"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

September 29, 2009

List Lust, or, The Banalities (Updated)

Recently a literary blog or site or whatever calling itself The Millions posted for the edification and entertainment of its readers a list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far).”  The judging-process was set up along American Idol lines – a panel of literary Simon Cowells and Paula Abduls coupled with a poll of the faceless audience, culled from Facebook.  

The resulting lists generated the type of discussion that you would expect:  expressions of pleasure over the presence of favorite titles along with much quibbling about who was left off – behavior which, essentially, reproduces the work of the list itself, “playing along” even where the participant has differences over this or that selection. 

Therefore I was happy when at least one litblog commentator, Andrew Seal, sounded like he was going to go beyond mere participation in the spectacle.  As he wrote in a September 25 post: 

“The inclusions and placements of the list are not really worth quibbling about, and itemizing the good books that were left off is about as easy as falling off a log.  I'm not really interested in specifics, because there's a much bigger issue which the list raises—”

Ah, I thought, now we’re getting somewhere!  He continues:

“—if ordered lists like this must exist, to whom should we be listening to fill them?”

Oh.  A critique of the make-up of the celebrity-judges panel, in Andrew’s view too heavily skewed to young and US-based creative writers, with not enough critics, editors, and academics, so that perhaps the panel was too narrow or not expert enough.  He may or may not be right on that score, but we haven’t gotten to any “much bigger issues” yet if we’ve just moved from quibbling about the selection of books to quibbling about the selection of judges.  That’s playing the same game at one remove, when what we need to do to get to “bigger issues” is to examine the game itself.

For starters, let’s not neglect the way that the list itself – and in fact the whole game of this and other literary lists – was “pre-judged” to begin with, and by an even bigger and more influential arbiter of taste and culture than writers, critics, editors, and academics:  corporate sales and publicity departments.

Publishing is currently dominated by the “Big Six” media corporations:  the Random House Group (owned by the Bertelsmann corporation), Simon & Schuster (owned by ViaCom), HarperCollins Harcourt (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), the Penguin Group (Pearson), Macmillan (Holtzbrinck), and the Time-Warner Book Group.  The readers polled by The Millions – whether the “pros” of the first panel or the Common Readers of the second panel – are making their judgments based on an array that has already been selected and set before them, largely by this corporate monopoly.

How largely?  The Millions’ lists pretty much reflect the market share.  Of the 30 titles represented on the two lists (20 titles in each list, with 10 overlapping), 27 are published by imprints belonging to 5 of the Big Six conglomerates, leaving a whopping 3 titles published by “independent” houses.  In other words about 90% of the titles come from the corporate majors.  That’s interesting, isn’t it?  And here I thought the list was supposed to reflect “quality” and “taste”!  If Andrew Seal is disturbed by the fact that 70% of the judges are young U.S.-based creative writers, what kind of response does this 90% figure merit?

Of the 27 corporate offerings, Random House/Bertelsmann wins big with 14 titles – almost half the list – and runner-up goes to Macmillan/Holtzbrinck, with 8.  Penguin/Pearson comes in third with 3 titles, while Simon & Schuster/ViaCom and HarperCollins Harcourt/News Corporation get 1 each.  The independent presses are represented by Bloomsbury (Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell), Soft Skull (Lynne Tillman’s American Genius), and Small Beer Press (Kelly Link’s Stranger Things Happen).  

Of course the picture is a little more nuanced than this.  On the indie side, Bloomsbury can hardly be considered a plucky, against-the-odds upstart – they’re the fifth largest house in the UK, having made a dime or two over some boy-magician franchise.  On the corporate side, Farrar Straus & Giroux, while now owned by Macmillan, still has a lot of indie street cred, as does the author of the FSG title on the list, Lydia Davis.  And while Sebald’s Austerlitz and Bolano’s 2666 are both published by imprints belonging to majors (Random House and Macmillan), the works of these authors first had to “make their way” in the independents (New Directions) before being sharked up by the bigger fish.  

Someone might even argue that this proves that “quality” can still win through in today’s corporate publishing environment, that the sales and publicity departments sometimes respond to genuine demand, that the “bottom line” doesn’t rule everything, etc.  After all, Random House is hardly publishing Sebald because he’s performing like Dan Brown.  In other words we can still separate questions of quality and the making of discrete literary judgments from a general critique of “literature” as an institution (so that we can all safely go back to being consumers and spectators). 

But as far as Random House is concerned, Sebald is just the other side of the Dan Brown coin.  The type of commodity the majors produce still relies (although less so than in previous decades) on a varnish of “literariness,” and having a Sebald or a Bolano on the list serves, for this season at least, as the incidental guarantor.  Nobody is making the argument that the books on The Millions lists and the millions of lists like them are “really all just crap.”  Rather, the genuinely good or interesting or significant books that make their fitful appearance alongside the middling mediocrities by McEwan, Lethem, Eugenides, Russo et al. are there in a way that is tokenistic and totemistic.  As totems they vicariously impart their aura of quality and seriousness to the larger pool of mediocrities and hence to the field as a whole (ah, literature!  The “higher things!”  Or as James Wood would ejaculate, “the soul!”), and what the publishers might sacrifice in profit they gain back in cachet, an ostensible “relevance,” and credibility with the high end of their audience.  As tokens, however, such titles relieve publishers of the costly burden of being actually in the business of bringing readers quality fiction in any but this most limited way.  Bolano now “stands for” Latin American Literature, and if a few further interesting Latin American authors make it into translation and out of the independents into the majors for the next five years it will be on the strength of “If you liked Savage Detectives, you’ll LOVE _______!!!  Similarly, W.G. Sebald “stands for” a kind of overcast Mittel-European “high seriousness” and fills a Survivor Porn niche, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie grabs the Nigerian-of-the-Decade baton from Ben Okri, and so on.  Austerlitz and 2666 are good books brought to us in a way that sucks the oxygen out of the type of atmosphere in which good books might be much more broadly produced, understood, and enjoyed.[1]  To come up with Best Books lists in this environment is little more than an exercise in pecking the least maggoty bits from carrion.

But the listing and ranking game goes on – and on and on – as if all sectors of society were afflicted with a kind of mass obsessive-compulsive disorder or species of autism.  If ordered lists like this must exist,” stipulates Andrew Seal – but why must they?  Why should we submit to such fatalism?  Where do these lists come from, whom do they benefit, and what ultimate ideological function do they serve? 

Back in January I addressed this topic in a post called “The Best-Dressed Books of 2008,” and I’ll stand by what I wrote there:         

The end of the old year and the beginning of the new one – yes, it’s the season of those tiresome, compulsory Best of! and Top Ten! lists, including, alas, ‘literary’ lists.  These bullet-point bonanzas are the expression of a marketing sensibility, which means that book-lists bear the same relationship to literature as a Hallmark Valentine does to love.  Yet participation in this annual ritual serves to reinforce certain ideological practices that are crucial to the reproduction of the current culture.  Here – for your post-holiday pleasure – are the top five ideological practices these lists reinforce:

·      the fashion-system (obsession with small differences in the context of a large but unremarked sameness; the importance of being “up-to-date,” of knowing what the “trends” tell us about our irresistibly fascinating selves, etc.)

·      the star-system (which items are common to most lists? which item will “win”?)

·      the construction of a social and personal identity as the sum of market choices

·      manifest populism (anyone can do it – it’s fun!  Who’s on your list?)

·      latent elitism (the last word goes to the cultural arbiters)

There’s a spectrum, however, and some types of lists are more honest about functioning in the above terms (Best Dressed/Worst Dressed, for example) while others are more dishonest about it (Best Books lists).  Generally, the higher up the scale of cultural “quality,” the greater the dishonesty.

With that in mind, here’s the winner of the “The Best Fiction of the New Millennium (So Far).”  Look, you can see your own reflection on the shiny surface!

Random House Towers, New York.


Some excellent additional points from Helen DeWitt at paperpools:

I got an email a while back from The Millions asking me to nominate my top 5 books for the new millennium, with the following constraints: they must be fiction, they must be available in English. The idea was, The Millions would then tabulate all votes and come up with a top 20.

So. If some of the most interesting writing I've read has been in a blog, or a pdf, or a webcomic, or just in emails, I can't mention it - it has to be writing that been legitimised by a book deal. Also, if I've read someone brilliant in a language other than English - someone who hasn't happened to sell English-language rights - I can't mention that either. So I can't use this to give interesting writers a better chance of attracting notice and getting an English-language book deal, I just have to endorse the status quo. 

Well, let's say I play the game and I just pick 5 novels published in English since 2000; I might still think this was a chance to draw attention to undeservedly neglected writers. Fact is, it can't work that way.

The only writers who stand any chance of making it into the top 20 are going to be writers a significant number of other contributors have also noticed - which means they are wildly unlikely to come from the undeservedly neglected. They will come from the pool of writers who got promoted, who won acclaim, in other words from the much smaller pool of writers many of us have happened to hear of.

And over at Blographia Literaria, Andrew takes umbrage.


A couple of great quotes from Chad Post on the restrictions of corporate publishing in the US when it comes to writers in translation (via Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading).  Here's the first, an instance of what I called "tokenism" above:

Post-Garcia Marquez, it’s been near impossible for a non-magical realist from south of our borders to get published in America. A certain Isabel Allende-tainted vision of what “counted” as good Latin American literature came into being, and anything that didn’t fit that mold wasn’t marketable.

The “Crack group” (Jorge Volpi, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, etc.) rose up as a response to this situation, this sort of pre-marketing that filters out certain types of literature in favor of more “marketable” books. And it would be foolish to pretend that marketing doesn’t play a role in which authors get published—especially in translation.

But hey, 100 Years of Solitude made it onto a lot of "Best Books" list in the meantime, and we should just be happy with that, right?  Here's the second quote of Chad's:

A good example of American publishing arrogance is what Scott Moyers said about W. G. Sebald on a “buzz panel” a few years back. I wrote about this at the time but his comment about how Sebald had been “getting his name out there a bit” thanks to New Directions, but that it was Random House’s publication of Austerlitz that put the “stamp of authority” on Sebald as one of Europe’s great writers still makes me vomit in my mouth a little bit.

Yeah, I know the feeling.

[1] And to produce such an atmosphere, such oxygen?  A necessary basis would be a more equitable and democratic mode of producing and distributing society’s resources (including in the fields of cultural production).  And as its corollary:  a system of education that aims to do something more and other than transform a third of the population into professional-managerial bureaucrats, a third into service-sector wage slaves, and a third into prisoners.


Stephen Mitchelmore said...

The only reason I can see why Sebald’s Austerlitz was included ahead of the three much better novels he wrote before is that it received the public profile of a corporate giant and that the Holocaust was an overt presence.

James Wood was right when refusing to contribute to such a list a while back, saying people always vote for worthy books that win prizes.

BTW, the list gave me the willies, and I think Andrew Seal made a good point about the young writers revealing their career faces in their "genre-bending" choices.

NigelBeale said...

Lists can be fun, and useful if they are rooted in sufficiently persuasive argument. This one, like most, may well be circumscribed by accessibility, salability and the lists of media corporations - this doesn't preclude quality, as you've noted, even if it is included simply as a sop to the 'literary.'

An interesting concomitant exercise here would be to fish for a list from a pond that excludes giant publishers...indie only.

Stephen Mitchelmore said...

It's just been pointed out to me that Sebald's other novels are ineligible. Still Austerlitz is overrated for the reason I gave.

They're pretty uninspiring lists for sure. For those who chose Atonement, may God - or someone with good judgement - help them.

Richard said...

I love DeWitt's argument. It's fitting, really, since any survey of the best fiction the 2000s had to offer which doesn't prominently feature her own The Last Samurai is missing the boat.

Edmond Caldwell said...

That's a book that is much loved around here, both by me and my cog-sci spouse.

Richard LeComte said...

Austerlitz seems to be generating a lot of comment on blogs about the list. I enjoyed it, but it may or may not be on my top 20 for the decade, which I'm going to post during winter break from my job. I think it got a lot of play because Sebold died just after it was published, so people ran out and read it. The list was helpful to me because it identified books I may read in the next decade. Also, I read a lot of books written before 2000, and I haven't gotten to a lot of books that were big in the 2000's (Absurdistan, Special Topics, Emperor's Children, Yiddish Policeman's Union, Jonathan Strange, etc.).

If I had been on the Facebook group, I probably would have voted for these five (I would have assumed "The Corrections" was going to make it anyway):

The Historian (massive book deal)
Thud! (fantasy)
Love Me (it's hilarious)
Zeroville (cool cover, indie press)
The Assassin's Song (one of the most sensitive novels about fathers, sons and brothers that I've read)

And, depending on what I had for lunch, I may have subbed out The Historian for Paper Towns by John Green, a YA novel (genre fiction! Noooooooo!) or The Heartbreaker by Susan Howatch.

Sonya said...

Hello there -- I was on the panel at The Millions, but none of my Top 5 made the Top 20 or honorable mentions. I wrote a follow up, in case you're interested, reviewing a book that is little known (never released) in the US, a Nepali novel called The Tutor of History.


And also a review at The Second Pass of a book published by one of The Big Houses but also little known in the US, called Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living, by Australian novelist Carrie Tiffany.


I suppose I felt, in the wake of the Top 20, to bring attention to some unsung gems -- particularly contemporary novels that for whatever reason don't seem to "hit" the US market tastes.