January 23, 2004


Bill Peschel

When was the last time anyone referred to a book review published in a New York newspaper that wasn't the Times?


The Observer does a pretty good job with the limited reviewing it does, and occasionally generates some heat here in town. But, yeah, your basic point probably holds up.


If you're talking newspaper, sure, no one looks to the Post or Daily News for book reviews. But what about papers like The New York Review of Books, which has been consistently more engaging and thought-provoking than NYTBR for years anyway?

Scott Handy

I applaud your stance vis-a-vis Keller & the Times' decision, but I take umbrance at your dig at MFA programs (and would remind you that Franzen never attended one). The favorite complaint of MFAs always harkens back to the 'good old days' when 'real' writers went out into the 'real' world and experienced 'real' experiences and then wrote about them in 'real' ways. What you're forgetting, though, is that there were far more markets ('markets' = PAYING markets) for fiction writers in the early to mid 20th century than there are today (besides: what were those sessions in Gertrude Stein's parlor with Joyce, Hemingway, Pound, et al, if not writing workshops?). I would submit that it's this lack of diversity within the publishing world (and it's shrinking everyday) that creates the so-called 'MFA story' and not the proliferation of MFA programs (just as it's the conglomeratization of radio stations that's causing the breakdown of diverse genres in today's music). Most MFA grads do NOT want to teach -- they want to write! And, to assume that someone who attends an MFA program for 2 or 3 years is somehow robbing her-/himself of 'real' experiences smacks of self-justification for the choice not to apply to one. I suggest anyone who has a beef with MFA programs should check one out for her-/himself and see what really goes on. I think you'd be surprised. That's just my .05.

J. Ruland

Someone somewhere mentioned jumping ship to either the LA Times or Washington Post Sunday paper. Which is better? Those who live in LA, DC or NY should probably indicate this bias.


Definitely the Washington Post. The LA Times is written at a sub-literate level that offends even undiscriminating preschoolers.


I don't know about that, TEV. The LA Sunday Times consistently has good writer-reviewers like Dennis Cooper, Gary Indiana, and even Susan Sontag.

Steve of Splinters

I tend to agree with Scott Handy.

Mark - you refer to the old chestnut of the writer writing about writing was, as usual, unaccompanied by names. Where are these writers? I want to read them!

It seems to be your complaint about real life is really a complaint about literature itself, not about writers. What is it you love about literature, exactly - can you say?

I can say that mine relates to what Walter Benjamin wrote about friendship: it was not, he said, the removal of distance between people, but the bringing of that distance to life.

That's what my favourite novels do, and they're my friends. I don't see what cultural relevance has to do with such a gift.


Thanks for your post, Steve, and for the mention at your site.

I think there are two threads that may be getting crossed. You posed the question "what is it you love about literature"? That's a fascinating question but my post wasn't about a personal literary connection.

It was about a wider question - why aren't books important in our society any more? You and I can hole up with our favorite books and have a blissful existence doing so, but I worry what that portends.

When was the last time, for example, that a book shook up society like a Tropic of Cancer, or a Lolita? It can be argued that we've just become more permissive - except NC-17 movies still shake people up. I fear it's because books just don't register. People don't take up serious fiction much outside of literary circles, and that disturbs me.

My hope was to get people talking and thinking about the state of literature and its future. And, as someone plodding away at the first novel, I still find myself wrestling with the question - how will I bring a wider audience to regard these ideas? I think it's an important question, if a tad earnestly expressed. I know there are differing POVs out there and I'm curious to hear them.


Hey there Scott Handy -

Thanks for the thoughtful post. For what it's worth, some of my best friends are MFAs. Really.

You're doing just what I hoped - offering other points of view and other ideas. One question - you do seem to acknowledge the existence of the "MFA Story." How would you suggest breaking out of that mold?

Scott Handy

Hey, Mark:

First, let me say Thank You! for this site, which enables/fosters/encourages such debate. I think we all agree that too few people care enough about books, fiction, writers, reading, etc. to even take a side on such issues.

As far as the existence of a so-called 'MFA story' I DO think there is one and I'll even grant that it's existence is due to many MFA students NOT being out in the 'real' world. The end result being that their fiction is what you often see in The New Yorker (though not nearly as good/polished), meaning that there's a too-evident sheen in the language that prevents the reader from fully engaging in the work (in my opinion). However, I think the reason for this is that too many MFA students come directly from their undergrad years as Lit majors or even (gasp!) Creative Writing majors. Thus, it's more a function of their having an overall lack of Life Experience than that they're Overeducated. In other words, they're writing from their experiences as students and readers vs. writing from their experiences as sons and daughters and mothers and fathers and winners and losers and ... and c. Many MFA programs, from the little I've heard, are doing their best to correct this problem -- they're openly encouraging 'older' (30s and 40s) applicants.

From what I've seen, you're fond of paradoxes, so here's one for you: The writers I see who are breaking the mold (so to speak) of the 'MFA story' are writers that MOST MFA students are trying to emulate! (e.g., David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Stuart Dybek, Rick Moody, Carole Maso -- and no wonder: These are their professors!) The end result, I predict, is that within the next 5-10 years, we'll see a shift from Realism to more overt PoMo stuff in the big monthly magazines (the ones that will still be publishing fiction, alas) and that will be the new 'MFA story' (just as all those Carver knock-offs created the 'MFA story' of the '80s). In fact, I think we're already seeing it (even in the NYer and Esquire and the Atlantic, but especially in Harper's). As the Richard Fords and John Updikes and Tim O'Briens start to die off (which I'll be as sad as anyone about), I think the 'new breed' of writers coming up through the ranks will replace them with more PoMo (for lack of a better term) stuff. I'm even optimistic that as long as these PoMo writers continue to have at least a semblance of Plot & Character in their works, the publishing houses will follow suit and we'll see less 'potboilers' passing for literary fiction.

Hope that adds something useful to the discourse.

Scott Handy

At the risk of protesting too much, let me add that I STILL believe the publishing houses are doing their best to squeeze out novels that are easy to classify and shelve and market ... which tends to homogenize them (the novels). It's the writers that are going to change this -- with the help of small, independent and university presses. The business man NEVER leads the cause of Art; he only follows. Eventually, the big houses will catch up to the fact that there are more (better!) writers out there than those that fit snuggly into their (the houses') one-size-fits-all/cookie-cutter preconception of what a novel or short story should look like.

Okay, that's it, promise.

deb smith

As long as the literary elite continue to turn up their noses at old-fashioned storytelling, the general public will continue to reject so-called serious fiction in favor of "potboilers" that convey serious ideas in a readable manner. The icons of the early twentieth century were, by-and-large master storytellers as well as profound thinkers.

Scott Handy


I would propose just the opposite: It's not the so-called 'literary elite' (who are they, by the way? and why do you call them 'elite'? surely, you're not talking about Stephen King, John Grisham, et al -- they are the true 'elite', no?) who 'turn their noses up at old-fashioned story-telling'. It's the crass, commercial publishing houses that demand a one-size-fits-all narrative form that shuts out the more experimental novelists. All the 'serious' novelist (in my opinion) is trying to do is break through the artificial forms of plot in order to engage the reader in a more 'realistic' experience, one that more closely resembles 'real life'. I don't know about you, but my life hasn't progressed in a neat linear arc apexing in a moment of 'climax' that's caused a life-changing epiphany and then a nice pleasing denouement. Real life just doesn't happen that way -- and that's the problem with the so-called Realists. Thank God for the university presses and the small, independents! At least they're willing to entertain the notion that there are other writers who work in other forms.

Devon Ellington

Very interesting post -- and comments. In general, the quality of the NYT slipped a good deal in the past few years, so it's no surprise that the Book Review is going to hell without the handbasket either. I rarely read it anymore and I'm a New Yorker. I read it a few weeks ago and shook my head in disgust at the lack of passion and narrowness in the frame of reference of the reviewers. It used to be that reading a NYTBR piece -- agree with it or not -- could spur the reader towards other writing and references. No more. Most third grade book reports are more interesting.

I don't think serious literature, in your definition of it, isn't being written. I think it's not published by the big houses, who are falling into the same trap the networks spouting "reality TV" have. I think the good writing is often found in the smaller, more independent houses, as it it in the smaller, more independent bookstores. You have to search harder to find them, and, unfortunately, the writers aren't getting the recogniiton -- or the earning the living -- that they should.

Unfortunately, many of the MFA programs with which I've come into contact (either as potential student in the past or teacher in the present), want their students to sell (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and are promoting the type of self-indulgent and whiny or flippant and shallow tones that, frankly, I think of which the public has tired -- because that's what agents and major houses seek. They all SAY they want something new and fresh, but what they buy is what they believe is a "sure thing".

It's not going to change until the majority of marketing departments are dumped and book marketing people actually market BOOKS again, instead of merchandising and "concepts". I worked for a publishing house for three years, and I can't tell you how many innovative manuscripts editors loved were shot down because the marketing department said, "I don't know how to market that." That's their job. A surgeon knows how to perform surgery -- why doesn't a marketing person know how to market? And why do those who don't know keep their jobs?

There's no one reason for any of this, and, therefore, no easy answers. Unfortunately. Writers have to stick to their own integrity and keep searching until they find the right match. A soul mate isn't often found the first time out, so why would the right agent/publisher combination?


I know this is an old thread, but I've only just stumbled across it, and it touches on some questions that are painfully fresh to me. I'm a first-time novelist, and it's starting to look like I might be a last-time one too. I've spent more than a year trying to get my novel published here in my native Australia, and my tragi-comic dealings with the publishing industry have borne out a lot of the stuff mentioned in the posts above. I’d say Australian literary culture has the same disease as America’s, although ours is several steps closer to death. The big houses only do non-fiction, or fiction by the established names. Agents won’t take on anything that won’t sell. Small houses are dying like flies: I had one of them collapse exactly one day after I’d submitted my book to them. (These events were in no way linked.) You can do the rounds of Australia’s still extant agents and publishers in about six months, and then you’re down to houses so small that using them would be tantamount to an act of self-publication. Maybe the scene here is a grim portent of what’s in store for bigger countries.

Devon’s comments about marketers strike me as uncannily accurate. If marketers agree to market only stuff that’s easily marketable, then what is the point of them? Or to put it another way: what’s the point of editors, if marketers determine what will and what won’t be published? What ever happened to those literate, book-loving agents and editors one used to read about? I’ve never come across one. The only response I’ve ever had to my novel – or at any rate to my two-page synopsis of it – is that it “won’t sell.” Well, I’d have thought a self-respecting marketer should be able to sell anything, if he or she puts his or her mind to it. In fact it seems to me that they already do. Certainly I’ve seen lashings of hype applied to books that are – permit me to say it myself – markedly inferior to mine. And yes, I know it’s a business, and money has to be made. But I’d argue that it’s ultimately self-defeating, as well as barbaric, to leave the fate of literature in the hands of people who have no capacity to distinguish good writing from bad. True, these people are very good at designing fancy book-covers. But if the stuff inside is no good, the trick is only going to work once or twice. Pretty soon the reading public is going to feel burned, and they’ll shy away from literary fiction altogether. In Australia, I’d say we’ve already entered this terminal slide towards illiteracy. Ours is now firmly a non-fiction culture. Books by cricketers and semi-reformed criminals far outnumber and outsell books by writers. There was a recent celebrated case – if “celebrated” is the right word for it – in which an established novelist, a prize-winner, was forced to place his semi-fictionalized memoir with an obscure house, because the big publishers wanted him to turn it into a wholly non-fictional work. Reality TV, reality literature. And in a way, you can see why book-buyers have come to prefer non-fiction. At least you know roughly what you’ll be getting. Yes, there’s still a handful of first novels published here each year. But half of them are by people already famous for doing something else. And anyway, a handful is not enough. If a literary culture is going to thrive you need lots of books, a critical mass from which two or three lasting talents might emerge. I doubt such conditions will ever prevail again in this country. You also need people willing to talk about the difference between good writing and bad, people who have read a lot and have high standards and aren’t afraid to apply them. And if the NYTBR isn’t going to employ such people, then who is?

I’d say the only hope lies on the web, on sites like this, where literate people can come together and keep their values alive. The web’s exactly the right place for small but passionate minorities to get together. And let’s face it, love of literary fiction is becoming an ever more quirky or kinky or perverse preference. Maybe there’s even a chance that discussions of this kind on the web will feed back into the real world, and have a civilizing effect on book publishing. As for my novel, I haven’t given up hope of conventional publication, but in the meantime I’ve published it online. I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can get to it by clicking on my url below. The home page contains some introductory matter for people coming to the site cold, but people accessing it from here are encouraged to skip that stuff and get straight into the book itself. My hope, of course, is that web publication will prove a mere prelude to a frenzied bidding war among the same troglodyte publishers I've just finished putting the boot into. But even if it doesn't, at least people are reading and enjoying the book.

I’d love to hear if things in the States have improved or gone downhill in the year/s since the above discussion. My sense is that the Chinese definition of a crisis – something that contains both danger and opportunity – applies. Yes, the literary future looks bleak. But the web is our great opportunity to put things right.


A coda to my comments above. This week the Australian newspaper reported the results of a provocative literary sting. They’d taken the third chapter of Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm, changed some of the characters’ names, and submitted the thing under a fake name to just about all of Australia’s agents and publishers. And guess what? Every one of them rejected it. They didn’t even ask to see the rest of it. They rejected it out of hand. So: if Australia’s only Nobel laureate in literature were an unknown first novelist today, he wouldn’t make it. I think we can safely declare Australia’s literary culture dead, don’t you? To me, this experiment yielded another interesting result on the side. Nobody recognized the thing as the work of Patrick White. Now, I don’t much care for White’s stuff; but it’s nothing if not distinctive, and anyone remotely interested in Australian literature should be able to detect the scent of his prose a mile off. But nobody in Australia's publishing establishment did, even though the Australian gave them a mighty tip-off by titling the fake novel The Eye of the Cyclone, for God’s sake. All this tends to clinch my suggestion that the Australian publishing industry is staffed by people who are not, except in the most rudimentary sense of the word, literate. I wonder if such an experiment would deliver the same depressing results in a larger publishing market?

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