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Will Commercialit Ruin Great Fiction?

27 March 2016

From The Daily Beast:

The Nest—a first novel by a woman, a bright-lighted family story—offers the kind of pleasure I’ve been missing all these years I’ve been assigned prodigious novels of dark ideas by established men such as Gaddis, Pynchon, DeLillo, Wallace, and Vollmann. An additional pleasure: The Nest came to me by luck, sent by some ill-informed publicity director who thought I might like such a book, “ill-informed” because I don’t recall ever praising a novel like The Nest. I was curious, gave it an hour, and then the rest of the day, speeding through all 350 pages of Sweeney’s novel. It was like binge-watching a cable TV series. In fact, The Nest reminded me of early episodes of Netflix’s Bloodline, also about siblings’ inheritance imperiled by a ne’er-do-well brother. The Nest is not just about money—a multi-million dollar trust fund—but is being promoted by money, the million-dollar advance the publisher proudly announced was paid for this first novel by an unknown writer. Sweeney and some other recent debut novelists who have been paid huge advances seem to be shaping a new genre for fledgling writers.

. . . .

The pat endings broke the spell for me. I recognized—belatedly, I admit—that The Nest is not really about character. Sweeney may not have intended her title to refer to the security provided by her gossipy style, but paging back through the novel, I realized that I never had to worry about coming upon some disturbing sensibility, original metaphor, syntactical oddity, evidence of an intricate pattern, mysterious allusion, or alien setting. No, The Nest is formed from familiar twigs to hold in fledgling readers who cheep for their next helping of plot from the pre-digesting mother/author. That’s when I remembered the money. To pay out a million dollars for The Nest, the publisher must have calculated that it is as secure a commodity as the novel is a safe fiction for readers.

I understand the economic strategy: a novelist with no history (of mediocre sales) can be publicized as the Big New Find because the author has been given a Big Old Advance. But I worry that Sweeney’s book and some other fairly recent first novels with huge advances—Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves, and Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire—suggest young writers are creating what I’ll call commercialit. All of these novels have at least one character who is either an English teacher or a writer, the existence of whom in the text implies that the novel must be literary. But the literariness of the four is a patina of fictional sophistication scumbled over conventional and therefore commercial components. Even if the characters don’t end up well, at least some readers do—entertained, unthreatened, and pleased to feel they’ve not been reading commercialock: commercial schlock.

Link to the rest at The Daily Beast and thanks to Dave for the tip.

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Big Publishing, Books in General

36 Comments to “Will Commercialit Ruin Great Fiction?”

  1. Could someone translate this for me? My pompous isn’t very fluent. As near as I can make out, he didn’t like it even though it had a writer or English teacher as a character and even though he was pulled along to finish it in one sitting because it was neatly resolved.

    • He’s apparently upset because:

      “The further irony of The Nest is that its page-turning pleasure depends on the all-knowing Sweeney’s method of creating character with high-toned gossip.”

      And

      ” Sweeney may not have intended her title to refer to the security provided by her gossipy style, but paging back through the novel, I realized that I never had to worry about coming upon some disturbing sensibility, original metaphor, syntactical oddity, evidence of an intricate pattern, mysterious allusion, or alien setting. ”

      Translation: How dare the author write an engaging and entertaining novel which lacked the subtlety this snob expected.

    • Okay, so literary fiction was invented so white male English professors (preferably who attended or teach at Ivy league schools) can get adulation for writing about the torment of being a white male English professor (preferably who attended or teach at Ivy league schools). Literary fiction is promoted as art that serious people must read and everything else is trash that is only read by the unwashed. All the money in publishing is made from genre (for the unwashed) and non-fiction, but white male publishing executives (who attended Ivy league schools) happily waste money promoting and printing lots of literary fiction and shuffling it around before pulping it so white male ivy league types can feel superior. The executives felt good about helping out their buddies (and “art”). Best of all, the writers of literary fiction never needed to live interesting lives to have something to write about. Or use their imaginations to invent something. And they only had to write one book maybe every ten years while claiming to be a “real” writer so they had plenty of time to teach people that literary fiction is more important that other kinds of writing. This all worked very nicely for 30 years or so.

      The problem is that self-publishing came along and all these people who didn’t attend the right schools, and don’t even teach at them, starting writing stuff that people read. Some of them actually led interesting lives. (Lots of former lawyers and military personnel are writing stories. Former high seas pirate Hugh Howey wrote some stuff. Etc.) Some of them are really good at using their imaginations and writing more than one book every ten years. This is a problem because those people are making lots of money and don’t seem to care what English professors say about art. That makes white male English professors sad.

      Even worse, now some people are writing about English professors and university types but… making it kind of interesting. Even worse, some of those people are GIRLS! Even worse, those girls are getting a lot of money in advance, because they know they can self-publish their interesting book and don’t need big publishers. This runs the entire thing, because obviously you can’t pay a lot of money for boring books that don’t sell by boring white male English professors who had no life and that no one will read. If girls start writing literary fiction, and add in all this secret stuff they know girls like to read and all, that could ruin everything! Some of these girls are young and might even have some kind of interesting life to write about. It’s really quite unfair.

      The worst thing that could happen to literary fiction is if some of it actually becomes slightly popular, because then there will be all this pressure to write interesting books. Then it becomes all about money, instead of helping out boring white guys.

      • +1

      • Oh, and one more thing. Note his invention of a new term: commercialit.

        It’s very important to keep inventing new terms to describe what isn’t art.

        For example:

        Genre: stuff that would be art, if it wasn’t about really cool things.

        Chicklit: stuff that would be art, if it hadn’t been written by a girl.

        Commericallit: stuff that would be art, if it hadn’t been written by some young person who got paid a big advance.

        Literary Fiction: stuff that is art because it’s about university life or something equally boring. (NOTE: must be written by boring old white guy who was not paid much.)

        • Povertylit?

        • *Just* a little glib, wouldn’t you say? I’m a female who has written a literary novel (“Outcasts”, coming out in May from an actual literary press). It’s not only NOT set in a university, its subject is a woman (Mary Shelley) who wrote THE FIRST SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL (“Frankenstein”).

          I anticipate much confusion among both SF fans and literary critics.

      • Clap.

      • Bravo, sir. Bravo! 😀

      • Just gimme that old time pulp
        It’s good enough for me

      • And if a girl makes the exact same points as Mackay, then she’s just a SJW. 😉

        • I thought the rule is that only white men can accurately apply the “SJW” label, Suzan. 😉

          That’s what the people who use it have led me to believe, anyway.

          • I’ve known some SJWs, and it did not take any special training or credentials to know that the label fit them.

            They were the people who told me I should give up writing because I am a white male and white males have already had their say.

            I’m not making this up, and they weren’t kidding.

          • I thought the rule is that only white men can accurately apply the “SJW” label, Suzan.

            That does a gross injustice to women and people of color. They are just as entitled to apply SJW as any white man.

      • Barbara Morgenroth

        Literary fiction is often about a mature married couple, 1 has an affair (could be with a younger student, probably is) and then sort of bad things happen but no one expresses raw emotion. And then it ends either by returning to the status quo of sonambulistic life or to create a new sonambulistic life.

        It’s upper class journaling.

    • Litfic : soaps with unusual English.
      Commercialit: soaps without.

  2. Got curious, went to Amazon and took a look at her novel (the Kindle version). Very odd TOC; a numbered list of differently-numbered chapters. The first sentence of the story is a substantial paragraph long; or, in other words, the first long-ish paragraph consists of only one sentence. It is chock full of inane, precious, “see what a perceptive and clever writer I am” details. It reminded me, once again, why I detest modern literary fiction written by MFAs of any gender.

    • I looked too. Style manages to be both pretentious-literary and vacuous at the same time. TOC is really strange, apparently deliberately.

      My admittedly very brief inspection of this book makes me think that the publisher decided there would be a market for low-brow subject matter in a literary style. And maybe there is.
      Despite LeClair’s whine, it’s the publisher’s prerogative to pay who they want what they want. In so doing, I doubt they will destroy literary fiction. Unless the head of every ill-paid literary fiction writer explodes.

      • They used to call it “purple prose.” I’m not sure what it’s called now, but it makes MY head feel like it will explode when I try to read it. Always has, always will.

        I greatly appreciate literate fiction, but despise works whose main goal seems to be to draw attention to the writer rather than to the story.

    • Well Amazon sure seems to have liked it, naming it a Best Book of this month. The TOC seems to be off because they numbered the epigraph and prologue etc., which is why it’s “6. Chapter One.” So it’s at least internally consistent.

      That said, isn’t what the OP is lamenting pretty much what many do, about how MFAs are killing fiction and writing workshops only produce more of the same, where more of the same is . . . exactly the sort of novel this post is addressing, along with Harbach and Hallberg?

      That said, I’m not sure what’s meant by “great fiction.” The writer of the post mentions Gaddis and DeLillo and, later, Egan and a few others, but I can’t tell if he’s considering them “great.”

      I did check out the Kindle sample of The Nest, and it’s pretty terribly written. That first sentence is horrible, and not just because it’s a paragraph, as has been mentioned, but because there are things misplaced and dangling all over the place. Made me wonder if the bartenders were balancing tiny crab cakes on paper napkins while actually making cocktails — those are some talented bartenders!

  3. I just have to hope that the money publishers make on books like The Nest and We Are Not Ourselves (which became a bestseller) trickles down to—is “inherited” by—novelists willing to fly from the nest of conventional story and high-toned gossip.

    Meaning, I suppose, that the authors of “books like The Nest and We Are Not Ourselves,” ain’t gonna get all that they might have otherwise gotten? Curious sort of “inheritance,” where your bequests go to heirs you didn’t choose while you’re still alive.

    edit: And that “trickles down” language? Invoking Ronald Reagan?

  4. How timely; it makes me appreciate Beverly Cleary even more.

  5. …I realized that I never had to worry about coming upon some disturbing sensibility, original metaphor, syntactical oddity, evidence of an intricate pattern, mysterious allusion, or alien setting.

    Aha! So stories that don’t disturb the reader can’t be great literature? And genre stories – by definition – can’t be great literature, even if they do possess original metaphor or alien settings or interesting insight? And heaven forbid that a reader might actually feel good after reading a story!

    I think I am glad I don’t know Tom Leclair. We wouldn’t get along.

  6. “I realized that I never had to worry about coming upon some disturbing sensibility, original metaphor, syntactical oddity, evidence of an intricate pattern, mysterious allusion, or alien setting.”

    Yet if you try to give him an indie novel with exactly what that book lacked, he’d probably turn his nose up and not even try.

    No way to comment on the OP. Unless you had to sign up somewhere.

  7. I love—oh so much!—when a purposely contentious b******* article has a title that is a binary, yes or no question.

    Article: Will Commercialit Ruin Great Fiction?

    Me: No.

    Then I move on with life. Saves me a lot of time.

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