Franzen and the Future, Redux

More thoughts on where the book industry is heading, and what can be done to save literary fiction

by Lorin Stein

First, thank you for all the comments on my first post. They have been very much on my mind. As I think any editor will agree, you've named problems that we in the business think about every day—then go home and lie awake thinking about at night. For example:

VrDrew points out how rare it is now for a novel (or any other work of fiction) to gain widespread recognition: "In our attention-deficit stricken world, a single novel that manages to capture the attention of America's upper-middlebrow ... is indeed a throwback to an earlier age."

Lena McFarland complains that this recognition is all-or-nothing (and tends to be Great Man-ish): "How does one guy ... get to be more important [than] or as big as all of literature and the entire form of the novel?"

Kurosakih sees the problem as systemic: "The media that support the making of literary reputations are ... in trouble ... It's easier to publish a big piece talking about the greatness of Franzen and his work than it would be to do something similar about a writer no one else had ever heard of."

Citizen E believes that great new work is in short supply and that hype has supplanted honest dealing: "It has been my experience that new great literary works are rare ... For my money, 2666 by Bolano was the last truly great novel by a recent novelist that I have read."

Brothers and sisters, amen.

It has become immensely hard to get a "literary" writer the attention he or she deserves. (Here I use the word in its trade sense, the way Amazon does.) The proximate cause is the collapse of book reviewing. Ten years ago, reviews were the publishing strategy at a house like FSG. They maintained a stable market for literary books. We simply filled an existing need. People like my grandmother would read the Sunday reviews, note the titles that intrigued them, and head off to the bookstore (or, in my grandmother's case, the library). Every big city in America had its own supplement. Now that's gone, and so is the market. Now, with every new author, a publisher starts from scratch.

Of course, the death of the reviews is part of a much larger story, one we all know. There is the Web. There is cable TV. There was, to an unexamined degree, September 11th. For six months, the media more or less stopped covering literature. The sky didn't fall. Most newspapers realized they could do without it, forever.

The amazing thing, to me, is how book-lovers banded together to fill the gap. First you had sites like Salon, Slate, and Feed. Their idea was to create an alternate world of book reviews online. (Full disclosure: I've occasionally written for Salon and Feed.) The trouble, as we all learned, is that even the smartest book reviews tend to vanish on the Web. You don't go searching for coverage of a book you haven't read. A book review, to be effective, has to stand there like a billboard (or a Kindle ad) and call out for your attention.

Then came the book blogs. These began as fan sites, with everything good and bad that that implies. Some are brilliant. Some not. They work best (they sell the most books, they generate the best discussions) when they address a tight-knit reading community. Readers of sf and fantasy, it should be said, are the envy of the business. They are engaged, informed, loyal, and impossible to dupe. They read a ton. They hold their writers to the highest standards of the genre.

What's called "literary" fiction has no special interest group. It simply includes too many things. Elizabeth Gilbert, Ben Marcus, and Jonathan Franzen are all literary writers. For a literary novel to succeed, it has to create its own market—one that never existed before it hit the shelves. (Failure, nowadays, can mean sales in the triple or double digits. Yes, I've seen excellent books, books I loved, from reputable publishers, sell fewer than a hundred copies.)

That is why literary publishers—to say nothing of writers—still need the old generalist media. Lucky for us all, the magazines are strewn with passionate readers who glory in saving books that might otherwise languish off the beaten path.

Citizen E mentions 2666, a case in point. Nine hundred meandering pages long, by a dead foreigner, 2666 was chosen by Time magazine as its Book of the Year. I promise you, that took guts. Dozens of critics came to its aid. The review I liked best was in O, where Vince Passaro urged his readers to make time for the book—if they could—because it would reward the effort. He didn't browbeat them with Bolano's "importance," or pull rank and announce that the thing was "necessary" or any of the usual crap that so irritates Lena McFarland (and me). The fact that Passaro didn't need to mount a world-historical case for Roberto Bolano, and was given a few inches to praise him anyhow, seemed wonderful to me. But I also understand it when a reviewer (or TV or radio producer) falls in love, seizes a tactical advantage, and persuades his or her boss to go all-in—even if that means the star treatment, or distracting claims about the Great American Novel. It's no substitute for a hundred independent reviews, but for now it will have to do.

For now.

I left book publishing to edit The Paris Review because I think the situation can be dramatically improved. Not in the high-stakes game of bestsellers and Time covers, but down here on the ground, where reputations and markets are built and readers make up their own minds. I want there to be a magazine where fiction and poetry come first, where there's no hype, and where the aim is to reach the 100,000 people who, a few years ago, had never heard of Roberto Bolano—but whose lives have been slightly changed by his fiction.

I am one of those people. For what it's worth, I have also been one of the people who say they don't like stories or poems. It wasn't actually true when I said it. (I suspect it's not true in general.) What annoys me is the idea that I should like a story or a poem, just because somebody took the trouble to write it. We are indeed competing for limited airspace. With apologies to Ezra Pound, a story or poem needs to be at least as involving as an expose by David Grann, as tough-minded as a comment by Hendrik Hertzberg. Which is to say, it must if possible be even better written.

Literary writing (or, if you prefer, imaginitive writing) has certain advantages of its own, none of them weakened one bit by technology. It can often be funnier than other kinds of prose. It can deal more humanly with sex. It can say shameful things about family life—not by treating them as scandals but, on the contrary, by showing that they're normal. More sins are confessed more deeply, through the screens of verse and make-believe, than you will ever find on a talk show or reality TV. Literature gives the best accounts of intimacy. Lena McFarland is right—you may not learn stuff you didn't know from a work of fiction. But there can be great comfort in seeing the troubles of daily life put into words of power and beauty.

And as David Foster Wallace observed, literature has a way of making you feel less alone. TV doesn't do that. It entertains and entertains, but there is a part of you it gives the silent treatment. In my experience, even the Web can you leave you feeling lonelier, once you turn off the computer. Fiction and poetry connect you, or they can, to something bigger and quieter and more lasting than the day you had at work. The question of posterity is fascinating. Some writers hope to live on, through their words, after death. Some write for the present day. Either way, they take us out of the moment and out of our smallest selves.

I'm sorry to have gone on at such length, and I apologize if these comments sound idealistic or grandiose. (Tomorrow's post, about the writers Michel Houellebecq and Norman Rush, I plan to keep short and dry.) But, as you see, your comments got me where I live. I see the same problems you do. I just think we can do something about them.