“It must be hard for you, dealing with these wretches day after day.”
“No, it’s easy. I take them to a major eatery. I say, Pooh pooh pooh pooh. I say, Drinky drinky drinky. I tell them their books are doing splendidly in the chains. I tell them readers are flocking to the malls. I say, Coochy coochy coo. I recommend the roast monkfish with savoy cabbage. I tell them the reprint bidders are howling in the commodity pits. There is miniseries interest, there is audiocassette interest, the White House wants a copy for the den. I say, The publicity people are setting up tours. The Italians love the book completely. The Germans are groping for new levels of rapture. Oh my oh my oh my.”
Don DeLillo, Mao II
One afternoon in 1984, an editorial colleague of mine came back to the office hugging herself with delight at the delicious linguistic artifact her film-scout companion had bestowed on her at lunch. The wonderful new movie-biz coinage she shared with us was the phrase “high concept,” which needs no explanation now, but which then contained, ab ovo, the whole subsequent history of the Hollywood film.
I can’t be as specific about the year when a phrase equally full of portent for the publishing business, “literary fiction,” came into use. Sometime in the early 1990s feels about right. You can’t use it without feeling mentally slack and lazy, but it is ubiquitous publishing shorthand. Push in on it, unpack the forces that have made “literary fiction” a necessary formulation, and you might just see why the writers and publishers of serious fiction are unsure whether its needle points toward commerce or art.
When I first started working as an editor in the late ’70s, there were categories of fiction, of course. “Commercial fiction” referred to thrillers and such aimed at the best-seller lists instead of the forebrain, and the genres and niches each had their designations—“crime” or “mystery fiction,” “romance fiction,” “horror fiction,” “science fiction,” et cetera. Everything else of a made-up prose nature was simply “fiction.” Differentiating judgments were made about such works’ high- or middle-browness, their appeal to a male or a female readership, but publishers and booksellers still felt comfortable with the baggy, inclusive term.
As vague a categorical designation as “literary fiction” is, it bestowed on non-genre novels the gift or illusion of a brand, a more secure niche and identity within the expanding universe of consumer goods. As critically meaningless as a term may be that can apply to such wildly disparate works as Sue Monk Kidd’s sentimental blockbuster The Secret Life of Bees and David Markson’s radical anti-novel Wittgenstein’s Mistress, its acceptance and use signified publishers’ acquiescence to and accommodation of new marketing and retailing realities. It is both a comfort and a necessity for editors anxious to know what sort of books they are acquiring and for salespeople needing to know what sort of product they are selling.
I remember the meeting at Penguin in the middle ’80s when the notion of putting bar codes on our books first came up. I could see why such a thing would be helpful for our self-help and reference and practical books, but Penguin was a pretty high-toned place and for most of our titles it just seemed unnecessary. “What, do you think that Waiting for the Barbarians and The Grapes of Wrath are going to be sold in some supermarket or mall?” I sarcastically asked, demonstrating the same far-seeing percipience that a decade earlier had me predicting the swift disappearance of the newly launched People. Soon enough, our operations manager was reading Barcode News.
Both the publishing and the bookselling businesses have grown in size, complexity, and corporate sophistication ever since, in classic push-me/pull-you fashion. Most publishing houses of any size are parts of huge media conglomerates, which have imposed their own requirements for strict accounting, consistent growth, and managerial accountability. The bookstore chains now account for the lion’s share of book sales in the country, much of this business fueled by the proliferation of the 50,000-title (and up) superstore, itself made possible only by the digital technology (and those bar codes) necessary to track and manage a huge product inventory. Borders and Barnes & Noble now stand cheek by jowl off the interstate next to Bed, Bath & Beyond and Home Depot, and a surprisingly wide variety of books may be found at Target, Costco, and Sam’s Club (albeit saddled with a brutally short shelf life, which skews the selection decisively toward books that sell quickly—that is, already minted best-sellers). Even many independents like Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, and Tattered Cover in Denver have had to hypertrophy themselves to big-box size or focus on online sales to compete and survive.
In some ideal Republic of Letters, such a situation might obtain without significant literary blowback. The novelists would toil away at their visionary labors in their cabins in the woods (or, more likely, their university writing programs) and present them to their publishers with sublime indifference to the means of cultural delivery. But, to invoke T. S. Eliot, there is the mind that creates and then there is the man that suffers—and pays the mortgage and the kids’ orthodontist bills. A palpable pressure to perform presses in on editors and novelists alike, and a sense that one has to not only write and edit as well as one can but be adept at gaming the system.
In the entry “Death of Immortality” from Minima Moralia (1951), Theodor Adorno has some prescient insights. If the writer, demoralized by the present-day situation, no longer believes in an uncommercial future that will vindicate him, then
something blind and dogmatic comes into his work, prone to swing over to the other extreme of cynical capitulation. . . . Writers bent on a career talk of their agents as naturally as their predecessors of their publishers, who even then had a foot in the advertising business. They assume personal responsibility for becoming famous, and thus in a sense for their after-life—for what, in totally organized society, can hope to be remembered if it is not already known?—and purchase from the lackeys of the trusts, as in former times from the Church, an expectation of immortality. But no blessing goes with it.
Ars longa no longer. The present is all there is and all that matters.
I’m a ’60s dinosaur, and everything I’ve learned and observed about the machinery of culture has strengthened rather than undermined my sense that, on the subject of mass culture’s designs upon us, the Frankfurt School essentially got it right. The German-émigré social philosophers developed a Marxist critique of late capitalism’s mechanisms for erasing inwardness and subjectivity: coming to this country, they believed they discerned barbarism with Mickey Mouse’s face. While Adorno was grotesquely off base in his disdain for jazz and popular music, it still seems to me demonstrably true that every tendency of our present culture is intended to distract us, extinguish our critical intelligence, and smoke out and neutralize those people who don’t want to get with the program.
Let me plunge deeper into my shallow bath of cultural despair. I don’t do well in large nonbook retail environments. I generally have the saddest heart in the supermarket—a trip to my local suburban A&P always brings on that White Noise frame of mind. This past Christmas, I went to a Best Buy in the Hyannis Mall in search of a portable DVD player so I could play my Netflix foreign films (I’m nothing if not pathetic) in every room in the house. Now, I am not a close follower of developments in television technology, and I was genuinely taken aback by the blooming, buzzing confusion of steroidal flat-screen high-def TVs, all sending forth eerily supersaturated images of Finding Nemo and Shrek 2 and NBA highlights and Britney Spears and Shakira shaking their glutes and abs and pectorals. I was stunned by a spectacle that my fellow post-Christmas shoppers took utterly for granted; here, affordably priced, was a life of sensation rather than thought.
I’ll turn the pulpit over to the Reverend Herbert Marcuse for some clarifying remarks from Chapter 3 of One-Dimensional Man, “The Conquest of the Unhappy Consciousness”:
In its relation to the reality of daily life, the high culture of the past was many things—opposition and adornment, outcry and resignation. But it was also the appearance of the realm of freedom: the refusal to behave. Such a refusal cannot be blocked without a compensation which seems more satisfying than the refusal. The conquest and unification of opposites, which finds its ideological glory in the transformation of higher into popular culture, takes place on a material ground of increased satisfaction.
And this was written in 1964, when Marcuse had probably not seen a color TV. Since that time, the televisual capacity for “increased satisfaction” has grown even faster than, oh, the average chain bookstore. How can literary fiction, one of whose essential qualities, I believe, is the incitement of an increased dissatisfication—a quarrel with the fixed conditions of human existence that has been at the heart of high culture since the Greeks invented tragedy—possibly compete with its seductions?
Television has even laid direct siege to the fragile redoubt of fiction in the formidable person of Oprah Winfrey. “This society testifies to the extent to which insoluble conflicts are becoming manageable,” Marcuse wrote, “to which tragedy and romance, archetypal dramas and anxieties are being made susceptible to technical solution and dissolution.” Almost single-handedly, through her passion for reading, her masterfully devised book club, and her signature template of trauma, healing, and reintegration, Oprah has retrofitted much of the corpus of literary fiction to the requirements of the culture industry. It is the triumph of the therapeutic in its starkest form, and not to be resisted. The Jonathan Franzen/Corrections dustup was so unsatisfying precisely because it was so enigmatic; was it a surrender, a no!-in-thunder, a rearguard action, what? What is clear is that books that insist we are not all right and probably not going to be all right are never going to be Oprah’s Book Club picks.
What is to be done? I do know that such initiatives as the recent study commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, which discovered that Americans are not consuming their NEA-recommended daily intake of fiction, are beside the point. Why, in all the reams of commentary that this study generated, did nobody suggest that the writers themselves, not the publishers or the cultural bureaucrats, hold the solution? Nor do I feel that James Wood’s plea in the pages of this magazine for a return of the 19th century and the Great Tradition is practical. Novelists simply cannot begin writing as if the 20th century hadn’t altered the human prospect and the novel form beyond the dreams or nightmares of Jane Austen and Henry James. The hysterical realists have plenty to be hysterical about. I admire the energy and style (in a couple of senses) of Dave Eggers and his merry band of McSweeneyites more, perhaps, than do the editors of this magazine—they have made writing seem lively and subversive, no small feat. But the fact remains that their coy peekaboo game with the starmaking machinery is not sustainable and the movement has produced only one real book of note, Eggers’s own Heartbreaking Work—very much an advertisement for himself.
For writers, their personal strategies must range between Pynchonian invisibility and Vidalian availability (it helps to be Gore Vidal). I believe, however, that the continuing vitality and relevance of fiction will be found in the solitary nature of both writing and reading. Marcuse claims in One-Dimensional Man that “solitude, the very condition which sustained the individual against and beyond his society, has become technically impossible.” The stubborn persistence of the novel, the supreme solitary art, suggests this isn’t true. John Updike once said the loveliest thing: that he wrote his books in the hope that they would be discovered by some kid in a library in Iowa (as, presumably, he was once a kid in a library in Shillington). When I was 12, I was such a kid in a library in Brooklyn, and with my first use of my adult library card, the discovery of William Golding’s subversive caveman novel The Inheritors turned a switch on in my brain that has remained on all these decades later.
No American novelist has managed the present situation with more grace and dignity than Don DeLillo. I was privileged to be able to interview him on the occasion of the publication of Underworld, and the interview ended with these words, with which I choose to end this gloomy-hopeful meditation:
The writer has lost a great deal of his influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of the culture. But isn’t this where he belongs? How could it be any other way? And in my personal view this is the perfect place to observe what’s happening at the dead center of things. I particularly have always had a kind of endgame sensibility when it comes to writing serious fiction. Before I ever published a novel this is how I felt about it—that I was writing for a small audience that could disappear at any minute, and not only was this not a problem, it was a kind of solution. It justified what I wrote and it narrowed expectations in a healthy way. I am not particularly distressed by the state of fiction or the role of the writer. The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he’ll become.