Friday, March 06, 2009

The state of letters in the Penny Press!

When you read Gideon Lewis-Kraus' mordant, damning dispatch from the Frankfurt Book Fair in the latest issue of Harper's, it's hard not to come away with the impression that the lunatics are running the asylum. Lewis-Kraus wanders around the Fair as a kind of cynical note-taking ghost, showing up at the tables of all the major publishers, managing to have conversations with most of the major figures in the publishing world. Through him, we're able to eavesdrop on the relatively tiny handful of people whose decisions determine the shape of book-publishing in the world today.

Lewis-Kraus depicts such a world in the midst of unprecedented crisis - and boy, the chattering idiots at the helms of the various publishing houses and literary agencies aren't helping things any. It's not that a publishing industry rapidly growing dumber and dumber has had increasing need for dumber and dumber executives ... it's that dumber and dumber executives have succeeded in making the industry dumber and dumber.

The problem here is the same one that plagues most corporate structures: the delusion held by the religious believers in such structures that all qualities rise to the top. According to this viewpoint, if you're, say, a senior group manager, you'll be better in every way than a senior manager (and incalculably better, it only follows, than a rank-and-file employee) - you'll be smarter, sharper, funnier, more worldly-wise, more empathetic, more insightful, more creative, etc. The articulation of this religious belief goes something like this: if you weren't superior in all those ways, you wouldn't be senior group manager.

In reality, as everyone who sojourns in reality already knows, the fact that somebody is senior group manager only guarantees a few traits they've got to have in greater degree than their subordinates - and all of those traits are negative, ghastly, horrible things. That senior group manager will be more brittle, more willing to sacrifice the basic aspects of humanity (compassion, free time, family or familiarity with family) that no normal person would even consider sacrificing, and most of all more of an asshole - meaning, more able to live with themselves while routinely treating everyone they safely can like dirt. Hardly creamy, what rises to the top.

But that's never how any corporate authority-chain sees things - delusion always obtains. And the publishing industry, especially according to Lewis-Kraus' picture here, is no different: its senior executives not only believe themselves better capable of reading the whims of the buying public (which, after all, might actually be true), better able to negotiate the often cutthroat world of author acquisition, but also better at all the other things connected with the world of books. Time and again in Lewis-Kraus' article, we come across powerful agents or heads of publishing houses who believe themselves to be the best, most dedicated book-readers in the world, by virtue of their position at the top of their fields, regardless of the glaringly obvious fact that most of them have the intellectual probity of a glass of ice water. The anecdotes come fast and furious, managing to be both Facebook-breathless and faux-jaded at the same time:

The previous evening, when I first met Jamie [Byng, publisher of Canongate], I told him that the only galley I wanted to take away from the Fair was Geoff Dyer's forthcoming novel, which Canongate will publish this spring, and Jamie took one out of his distressed satchel and gave it to me, along with a CD of his favorite Nick Cave songs. He said that he and Dyer play tennis together, and that he read the first sixty pages of the acetate-wrapped, gold-and-black FSG hardcover of Out of Sheer Rage while half-drunk one late night in his library, standing up by the shelves, then sat down on the couch and finished the whole book in a "one-er."

Only very occasionally in the piece (which makes great, if disturbing, reading and is well worth the price of the issue) are random notes of sanity struck, usually in passing:

As Ira [Silverberg, an agent] says, maybe the best thing for books would be wholesale corporate divestment. There wouldn't be nearly the same amount of money paid out, but neither would there be the same inequalities and neuroses. Literary careers would be more modest, but they would almost certainly be more sustainable.

(Some of you will recall that the great Ursula LeGuin, in an essay a couple of years ago about the state of the book industry, called for just this kind of corporate divestment ... she was right then, and she's even more right, as it were, now)

But most of the time, reading the piece reminds you again and again that the people at the very apex of the publishing world are by a wide majority idiots who never actually read anything, morons who are entirely caught up in talking and acting like their entire lives are ruled by their love of the printed word, but who haven't sat down and done any reading since they were forced to in high school. The combination of stupidity and blitheness is especially galling when it's connected with something as important and life-changing as books can be:

I leave and make my way alone past the banks, along the dingy pedestrian thoroughfare of central Frankfurt to the Frankfurter Hof, which, due to its proximity to the villainous scalene fortress of the Commerzbank, whose yellow and red spires flash like the eye of Sauron, is easy to find. Right outside the door is Jamie again, and we're in medias torrentes as usual: "I'm at a stag party in Reykjavik thrown by DBC Pierre and it's been a few days and I'm really just totally torched, and on the flight home I'm reading the manuscript Ali Smith had sent us and I'm just weeping uncontrollable tears - I love that book!"

Lewis-Kraus winds up his article on a guardedly hopeful note, saying that the book industry seems, at least for now and at least on the strength of the Fair, to be surviving, but there's one absolutely vital part of the book industry he neglects to mention at all: book reviews.

Most of the publishers he meets are still going forward with the making of many books, and those titles join a great teeming mass of books already crowding bookstore shelves. Lewis-Kraus makes glancing mention of the fact that mean, evil chain bookstores sell the crucial real display space at the front of their stores to publishers eager to snag that all-important first fifteen seconds of the shopper's attention, and he briefly sketches the many modern distractions from reading anything at all - but he doesn't seem to want to make the connection between all of those books, all of those distractions, and the great-than-ever need the book-buying public has for guidance.

They're desperate for this guidance - much more desperate than either publishers or most bookstores have fully realized (hell, they'll not only look at but actually base purchases on that 'customers who bought this also bought this' tab on most commercial bookselling websites - even though such correlates are purely computer-generated and more often than not don't reflect any similarity at all between the titles listed (because the previous buyers were shopping for both little Timmy and grandma, for instance). Books are expensive and profuse - your average book-reader, even your smarter-than-average book-reader, is often at a loss as to what direction to take. They love to read (and unlike nitwit publishers, they do it well and energetically), but they don't spend their entire waking lives reading book-reviews and tracking titles, nor should they. What they need is advice they can trust.

Naturally, Lewis-Kraus' article got me thinking about Open Letters Monthly, which as of March has been dispensing such advice for two years now. You know that painfully thin college undergraduate you see absorbedly reading in the coffee house, making you wonder when the last time was you read anything with that particular combination of scrutiny and abandonment? That's the Open Letters Fiction Editor. You know that honey-voiced guy at the party who seems to have all the poetry in the room's books at his mental fingertips, the one who not only knows all the poetry but wants to find just the right poems for you, personally? That's the Open Letters Poetry Editor. You know that vaguely subterranean grind who knows all about the politics of the day, all about their immediate antecedents, and can quickly and vividly draw the connections for you, with a maximum of enthusiasm and a minimum of partisan mania? That's the Open Letters Political Editor. And some of you know me: I read a lot, I have lots of strong opinions about the things I read, but above all that, I really do personally want to connect you with good books you'll genuinely love.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus needs to read Open Letters, but more importantly, so do all those dedicated book-readers out there who want knowing, spirited guidance. It's too late for the publishers and agents who are so in love with the sound of their own passion for the watery crap they produce - but their more down-to-earth counterparts, the small company of knowledgeable, hard-working book-people out there in all areas of the field - they need to read Open Letters too, so they know they're that much less alone.

Until that happy day dawns, however, I guess we'll always have Frankfurt.


Greg said...

"That senior group manager will be more brittle, more willing to sacrifice the basic aspects of humanity (compassion, free time, family or familiarity with family) that no normal person would even consider sacrificing, and most of all more of an asshole - meaning, more able to live with themselves while routinely treating everyone they safely can like dirt. Hardly creamy, what rises to the top."

Who could you be talking about?

Greg said...

And yes, everyone should read OLM!