Whither literature?

Posted: October 15th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Culture | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Two interesting recent takes on what’s happening in lit-land. First and foremost, this blog post by Jed Bickman [disclosure: a friend] on the rise of DIY publishing houses. Jed mourns the demise of big name publishing and with it professional editing.

As a writer, I benefit immensely from working with editors, and I have already had the good fortune to work with a few brilliant ones. They have not only fine-tuned my prose, but also my ideas and values. The best editor-writer relationships are like deep friendships: they change you, and your writing shows it. Think of Maxwell Perkins with Hemingway and Fitzgerald; or Robert Giroux with O’Connor and Malamud; or Gordon Lish with Carver and Ford.

As a college student, I worked for a few months at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, first as an intern reading manuscripts in English and French, then as a freelance consultant on an early e-books project. FSG is a special place in the pantheon of American publishing houses, rivaled only by Knopf as a supporter of ‘high’ literature, unabashed in its eggheadiness. That at least is its reputation and it still publishes some writers who fit that bill. But when I was there, I found that the culture of building personal relationships with those writers is fading. The desire to go out and find promising writing and help it grow into something great is waning. Instead, like every other form of media, book publishing is becoming a margins game looking for the ready-made bestseller. It is hard for me to pity the big publishing houses if they aren’t doing the kind of work I admire anymore.

Moreover, writing is changing in a way that threatens the old editing model. We’ve seen the rise over the last few decades of the MFA program, of writers whose most important editors are their classmates and professors at the University of Iowa or Syracuse University or indeed, my alma mater, Brown. They come out of these MFA programs with nearly flawless technical skills, able to write prose that is refined and sophisticated, but, as Elif Batuman argues in the London Review of Books, they often don’t have the ability to tell stories that have meat on their bones, because, in many of these graduate programs, it’s the technique not the narrative that matters. The Batuman piece is over the top, setting out to offend nearly everyone it describes, but there is a kernel of truth in its argument about how good form can mask the absence of content. The effect that this has on publishing is important: it means that it is easier to get by producing books without editing books, and that the kind of back-and-forth with writers that shapes the substance of their work is happening in classrooms long before they meet a publisher.