Critic and writer Dale Peck criticizes the publishing industry that produces bad books and loses his money. He says it’s time for writers and readers to assert themselves in the market. Based on a speech delivered at the PEN World Voices festival earlier this month.
The literary press resounds with laments about the derelict state of contemporary literature and the urgent need to shore it up against bureaucracies, philistines, and other enemies of art. This dereliction is generally broken up into two categories; the first is the growing failure of writers to withstand the censorious muzzle of the current literary panic, while the second concerns the business of books—of struggling publishers and disappearing booksellers and ever-dwindling numbers of readers for literary titles. And, though virtually every lament comes with a call to save publishing, the simple truth is that the publishing industry is not dying.
But this isn’t a eulogy. If anything, it’s a baptism.
Because the only way we can get on with our business is if we finally bury publishing’s corpse and rechannel the energy we’ve spent propping it to build something new. Something that serves the needs not of editors, or marketers, or publishers, or shareholders, or the culture industry, but of writers and readers, who together are recto and verso of the literary community, which is to say, the only thing that matters.
No doubt you’ve heard many explanations for how we got from “there,” a mythical Golden Age in which Maxwell Perkins sat down with the typescript of The Great Gatsby, came to a pair of paragraphs that read: "As we crossed Blackwell’s Island, a limousine passed us, driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish Negroes, two bucks and a girl. I laughed aloud as the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry."
“Anything can happen now that we’ve slid over this bridge,” I thought; “anything at all ...” and, instead of drawing a red line through the passage, decided readers could make up their own minds about Nick Carraway’s—or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s—racism; to “here,” a prudish moment in which not only is the word “n***r” removed from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn but many of the discussions about the excision refer to the deleted term only as “the n-word.”
The controversy over Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is in many ways emblematic of the crisis in which publishing finds itself. According to Suzanne La Rosa of NewSouth (!) Books, the decision to replace the word “n***r” with the word “slave“ was done to “sav[e] the books.” According to the editor, Alan Gribben, “Both novels can be enjoyed deeply and authentically,” not despite the change, but because of it.
This is a lie. I know it, you know it, and Alan Gribben and Suzanne La Rosa know it—and if they don’t know it, then God knows they have no business editing fiction or educating children. Whether you think The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn racist or not, to replace a word their author used yet still refer to the altered texts as “authentic” is a debasement of the very concept of literature, not to mention the word “authentic.” The idea that early-21st-century readers can learn about antebellum values through a pair of late 19th-century texts retrofitted with politically correct language is only slightly less offensive than the idea that contemporary readers who don’t want to read Huckleberry Finn should be forced to do so anyway, which is in turn trumped by the ultimate offensive absurdity, which is the idea that literature needs saving.
Time [writers] thought of money not as a distasteful adjunct to the literary endeavor, but the way Marx thought about money, and Gramsci, and Keynes, and Muhammad Yunus—as something a person is entitled to for his or her labor.
Literature isn’t a 6-year-old dyslexic girl who has to be drilled on the difference between b’s and d’s and p’s and q’s. Literature isn’t weak. It’s strong. It isn’t given. It takes. It isn’t protected. It protects.
And, finally, literature cannot be saved, because literature saves us. When it no longer saves us, it is no longer literature. Perhaps it was once and has lost its relevance; perhaps it never was; the distinction is one we can and should argue about, and if we don’t reach a conclusion that’s a good sign, because a book about which everyone in the culture says the same thing has lost its ability to say anything about the culture—just as a literary classic, to borrow a phrase from the beleaguered Mark Twain, “is a book that everybody talks about but which no one has read.”
There’s an ominous resonance in Twain’s words, because it points up a second, perhaps subconscious, motivation behind the recent violation of his novels: not getting people to read them, but getting people to buy them. When Gribben and La Rosa justify their edition, their arguments freely interchange the word “readers” for the word “audience” and the word “audience” for the word “market” and the word “market” for numbers—in this case, an initial print run of 7,500 hardcover copies that was upped to 10,000 after the controversy boosted preorders. Such is the desperate state of American publishing that we must bastardize a book in order to sell it, so as to earn a few more dollars that will enable us to keep on going and publish a few more bowdlerized books: an edition of Lolita in which Dolores Haze is 21 rather than 12; an edition of Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov yells “Boo!” at Alyona and Lizaveta Ivanovna instead of cracking their skulls open with an axe; an edition of the Bible in which Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas, and Jesus of Nazareth consent to arbitration and mediation rather than going through with the bloody and, let’s face it, somewhat farfetched business of crucifixion, resurrection, Inquisition, and Holocaust.
This is not a publishing industry worth fighting for, not least because it isn’t the publishing industry as we have been taught to think of it—a high-minded cultural enterprise facilitating the flow of books from writers to readers—but because the woeful state of publishing today is the industry’s fault—and when I say “industry” I include, most especially, writers, because it is we who have allowed publishing companies and retailers to dictate the terms by which we turn our words into books and deliver our books to readers. And those terms, to put it as bluntly as possible, are fucked. New York publishers make Detroit automakers look like geniuses. They give away the bulk of their money—of our money—to a series of increasingly irrelevant, monopolistic, intermediaries, and, on top of that, allow retailers to return merchandise they can’t sell—at the publisher’s expense—for a full refund. They spend virtually nothing on promotion, relying instead on a fast-disappearing review culture, and, most damningly, they not only refuse to change the way they do business, but expect writers to bear the brunt of the disaster in the form of decreased advances, sales, and opportunities to publish work that doesn’t fit into an increasingly homogenized marketplace.
What’s most astonishing of all is that it simply doesn’t have to be this way. It is now possible for every writer to sell books directly to readers. Not just the Stephen Kings and John Grishams but every person who ever gets it together to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. I’m not talking about Amazon’s print-on-demand and e-book “services.” Amazon is not your friend. Amazon is a thief that takes your money in return for insinuating itself between you and your readers. I’m talking about a host of services and portals, some well-established, some fledgling, and some being invented even as we speak.
I don’t know why writers are mourning the death of an industry that’s done so little for them for so long. From where I stand, I can see a world not so far into the future in which books are sold only by authors or small collectives through one or two or three online portals that charge a nominal fee for their service rather than gobbling up the lion’s share of revenue. A world in which books, freed of the dross of an archaic retail system, cost half or even a third of current prices, and in which they’re published simultaneously as hardcovers, paperbacks, and electronic editions so that readers can choose the option that’s right for them. A world in which thousands of books aren’t printed and shipped only to be pulped 18 months later, but, rather, where no book is printed until it’s sold. A world in which the so-called online “marketplaces” set aside a portion of the proceeds from used-book resales in a royalty fund for writers whose backlists have been destroyed by Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com. A world in which, hell, Amazon is forced from the book business, Barnes and Noble doesn’t even exist, and the only bricks-and-mortar bookstores are small shops run by individual curators catering to local communities whose trust and taste they serve. And I can see this world not because I’m a prophet (or radical, or cynic), but because it’s being built right now.
It’s time writers thought of themselves as an army rather than a city under siege. Time we thought of money not as a distasteful adjunct to the literary endeavor, but the way Marx thought about money, and Gramsci, and Keynes, and Muhammad Yunus—as something a person is entitled to for his or her labor. Writers by their nature spend so much time describing the world they often forget they’re building it too. It’s time we valued our writing not just for its aesthetic accomplishment, its moral or political weight, but as work, as part of the myriad of activities necessary to build the physical and intellectual infrastructure of society. And when we give away our work—our words—for free, we are telling the world exactly how much we think it’s worth.
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