There’s a funny cover (titled “Shelf Life”) on the cover of The New Yorker of this week. It shows a young woman working on a manuscript, then follows the progress of her book into production, publication, remaindering and then being burned in an oil drum by a street person trying to keep warm. I say funny, but nothing is ever funny unless it has a grain of seriousness. Here it comes: It’s time to talk about the publishing industry.
“Industry” is the right word, and I hope it isn’t necessary to point out that all the major trade-book houses are owned by conglomerates. These are for-profit businesses. The goal of fostering and supporting America’s literature comes in as a far second to the dollars-and-cents motive. Most of the acquisition editors at the major houses come up through the sales division. They have no special training that would enable them to understand what makes a classic. (And almost all editors now are acquisition editors; they are unable to work with an author to improve a manuscript.) Current publishing savvy has to do with what is likely to sell; and it doesn’t have to sell generation after generation, just long enough to log in a hefty profit. Over the past decades we’ve seen editor after editor eased out of a job because she or he showed a greater concern for quality than for sales. I’ll mention Ted Solotaroff and Amanda Vaill, and others may want to bring up examples they know about. Some of the serious editors remain—like Elisabeth Sifton, Jonathan Galassi, Daniel Halpern, and Jill Bialosky—but are their positions secure? Not unless the numbers crunch the way they better.
Obviously publishers have to make a profit in order to keep their doors open. But the bar has been set too high; the profit margin currently demanded in publishing can only be achieved by dispensing with books that have (in any one generation, that is) minority appeal. Granted that the audience for literature of high quality is small, why is that fact embarrassing? I’m willing to bet that, when Sidney’s poems appeared in 16th century England, he had less than a hundred readers. And we know that the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass sold about 500 copies. The literate have always been a minority in any single generation; over the centuries their numbers grow. Granting that the fully competent audience of readers is a minority, doesn’t that minority have rights?
Luckily, here in these United States, we don’t have to depend entirely on the big trade-book houses for new literature. We have the university presses and the small presses, both publishing poetry and fiction. And anyone who has the least grasp of what’s what realizes that these presses must be taken just as seriously (more seriously?) than the for-profit publishers. The process of expanding available first-order fiction and poetry can’t be entrusted to company men whose eyes are focused only on the bottom line.
Returning to the New Yorker cover, note that the aspiring author is young. The whole emphasis in publishing, especially where fiction is concerned, is on youth. Young people give nice jacket photo; they will look good in TV interviews, and what sells better than sex? Besides, American culture is gaga over youth, staggeringly more interested in What the Kids Are Doing than in the thoughts or actions of any other sector of society. What these adored young American Idols don’t realize is that, once they hit their thirties, except for a few flukes or lucky cases, they will be hustled out of the limelight, regarded as “so last decade.” The Industry will have moved on to still younger authors, the new kids on the block, who can be more successfully marketed. Where is Erich Siegel? Renata Adler? Thomas McGuane? Bobbie Ann Mason? Gloria Naylor? Frederick Barthelme? Tama Janowitz? Susan Minot? This same pattern can be found, in greater or lesser degree, in all of the arts, though, granted, its most blatant instance is pop music. If we turn to poetry, we see an enormous number of prizes for first books, some of them pegged to age, for example, the Yale Younger Poets’ Prize. There is one prize (the Lamont) for a second book; at which point the support stops.
Because I’ve been on the scene for more than thirty years, I’ve watched as so many hopefuls were introduced and cried up as the best thing since sliced bread; only to see them abandoned in favor of newer kids on the block as the decades rolled on. True, many of them weren’t all that great even in the beginning. Granted, we always need to encourage beginners, hoping that they will gain experience and improve, even if their abilities are limited when they first set out. But the scrap-heap pattern is noticeable enough to deserve reflection. When beginning poets ask for advice from the golden-oldie sage, I say this: Don’t accord 100% trust in all the adulation you are receiving now. The public loves novelty. When you are no longer a novelty, you will have to have something more solid to offer. Get busy and find out what that’s going to be. Also, recognize that in most cases, jobs and family duties tend to elbow aside the will and the opportunity to create. And maybe for some those things will prove to be more important than writing, which is fine. Still: think priorities.