book would take thousands of pages and then would probably be wrong–or stupid, as his novels are.

The significance professors and critics and other people who appear on public television to tell us who we are attach to books is specific to a certain age or event or people, much like the commemorative poems of old. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the Roaring Twenties, John Steinbeck is the Great Depression, Henry Roth is the Jewish immigrant experience, John Hersey is the bombing of Hiroshima, John Cheever is the suburban Fifties, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy are the changing South, Allen Ginsburg is every wailing beatnik, James Baldwin is every black man, Claude Brown every ghetto kid, Adrienne Rich every lesbian, etc., etc. These authors and their books, it would seem, are important not for the quality of their writing or the difficult hearts of their characters (or of themselves), but for the changing social trends they document, the millions of people and the specific historical events they represent.

As patently false and stupid as that sounds, it continues today, and not just in the way these old war horses are taught in academia and lionized in the popular press, but in the way new books and authors are marketed to the reading public. Who can deny that Frank McCourt is now the Irish experience in America, or that Amy Tan is the Chinese experience in American, or that Chang-Rae Lee is the Korean experience in America? These are books with a political significance in that–through no fault of their own, merely the overwhelming power of marketing–they establish monolithic views of what in fact are cultures as fractured and complicated as that of America itself.

In the same way, a writer like Sherman Alexie (like Louise Erdrich before him) is christened THE voice of the American Indian, Toni Morrison THE voice of African Americans, David Foster Wallace THE voice of braniac slackers. Obviously, this urge to anoint one writer as sole spokesperson goes back a long way, but I think in recent times it’s gotten worse, and that has to do with the new trends in American publishing.

The push in American publishing has always been for the best-seller. But thirty, forty years ago, there was also room for literary books, books that, though they were well-written, seemed–for whatever reason–not for a wide, general audience. A book like John Hawkes’s The Cannibal, or, say, Marguerite Young’s Miss Macintosh, My Darling. Books that were more daring in their use of language or form–a hangover, perhaps, from the Modernists, or a protest against the dull realism of mainstream commercial fiction. Editors who had gone through college after the second world war had been fed a steady diet of Joyce and Kafka and Woolf and Faulkner, so they weren’t intimidated when a manuscript like William Gaddis’s The Recognitions came in, and on the basis of its excellence and possible significance, they went ahead and published it–knowing it wouldn’t sell more than a few thousand copies at best. It would, however, catch the eye of ambitious reviewers, who, as graduates of these same university classes, could appreciate Mr. Gaddis’s ambition and appraise his achievement. Later, it might be adopted by these same colleges as a text, continuing the cycle and extending the tradition (as dusty as that sounds).

This genteel tradition continued through the eighties, and in select houses continues today. In the 60s and 70s bestsellers like Jacqueline Susann or Stephen King paid the bills so writers like William Gass might see print, and editors could be proud of what they were doing. When I was at Doubleday, John Grisham was the meal ticket there; at Holt, it was Sue Grafton.

But in the 90s, American publishing changed. Bertelsmann and Holtzbrink swallowed up most of the major New York houses. Whether it was the change in ownership or the advent of the superstores or the new tax laws concerning unsold inventory or some combination of the three isn’t clear, but the genteel tradition no longer applied at places like Doubleday. The bottom line was all that mattered. Takeovers and defensive mergers meant the business was dwindling. Editors needed to find books that would make money and make it fast or they would find themselves out of a job. And so they did.

How, exactly, do you find or make a bestseller? The easiest way is to promote those authors who have written bestsellers in the past. It’s a classic tactic. Take what already sells and sell more of it. It’s no surprise that the success of the superstores has been on the backs of the same chart-topping writers like Stephen King and John Grisham and Tom Clancy and Anne Rice and Danielle Steel. While Borders brags about their enormous selection, these five usual suspects have sucked up even more of the market since the expansion of the superstores.

Another tried and true tactic is to sell an audience a copycat product–not quite the real thing, but close enough to satisfy non-discriminating tastes–and that’s what happened with Dean Koontz, the Stephen King wannabe, or with Stephen Coonts, the Tom Clancy wannabe.

The idea is to move units–hundred of thousands, even millions. Anything that makes that happen is good for the industry, and so there’s a queasy collusion between the publishing houses and the chains to push those titles that seem to have that mass potential–whether they’re mysteries or thrillers or even what they call literary books.

Because, for all of our hard-earned anti-intellectual swagger, Americans want to believe they’re reading literature (and I do use that word here advisedly). Books that are good for us, books that are well-written, books full of ideas. Important books. Now, we don’t really have the time or the interest to search out good books and then read them and weigh them for ourselves. That would be too much like work. We want someone else to tell us what’s good. Luckily for us, the industry will, from’s glowing reviews of their own inventory, to Oprah creating overnight bestsellers of mediocre chick-lit, to the Pulitzer Prize committee or the judges for the National Book Award shilling for fiction that is at best undistinguished and sometimes laughably bad. Once the book bears the stamp of approval, the herd instantly heads for Borders or logs on to Amazon, and the sales figures jump.

In the past ten years we’ve seen the rise of what I call Lite Literature, and it’s taken the place of the real poetry novels and short stories and yes, even poetry used to provide. Because the publishing industry–for its own survival and aggrandizement–has to produce what passes as great literature for a readership that is just as happy with crappy platitudes that reinforce their sentimental prejudices, they do. Some houses go so far as to issue reading guides for these books, as if they were dense and complex texts requiring heavy explication, when, for the most part, they’re composed of thin and pathetically sympathetic characters wrestling with easy ethical questions, as deep as the latest Julia Roberts movie. Whether the preponderance of bestselling American novels involving mother-daughter or romantic heterosexual relationships has anything to do with white, married middle-class women making 80% of hardback fiction purchases is an issue I do not want to get into, but I will say that the industry, like any industry, will give the people what they want, and that until people demand higher quality, they will always be paying too much for what they get.

Now, try to apply that business model to a political writer. What you will end up with, for the most part, is a mass-market writer who appeals to a certain political stance, or else to an audience that is similarly invested in the politics of identity, as well as a few curious liberal bookworms like me–in essence, preaching to the chorus. The American public is at once depoliticized and yet polarized, so much so that I cannot imagine either the general public being interested enough to pick a political book up or someone of an opposing political philosophy willingly plowing through a smart and complex book designed–if only peripherally–to change his or her mind–say, the way Joan Didion wrote in the 70s and 80s.

This brings me back to that idea of a book or author representing an era or event. What would I ask of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man–that it change America, make the KKK take off their robes? No. It is enough that he wrote the book and that his Invisible Man exists in all his complex, confused humanity. It is enough that the reader comes to a new understanding, a connection that didn’t exist before. A feeling for yourself and the world and everyone else in it that you thought was beyond you. That is what a great book does, and that’s why it’s alive, singly, to the individual reader, just as it came alive: singly, to the individual writer. The political is personal and the personal political.

So, the question now is: as writers, how do we regain our influence?

And the answer is: write great books. Be true to your people, unstintingly generous and at the same time completely honest. Tell it like it is. Ralph Ellison knew that no matter how difficult and twisted it might be, the truth is all we’ve got. Not that it will sell.

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