December 13, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

On Originality and the Publishing Industry

Last week, I wrote a blog post here about a satirical idea to have the Obama administration bailout the publishing industry. Did it seem really, really original? Dunno. Seemed funny enough to post on a blog. The piece found its way to the Huffington Post, and inevitably out into the larger world.

The next day, a piece by Boris Kachka with the same general premise came out in New York Magazine. A couple days later, The New Republic published a more serious piece by a writer called Mark I. Pinksy suggesting that, really, seriously, we should bail out the writers, like Roosevelt sort of did during the last Depression. NPR liked this idea enough they had Pinksy on to talk about the idea. Then in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, a writer called Paul Greenberg essayized about the same general concept.

So it might be easy enough to say: great minds think alike. (Or: minds with similar desires think alike, anyway). But since making something of a joke and now looking at the historical precedent, logistical possibilities and, well, the small groundswell that’s come in these similar pieces, I have to say: the clearest issue related to the most serious of these essays, Pinsky’s inevitable raising of the WPA/Federal Writer’s Program precedent, is that I’m not sure this is the answer to the issue– because it mistakes the central issue at hand. Writers can find ways to make a living. But the question is: can writers make a living off their art, from their work? While there’s something reassuring about the fact that Saul Bellow made money from the FWP– maybe, as Pinsky argues, some of his research turned up, obliquely, in, say, Augie March— this isn’t the point. The point is: the erosion of a publishing culture that devalues literature is an erosion that leads to conformity, vacuity, and above all, myopic fiscal decisions.

What’s most troubling about the “Black Wednesday” consolidation at the large publishing houses is that the system of publishing new writers, which has been increasingly tenuous for a decade or more, is now in danger of falling apart entirely. A number of years ago I was lucky enough to join a group of writers invited to the offices of Knopf to listen to legendary editor Ash Green talk about publishing. Green talked for a bit about the great novels his house publishes; but he was also not tone-deaf, and recognized half of the writers on hand were poets. Do we do poetry? Green said. Of course we do. We might not make money off each book of poetry we do, but you know what funds our poetry publishing branch? Langston Hughes’ “I, Too.” A Robert Frost book we did. Poems that we published decades ago that make money from their copyrights, poems people quote in perpetuity. Those poems existed in 1964 when Green arrived a Knopf, and they’ll exist in 2064. That’s the whole idea of literature; as Ezra Pound put it, it’s “news that stays news.”

This is exactly what’s wrong with a publishing industry run by CEO’s who demand immediate bottom-line returns, owned by huge international conglomerates. Poets’ work can make money decades down the road, when the few poems they’ve written gain historical status. Fiction writers might not break the bank with their first books (and the fact that there are Foers and Freudenbergers who have done so shouldn’t be a model or really even a goal, as they clearly have, but an anomoly), but if a house is willing to stick with a young writer, it will eventually pay off. Look at a writer like Jonathan Franzen, whose first two books did very little business. When The Corrections hit, suddenly FSG had a bestseller and a National Book Award winner and an Oprah selection on its hands. Should they expect this from every novel? Of course not. That would be absurd. Might Franzen had toiled, not found publication at all for his first two books, and then had the hit he did with his third novel? Sure. But the validation provided his career by his early publication made him a novelist, not an aspiring novelist. This is how publishing works, or has worked. What a road we’ll be heading down should it cease!

The simple fact here is this: lots and lots of people still read novels. People still watch movies based on novels. Our culture has not moved away from the novelist or the poet. We’ve simply allowed short-sighted corporations to make it appear as if this is an anachronistic view of the world. One of my favorite moments in the “people-don’t-read-anymore” epoch came when the movie Sideways garnered five Oscar nominations in 2004. In that film, Paul Giamatti’s friend intones that he doesn’t read fiction anymore. Somehow this came to look like a validation of the non-fiction-only reader; a glossy magazine editor I know even asked me, when I was visiting his office: “Why would people read fiction? It didn’t happen!” Incidentally, that very editor had just edited a rave review of Sideways, a film he didn’t realize was based on a novel by an obscure novelist named Rex Pickett. Would the new, consolidated Random House have bought this novel? Probably not (St. Martin’s did the book even before all this publishing entropy). And would an adaptation then have become one of the best films of 2004, and won an Oscar for best Adapted Screenplay by Alexander Payne? Would we have had an ascendant homunculous like Giamatti to watch as he so gloriously portrayed John Adams, et al, after? The beginning of this causal chain was a small, mostly ignored novel. The publishing industry we’re looking at in the future will deprive us of such moments.

Of course, this is not to say that the publishing industry needs to rely upon the film industry– though it often does. It’s only to say the myopia of a doleful, bloated sack of a publishing industry is shocking. We misunderstand causation left and right, just as we do with the current avatar of all this, the auto industry bailout. Pundits all over the media complain of the terrible decisions made in Detroit in the past decade. On NPR, an expert laments the idiocy of GM’s expansion of his Hummer division, which it can’t possibly sell now. But GM was responding to a market made up of tens of thousands of Americans who simply had to have SUV’s by the garageful. And we’ll punish them for it? I suppose we will. If there’s a punishment being elicited now, it’s one that says: the automakers should have anticipated the spikes in oil prices, in environmental responsibility finally, finally hitting home.

By this logic, the publishing industry must do just what we’re asking of the auto industry: it must lead. It must recognize that if you only sell people Sarah Silverman’s unwritten essays, that’s all they’ll buy. But if you sell them novels– if you sell them novels they want to read– they’ll buy them, too. We shouldn’t expect them or even try to get them to buy these books by in bulk quantities of hundreds of thousands, to come home from Sam’s Club with cart-fulls of WG Sebald (or Alice Sebald, for that matter). They should do just what they’ve been doing: buying enough copies to read. Until the publishing industry can wise up to the fact that they can make money from this only when their model comes to match the demand out there, we’ll just have Black Wednesdays ahead.