Monday, April 21, 2008

Literary Life, or Those Ideas Are Dead

Carolyn makes a lot of good points here:

My blood is boiling over this L.A. Times piece that purports to examine the question of whether it’s possible to be a young, struggling writer in New York these days, when “bohemian writers have been forced out by hedge-fund guys.”

Literary Young Men and Their First Novels

The three authors the Times uses to illustrate this point are Nathaniel Rich, Ed Parks, and Keith Gessen —demonstrably NOT AT ALL young, struggling writers. They each have a wealth of literary and media connections that have led to their books getting exactly this kind of national coverage. Rich is a Yalie and the son of Frank Rich, a New York Times columnist. Parks has worked for the Village Voice and the Believer, so he’s in with New York publications and the McSweeney’s machine. And Gessen is an Ivy Leaguer who worked at the New York Review of Books and then started n+1, which created its own whirlwind within the right kind of publishing circles. They exemplify the fact that it’s next to impossible to get anywhere in New York without an inherited network and a literary pedigree.

She goes on to decry the trend of New York literary professionals writing novels about New York literary life. There's little to argue with, but there are several things I'd like to add.

It's not just that those authors are speaking to themselves (and few others) when they write these novels; editors are doing the same when they acquire that kind of book. It's not worth pointing out that there are an absurd number of books about affluent New Yorkers, but am I alone in thinking that this is a problem that's getting worse?

My real point—if you'll excuse what is admittedly a screed—is that this is a problem that's institutional within publishing. As long as publishers continue to hire entry-level workers at $30,000 per annum (in some cases lower) and is solely located in a city notorious for its high cost of living, those positions are going to be filled primarily by kids who don't need the money. This is a wage well below what we find it acceptable to pay starting teachers, whose salaries are constantly (and rightly) bemoaned. This is what I think about when I hear my friends tell me they're leaving publishing.

I'm not saying that the editorial assistants I know don't deserve the jobs they have. They are all extremely bright people, but personal experiences matter, and they shape how we approach literature. If we limit the industry to people who come from a single, privileged background, it also limits the scope of our literature. You can bet there will be fewer stories about scraping money for food at the end of the month and more about, well, the tiresome existential angst of the upper class.

From where I sit, class is still with us. It ain't going away. We all know the middle-class is struggling, but poor are suffering more than at any time in recent memory. Taxes have become increasingly regressive, and there's little political momentum behind shifting the burden back where it belongs. Food and gas prices have increased dramatically. These are inconveniences for the middle-class that go largely unnoticed by the affluent, but for the poor they are serious hardships. If you are poor and live in a rural area, $4.00 gas is the difference between keeping your job in the next town over (the one, I might add, where housing is more expensive) and taking a lower-paying job closer to home.

These are stories that aren't being told, and our culture is hurting because of it. I got into publishing because I firmly believe that writing is the best—and in some cases only—way to give complex issues the attention and detail they deserve. If we abandon the responsibility to tackle complicated and timely problems—or even just the portion that don't affect us directly—we're abandoning the chief purpose of our medium.


Vladkin said...

That's an interesting hypothesis--that one's class background influences (consciously or not) one's literary preferences. That a lack of diversity in publishing environments (agencies, houses) has a noticeable effect on the depth, complexity, and cultural diversity of the novels that ultimately get published (and heavily backed by publishing houses). Thus the importance of small/indie presses. And the serendipity of having your ms read by an AA or EA who doesn't come from a privileged background.

Just a thought, but I wonder if that's why I didn't enjoy The Great Gatsby. I found it completely obnoxious. On the other hand, I'm not necessary drawn to bleeding-heart stories of struggle either. I suppose it might, however, explain my penchant for dystopian novels. Though I'm not sure how my fascination with carnies fits in...

Carrie M said...

I don't know that the EAs have that much pull. The people really making the decisions to publish and publicize books like these are the more senior editors and the publishers. And in my experience, those often come from New York and have been to somewhat of the right schools. And, yes, I have seen them be inordinately attracted to books about life on the Upper East Side. They cannot see outside their bubble to what the rest of America might want to read, or to broaden their own literary horizons.

I see a tide of editorial and literary assistants who do come from diverse backgrounds and lower socio-economic status breaking upon the shores of the Manhattan publishing scene and then retreating after a few years. They find it next to impossible to climb the ladder without any financial assistance or inside connections and they go back to where they came from or they opt out for another job. As long as this continues to happen, privileged Manhattanites will remain as the taste-makers in publishing.

jane b said...

Thanks for this, Matt. You make a lot of really great points.

I am feeling better and better about having written a book that takes place in the ugliest part of Tacoma, WA and that stars a school teacher, a soldier, and a guy who delivers clean linens to restaurants.

Thank goodness I didn't write about how difficult it is for me to come to terms with who I am and who I want to be and how I fit into the most important intellectual landscape in the universe (NYC). But then, I don't have the right degrees for that! Nor the sensibilities!


-jane (ex-farmer, abandoning her 30k, but not her ideals, her dreams, her curiosity!!)

Carrie M said...

Or witness how Mr. Repino got his semi-autobiographical novel out of the way (Bigger Than Jesus) and has now moved on to a wonderfully fanciful novel set in an "exotic"--to most Americans--setting. Yay for my writer friends!

jane b said...

Okay, so I was thinking a little more.

0. By chance (and because I wanted to work in the industry), I got a job at a literary agency where I learned how to write a good query letter and research agents to send it to.

1. My agent's assistant, who pulled my letter from the slush and requested the manuscript, is from North Carolina.

2. My agent is from Long Island, but spent several years living in Texas. But she's mostly a New Yorker.

3. My editor is from a town outside of Pittsburgh. One of the other editors in her office is from Tacoma, so that helped.

Holy crap, I've been so lucky getting my manuscript in with the right awesome people!