“If Stephen King, John Grisham, and Michael Crichton got together, they’d become one of the top three publishers overnight”
—Morgan Entrekin, quoted in The New Yorker

Tony Outhwaite’s article pretty much says it all, a whole lot of it anyway, about the present state of American publishing. And he’s not only right on the money, he’s seriously funny, which is a pleasure for the reader and a problem for the writer who comes along afterwards and whose last best hope and bet is to play the slow-witted straight man.

Still, there are a few things to be said to complement Outhwaite. Over the past year or so the tactical and strategic battles in publishing have been extensively covered, if only in bits and pieces, by the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, the Nation, even Time and Newsweek, and, of course, the sassy and arrogantly irreverent New York Observer. Which is only to say the problem has been on some people’s minds and agendas. Out of all this mostly self-conscious and often self-serving coverage have come (in my opinion) three important articles: Outhwaite’s, without question; Ken Auletta’s “The Publishing World: The Impossible Business” (The New Yorker, October 6, 1997), which—if firmly establishment in its point of view—nevertheless does offer the significant numbers, some pertinent interviews, and some thoughtful general judgment; and the essay that precedes mine in this forum by Texas novelist and teacher Clay Reynolds, a version of which appeared in the Spring/Summer 1997 issue of the Texas Review.

Together with the Reynolds article, the Texas Review published 14 “responses” to it, written by writers, agents, and people in publishing. Reynolds’ basic position closely shadows that of Outhwaite. Put simply: publishing has changed, and it’s changed quickly and dynamically. The business is no longer what it was, even ten years ago. Not to put too fine a point on it, but to state the problem frankly and honestly, most publishers don’t want good books anymore simply because they’re good books. That is, they don’t want books that have been carefully and artfully crafted, which tell a good story, which present stunning characters, which amuse, scintillate, inspire, enthrall, which are, in other words, “literary.” They want books that sell. And for big bucks. The responses to Reynolds’ article varied according to point of view. I am going to cannibalize my own and use it as a response to both Reynolds and Outhwaite.

If, as everything indicates, many of the problems in contemporary publishing come from the attempt to make that old-fashioned business fit in with present corporate conglomerate, and globalized, practices, including the drive for unlikely, even outrageous profits, there are other equally important forces at work. Outhwaite makes the point that the people in publishing, lots of them anyway, are simply not of the quality and character of those editors and publishers who dominated and shaped the business a couple of generations ago. It’s a strong point. I would modify it only slightly: Today’s editors make people like Maxwell Perkins and Bennett Cerf and Alfred Knopf and Horace Liveright look good, better than they ought to. These old-timers, in truth, share a heavy weight of responsibility for what has become of their stock-in-trade. Some others that he mentions —Hiram Haydn, Cass Canfield, Ken McCormick (and I would add Cork Smith and Samuel Vaughan)—were admirable and honorable professionals. But their decency and relative innocence rendered them virtually impotent against the worst trends in American publishing and the worst kinds of people who were rapidly coming to power in publishing just as in so many other areas of our troubled society.

The problem is, then, larger than it seems, with more villains than we may wish to recognize. (Fear of being labeled as paranoid has left us easily vulnerable to all kinds of villainy.) Publishing is only part of the problem. Also deeply involved, responsible for much that is wrong, are other parts of the literary establishment, including the academies and the writers themselves. Since most American “literary” writers are in the academies, for better and worse, there is less distinction here than one might imagine or hope for. The writer is worked on by both the publisher and the academic institutions that, more or less, own him. None of the aspects of the present state of things tends to bring out the best in our writers. For whatever bones may be available, they snarl and fight like feral dogs. In any case, now is not a time conducive to serious questions or to strict examination of the multitude of assumptions and follies at the heart of our lives and our society. Few of our writers dare to do anything more interesting or adventurous than to preach blandly and safely to a shrinking audience of the long-since converted or to say a rosary or two of weary and discredited liberal cliches. Literary writing, at least for the survivors, the status quo, is not a career of danger and daring. Our best and brightest have become “company men,” just as in the Soviet Union the writers, with the exceptions of towering figures like Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, sold their art and their souls for the sake of a mess of potage and a little comfort. Remember what Solzhenitsyn told a graduating class at Harvard—how we in the West don’t need any state censors since the intellectual status quo is doing a fine and dandy job, keeping all the serious questions unasked and the most serious problems untouched. For our culpable writers there is no incentive for them to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, either in literary form or content. There is no good reason to take a stand against what is said to be popular. No wonder that despite superstores (Borders, Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million), with music and coffee bars to delight the unwary and to entice the curious, Americans are voting with their feet, staying as far away as possible from most of what passes for literary art.

Stuck on a desert island (with Cindy Crawford?) or given a choice, who wouldn’t much rather read the latest Elmore Leonard rather than the brand new DeLillo? Once years and years ago I heard a bright New York editor (alas no longer whinnying with us) ask William Faulkner if he could be so bold as to send Faulkner a new book by a wonderful new writer. Using his pipe for pauses and punctuation, Faulkner allowed that he certainly had no objection to receiving such a book in the mail, but that he doubted very much he would be able to read it. “These days,” he said, “I only have time for the old verities.” These days the old verities are going out of print and being dropped from the curriculum of “institutions of higher learning.” But we still have some libraries, and a book with more or less acid-free paper will last maybe 500 years, at least ten times as long as any known form of electronic information yet invented or envisioned.

Summing up 1997 in “A Feast of Literary Delights” (Newsweek, January 5, 1998), reviewers Malcolm Jones, Jr., and Ray Sawhill compared and contrasted the current literary scene with what they viewed as the high point of the 1960’s. (“Writers in the mid-60s stood at the red-hot center of things.”) They argued, “Writers today dwell in an uneasy shadowland somewhere between the Wax museum and the midway.” Nevertheless, after allowing for some of the unpleasant and undeniable facts—a string of huge celebrity advances that did not earn out; declining sales and profits overall; the losing battle of the independent bookstores fighting against the big chain stores and superstores; the extraordinary percentage of returns, often 50 percent or more—these reporters tried to end on an upbeat note, citing the successes of some of the smaller presses, the (possibly) salutary impact, strange as it may seem, of Oprah’s Book Club, and, exemplary of “the best season, critically and commercially in years,” the attention and success earned by three literary novels—Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (Atlantic Monthly Press), Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (Holt), and Don DeLillo’s Underworld (Scribner’s). Their conclusion: “It is hard to despair of American publishing in a year when three such distinguished and challenging novels not only appear on bestseller lists but, in the case of Cold Mountain, sell well over a million copies.”

What the men from Newsweek do not mention is that all three of these books received massive and very expensive promotion and reams of publicity and that nevertheless Cold Mountain was the only one whose commercial results were commensurate with the expense and effort. Cold Mountain‘s publisher, Morgan Entrekin, devoted much of his promotional attack to bookstores all across the country, outside of New York City, proving, with his success, that there are Americans in the provinces who do read books and, at the same time, that New- York, though powerfully influential in the business, is really just one region among many others. Chances that any three literary novels in the foreseeable future will enjoy this kind of promotional attention are slim.

The problems of the literary scene are exacerbated by the attitude of many readers who, as in other products and other aspects of our society, haunted by brand names and victimized by the culture of celebrity, depend on publicity, advertising, and book reviews more than their own good judgment and taste. Strangely, the book-reading public, relatively small as it may be, seems to be singularly easy to manipulate. Add to the hustle of publishers the unavoidable truth that so much that is published, fiction and nonfiction alike, does not speak to or about the lives and values of most Americans, and you have a situation that looks unlikely to change for the better any time soon. New technology may help a little bit—depending on the character of the people who control it. Small presses, operating with low overhead and modest goals, may keep the idea of literature alive, if not well, in the future. Right now some of the university presses are doing some good books and picking up where the big commercial houses have failed. But a glance at the university press books advertised in PMLA does not inspire hope for the future. Read the catalogue of Stanley Fish’s Duke University Press . . . and weep.

Tony Outhwaite tries his level best to finish off his report with some faint prospect of hope in the form of the “promising young editors from a variety of trade publishers.” I wish I could share his optimism. I will try, always, however, remembering my University of Virginia student (a victim of TV like aU of his generation) who wrote that his favorite American author is “Epcott Fitzgerald.” And another one, more typical of the rising generation of non-readers, who wrote that he suffered from “low self of steam.” At least these young people will escape unscathed from the ideological clutches of the theoreticians and graduate (probably cum laude) as innocent and ignorant as when they arrived and (pardon the expression) matriculated.