Literary Yard

Search for meaning

Books ReviewsLiterary criticism

By: G. D. McFetridge

BestsellerThe New York Times bestseller list is the most prestigious and important banner in publishing. However, it includes only a small fraction of total book sales nationwide.”

I gleaned this quote from a writers magazine. But what exactly does it suggest? What do we read between the lines? I would say it advises, among other things, that the system of literary ascendancy in our great empire is open to manipulation. For example, some years back I read a book about the Kennedys, an exposé of the Machiavellian antics for which the Kennedy clan was notorious. Among the anecdotes brought to light was one that included tidbits concerning the book JFK wrote, entitled, While England Slept.

This nonfiction work, based on an expanded version of Kennedy’s Harvard thesis (with the help of a veteran editor), made the bestseller list; although according to legend, the remarkable feat had something to do with the fact that old Joe Kennedy had ordered his operatives to buy up a sufficient quantity of books to assure success. Not all of us can afford enough copies of our own opus major to cinch its position on the bestseller list, but what this story makes clear is that if you have power and money, you can manipulate the system. Look at politics, for chrissake. Spend a hundred million and get elected!

In the publishing business, there’s a piece of jargon known as “growing legs.” When publishers trot out a new release they hope the book will take off by word of mouth, gather momentum through a spontaneous snowballing effect; and, as the phrase suggests, grow legs and run on its own. Other than that lucky phenomenon, there are six fundamental ways to promote sales. High-profile reviews, endorsements by established writers, advertising, book signings, television and radio talk shows, and making the bestseller list.

The industry can directly control all these categories with the exception of word of mouth. Popular opinion, however, is prone to manipulation through advertising and various forms of promotion and whoopla/propaganda. How do they do it? By getting the public to believe that a particular book or its author is a cultural/social phenomenon and by convincing the public that a literary work has taken off not because of behind the scenes manipulations but because it’s the people’s choice, because there’s some sort of mystique or extraordinary quality surrounding the author or the work itself.

America has made this novel a bestseller, a runaway smash hit! A real page-turner! Debut of the year! An American hero! A powerhouse who burst on the literary scene, a literary marvel … the next Hemingway!” Along with all the other hype and palaver they bombard us with; but ask yourselves this, how often is it true? Or is it a matter of treatment and slick promotion? When is the last time you read a bestseller or so-called award-winning book that struck you as overrated? Or in some cases, maybe even flat-out mediocre?

This isn’t to say that cultural icons don’t spontaneously arise from within the ranks of the masses. Of course they do—it’s what I refer to as the “Elvis Syndrome.” Poor boy makes it big, rags to riches. The tricky part is that promoters in all fields of entertainment (and politics for that matter) have learned how to synthesize or generate the appearance of this societal ground swelling. For instance, The Beatles were a true cultural phenomenon, whereas The Monkeys were a synthetically/commercially generated imitation.

Some of my friends say that I’m conspiratorially paranoid, a frustrated class warrior, and that I see the machinations of power, greed and malevolence where none exists. But before you dismiss my hypothesis, let me tender an example for your consideration. Several years ago, a friend handed me a short-story collectionby a darling of the East Coast literati. We’ll forgo naming the writer to avoid personalizing the discussion and because he or she is, in a greater sense, categorically representative of what goes on in any given decade. In fact, if you look at any short-story writer over the last three or four decades who has enjoyed notable success, you’ll see that each of them has “burst on the scene” in much the same way. Regarding the writer I’m referring to, for convenience, let’s call this person Writer X (WX).

Before this neophyte’s collection appeared, WX had enjoyed publication in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Story, Kenyon Review, Harper’sandMcSweeney’s, and in the anthologies Reading and Writing and The O. Henry Prize Stories. Pretty amazing, wouldn’t you say? Well … I can assure you, it’s far more amazing than appears on the surface. Allow me crunch the numbers and show you just how miraculous this achievement was.

Major literary magazinesreceive as many as 500 to a 1,000 short-story submissions a month, and they’ll publish an average of maybe fifteen to twenty-five of these stories in any given year. If we allow for an average number of submissions at 8,000 short stories a year (which in some cases would be a low estimate) and do our math under an average total of twenty accepted manuscripts, it means that a single submission has about a .0025 chance of getting accepted, based on straight odds with all things being equal.

Reaching a statistical probability of 1 would require 400 submissions. Although this only means that according to odds the probability should have occurred but is by no means guaranteed to have occurred. Taking this a little further we see that in order to have any chance of being published in magazines such as Harper’s or The Paris Review, a writer—unless of course they are a karma-endowed genius for whom the red carpet unrolls before their feet while trumpets sound and rose pedals and gold dust float down from the sky—has to make mass submissions, hundreds and hundreds of them.

Do you have any idea what the mathematical probability was for WX to score all these major publications in the space of a several years, assuming the feat manifested on a level playing field?

Off the top of my head, it’s astronomical. I’m not a statistical expert, but if we plug in the odds of hitting a 1/400 shot five or more times in the space of a few years … well, suffice to say, astronomical might be an understatement. Not to mention the less likely odds of publication in prestigious anthologies.

Hold on a moment, you insist, it’s because WX is exceptionally talented, the odds were in his or her favor. Maybe so. Personally, I think WX is precocious, very bright, well bred and properly educated (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.,—take your pick), but the stories in the collection didn’t move me any more or less than scores of other stories I’ve read in smaller and less prestigious publications. And were I to play the part of literary critic, I could go as far as saying that WX’s writing seemed somewhat shallow, jejune (that’s a Harvard word I borrowed), and lacking real-life experience outside the green pastures of Ivy League education and privileged-class existence.

And here’s another curious thing. In thecontributors’ notes and/or acknowledgments pages written by various big name short-story writers, I’ve noticed that many, if not most give thanks and praise to the editors at these prestigious magazines who have helped them bring their stories to “full fruition,” “to beat them into shape,” “to help me adapt these stories for publication.” Here’s my favorite: “I want to thank the editorial staff for helping me find the deeper meaning in my stories and bring this essence to light.” Damn! No shortage of high-voltage assistance! One of my astute friends once said to me: “Great writers aren’t born … they’re edited.”

I guess we could say that it’s a case for putting the final luster on that diamond in the rough. Or is it a case for taking a zircon and telling people it’s really a diamond? And more importantly, when was the last time major magazine editors lent a hand to an unknown (unrepresented) writer to “beat” a work into shape? The message most aspiring writers hear from editors is something like this: “We don’t spend time editing submissions. Either your story meets our high standards or it doesn’t.” I guess it’s different when you’re one of the literary pretty people enjoying the fruits of promotion and insider privileges.

So why did WX have this monumental luck? Who was pulling strings? Who put the fix in? Did someone important make phone calls, were letters sent? How does the system actually work? Does my Ivy League literary professor, the one my dad roomed with at the frat house back in the day, phone his other pal who is the acquisitions editor at a major publisher? And does that person then start calling the editors of major academic and commercial magazines? Calling in markers and cutting deals?

The esthetic value of art/literature is subjective; it exists only in the eye of the observer, or a group of observers. Some observers, of course, have more influence and power than the rest of us. Because I assure you, WX would not have appeared in The Paris Review if I had edited the magazine. But then, I didn’t go to Harvard or Yale or whichever ivy-covered institution, and I’m obviously not a grand exalted wizard in the literati club.

Pulling the camera back for a broader look, the good ol’ U.S. of A. is rapidly declining into a two-class society: the privileged and the non-privileged. For clarity, I’d like to break this down into a more colorful definition that goes something like this: First, we have the “Ruling Class.” These are the kings and queens. The lofty one percent that controls the huge corporations and politicians and that holds more wealth than the 150,000,000 Americans residing at the bottom of the food chain. Underneath these elite we have “Lords and Nobles,” i.e., the class of people who enjoy the really good jobs. They have rewarding careers, prestige and opportunity for advancement, make big money, and of course brag about themselves on television talk shows and give each other awards. Next, we have the remnants of the middleclass—a vanishing breed. And finally we have the working class, the blue-color folks, the common people who do the tedious hard work and create much of the bedrock wealth upon which the Ruling Class and the Lords and Nobles feast.

Ultimately, this structuring creates or directly reflects on the arena of American Literature and publishing. A tiny minority of writers enjoy the lion’s share of sales and accolades while the rest gnaw on scrawny chicken bones. Aside from the top heaviness, an important aspect of this discussion must address the question of whose voice deserves to be heard in our society, and what processes, what system of checks and balances does our culture exercise to determine the eligibility of a given voice. What are the rights of passage? And, more importantly, is it possible that this minority of powerful people, the economically privileged elite, exercises disproportionate control in determining whose literary voice we hear?

WX is just an example I pulled out of a hat, and in his or her case, maybe the come-easy success was deserved. I picked WX because the materials and references were at hand, though it could have been any of a gaggle of other so-called distinguished short-story writers. The résumés are curiously similar when you look behind the scenes and see the pattern of publications that lead to the eventual result. Are some people more talented and noteworthy than others? Undoubtedly, yet how do we arrive at these delineations, and is there an altruistic or objective foundation in place when such determinations are handed down?

In a hundred-meter race or a marathon, line up twenty men and women and fire the starting pistol. Somebody is going to win based solely on how fast that person runs. However, the evaluation of literature or art in general is not so clean and clear, not so objective.

Pointing out problems is relatively easy, while finding solutions is more difficult. And I admit I don’t have any brilliant suggestions as to how an egalitarian state in either literature or our country, politically and economically, might be achieved. Although I do know this. Revolutions occur when conditions become intolerable for the majority of people in a society and when tyranny by the minority is the order of the day. Thomas Jefferson believed that a people and their government need a revolution every generation. To clean the slate, to inform, rethink, root out corruption, etc. Does America need revolution? Politically or otherwise?

When too few people have too much money and control, democracy and social equality go hurriedly down the drain. And if literature or any other art form—as a societal function and as an extension of cultural values and aspirations—is a democracy of sorts in its own right, then the same rules apply. The only question left is how do we go about starting a revolution?

We haven’t had a real one in well over two hundred years. Not enough citizens remember how or why revolutions are necessary or even realize that the possibility still exists. But then maybe it doesn’t. And that’s the scary part. Whatever the case, I’d like to hearken back to an old saying; it’s uncomplicated yet speaks volumes.

It says, “Once begun, half done.” I’ll leave you with that, as a revolutionary banner, a mantra of sorts.

Because if nothing else, when too few have too much balance is lost, division fractures a people, social and cultural as well as political values become tainted and skewed. The rarefied realm of literature pretends to be above the fray of such things as politics and classism and social inequity, but the truth is—as I see it—the forces that control publishing and something as ethereal as literary ascendancy are cast from the same elements that control our country politically and economically. Does the so-called American Dream still exist? The ideal that hard work and persistence will out, that even the common man or woman has a fair chance to find a place in a world not bound by the constraints of birth or the conspiracies of circumstance? I sure hope so, but I have very grave doubts.


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