Saturday, March 24, 2007

And Grammar Just Gets Harder and Harder

I was recently killing time in a Barnes and Noble and decided to make my regular stop at the publishing/writing section, to rifle through the offerings. I rarely buy at full price, but I only need a few pages of the book to tell if it's worth buying, and then I'll go and buy it used online.

For once I found a more recent grammar book that I would actually recommend: Lapsing into a Comma: A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print--and How to Avoid Them by Bill Walsh. Aside from being useful by listing common mistakes instead of going into complex rules of grammar first and hoping you get the rest (that's E.B. White's job), it discusses how grammar is actually a very malleable and the normal method of establishing a change in rules has been utterly destroyed by the internet. For example, high-school student became high school student (an exception to the general rule about multiple-word adjectives) a long time ago, while e-mail became email basically overnight. This of course makes the entry-level copyeditor's job go from hard to nearly impossible, and don't get Mr. Walsh started on the difference between copy-editor and copyeditor.

That doesn't mean it's a free-for-all and you can just go and do whatever you want, but it means that if you find something in a book that you think is wrong, you may be wrong yourself. Many people have criticized my blog for being spelled incorrectly. Is someone who rejects things a rejecter or a rejector? Answer: It's both. Both are acceptable official spellings.

What else did I read this week? (What's a low-level publishing assistant reading?)

The Lais of Marie de France

Japan Made Easy: All You Need to Know to Enjoy Japan
Rome and Vatican (travel/photography book)
Printing Press: Ideas into Type
Kabuki: Design Aesthetics (Okay, I didn't read it. I don't know Japanese. I looked at the pictures)
Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland

(I'm not planning on going anywhere. Most of these books were research)

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Selling Literary Fiction

Dear Ms. Rejecter,

You must help me, for I am incredibly saddened after reading over your archives, notably the Wed. October 11, 2006 entry concerning "literary fiction," which you call "unpublishable."

If I had to classify my work, it would certainly fall into the category of "literary fiction." I do not write Fantasy or Sci-Fi or Romance or Dan Brown-style commercial novels. I want to write literature; and I say that without a pretentious bone in my body.

For example, the novel I'm working on now is set in the Arab world and follows the relationships between multiple families just before the country's revolution, touching on political and religious themes. It is highly influenced by "Anna Karenina" - at least in my own mind. Can this type of literary fiction be published?

If not, how is it that people like DeLillo, Pynchon, Roth, Morrison, Updike, etc. - all contemporary authors whose work is by and large considered "literature" as opposed to commercial fiction - being published? How do Jonathan Franzen and others make it happen?

This is the part where I backpedal and try to explain the huge generalizations I usually make in an attempt to answer unanswerable questions. I've contradicted myself probably half a dozen times by now (Uh, please don't go actually counting...). Nonetheless I will foolishly attempt to answer your question.

As your last paragraph seems to imply, we'll go with the basic assumption that there is a clear definition between "commercial" fiction (here, meaning genre fiction) and "literature" that will be read and discussed and analyzed by lit majors for generations to come. I'll be honest when I say I don't think anyone in higher education will be pulling apart the symbolism in the Dragonlance novels, so you have a point there, but that line is really not terribly clear. People cross it all the time.

The direct answer to your question is not that "literary fiction" or "literature" is unpublishable. It clearly is. You just named six authors who publish what is considered "literary fiction" by people who make these considerations and who have been rather successful financially in the past two years. It doesn't mean all those novels are great - some of them were really riding on the author's reputation for sales more than their particular quality - but they were high lit and they sold, even if they might have had rambling and confusing contemporary/weirdo non-contemporary plotlines or no plotlines at all.

That said, great literature is very, very hard to write. It's even harder to publish. For all they're worth, the Dragonlance novels have a built-in set of readers who are going to buy the next book. A new author does not and is going to rely on the publishing company's faith in him/her and put a lot of money behind publicity to even get it noticed. And of the ones that do get noticed, they're usually noticed because they're so high quality that they win Pulitzers (Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections lost to Empire Falls by a couple votes. I know this because I know someone who was on the Pulitzer committee that year. It was in the final round).

Taste aside, these people are good. These people are, arguably, the best writers in our generation in terms of "high literature." Not necessarily in terms of plot, structure, comprehensibility, or reader enjoyment, but they are what "the literary world" deems as the best of the best. And they're the only literary fiction writers you've heard of.

That's how hard it is to make it in literary fiction. Good luck.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

I Heart New York


I love your blog and spent most of this morning going through the archives. Your sense of humor had me literally, not figuratively, laughing out loud. (Invisible gorillas on a plane sent me on a laughing jag that had me crying.) After reading through several posts and responses and such, I'm struck by the following question:

Is it possible that New Yorkers are the wrong people to be deciding what America likes to read? Is it concievable that they are perhaps a bit to jaded/cynical/angry (you know, New Yorkerish) to make the necessary decisions regarding the value of literature?

I ask this as someone who understands that to live there and thrive you need an ego the size of John Edwards' mansion. Since I have a comparable ego and I'm sometimes reminded, usually by my wife, that I'm not as clever as I think I am, I feel fully qualified to ask this question and the response would fascinate me.

Hey, that's mean! Let me get out my stabbing knife. I'll cut you, man. I'll cut you.

But seriously, instead of quoting what I heard on the subway last week, let me actually answer your question. With a couple notations:

(1) Not all literary agents live and operate in New York. Many live in LA, and work mainly in film rights. Instead of being cynical and jaded I guess you can assume they are more phony and have better tans. Whatever you want to think. And there some legitimate agents who live in other states, because most of agency work is done over mail/fax/phone anyway, but these are usually people who know people in New York because they worked there at some point. It's a very "you have to know someone to get somewhere" industry (for those who work in it, not the writers), so being in New York is kinda crucial.

(2) Most literary agents were not born and raised in New York and do not, in fact, live there. They may have moved to New York in search of a career in publishing because it's rather necessary to do that, and once they made enough money, they bought a house in New Jersey and now they commute. For tax purposes, a lot of agencies and a couple publishing houses are based in places just outside of New York (like Bayonne or Lyndhurst), because taxes in New York State are really high.

(3) Not all New Yorkers are mean. That said, don't pick a fight with anyone on the 1 line between 96th Street and 137th. Seriously.

All joking and non-joking aside, if I wanted to be psychological about it, I would say that we seem jaded and cynical because the industry makes us that way. We happen to operate in an industry based on crushing people's hopes and dreams most of the time and then finding a few people who are actually great writers. We then champion those writers, and hopefully only half of them are crushed by some executive higher up on the line than we are. While not as bad as being that guy who stands outside the Spring store and hands out flyers all day to people who don't want his flyers, publishing is definitely a job that can get you down. Even when you find something great, odds are against it that it will succeed at all, much less to the extent that you want it to. It has to sell to a good company, get all the right attention, get good reviews, make a couple lists, and sell a lot of copies. Then, hopefully, the writer actually has enough talent for another book. (Some writers legitimately only have one book in them, especially if they're writing a memoir)

We operate this way because it's the only way to operate. I reject people because they're bad writers, or at the very least, are good writers with a bad book idea. But it's not quite the same as someone who works for Nabisco and is in charge of deciding which new chip line will make it out next quarter. No one is emotionally invested in those chips. Writers, on the other hand, have poured their hearts and souls into their work. It's their baby, and we're killing it.

Sometimes we get letters from homeless people who have returns as post office boxes. We get letters from dying people who just want their story told. We get letters from paraplegic veterans. We get letters about SIDS. And if the material is good, we accept, but it rarely is. Once I asked my first boss about a homeless person's sci-fi novel, which sounded really bad. I felt really bad about rejecting him. She only shrugged and said, "I give to charities for the homeless. If his book is bad, we can't sell it."

Harsh? Yes. Realistic? Yes. The way the world turns? Yes. I don't think they would do it any differently in another city, because accepting bad writing would be a bad economic decision and the agency would go under if we couldn't sell our clients' manuscripts.

As for whether the New York crowd is qualified to make decisions, well, it's not actually that hard to tell bad writing from good writing. We get our skills from experience and reading a lot. None of that has anything to do with where the office is located.