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Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press
Litsphere

THE LITERARY SPHERE: TAKING CRITICISM ONLINE

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THE IDEA OF LITERATURE

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LITERARY AESTHETICS

Lituni

LITERATURE IN THE UNIVERSITY

LR

LET'S REVIEW: BOOK REVIEWING AS LITERARY CRITICISM

« Politics and the Novel | Main | Meanwhile. . . »

03/01/2004

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TEV

Hey there Daniel,

There's some worthy advice here about what not to do, but beyond "write a great book" I'm not sure what else you suggest to do. Can you be a little more specific about a path to follow, not just steps to avoid? Or is it merely a variation on "to thy literary self be true"?

Daniel Green

Mark:

Probably a good deal of the last-mentioned. Really I just want to emphazize that "literature" generally occurs outside the "book business."

Sarah

Fair points all, but I don't know that it's quite fair to compare the conditions of what Poe, Twain etc. had-economically, socially, what have you--with current conditions. Frankly, a lot of the so-called "higher plane of literature" types who buck the so-called system and sell few copies are really writing unreadable and ultimately, unpublishable novels. And at least in my experience, talking to writers both in literary and more genre fields, they write because they must, they can't do anything else. And if they can't do anything else, then they'd better find a way to support themselves and families doing so.

Taking the approach to ignore the biz side is, to me, an extremely unhelpful approach. Because it's there and not going away, like a big elephant in the room. Better to have *more* knowledge than less of what chances, realistically, one's work will fare--whether it's short term success or long-term gains.

Daniel Green

Sarah:

I respect your position on the subject.
Actually I thought your own posting on the related piece by McCrum came to a sensible conclusion along some of the lines I've pursued here.

Birnbaum

TRE

Having had the pleasure of reading previous of your insightful and thoughtful ruminations, I was a little surprised and more than a little put off by the wrong -headed— and dare I say simplistic—view you expressed about the so-called book industry/business. Everyone, on occasion, has a bad -thoughts day—perhaps this explains this, what you web people call, 'posting'. And shame on the clever people who responded with their own comments and let you get away with such, uh, pap.

Certainly no one is to be faulted for lancing the boils of purported advice to young artists, which are, of course, careerist and mostly bad (as most advice is) and is the greatest affliction known to man and beast. The intersection of art and commerce is rife with all the ills and corruption that one finds in the larger business culture, which one could argue, is merely a reflection of the greater civilization. It is no news that business is not particularly supportive of creativity. It is news that, for instance, the publishing industry, stands as some kind of monolithic obstacle, preventing the GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE from receiving their proper due. For starters, this denigrates the (possibly nave) dedication and (conceivably quixotic) efforts of a wide range of editors, publicity people, agents, bookstore owners and more. There is more packed in here but, hey, we need to get on with our lives…

The poor, bedraggled authors mentioned, and their contemporaries — Gaddis, Gilbert Sorrentino, James Purdy, John Hawkes, numerous others-- were all published. What else is the "business" for? Writers forced to work for a living? Oh my! But more to the point, consider this question; "Are there great works that have gone unpublished?" And before you launch yourself at the superficial difficulty posed, as in "How would we know?" consider that in the lengthy list of writers I have conversed with, I have never encountered anyone who doesn't believe that great books find their way out into the world—such is the faith of many practitioners that great art triumphs after all.

Railing against any pack of vulgarians is, I suppose, understandable. And it is safe to say that commerce has its fair share of greedy assholes whose life purpose is very distant from advancing anything other than their own accumulation of whatever it is that such people accumulate. Having said that it seems that to paint the business part of the world as some dark chamber is to willfully ignore that real people with real narratives of their own are part of the bazaar. It serves no one to blind oneself to that reality.

Ed

I have to agree with Birnbaum here. For one thing, the industry isn't predominantly populated by Harlequin whores or penny dreadfuls. Sure, publishers are in the game to make money. But there are lit-minded purveyors, such as Dalkey or the Modern Library, who go out of their way to market to a lit-minded consumer base (and Dalkey is particularly creative on this score; they use a combination of book revenue and donations to put out titles).

Likewise, anyone who has had the misfortune to go through a slush pile knows that 90% of everything is crap. Publishers want good books. Sellable books, but good books nonetheless. Who honestly wants to buy or sit through a bad book? Aside from the Grisham/trashy romance crowd, virtually no one. When people shell out the clams for a hardcover or a trade paperback, they are expecting a great multi-hour reading experience.

In fact, the publishing industry has actually HELPED authors to better their wares. The example that comes immediately to mind is when Ernest Hemingway turned in "The Old Man and the Sea." He was told by his publisher to rewrite it. Well, rewrite it he did, and it led to him nabbing the Nobel in 1954. (Now if only someone would have the effrontery to say the same to Neal Stephenson.)

I believe that in most situations, the author and the publisher have the same interests at heart: to publish the best possible book under the given circumstances. And while it's disappointing to see the industry move to a more telegenic approach for promotion, as Sarah notes, it's particularly destructive for any aspiring writer to ignore the mechanisms that allow a book to move from typewriter to buckram.

It is also ditch-dirty stupid to proclaim that most writers don't have careers, when in fact the penurious sums they garner for their novels, if anything, motivate them to sustain a life that involves doing what they love full-time, moving up the advance scale, and somehow managing to get by with the help of spouses, family, and other benefactors.

Nor do authors "miraculously acquire" readers. Relentless book tours, efforts by flaks to persuade book editors to run reviews, and building a fan base along the way have one singular m.o.: leading people to the work. And ultimately, that speaks for itself.

Daniel Green

I'll just say that if Dalkey Archive Press--and I own scores of their books--represented the "book business" in 21st-century America, we'd all be in hog heaven. Unfortunately, it doesn't, and we're not.

sjtennent

In the past month I've seen a couple of magazine articles, a handful or columns, and countless message board discussions/blogs detailing the "industry" and attempting to steer novelists through it, all with disheartening undertones. These articles and columns throw industry numbers and factoids--sales figures, number of books published a year, advance amounts, average time a book sits on a table at B&N, Amazon ratings--all for the sake of "helpful advice." "Know what you're up against, kiddo." Great. I know, I know.

I don't think it hurts to read these articles. I don't think TRE would disagree with that (his first paragraph even states there are likely nuggets of good advice to be found). Nonetheless, reading too many of these articles can pummel a writer's enthusiasm right into the ground. "You just need to know the odds you're up against." Why, so I can quit?

Really, what is TRE saying that is so disagreeable? This weekend I read the recent article in The Believer, "The Perpetual Debut Novelist," and I spent hours thinking about how I would navigate the business once I'm done with my novel. My wife had to stop me and tell me "hey, work on the novel."

Birnbaum and TRE have both said in one form or another that the cream rises to the top. If there are half a dozen articles out there every month saying "Worry about the business! Worry about the business!" I think we could all stand to have one lonely voice out there saying "Worry about the art."

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