"BAD PAPER: The Bursting of the Fiction Bubble"

read it here.

January 8, 2010

Where "Literature" Comes From


In the little over two years since James Wood ditched the New Republic (circulation 60,000) for the New Yorker (circulation 1,062,000), twenty-two of his reviews have appeared in the New Yorker’s pages:

date

title

author

publisher

1.

1 Oct 2007

The Book of Psalms

(Robert Alter trans.)

Norton

2.

15 Oct 2007

Exit Ghost

Philip Roth

Houghton Mifflin

3

26 Nov 2007

War and Peace

Tolstoy (Richard Peaver & Larissa Volokhonksy, trans.)

Knopf

4.

24 Dec 2007

Diary of a Bad Year

J.M. Coetzee

Viking

5.

3 Mar 2008

His Illegal Self

My Revolutions

Peter Carey

Hari Kunzru

Knopf

Dutton

6.

7 Apr 2008

Lush Life

Richard Price

FSG

7.

26 May 2008

Netherland

Joseph O’Neill

Pantheon

8.

9 Jun 2008

God’s Problem

Bart D. Ehrman

HarperOne

9.

23 Jun 2008

Atmospheric Disturbances

Rivka Galchen

FSG

10.

26 Jul 2008

The Lazarus Project

Aleksandar Hemon

Riverhead

11.

8 Sept 2008

Home

Marilynne Robinson

FSG

12.

27 Oct 2008

Death With Interruptions

Jose Saramago

Harcourt

13.

1 Dec 2008

The World Is What It Is (Naipaul bio.)

Patrick French

Knopf

14.

15 Dec 2008

Revolutionary Road

Richard Yates

Everyman’s Library

15.

30 Mar 2009

Lowboy

John Wray

FSG

16.

13 Apr 2009

Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays / All Art is Propaganda: Literary Essays

George Orwell

Harcourt


17.

20 Apr 2009

Jeff in Venice

Geoff Dyer

Pantheon

18.

29 Jun 2009

Censoring an Iranian Love Story

Shahriar Mandanipour

Knopf

19.

31 Aug 2009

Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Terry Eagleton

Yale UP

20.

5 Oct 2009

Generosity

Richard Powers

FSG

21.

19 Oct 2009

Collected Stories

Lydia Davis

FSG

22.

30 Nov 2009

Invisible

Paul Auster

Holt

These reviews cover twenty-four titles by twenty-five writers (if we include the translators of the Psalms and the Tolstoy volumes). Eighteen of the titles are fiction, or rather, with the exception of Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, novels.

A small number of the fiction reviews concern writers who have already attained some kind of classic or canonical status (Tolstoy, Orwell, Yates), while a roughly equivalent proportion take up relative newcomers such as Wray, Galchen, Hemon. The bulk of the reviews – easily over half – are devoted to the works of writers who, while not necessarily classic or canonical, have established reputations, such as Coetzee, Saramago, Robinson, etc. Sometimes, of course – as in the cases of the Powers and Auster reviews – the argument is that the reputation is undeserved.

Fifteen of the eighteen fiction volumes were written originally in English, by writers living in the US, UK, or former Commonwealth (Australia), although some of these writers have international backgrounds (Hemon was born in Sarajevo, O’Neill is part Turkish and was born in Ireland, etc.).

Only 4 out of the twenty-five total authors are women (Rivka Galchen, Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, and translator Larissa Volokhonsky). But if the list is primarily male, it is even more “white.” There are no African-American authors, no Latino authors. Shahriar Mandanipour (from Iran) and Hari Kunzru (a Brit with some Kashmiri in his background, who has to share his review with Peter Carey) add a few drops of melanin, and one of the books is about Naipaul even though a white guy wrote it. (If we’re feeling really charitable we could throw in Joseph O’Neill’s Turkish half, but that’s about it.) There were no books by women of color. Interestingly, this breakdown is roughly equivalent to the proportions in the index of the “books at hand” that Wood consulted in his cozy study while writing How Fiction Works, a list of ninety-three titles including 3 by writers of color and around 9 women authors. (Yet Wood’s “wide reading” and “diverse tastes” are regularly extolled by his fluffers.)

Perhaps most significant, however, is the fact that only 2 out of the twenty-four titles that Wood has reviewed at the New Yorker are published by independent publishing houses – i.e., publishers not owned and controlled by one of the “Big Six” media mega-conglomerates (Random House/Bertelsmann, Macmillan/Holtzbrinck, Simon & Schuster/ViaCom, HarperCollins Harcourt/News Corporation, the Penguin Group/Pearson, and the Time-Warner Book Group/Hachette). These 2 titles are Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution, published by Yale University Press, and Robert Alter’s translation of The Book of Psalms, published by Norton. The twenty-two other titles, including all of the fiction, are published by imprints belonging to 5 of the Big Six: 7 titles from Random House/Bertelsmann (Knopf, Pantheon, etc.), 7 titles from Macmillan/Holtzbrinck (FSG, Holt), 6 from HarperCollins Harcourt/News Corporation (Houghton Mifflin, HarperOne, etc.), 3 from the Penguin Group/Pearson (Dutton, Riverhead), and 1 from Hachette.[1]

In the larger literary venues (and on the more sycophantic lit-blogs) this phenomenon of corporate pre-determination of the “literary field” goes almost entirely unremarked. It amounts to “the repressed” of mainstream book-reviewing, as that which must remain unspoken in order for a certain type of utterance to exist at all. Reviews are written as if the titles swim into the reviewer’s ken on their own little spiritual wings or somehow magically materialize in the critic’s inbox; as if literature were somehow self-generating and “immediate” rather than constructed and subject to considerable mediation. There is in James Wood’s work not the least institutional self-consciousness or self-questioning, not a moment of institutional critique. “Literature” and “fiction,” when he speaks of them, are mystified categories.

This is not to say that the corporate-monopoly publishers never publish – or that their ad-men like Wood never positively review – “good” books or books by interesting or significant writers, even occasionally writers who, in one way or another, challenge prevailing literary conventions (largely the conventions of the commercial genre known as “literary fiction,” practiced by Wood favorites such as Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan). José Saramago, for instance, is one such interesting and significant writer; J.M. Coetzee, and Lydia Davis, while less accomplished, are two others who have also made the cut since Wood started at the New Yorker. But the industry’s ostensible embrace of such authors is skewed by the way they are institutionally read. As I argued in a previous post, for example, Wood’s approval of Jose Saramago’s Death With Interruptions is purchased at the cost of ignoring the defamiliarizing implications of Saramago’s style (i.e. his deployment of the “baroque sentence”) and foisting onto the text a spurious advocacy of “original sin.” More recently, in his review of Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, Wood smoothes over the “centrifugal” elements of formal experiment and fragmentation in favor of a “centripetal” reading which has the effect of transforming the collection into some kind of trite autobiographical-confessional novel.

The silence of major reviewers such as Wood on the actual conditions of their work is not the result of any conspiracy. Rather, the institutional filters are in place to “vet” the candidate-reviewers as they rise up the ranks: the jump from, say, the Guardian to the New Republic just doesn’t take place unless the reviewer has shown an inclination to be accommodating to prevailing aesthetic and political ideologies (including being marketably “provocative” in ways that don’t threaten the overall system and even help to create the illusion of its “openness”). Wood has always shown himself to be such a supple accommodator of his employers. His December 1996 savaging of George Steiner in Prospect, for example, should be seen as the young journalist’s application letter to the confirmed Steiner-hater who would, a very short time later, become his new boss, Martin Peretz. While working for Peretz, Wood adopted a suitably neoliberal idiom for castigating novelists such as Pynchon, DeLillo, and Morrison for their “unfree” characters (as I outlined here) in order to keep the “cultural” pages in the back of the magazine in line with the explicitly “political” front-matter.

But are the only novels worthy of being covered in major reviewing outlets by supposedly major critics like James Wood those brought to us by these five or six mega-corporations? Or if not the only novels, at least “the best”? Are Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (one of Wood’s favorite books of 2008) and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice (one of Wood’s favorites of 2009) really “better” than anything published during that time by New Directions (including authors such as Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and César Aria) or Dalkey Archive Press (including Jean Echenoz, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Gert Jonke, Lydie Salvayre, Jacques Roubaud, Dumitru Tsepeneag, and Juan Goytisolo)? When it comes to young U.S. novelists, are John Wray’s and Rivka Galchen’s books really more interesting and innovative than Lily Hoang’s Parabola (Chiasmus) or Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas (Featherproof)? If Wood is really as ecumenical in his tastes as the fluffers maintain, where then were the reviews of Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands (Grove), Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier (Graywolf), Sesshu Foster’s World Ball Notebook (City Lights), Abdourahman Waberi’s In the United States of Africa (Univ. of Nebraska Press), and Kazim Ali’s The Disappearance of Seth (Etruscan Press)? Is Wood really as answerable to disinterested considerations of “literary quality” as he purports to be?

Now, one might argue that Wood is indeed fulfilling his professional responsibilities because he is answerable primarily to his readership – his beloved, mythical “common reader” (or at least the readers of the New Yorker[2]). He is constrained to evaluate only those books that such a reader is likely to encounter, likely to purchase. And these books – through no fault of Wood’s own – are likely to be published by the major corporate conglomerates and distributed by the major corporate booksellers that those readers are likely to frequent. Hence the number of reviews of authors with established reputations and already-existing readerships – Wood might like Richard Price’s Lush Life and dislike Richard Powers’ Generosity, but the point is that they were available for reviewing at that time from among the menu of books likely to be read by “the common reader,” to whom Wood is ultimately answerable.

A likely story!

This strikes me, rather, as a sort of white-collar, focus-group version of the “only following orders” defense, to which we might return with that most basic of legal questions: cui bono? Certainly not readers, but it does benefit the corporations, whose monopolization of culture depends on all-important market share, even where actual profit margins might be very slim.

James Wood is an employee of Condé Nast – publishers of a number of prestige magazines including Vanity Fair, GQ, Wired, Glamour, and Vogue – which is a division of billionaire S.I. Newhouse Jr.’s media corporation, Advance Publications. Through its other divisions, Advance Publications owns a variety of newspapers, websites, business journals, TV news stations, and cable and internet providers. To some, the control of such broad swathes of different types of media outlets might sound like a conflict of interest (or at least a conflict with the pubic interest – including the interests of, say, “common readers”), but President Bill Clinton and Democrats and Republicans in Congress alike didn’t think so when they passed and signed into law the Telecommunications Act of 1996, “deregulating” the industry and abolishing laws that specifically prohibited such monopolization, now known by its euphemism, “synergy.” (One of the biggest cheerleaders for the pro-corporate agenda of the Clinton-backed Democratic Leadership Council was the New Republic, where Wood would soon make himself comfortable for a decade or so). It should come as no surprise that Advance Publications is a robust contributor to Congressional campaigns and media lobbying firms. No doubt the candidates backed by Advance Publications vote the “right” way on telecommunications and media legislation. (It would be interesting to see, as well, which candidates are endorsed for office in the editorial pages of the many newspapers owned by Advance.)

Once again, no conspiracy theory is required to explain how this system works. No conspiracy is needed when a consortium of interests exists among players who all agree on the basic rules of the game, rules which can then, moreover, remain entirely unspoken while the game is in play. James Wood is one small player in this game, churning out ideology in the form of “book reviews” and “literary criticism” to in order to reproduce the political and cultural monopoly of the oligarchs who sign his paycheck. He rose through the ranks because he could write so exquisitely (if you’re into kitsch) about what the sausage tasted like without ever threatening to take his readers into the factory farm where the product comes from.



[1] The reviews that Wood published in other venues during this time-frame do not alter the picture in any significant way. In London Review of Books, for example, we get his appreciation of the dismal mediocrity of Ian McEwan (published by Vintage, a division of Random House/Bertelsmann), and his denunciation of the dismal mediocrity of A.S. Byatt (published by Chatto, a division of Random House/Bertelsmann).

[2] “The average household income of The New Yorker readers in 2009 is $109,877 (the average income for a U.S. household with a subscription to a news magazine is $92,788 and the U.S. average household income is $50,233).” From the Wikipedia New Yorker entry.

11 comments:

Steven Augustine said...

And Beowulf Caldwell takes an arm for the mantelpiece! (He'd have taken the balls and pizzle, too, but, sadly... none)

Brad Green said...

Just FYI, Blake Butler's book is called Scorch Atlas and is well worth a read.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thanks for bringing that to my attention, Brad. I have read the novel and I agree with your estimation of it, but that didn't save me from the typo, now fixed.

Robert M. Detman said...

Always enjoy your rants. Great points made here. Long live the Situationists!

Going to look into your book suggestions (by the way, I did a review of Tspeneag's "Vain Art of the Fugue" in Rain Taxi awhile back).
Thanks.

Frances Madeson said...

Raze it, raze it.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Comrade Steven - a whole arm? You are too kind!

Comrade Robert - Yeah I loved "Vain Art"; I was surprised to learn Tsepeneag (any idea how to pronounce that?) wrote it back in the early 70s. "Pigeon Post" is in my queue and I should read it soon.

Comrade Frances - Raze it, indeed! Or my favorite chant, from the Haitian Revolution: Koupe tet! Boule kay! (Cut off the heads, burn down the houses).

Andrew Seal said...

I imagine you will find the following comment to be disappointing in the same manner as you did my previous response to your institutional critiques, but I hope you give me a hearing. Or, perhaps, it will clarify where I was coming from earlier and may be of some use to us both.

The problem I have with your favored method--the institutional critique of the stranglehold of the large firms on what counts as "literature"--is that it interferes with the type of analysis you do so well: the demonstration of how Wood warps the novels he reviews to make them fall into line with his political commitments.

When you make your extremely cogent arguments about Wood's readings of Saramago or Bolaño, what you are proving is that Wood's method will chew up whatever is fed him and turn it into an affirmation of the neoliberal order, that while he probably needs a number of McEwans per year to demonstrate to his readers the positive side of his philosophy, he could also review many more radical or dissident authors per year and his position in the firmament of "literature" and within the system you're critiquing would not be substantially altered.

To put a finer point on it, I am unconvinced that a significant change in the origin of the books he reviews would diminish either his stature, his talent for producing affirmations of the "individual" and "freedom," or the capacity of the system to sell the books which he would have reviewed but have now been replaced. James Wood could review one New Directions title out of every three books he writes on, and I don't think it would matter. If he is as talented at distortion as you argue, then the point of the institutional critique--in this frame of reference--is lost. While more people might read these books, they will do so on Wood's terms, which I consider negligible progress. But perhaps you believe that reading one of the titles you mentioned would shatter Wood's self-possession and he'd be forced to bear witness against himself, as he might say.

By targeting Wood, you've committed yourself to a meso-level critique, which is the hardest position for analysis--constantly pulled toward both the totalizing abstractions of systems and the minute details of its basic parts--in this case, toward the publishing industry and toward the individual titles it produces. I don't envy you the project, although I admire what you've done with it. But I think that you have also put yourself into a double bind because of it: either Wood is a critic who can and will turn any novel into a testimonial for neoliberalism and so no changes in his selection criteria will be effective, or he's irrelevant as an interpreter of fiction and a change in which books are featured in the New Yorker is far more significant than what he says about them.

Edmond Caldwell said...

"I am unconvinced that a significant change in the origin of the books he reviews would diminish either his stature, his talent for producing affirmations of the "individual" and "freedom," or the capacity of the system to sell the books which he would have reviewed but have now been replaced. James Wood could review one New Directions title out of every three books he writes on, and I don't think it would matter."

Well, it'd be nice for ND, but yeah, I basically agree with your statement here and the overall thrust of your comment, which I would restate this way: reforms won't work. We've seen, for example, how a certain amount of "inclusion" and "diversity" doesn't alter the neoliberal political order (Obama). Similarly, I think things would be more or less the same if Wood happened put more indy-press complexion, so to speak, into his reviewing. The post isn't intended as a pitch for Wood to somehow diversify his palette (not that that would happen), but rather to demonstrate how rigged and rotten the whole system is, while acknowledging that it needs to embrace (in its necessarily 'domesticating' way) a certain limited amount of genuinely interesting or valid writing in an attempt to maintain its legitimacy. Hence "Raze it, raze it," as comrade Frances commented - she groks where I'm coming from. So I guess I would say that for me the contradiction you point out between the 'micro' and 'macro' (or intrinsic and extrinsic) levels of my approach is only a contradiction if revolution is ruled out as a possibility. I'm not advocating that Wood change his ways; nor that the culture industry replace him with a more 'acceptable' candidate, but rather that the culture industry and capitalism generally be replaced by a more humanly convivial system.

In the meantime, though, I'm working on a fun post
detailing how he recuperates/domesticates Lydia Davis's work, which I hope you will enjoy.

Andrew Seal said...

In the meantime, though, I'm working on a fun post
detailing how he recuperates/domesticates Lydia Davis's work, which I hope you will enjoy.


Yes, I am very much looking forward to that.

And I do think that this work of tabulating where 'literature' comes from is valuable--and I'm looking forward to tracking down a few of the titles you mention!

Edmond Caldwell said...

But for the Percival Everett, I'd go for his earlier novel, "Erasure," first!

S. said...

It's Dumitru "Seh-pan-egg," roughly.