Literature used to be a place for transgressive ideas, a place to question taboos, and seek naked insights into humanity. It no longer is.
Critics, writers and publishers are today enforcing a new vision that treats books less as a vehicle for artistic expression than as a product to be inspected for safety and wholesomeness. In the past few years, this has only gained momentum, with much of what is written about literature, old and new, becoming a series of moral pronouncements.
The new literary moralism made early appearances in young-adult fiction, or YA. Back in 2017, the industry magazine Kirkus Reviews revoked a prestigious starred review of the YA novel American Heart after online denunciations. The chastened critic posted a revised review, now deeming it “problematic” that the author had written of a Muslim girl from the point of view of a white protagonist. Other young-adult authors have since withdrawn books from publication for the self-confessed sin of writing about marginalized characters without belonging to the same identity group.
Perhaps it’s understandable that those in YA publishing would feel a duty of care: Children are vulnerable and unformed, and kids’ books have always been a place for didactic storytelling and safe themes. The problem is that many in the book world—often with a sincere wish to address inequality—have expanded both the notion of what is “offensive” and whose reading must be morally patrolled: It’s the adults too.
Take the reaction last year to Jeanine Cummins’ bestselling novel American Dirt, about a Mexican woman and her son who escape a cartel and find themselves among the migrants and refugees trying to reach the United States. Major publications were fulsome with praise, many suggesting that the novel’s value lay in its potential to humanize immigrants. The writer Sandra Cisneros said in a blurb, “This book is not simply the great American novel; it’s the great novel of las Americas. It’s the great world novel!” Attention only increased when Oprah Winfrey announced that she would feature it in her book club.
But a scathing blog post emerged from the writer and activist Myriam Gurba: “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature.” Gurba reported that simply reading a publisher’s letter for American Dirt had made her so angry her “blood became carbonated.” She went on to argue that Cummins, a white American woman with some Puerto Rican background, had no business writing about a culture and identity group to which she didn’t belong.
The critical consensus soon flipped.
Already, the novelist Lauren Groff—writing in the New York Times Book Review in January 2020—seemed uneasy about her assignment. “I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book,” Groff wrote, noting that neither she nor the author were Mexican migrants. “In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant.”
Some 142 writers signed an open letter imploring Winfrey to rescind her book-club selection, citing “harm this book can and will do,” arguing that it engaged in “trauma fetishization.” Apparently, the book was no longer an urgent remedy to American xenophobia. Rather, Cummins was a cultural appropriator, and her book a collection of harmful stereotypes.
. . . .
This mindset isn’t confined to writers and critics. Increasingly, literary agents and editors are nervously evaluating the kinds of authors and stories they are comfortable with, and publishers seek to protect themselves by employing “sensitivity readers,” who scour unpublished fiction for offensive themes, characterizations or language. This moral, rather than artistic, gatekeeping means that some books never even get close enough to publication to be canceled.
The writer Bruce Wagner—a successful author of numerous novels and screenplays, such as Maps to the Stars—says that his editor at Counterpoint Press objected to his latest novel due to “problematic language” regarding a protagonist who weighs over 500 pounds and refers to herself as “fat.” Wagner chose instead to publish his book, The Marvel Universe: Origin Stories, for free online. (Counterpoint did not respond to my requests for comment.)
Link to the rest at Persuasion
Reason # (PG lost track of the number. It’s a big one) to stay away from traditional publishing and run your own show.
Real people don’t live in the same universe or speak the same language as the NYC Publicans.
There are millions of avid and intelligent readers who never pay attention to the name of the publisher before they purchase a book. (At least 90% of the time, PG doesn’t pay attention, either, even though he may have a smidge of interest due to his day job.)
Traditional publishing is a relic of a past generation. MFA professors talk about it because they still think it has a bit of glamor. People living in parts of Manhattan and within commuting distance to parts of Manhattan pay attention to it.
People who read the New York Times book reviews pay attention to traditional publishing.
(PG just checked and the New York Times has a circulation of 831,000 for its print edition. That is .025% of the current estimated US population of 330 million. That’s 25 people out of every 1,000 people in the country. And only a fraction of the subscribers to the Times read the book reviews or books sections. The digital circulation of the NYT is larger, but anyone who has been online for more than five minutes knows that the number of people who regularly read a digital publication beyond the headlines is a tiny percentage of the total number of subscribers.)
For the country at large, traditional publishing is irrelevant. What the New York Times says about anything, particularly books, is irrelevant.
Making the huge compromises necessary to get your manuscript published by a major or even bush-league traditional publisher is, in PG’s childlike, yet totally cynical opinion, a giant waste of time and effort.
Interested in discoverability? Write a good book, edit it well (get help if needed and pay for it – it doesn’t have to cost a fortune), pay for a good cover (lots of good indie designers are happy to assist), put together a good description, price it for the best royalty rate available and post it on Amazon, by far the biggest bookstore (at least selling books in English) in the world. Get a bunch of good reviews (don’t try paying for those) and a good sales rank on Amazon.
Is that easy? Not really. It takes some work and you may have to climb a learning curve on some of the items, but you, the author, are in control of the whole business. You don’t have to enter a beauty contest to snag an agent who may or may not know what she/he is doing. You don’t have to wait for the agent to (perhaps) sell your manuscript to an editor (who may or may not have a job in a year) working for a publisher (which may or may not be in business in a year), then wait and wait and wait to hear anything.
You’ll wait a lot if you go the tradpub route, then wait some more. Once your manuscript falls into the belly of the beast, you, the author, are not particularly important or interesting most of the time.
Yes, when it’s finally published (not a certain thing), you’ll have the marketing experience of the publisher behind your book (maybe) (unless an Oprah or an Obama title is in the works, in which case, your book will be #3,872 on everybody’s to-do list).
And the quality of the publisher’s marketing muscle? Think cutting-edge 1973 stuff.
People with a fragment of an ounce of marketing and sales talent can make a bazillion percent more money working almost anywhere outside of publishing. And not have to deal with idiots.
But, as usual, PG could be wrong.
Perhaps Big Publishing is about to enter a new golden age during which billions of people will be happy to pay $25 for the latest hard cover book just like they pay for a print subscription to the New York Times.