Monthly Archives: April 2012

Call “Sour Grapes” If You Want, But I’m Damn Tickled There’s No Award for Fiction

I’m damn tickled there was no Pulitzer awarded for fiction this year. Most of the time I find the winner to be unworthy anyway, so the fact the Pulitzer board couldn’t pick a winner from the three finalists let’s me, for once, imagine the Prize might actually mean something. It lets me tell myself the board has finally awakened to my point of view – but, of course, that’s just silly. They have no idea who the hell I am and they’ve certainly never talked to me. And they’d never consider pulling one of my books out of the giant pool of books from which the finalists are chosen. So, you could level accusations at me that I’m being jealous – but I’m not. Granted, I think my first book was good, but it was most certainly flawed. Maybe too flawed to have won any award at all.
People (rando-commenters on news sites) are upset with the three judges who selected this year’s Pulitzer finalists, and are acting offending that their preferred writer was snubbed (yet again). However, the panelists, Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, and Susan Larson aren’t really to blame for this ginned up non-fiasco. The 18 member Pulitzer board couldn’t make up their minds between a spare, quiet, small novel (Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams), an over-hyped pseudo debut by a precocious youngster (Karen Russell’s Swamplandia), and the unfinished final novel by an over-romanticized dead guy (David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King), but even they aren’t really to blame because, I must admit, I too am very unmoved by these selections and if told to pick one of those three to represent the “best” of American fiction published in 2011, I’d turn up my nose and refuse to pick one as well.
Johnson’s book is the only one that, in my opinion, even remotely deserved to be a finalist, but that alone doesn’t mean it should have been picked as the winner out of the three. If I hold back the best apple and give you two bad apples and one so-so apple and tell you to pick “the best apple of all the apples grown this year” then you’d be wise to refuse to pick any of the presented apples. But that analogy suggests the three panelists held back the actual “best novel of the year” out of some form of spite, and I hardly think that’s the case.
If I have any accusation to level at the three judges, it’s not rooted in who, specifically, they presented to the Pulitzer board as finalists – there is, after all, no accounting for taste.  I’m fundamentally upset that those three people were selected to be judges at all because it was their taste in books that lead to this. What I would accuse them of is a complete lack of daring.
Now, I know nothing about Susan Larson except what her bio in the articles say. I’ve never listened to her radio show “The Reading Life,”  but Corrigan and Cunningham I’m a bit more familiar with – and I’m simply not impressed by them.
My problem with those two is, essentially, the same: they have been purchased by the big publishers and the prize system in general – and that is what I mean by their lack of daring. They, of course, probably don’t think they are timid extensions of the Big Six but their selection to the jury, and their eventual picks, were bought and paid for by the Big Six, and the prestigious writing programs they have all attended, taught at, or otherwise passed through. Who they picked as finalists is irrelevant; it’s why they picked them that matters.
FSG didn’t bribe them directly in a “Hey, nominate Wallace’s book and we’ll give you some cash” kind of way, and Knopf never called them up in the middle of the night and said “Swamplandia should be nominated for the Pulitzer and, by the way, that’s a real nice cat you got there. It’d be a shame if something happened to it.” It is nothing that sinister or blatant, it is simply that the Big Six publishers have enough resources (cash, sales forces, distribution networks, etc) they can put their books in more bookstores, get more review copies into the hands of reviewers, and fly their authors to more places for readings, interviews, and trade functions (Book Expo, the American Booksellers Association’s various conventions). Those deep pockets buy a lot of traction among the peripheral business of reviewing books, and some are sure to argue that those deep pockets also allow the Big Six to sign the “best writers” in the country to their imprints.

I think that’s bullshit. Literary writing, art, isn’t like a reliable car – art is messy, dangerous, unreliable and, most importantly, highly subjective when it comes to value.  Just because a lot of people buy a particular novel, doesn’t make that novel “better” than another novel. If that were the case, James Patterson would win every literary award, every year. Since the value of a work of art is subjective, the idea of saying that Karen Russell is a better writer than Emily St. John Mandel because Karen has sold more books is simply offensive. Karen is published by an imprint of Random House, a division of the largest media company in the world, Bertelsmann AG. Emily is published by Unbridled Books, an independent press with all of 10 employees (full disclosure – Unbridled is also my publisher). The number of books sold is not a direct correlation to a book’s worth, or value, or even the skill and talents of the writer. Sometimes it is. Sometimes, it’s simply the result of a giant publisher doing everything they can to make back an outrageously large investment on an extremely charming but still average writer. 
Maybe it’s ridiculous to suggest that the system is tilted in favor of certain writers and against other writers, but coming from where I do, it certainly seems that way. I’ve never lived in New York, nor did I go to a college that sported a seriously “famous,” “bestselling,” or well connected writer (when I was at K-State the professors were Jonathan Holden, Steve Heller, Elizabeth Dodd, and Ben Nyberg – stop me if you’ve heard of any of them outside of academic circles). None of my instructors, even in graduate school, took me so far under their wing as to recommend me to an agent, or an editor. Add to that, my family is certainly not at all connected in literary or publishing circles, which could have gotten a sympathetic eye turned toward my early work (think Nick McDonnell), and I was left with only two routes to get published 1) submit until I die or 2) self publish (and I was never going to self publish). No matter your opinion of my first novel, the fact is I essentially came up through the slush pile and still don’t have an agent. I have paid, and I’m still paying, my writerly dues the hard way, and doing it from the flyover country while working an anonymous mind-numbing day job for a mega-corporation.
Would Jonathan Safran Foer be the famous writer he is today if he’d been a pre-med student at the University of Kansas and taken an introductory writing course from some random writer rather than attending Princeton and taking that intro course from Joyce Carol Oates? Think about it.  It might be more likely that Foer would have become that doctor he set out to be rather than dropping out of med school to pursue writing novels.
Whenever I look at the year’s various “big” awards (Pulitzer, NBA, the assorted PEN awards), what I see is a panel of judges made up of writers like Michael Cunningham and reviewers like Maureen Corrigan, who have had their own books published by one of the “Big Six” publishing houses (Random House, Simon & Schuster, Macmillian, Hachette, Penguin, Harpercollins), giving an award to some other writer published by one of the Big Six publishers and thereby feeding the beast. Then, when I look at the bios of the judges giving the awards and the writers receiving the awards, I see a coterie of people who all attended or have taught at the same dozen or so writing programs (Iowa, Columbia, NYU, Princeton, Stanford, etc) stroking each other’s CV’s to keep them securely ensconced in their soft university jobs. I’d love to see someone come up with a kind of “Six Degrees of Joyce Carol Oates” or “Six Degrees of the Iowa Writers Workshop” to find out how quickly we could connect one literary writer, or editor, back to some “source” personality like Oates, or Tobias Wolff, or Ethan Canin.
 However, with so many books published each year by large and small publishers, it’s kind of hard to argue that the system is truly, and consciously rigged against the smaller publisher’s authors; however, when it appears that most of the books nominated for awards come exclusively from the Big Six publishers, and with those publishers able to throw their considerable marketing weight behind those handful of books – it’s easy to assume there’s a conspiracy – even if it’s an accidental conspiracy. Combine that with the prize giving organizations looking to add “legitimacy” to their awards by picking “widely respected” judges who have, essentially, gotten that wide respect in large part due to being the previous beneficiaries of the same large scale marketing push from the Big Six publishers, there’s enough material for someone to imagine that at least a patina of impropriety exists.
The unspoken assumption of that impropriety is never more on display than when the converse happens and a major award goes to a small, unheard-of book from a small press, like last year’s National Book Award winner Jaimy Gordon for Lord of Misrule. Book reviewers of all stripes (anointed NY Times “critics” and tiny book bloggers) all sat around scratching their heads and asking how something could be picked as the “best” book if no one had ever heard of it? – and accusing the judges of trying to make some social/artistic/political statement about the condition of American letters and the dominance of the Big Six publishers by picking a “small” book in defiance of …what? Park Slope Hipster approval? Personally, what I’m more likely to believe is that when the quiet, unknown book wins an award, it’s because the prize jury actually achieved a truly unbiased approach and, even accounting for the varieties of personal taste, picked the best book of the limited batch submitted for that particular award. Maybe that’s naive and all awards are really and truly given based on some form of cultural politics.
But, although it seems like a conspiracy is going on, and I’m sure I’ve pushed a conspiracy theory or two in the past, I simply can’t believe there’s an actual, conscious conspiracy among big publishers, award granting institutions, and the jurists they invite to select a list of finalists, to consistently give awards to writers published by the same six big publishers year after year. However, knowing a little about human nature, and the fact that the three Pulitzer judges had to review some 300 hundred books, it is quite easy to believe that what is going on is a combination of random elimination of the unfamiliar, and a pre-disposition to favor the familiar. In other words, whether they are aware of it or not (and they certainly won’t admit it) when any award judge, or panel of judges, is confronted with 300 books – some of which they have already read and given glowing reviews to – the tendency, no matter how judiciously they guard against it, is to lean toward picking a book they’ve already read, thought about, and heaped praise upon – rather than pick  the silent lump of a book they’ve heard nothing about – especially when one of those judges has already put out a “Ten Best Books of the Year” list.
I figure it might be pretty embarrassing for a prize judge to suddenly offer up a book as “The Best Book of The Year” when they left that book off of their own, already published, Best Books of the year list. What kind of bias was Maureen Corrigan fighting knowing that she had already reviewed, and selected for her NPR end of the year 10 Best list, all three novels that ended up as finalists for the Pulitzer?  Was she truly “free” to choose the best book out of the 300 nominated for the Pulitzer, or did her 10 Best list actually reduce her choices by 290?
Again, that brings us back to taste. For example, Maureen Corrigan thinks Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is a brilliant work that should be put in a time capsule to give future readers an idea of what middle class life in America was really like. I think that would be a horrible, misleading shame and a blunder. Years ago, I tried reading Franzen’s The Corrections and ended up throwing the book violently to the floor before the third page. I’d actually gone into it eager and excited to read this book by the author who had turned up his nose at Oprah’s book club, and in a mere page and a half got my life-time supply of corrosive irony. I have never wanted to read another word by that guy. It is through our personal taste in literature that we arrive at what is really at the heart, in my opinion, of what is going on with the lack of a Pulitzer prize in fiction this year: just like monopolies in businesses can lead to poorer goods and services, monopolies in art, lead to poorer artworks – and what we have in microcosm with the lack of a 2012 Pulitzer prize in fiction, is precicely what is going on in the book industry.
Three hundred novels were submitted for the Pulitzer. Three people where cast in the role of “gatekeeper,” and they went about applying their personal biases and aesthetics to those 300 novels until they arrived at three books they deemed worthy of passing on to the audience that was the Pulitzer board.  This is a microcosm of how the book world works. Thousands and thousands of writers submit their novels to hundreds agents and editors every year. Those agents and editors, and their preliminary readers, apply their various personal biases and aesthetics to the submitted works and select the various books they want to present to the reading audience. Sometimes, those books, much loved and championed by their agents and editors, flop . . .  sometimes they flop as fabulously as lead balloons weighted to concrete blocks.
Why are we acting surprised and outraged that the audience response was so tepid as to be indecisive? Ms. Corrigan has been quoted as being angered or outraged, or whatever, that the Pulitzer board couldn’t make up their minds about one of the three books she and Susan and Michael submitted.  I was more shocked at how her comments hinted at an unimaginable hubris. Has she been so over-praised for her NPR book reviews (read: extended promotional blurbs) that she believes herself to be a nearly infallible judge of a book’s worth? I don’t want to believe so, but her comments certainly sound that way to me. A tepid audience is standard for most books that get published. Audiences are fickle and, as a herd-mind, rather poor judges of quality. How else does Dan Brown become a bestselling writer while obviously more talented and thoughtful writers struggle to be read by one one hundreth as many people? 
To me, there is a direct correlation between the rise of the Big Six publishers and the much noted and worried over decline in the number of people reading literary works.  As more independent publishers were sucked up into the big conglomerates and made imprints, the variety of aesthetic views declined and, much like how women forced to live together will synchronize their menstrual cycles, too many editors forced to work together begin to synchronize their aesthetic views, or probably more accurately, have those views tweaked by the aesthetics of the larger, more powerful marketing department and their obsession with the financial bottom line.
There’s a difference between publishing something you love and betting on the notion that other people will also like it enough to buy it, and publishing something because you like its potential to make lots of money; and there’s a difference between telling a free range, self-selecting audience what books you “love,” and giving a captive audience three of your favorite books and asking them to tell you which of those three is the best of all the books published that year. In all cases, whether as a publisher, or selector of finalists, people should be prepared for a few lead balloons. I’m sure Maureen Corrigan has gushed lovingly about some novel on her NPR segment that was then purchased by a reader who later felt cheated because, in the reader’s aesthetic judgment, – a judgment equally as valid as Ms Corrigan’s – the book was not as good as the review lead her to believe. The difference between that situation and this Pulitzer situation is that the former is private: Maureen never hears that lone readers rejection. The later is extremely public and apparently embarrassing to Ms. Corrigan, whose comments about being frustrated by the Pulitzer board seem to make her out to believe she is an infallible arbiter of literary taste.
I think things like this are going to happen a bit more frequently now that the Big Six are scrambling to protect themselves from Amazon: the big fish they accidently gave birth to.
Back in the 70’s and 80’s, as the Big Six began to form up and concentrate their economic and aesthetic clout into fewer and fewer hands, more small publishers and their authors began to get squeezed off the shelves, if not put out of business all together, and the authors were left to wander the wilderness. Small publishers have always a hard time competing for shelf space, but once publishers like Random House could, literally, buy the front table in every bookstore in America just to market their own books, that competition became even more unbalanced. And if the small publishers were fighting to get shelf space and attention for their lists, the authors they published were even more hard-up trying to get noticed for individual books.
It’s that marginalization that helped give birth to the multi-headed beast that is Amazon.
I know most readers don’t care about, or even much follow the fluctuating ties of publishers, their imprints, and the editors who run them, but it’s exactly that kind of secret web of connection, haphazard and erratic as it is, that is so insidious. You could stock an entire bookstore with nothing but titles published by Random House and its subsidiaries, and the average reader probably wouldn’t notice for a long while. They don’t care about the colophon on the spine, they’re looking for a good read and they expect that the books that have made it to the bookstore shelves have received someone’s stamp of approval. The problem is that, with the Big Six publishers, there are thousands of books published each year that are stamped “approved” by a smaller and smaller group of gatekeepers, and the tastes of those gatekeepers seems to be getting more detached from the general reading public every year.
When Amazon and the internet came along and gave us a world-wide means of distribution along with things like ExLibris and Createspace, those marginalized authors were given a great leveling tool. If a writer didn’t meet the narrowing aesthetic standard of the shrinking number of gatekeepers at the Big Publishers, or at the dwindling number of small publishers, they could, quickly, and relatively cheaply, take their work straight to the audience.
Now, I’m not a champion of Amazon, and certainly not a champion of self-publishing. I think they threaten the American Literary scene as much as the hexopoly of the Big Six – but in different ways. The Big Six run the risk of homogenizing the literary aesthetic and killing variety.  Amazon, and self-publishing, by allowing anyone to play, threatens to utterly destroy the literary playground by overwhelming it with junk so that it becomes a horrendously time consuming effort for a reader to find something truly worthwhile. Amazon’s current structure even makes room for forgeries and fakes that can sometimes confuse the reading public.
What I am a champion of is a variety of skilled, imaginative, dedicated writers getting a chance to be read.  In my opinion, the healthiest environment for that is one where there are lots of publishers, each one displaying a consistent and defined aesthetic in the books they select for publication. Self-publishing wasn’t such a big business when writers felt they had access to the traditional means of getting published. Of course, self-publishing also wasn’t a big business back when the technologies to self-publish a book weren’t available through someone’s Cheetos-stained laptop in their mother’s basements.
The weapon that will defeat Amazon’s grab for book selling dominance will come when the traditional publishers can re-establish the general reading public’s trust in their artistic and aesthetic judgment. Amazon knows that, that’s why they’re starting their own publishing imprints with editors hired from the Big Six, and establishing a submission policy rather than relying on that all-comers-welcome approach they use with Createspace. By setting up a traditional style publishing arm, they are saying to the reading public “Hey, we’ll hire some gatekeepers to weed out the bad Twilight fan fiction and the Wikipedia copy-paste knock-offs and select books we think are of value and present them to you to choose from.” That, ostensibly, is the model the Big Six use, but since The Big Six have become so exclusive – they only take agented submissions or seek out celebrities to author books for them – they have created a kind of unplanned and unnatural selection that has deadened the literary waters – which lead three people to float out three finalists for the Pulitzer that were so inoffensive and bland that they could neither generate enough passion or disdain to make it easy for a majority to get behind just one as the best of the year.
Readers don’t generally notice the colophons, and they don’t often read the library of congress pages at the front of a book, so they don’t often notice that those publishing the books they’re reading have become so homogenized.  What I think they are noticing however is that for all the books filling the shelves in their neighborhood bookstores, it’s getting harder and harder to find ones that they really like, or even ones that they really hate. Whether it’s because they don’t have the time to weed through all the books themselves, or because they’ve been burned repeatedly by those extended promotional blurbs we still call “reviews,” the end result is that potential readers are turning away from the traditionally trusted outlets for, and producers of, books and embracing online sources. Amazon, and other places like it, at least give the appearance of honest reviews if only because the user comments sections are so random (“I loved it.” – “I hated it.” – “You’re an idiot.” and so on).

People love stories. They don’t all love the same stories and when a large number of people do love one particular story they don’t all love it for the exact same reasons. So, yes, I’m tickled to death that the Pulitzer committee shrugged its shoulders and gave us all a giant “Meh” in response to the three finalists. The Big Six publishers, the writers, and the reviewers they subconsciously bribed all deserved to be told very publicly that just because they’ve decided we should love these three writer’s books we, the readers, think their opinions are sometimes shit.
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Work, Work, Work

The problem, of course, with having a full-time day job in addition to trying to write a “big” novel, is that there is often very little time for anything else.

However, the novel is very nearly finished.