"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

October 23, 2009

BAD PAPER: Bursting the 'Literary Fiction' Bubble

by Edmond Caldwell

(first printed as Correspondence Pamphlet #2, New Delhi, India, in August 2009) 

Part 1. 

In the early days of the current economic crisis, the Treasury Department demanded from the U.S. Congress a 700 billion-dollar bailout to buy up the “bad paper,” a term for all the junk assets owned by the banks and mortgage companies.  Bad paper – the phrase is evocative, and one might be forgiven, while gazing at the stacks of unsold “bestsellers” on the display tables of the nearest Barnes & Noble, for imagining the CEOs of the Big Six publishing companies frantically scurrying to D.C. to demand their own big slice of bailout pie.  After all, who could have more bad paper to unload than Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins Harcourt, the Time-Warner Book Group, the Penguin Group, and Macmillan? 

In the weeks that followed, the sub-prime mortgage crisis became a credit crisis, the credit crisis a financial crisis, the financial crisis an international economic crisis – until finally the d-word loomed.  Through it all, that phrase continued to ring in my mind – bad paper, bad paper, bad paper . . . A huge bubble of paper claims on profits whose value was not based on any tangible, productive assets, on any “really-existing” capital, had finally popped – a bubble of “fictitious capital.”  Fiction again!  Come to think of it, didn’t the word “credit” itself come from credare, the Latin for “to believe,” as if the financial system operated by asking from us the same “willing suspension of disbelief” that fiction asks of its readers?  What was this sudden, weird synergy between the economy and fiction?  Maybe the veils were finally being torn away from both, and just as the economy was turning out to be a fiction, so contemporary fiction was turning to be – having plummeted from the airy realms of Art – a thing of squalid calculation.  

The crisis caught up with the publishing companies on 3 December 2008, a day which industry observers were soon calling Black Wednesday.  Under the euphemism of a “staff reduction,” heads started to roll in all divisions of Simon & Schuster, while the Random House Group announced a major “restructuring,” consolidating less-profitable imprints in a move widely seen as a prelude to downsizing some of them and liquidating others.  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced an unprecedented “buying freeze” – a hold on acquiring new manuscripts – and laid off a slew of employees, including several big-name editors.  Not too many more days passed before Macmillan followed suit with big layoffs of its own.  And the squeeze was being felt all down the line, affecting the distributors and major retailers as well, with the Border’s chain – Barnes & Noble’s main competitor – hemorrhaging money and foreseeing the shuttering of many of its stores and a radical “inventory reduction.”  All of these euphemisms really pointed to one thing:  unloading that bad paper.  

Crisis has a way of accelerating social processes already under way.  People are now beginning to talk about the disappearance of the current publishing regime and its replacement by a different model, one based more, perhaps, on Publishing-on-Demand (POD) technologies and the spread of e-books and e-book readers such as Amazon’s Kindle.  Whatever happens, it looks like a major change is in the offing, perhaps has even been developing – under our very noses, so to speak – for some time.  As Gramsci once wrote, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”  Given that we are in such an interregnum, what morbid symptoms can we diagnose in the field of literature?

full text of "Bad Paper" here  
(and thanks to Anirudh Karnick & Correspondence)


Steven Augustine said...

Hums like a nitrogen-cooled Reality bomb, you Utter Antithesis of the Musty Pseud. Thrilling!

C. E. Chaffin said...

What symptoms? Corporatization of Stephen Kings, John Irvings, Daniel Steeles (if it hasn't happened already); a huge competition among litzines for a piece of the paying pie, whether through POD or Kindle or both; a baffling set of choices about literature; a plethora of worthy voices rarely heard because of the huge nature of the sea; rare talent is sometimes not discovered, and things do prevent it from rising.

So much luck. If an artist has any talent, best to persevere. If not, best to pack it up and make some real money.

Increase of choice is not a morbid symptom, actually, but does beg for literary guides (critics) to help us navigate through the best of the current guerilla/Lulu/POD offerings.

I think you should read my book!


Loved the essay.

Craig Erick

Steven Augustine said...

"Increase of choice..." That old mirage! A wider range of the same thing (in varied packaging) is only an increase in the choice of packaging.

Also, here's an alternative to the Nanny State Critic (who is, increasingly, the Designated Reader for people with no time left, after TV, to read): every large text comes with a synopsis (full of keywords) and an excerpt: in ten minutes the reader will know whether to risk it. (Btw: hey, guess why so many books are advertised online without excerpts... ?)

I can imagine a system in the future wherein the reader has an hour to "return" a novel to its writer after activating it (by disabling the file) if it isn't to her/his liking. Or even a first-time pay-the-writer-as-you-read-every-chapter fee. The possibilities are limitless... whichever way, the Middleman (who unpleasantly mediates so many artist/audience affairs) should shrivel, if not die off entirely.

Edmond Caldwell said...

My sentiments exactly, comrade Augustine, and I didn't even know they were mine until you spelled them out. I'm better at castigating the bad what-is, inherited from the bad what-was; we need more visionaries, i.e., not pie-in-the-sky utopians, but those who perceive the lineaments of what-could-be in the fault-lines of the otherwise horribly ossified present. Please keep at it.

Edmond Caldwell said...

A postscript: It's something you share with Helen DeWitt, so I hope she reads this comment of yours. The pair of you could make up a formidable think-tank for the future of publishing.

Tony Christini said...

What Augustine suggests basically exists at Smashwords, where 50 percent of most texts are available free. The idea is that readers who have invested the time to read half the book would likely and reasonably pay to read the other half. For example: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/4929

The health of the future of fiction is going to depend greatly on pushing and surpassing the existing norms and ideologies of the established production and publishing industries, and their online knock-offs. The contemporary fiction at Lib Lit journal is part of that.

NigelBeale said...

Comrade Edmond,

Your cultivated view of the world lays blame for a lack of creative genius at the wrong factory doorstep...the death of capitalism will not create an earth filled with heavenly literary masterpieces...

while environment may play a role in fostering it, 'great work' is rare. It comes sometimes from profound original thinking...often as a gift from nowhere known; occasionally yes as response to political conditions...capitalism may champion and churn out reams of middle brow pap...but there's also room in it for George Orwell to warn us against what communism and its delightful progeny totalitarianism have to offer.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Ah Nigel, bless your young soul! I'm not even sure what arguments of mine you think you're responding to.

NigelBeale said...

Edmund, you old fox, I respond solely to your cultivated view of the world...

but you're right...this post was not one of your finer contretemps... lacked focus...wasn't inflammatory enough...or defamatory for that matter...

seem to be losing your touch my man.