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« Shameful Movie Pleasures | Main | A Nagging Question »

April 07, 2003

Whence the Publishing Consensus?

Friedrich --

One of the odder phenomena that leaped out at me back in the days when I followed publishing was the disjunct between what the industry (meaning the publishers, agents, editors, critics, profs, etc, all together) promotes as Meaningful and Significant, and what these people as individuals actually confess to enjoying and not enjoying.

For instance: I very seldom ran into people who loved the writing of my pet peeves, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Yet it's hard to think of two contempo writers whose reps the industry pushes as hard. In other words, while the industry is promoting the notion that these two are major and important writers, the individuals who make up the industry, when speaking privately and freely, often confess that they don't enjoy their work at all.

How to explain this? Being a math-o-phobe, I have no idea if there's some good chaos-theory-plus-simple-stats way to do so. A butterfly flaps her wings and soon after, in Stockholm, a writer is awarded the Nobel Prize? In this specific case: why Morrison? Why Rushdie? And do these kinds of consensus-judgments-that-no-one-really-likes take shape in all industries?

I have some totally inadequate and predictable theories of my own which I'll try to articulate sometime. For now, I'll just say that my years hanging around publishing left me wanting to shout at people, Don't take what's being pressed on you as important too seriously! Most of the people doing the pressing don't believe in what they're selling themselves!



UPDATE: The jamboree continues. Aaron Haspel has posted on the topic here, and the comments are already piling up.

posted by Michael at April 7, 2003



Who could fail to pick up your disdain for Rushdie and Morrison? Delillo too, right?

No one would deny you your right to shout from the roof tops your scorn for these writers. But why this regular need to vilify these people (of color ) as if they were stealing something from you and perpetrating a Great Fraud?

And this latest attack is a truly specious one akin to a whispering/smear campaign. A group of unidentified publishing industry functionaries "confess" to you they do not enjoy the works of these authors. What does this mean?

You do not like these authors. Okay. No reasons given. No works cited. Now you found that others "confess" to feel the same. Oh, oh, a conspiracy is a foot. You feel compelled to warn others And, yeah, why not dump on the Nobel Prize committee too.Though it's still kind of a mystery to you how they got snookered (obviously they did not have you counseling them).

Please help me to see that you are not implying that the people who do enjoy Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie and find them valuable and worthy are not all brainwashed and/or stupid. You are not suggesting that, right?

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on April 7, 2003 9:51 PM

Robert--Seems to me you've missed the point. Michael confesses up front that he doesn't much like Morrison or Rushdie; this is what they call a disclaimer. The point is this apparent paradox--that Morrison and Rushdie are lionized by the publishing industry establishment, and yet, at the same time, those people he knows in the publishing industry don't seem to care for them much. Now, I have no idea how deeply Michael's spies have penetrated the publishing houses of America, nor do I know whether or not his anecdotal experiences are broad enough to be in any representative. But he's noticed an interesting phenomenon (public praise, yet private dislike), and he's asking why that should be.

It's an interesting question, I think; why do you assume that Michael must be motivated by animus?

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 7, 2003 11:59 PM

I, like Will, have no idea what % of people in the publishing industry Michael knows personaly, but it is true what is highly praised is not always loved by the people. I'll bet my social security benefits that the vast majority of Russian peasants would rather a good story around the fire than the latest installment from Dostoyevsky.(I know, they were mostly illiterate but work with me)This begs the question; Why are these works highly praised? I think we should realize that these authors are attempting to say what every other writer has said but from a slightly different angle and a new and original perspective. All writers don't want to be Tom Clancy (Not that there's anything wrong with that)

Posted by: Walter Cole on April 8, 2003 4:01 AM

Hey Will, Thanks for doing a better job of explaining me than I could do myself. Any thoughts from your own experience about how these industry-consensus judgments arise? I'd imagine that people who study organizations and information flows have taken note and made some sense of it, but that's 'way outside my field of expertise. Not that I have any field of expertise, come to think of it.

Hey Robert -- I'm flattered that you've paid close enough attention to 2Blowhards to notice my dislike of Rushdie and Morrison's work. I should probably vary my attack a little. Given that this is a no-budget operation with a readership of about 2, though, I don't think you (or Knopf or the NYTBook Review or Morrison or Rushdie) really need to worry too much about the opinions expressed and observations made here.

Hi Walter, I think you're on to an interesting topic, which is one we sometimes enjoy wrestling with here, which is the difference between what's thought of as "good" or "worthy" and what people actually enjoy, and how these two lists interact, and how things like "canons" (or whatever) emerge from these interactions. I may be being a little unclear in the posting, but I'm trying to wonder aloud here about something less substantial, which is how in an industry consensus judgments arise. In journalism, for example, there's something tediously called "the buzz." What's a story? What's the right timing for it? What's hot? That whole bunch of factors constitutes the buzz. Yet where does it come from? There's no one person who dictates it. And often you're hard put to find a single individual in the industry who likes it, agrees with it, or endorses it. Yet still "the buzz" exists, and it's part of your job as a journalist to know what it is. Bizarre, no?

In publishing, what I noticed was something similar -- that reputations could rise and fall, writers could get hot and become stars, respectability and "importance" rankings existed ... Yet it was often next-to-impossible to find an individual who personally agree with much of that. My example here of Morrison and Rushdie? They're widely seen as big, important writers. I ran across very few people in the biz who were crazy about their work, or who would even voluntarily read it for pleasure. Yet we all knew that the general consensus was that Morrison and Rushdie were important.

I think it's worth knowing and musing about this, because I think the public is somewhat ill-served by these consensus judgments, which are often all they know of what's being thought in a given biz. Publishing and "literature" -- oh, well, Rushdie, he's big, right? I think if you let a given civilian know that, well, in fact not many people in the biz in my experience actually like Rushdie's work that much, the given civilian might relax and think, oh, I get it, I can take him or leave him, and I now feel a little freer to explore the world of reading and writing as I see fit. Very curious to know your thoughts and observations about how these kinds of opinions and judgments affect you, as well as any thoughts you might have about how they arise.

Not that anyone should make too much of this, but I'm pretty solid where info and observations about publishing's concerned -- I covered it professionally (if lamely) for about 15 years. So I'm not making this stuff up.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 10:57 AM


I think it's all about being taken seriously at cocktail parties.

There's the tendency to believe that books that are fun and entertaining are not important, and that books that are important are not fun and entertaining. This starts in high school lit class, where they don't let you read great books that are fun--and if they do let you read books that are fun, you don't see them as fun because you know they are supposed to be important. Case in point--instead of Cannery Row, which is a hoot, you get The Grapes of Wrath. The latter has its moments--I like the jalopy salesman in particular--but nobody else in the class found that scene to be even remotely funny.

Carry this forward. You're in the publishing industry. You want to be seen as a serious player. That means you have to like serious books. You dare not admit your shameful pleasures, so you'd better pick difficult books, books you have trouble liking. But for effect, they'd better be books that other people have heard of. And the next thing you know, Toni Morrison's books are the hottest thing since sliced bread precisely because they are well-known but disliked.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 8, 2003 11:18 AM

I think this split perception can fit quite comfortably into a single skull.

For instance, I like Nabokov but only half of him. I don't mean half the books, I mean the first halves of the books. I always like them starting out, but I can't finish the damn things or I finish them from an impulse of bloody-mindedness.

Or maybe I'm missing the distinction Michael's trying to make between this question and the one of "official quality" vs. "what people like."


Posted by: alexis on April 8, 2003 1:31 PM


Your 15 years of experience with publishing types seems not to have taught you that these people have no valid claim to moral or artistic superiority and, as in all arts endeavors, there are people who are devotees and there are people who have found a way to make a living. And in making a living it strikes me they may, uh, occasionally have to dissemble. Or they might, like all of us, feel called upon to quote Russell's Principia Mathematica or Wittgenstein's Tractatus that they just happened to be reading last night at wherever event because, well, we all know why.

But why burden the writer with this extra literary stuff. I suspect one big difference between our views and our sensibilities is that I am very respectful— no, make that reverential, toward the enormous task of writing fiction, even bad fiction. I have spent the last fifteen years talking to writers on regular basis. I don't listen to their gossip and off- the-record take downs (of which there is suprisingly little) either. I care about what they write and what they believe

What is grinding along in the background is, I think, your resentment of a canon. It's understandable. Our indoctrination in that canon comes rather early in our educational lives, I think also, to the detriment of the works and writers that comprise it. Hey, resenting and questioning authority is certainly nothing I would condemn. But again, I didn't condemn Henry James and Victor Hugo when I was in high school because I didn't like reading them and I find it specious to condemn writers today because they are the "it" writers (poor Franzen and Foer) of the moment as touted by whatever cultural arbiters.

To borrow a title from Ken Kalfus' latest novel, your frequent attacks on certain writers read like memos from the commissariat of enlightenment. You disdain certain writers. Those certain writers are popular but you know (many) publishing types who don't like those certain writers. Therefore, the writers are what exactly? Suspect? Criminal? Frauds?

A more generous reading of your anti Morrison and Rushdie (and others) screeds would interpret them as a righteous attack on marketing and cultural bullying. Right on there, I say. That does not make the writers of the world responsible…

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on April 8, 2003 1:39 PM

Hey Will, You're certainly right that it's important never to underestimate the role of snobbery and respectability in the arts. That's a powerful force. You've got me thinking...

Hmm, I suspect there may be other elements at play too. Commercial plausibility -- I suspect that plays a complementary role. The stars the industry gets behind can't be people who've never sold more than 200 copies of a book. They have to be people who do, or might plausibly, sell a pretty good number of books. Otherwise the industry would be slashing its own throat.

And political acceptability -- I suspect that plays a complementary role too. The stars the industry gets behind have to suit the times politically, or at least can't be found politically objectionable by the kinds of people who work in the industry, who man the media, and who patronize the stores.

There are probably many other factors that go into this as well. Any further ideas?

More generally, there seems to be a need for "respectable, highbrowish writers who we can all acknlowledge as important" -- there simply seems to be a slot in the culture for that. I think that's as much the media's fault (or "fault") as the publishing biz's fault. The mags and NPR etc need shortlists, stars, promotable names, "stories," etc. And, sorry to say, I think it's also something the public demands. We may worship a given star or want to throw mud at him, but many people seem to find the idea of an artistic/media life without stars to be lacking.

My wife, for one, finds celebrity and stardom etc a hoot. She enjoys the personalities, the soap opera quality, the larger than life quality, the misbehavior and grandstanding, etc. I've got much less appetite for it than she does, though I'm not incapable of enjoying a little gossip and campiness. But I tire pretty quickly. Still, I try to be mature and take deep breaths and say, ah, OK, it's an interesting cultural/artistic phenomenon, let's see what's here's to be gotten out of it, etc etc. Not sure how successful I am, but I try.

How do you react to the star thing? The way industries generate them, the public seems to crave them, etc.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 2:51 PM

Hey Alexis, That's hilarious, I'd love to read a posting by you on your experiences reading Nabokov. I loved a few of the books a hundred years ago when I first read them, but for me he's like Hemingway -- I just can't read him anymore. In Hemingway's case, it just seems so puffed-up and adolescent and mannered. In Nabokov's it seems so twee. Did you ever go through a period when you were kind of drunk on Nabokov? Has he always been a struggle for you?

Sorry if my posting was unclear. Let me try again, because I'd certainly be interested in hearing your thoughts. Maybe abstracting it a bit from the books biz would help. Say, the pillowcase industry.

OK, there are insiders. There are issues, there are things that get discussed, there are fantasies about what might work commercially, there are businesspeople and designers and manufacturers with reputations as important. There's a kind of ongoing flow, back and forth, all this stuff. And out of tends to emerge a kind of consensus -- maybe about what's important in the pillowcase biz this year, maybe about who the hot designer is, or about which businessperson has the magic touch.

Now imagine getting in contact with people in the pillowcase biz. You're aware of what the issues and the buzz and the heat are this season. Say you talked to a lot of them, and say you discovered that in fact as individuals, almost none of them thought this season's consensus "issue" (say, stain repellant fabrics) made any sense. Say that nearly all of them thought that the public buzz (say, about frills) had anything to it at all. And say next to no one thought that this season's genius really has the magic.

And then consumers would go to stores and see lots of pillowcases with frills and in stain-repellant fabrics. And the combo would either work for people or it wouldn't. And then that feedback -- the failures and successes -- would get folded back into the loop and it'd all start up again.

It's odd, but it's common, isn't it? A kind of conventional wisdom can emerge from an industry, even though almost no individual in the industry thinks there's much to it. It's like a collectively imagined fiction that everyone in the biz, for professional (or other) reasons, has agreed to pretend is real.

That's what I found to be the case in the publishing industry. There's a kind of arrived-at consensus about who and what's important that we're all familiar with. Look at the NYTBook Review or listen to NPR, and you can be as up to date and familiar with it as you need to be in about 6 months. These are the important writers, these are the correct attitudes, these are the issues everyone frets over -- it ain't hard figuring out what the scorecard is.

What I found, without looking for it, was that many of the people who do the writing, reading, editing, selling, marketing, etc, actually don't on a personal level subscribe to what I'm describing here as this collective hallucination. They prefer reading other writers. They think the anxiety about such-and-such a business issue is 'way overdone. They wish writing schools would dry up and die. Whatever. Over the course of 15 years, I found it almost impossible to find anyone in the biz who, when speaking frankly and as an individual, and not as a spokesperson for the biz, subscribed to much of the collective hallucination at all. Yet go to a bookstore or look at a book-review section, and everyone's playing along, pretending that what they're told matters actually does matter.

Which leaves me wondering a few things: do all industries create such collective hallucinations ( I suspect they do, but I've got no evidence); what purpose do such conventional-wisdom lists serve (about this I've got almost nothing to say for now); what are the mechanisms by which these collective hallucinations take form (Will and I above have hit on a few elements that might plausibly be part of the process); how and why do the issues and stars who take leading roles in these collective hallucinations get those leading roles; and what might audiences (readers, consumers, whatever) get out of this kind of thing?

I'm not sure anything definitive can be said about all this, but I find it fun to speculate.

Another example, only because I had an extra cup of tea this morning: Do I remember from your blog that you once worked as an actor? If I'm mistaken, forgive me. But if you did... Remember how one season some producer would seem to be hot? For a couple of years, there'd be murmurs about this one acting teacher's magic touch? Or how this one off-off-Broadway troupe was really cooking? Sometimes these rumors and murmurs would have a little reality to them, sometimes not, right? Sometimes you'd look into it a bit, or run across a bit of evidence, and think, "What the hell?" Everyone "knows" this troupe is hot, but you're looking at it thinking, Gee, I'm not seeing anything special here. That's the kind of thing I'm wondering out loud about.

But I'm also wondering if I'm being any the clearer. Eager in any case to hear your thoughts. Did you ever get a sense of how and why those reputations came and went?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 3:19 PM

Ah, another non books-world example: Julia Ormond, the actress. Remember when, for five minutes, she was the next star? A big movie, lots of profiles, buzz buzz buzz. "Everybody" -- first in the industry, then in the media, then in the movie-fan public -- just knew that stardom was on the verge of happening for her.

Bizarre, no? Where'd that come from? How'd it happen? As it happens (though it's beside the point), I think she's beautiful and talented. But the movies she was in didn't work for the public. So her moment has come and gone.

What I'm wondering about though is: why did she bubble to the top for a few minutes there, and not one of ten thousand other beautiful, talented actresses? How did it happen that she, and not someone else, had a five-minute stretch when she played in the public's consciousness the role of "the next star"?

And I guess I'm also scratching my head a bit over such questions as, where does "the buzz" come from in an industry, as well as "why does the public even seem to have a need or desire for someone to play the role of 'next big star'."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 3:31 PM

I don't think Michael's post is resentment of/an attack on the canon itself, as one commenter has suggested, but what is offered by some people as inclusion in the canon. Rushdie and Morrison tend to write in the quasi- or outright-stream-of-consciousness narrative mode, which is impenetrable and annoying to anyone who does not share the author's cultural or "referential" (the source or their references and allusions) background. Who here can claim to have made it through Joyce's "Ulysses" and can honestly assert they enjoyed the read? If you make such a claim, then you're probably an Irish Catholic who likes to solve puzzles. The same can be said for Rushdie and Morrison. You either have to be Indian national who lives in Europe with a very continental experiential past, or, well, I hesitate to describe what you have to be to dig Morrison because she's so far from my universe that I can't adequately describe it and if I tried, I would no doubt be labeled racist for the attempt.

The larger issue is what kind of relationship the author cares to have with the audience, and to a smaller degree, the reading habits and sophistication of the reader. Authors like Stephen King and J. K. Rowling take it upon themselves to journey further out into the shared space of experiences and knowledge than Rushdie does. There's a continuum between the mind of the author and the reader, and I think the better authors try to find a happy medium somewhere in the midst of that continuum. Hacks try to venture all the way into the reader's head and spell everything out as though they were writing an article for "People" magazine. It makes for a very easy, but essentially flavorless, read. Authors like Rushdie, T.S. Eliot, and Joyce in "Ulysses" stay too far inside of their realm of the continuum, so the reader either has to be a close relative of the author to "get" all references and inside jokes, or has to guess at what the author's getting at, or rely on one of those close relatives having annotated and footnoted the hell out of the edition you're reading. This is where the smaller issue of the reader's contribution and past come into play. Most people enjoy not having to come to a novel with any preconceived notions other than perhaps an understanding of the language. However, there is a very small, insular, "academic" audience who likes it when they feel the author is writing just for them, and only someone as well-read can truly understand the author's works.

An example of this would be the movie critics Siskel and Ebert. Siskel (the late, great) openly reviewed films as someone who had seen hundreds of films and was a sophisticate in the area. His tastes and preferences, therefore, ran to the new and the unique things he'd never seen before, regardless sometimes of the quality of the film as stand-alone event unto itself. And sometimes he gave perfectly good films a middling or bad review simply because he had seen something like it before. Ebert, on the other hand, reviews each film (usually) on its own merit, and typically outside of the context of ever having seen another film. In other words, Ebert reviews for the newbie (the innocent) as well as the sophisticate, and Siskel reviewed for the old crowd who had seen everything else already. Both served a useful purpose, but I think that Ebert would have a better chance of determining what would eventually become a classic and what wouldn't, simply due to his approach.

Rushie and Morrison write for the Siskels of the world, and King and Rowling write for the Eberts. Thus, Rushdie and Morrison only belong in the canon for the literary snobs who want to feel superior for all their accumulated knowledge, while King and Rowling belong in the canon for the true reader and lover of stories.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 8, 2003 3:54 PM

Hey Robert. I have no idea how or why you're construing this posting as an attack on any writers. As for my opinions about the work of some writers, I mean, who cares?

I may like or dislike the work of Morrison and Rushdie, but A) this is a microscopic blog read by about 2 people, B) I get to have and express my opinions, as you do yours, C) I can't see where I'm saying that Rushdie and Morrison are bad or evil people, or D) I can't see where I'm making any attempt to deprive anyone else of the chance to enjoy their work. I have and want no such power, for heaven's sake.

But the main thing is that the whole question of who-do-you-like/who-do-you-not-like is to one side so far as this posting is concerned. The gist of the posting is about how and why reputations and conventional wisdoms take shape in an industry. I'm calling into play my personal experience in the publishing world. Seems like a harmless enough pursuit, doesn't it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 3:54 PM

Publishing is an industry and to stay in business it has to float something.
Sometimes there's something to float and sometimes there isn't. I agree with Michael,
what's being floated now is not so good. Why is this?

1) American civic life is indescribably dull. All media aside, we are not a violent country and there just
isn't that much going on. Americans save their intensities for the workplace. I've been in almost
every warehouse of almost every manufacturer in the Pacific Northwest; the pride and competitiveness
of the American workplace is astounding (OK Boeing might be the one exception but that's a post for
another rainy day). From the guy at the loading dock up to the CEO someone is thinking up some
on-the-job improvement or innovation. (I know there are heaps of novels -and movies - about the
soul-killing flim-flam of modern office life - but these strike me as the clash of artistic sensibility with
an alien environment - not necessarily true reflecitons of office life today.) Writers then, don't have
access to Americans at the level of their intensities. After work Amreicans bowl, eat, watch TV, porn,
drink, gamble, wrestling sports rock etc., in short, offer ourselves up as giant bullseyes for callous
sophisticates - and dull novels.

2) The roots of trees send signals to the tip-top leaves and vice versa; there is constant communication,
continued signal traffic from top to bottom to insure a healthy stand. Folk culture in America is dead.
Our literature has no healthy roots. It's all top heavy with self-reference, feeding off irony, cuteness,
canned nihilism - anything to keep itself alive. Authorial conceits - independent of any American reality
- strained to the breaking point.

On the upside you might look into:
"The Dissertation" by R.M. Koster (the wildest conceit in world lit - and he pulls it off beautifully)
"Maqroll" by Alvaro Mutis (contemporary Spanish-language lit is very good. Imaginitive, adult, hip -
also Jorge Amado from late 50's to late 70's)
"Falconer" by John Cheever
"The Golden Ass" by Apuleius (Robert Graves Trans.)

Doug Anderson

Posted by: Doug Anderson on April 8, 2003 5:08 PM


I don't have a whole lot to say about stars. There are legions of stars whose careers come and go without my ever being aware of them. I watch very little TV, and see relatively few movies, and I don't follow the entertainment news. If I'm aware of a star and impressed by them, it's invariably because I saw something they did that I liked. To the extent that I become aware of a star without having seen their work, I tend to be suspicious--I tend to assume it's all hype. I tend to trust word-of-mouth far more than I trust pop culture popularity as a measure of quality.

Which probably means that I'm just as snobbish as the literary elite, I just value different things. In particular, I think Yahmdallah gets it right:

"Thus, Rushdie and Morrison only belong in the canon for the literary snobs who want to feel superior for all their accumulated knowledge, while King and Rowling belong in the canon for the true reader and lover of stories."


Why is this so hard to understand? It's not about why publishing industry types push books that aren't any good; it's about why they push books that they personally dislike. The quality or lack thereof of Morrison and Rushdie is completely orthogonal to the discussion.

Posted by: Will Duquette on April 8, 2003 5:18 PM

Guys, I have to put my 2 cents in here with a disclaimer....I know nothing, nada, about the publishing industry. I have not read Rushdie and dont care to either. I have read Morrison and completely enjoyed her stuff--it resonated with me. "Beloved" made me cry. That never happens anymore.

I think the actual way books are sold has changed the publishing industry. Thirty years ago, unless you lived in a large metro area, you depended on your local bookstore and what they stocked. Your bookstore owner made personal recommendations by displaying certain books etc. Now we have Oprah's book club on TV pushing books , Large Chain Bookstores that get kickbacks for putting certain authors up front and center and on line bookstores. Books come with reader's guides just in case you can't figure it out on your own, kind of like instructions on how to use them. Books are sold as a product in much the same way that soap, toilet paper and cars are. I also think most of them will last as long as those products do. I am not surprised in the least that large publishing houses are putting out books that the individuals who work there dont really like. They have moved from the world of art into the world of business.


Posted by: Deb on April 8, 2003 6:10 PM

Wow, tons of great thinking and observations, thanks to everyone.

Oh, "the canon," forgot to get around to that, sorry. Interesting to hear everyone's observations about it, and here's hoping you won't mind it if I drivel on for a few paragraphs.

I'm a big fan of "the canon," in fact, whether in music or art or writing. Canons are a great guide -- we've only got one life to lead, we can't read everything, where to start? The canon helps. Plus it's a good introduction in a general sense to the culture we're living in. So let's hear it for the classics, and let's hear it for reading/looking/listening lists. God knows life would be the poorer without 'em.

I have a few reservations or warinesses about "the canon," though. One is that it can be too rigid. Just as a matter of fact, convenience, and honesty, it doesn't hurt to acknowledge that it tends to morph over time. That doesn't mean that it's relative or arbitrary, but it does mean that it helps if we're a little looser about how we see and use it than the more joyless profs and critics tend to be. I happen to enjoy being familiar with the basics of Western Civ, but I've known many people who aren't, and doggone it if some of them aren't happier than I am.

Plus, hey, this is America, and our arts are often confusing (wonderfully confusing) and hard to categorize. The blues is a great American thing; so are the movies. Yet it took ages to get the serious-and-the-elite to see them as such. These days "the classics" of modernism seem to be losing their hold on people's imaginations, and quilts sewn by small-town black ladies are being seen (correctly, IMHO) as great America abstract art. But this all may change too. So let's build a little looseness into our view of the canon.

My second bit of wariness where the canon is concerned crops up when people start to politicize it. Typical social-engineering crap: it's man-made, right? Therefore we can adjust it as we see fit, and make it politically progressive, a tool of how we want people to see the world. My view is that the canon is an evolved thing -- much like artistic forms or (I'm tiresome on the subject: apologies) traditional architecture. You might be able to mess with it a bit, but if you mess with it wholesale you mess with it at your peril. In support of this view I'd cite the fact that English departments have seen people flee during the years since the canon has become a primarily political issue. Politicizing the canon has been a form of suicide for literary studies. And respect for evolved forms and evolved bodies of knowledge seems to me basic to leading a good life. But the PPPs -- the Primarily Political People, who I make a policy of being suspicious of -- have a way of getting in there and spoiling our gifts from the past, and spoiling our aesthetic pleasures, and they specialize in telling us they're doing it for our own good. Then they get tenure, and we're stuck bitching about how lousy the arts have become.

Three is a big, practical concern. It's this: that the canon evolves over time. It takes time! Time!!! Which means that there is no contemporary canon, no matter what a critic or editor or prof may say. It ain't settled. The reading list from Ancient Greece? Pretty trustworthy. From 1995? Very, very open to debate. There simply hasn't been enough time for evolution -- debate, success, failure, influence, etc -- to work its magic on the culture. In the present and recent past, about all that can be trustworthily said is that there's an awful lot of squabbling, show-offing, opinionating, careerizing, and marketing that needs to be waded through. And that there have been, annoyingly enough, a lot of people trying to persuade us that their opinions are better than everyone else's opinions.

Din, in other words.

My take (again, for what it's worth)? It ain't been decided yet, and it ain't gonna be decided for decades to come. And even then it may change. None of us can predict the outcome, so I marvel that there are people who bother worrying about it. (The individual's impact on evolutionary processes is less than minimal.) And I especially marvel that there are people who pay much attention to the people who bother worrying about it.

Personally, this ain't-yet-settled quality leads me to think, then what the hell, I'll read for pleasure, and I'll compare notes with people I enjoy and respect, and take some tips and offer some tips -- and over time, without me mattering much or you mattering much or the NYT's Michiko Kakutani mattering much, the world will make of this mess what it will. It'll save what it sees fit to save.

And besides, we're all out of school. We don't have assignments any more. There's no book we have to read, and no real urgency about reading anything on our spare time anyway. We can read as we see fit, tastemakers to the contrary. (That said, we all know that if all we do is reach for the easiest pleasures over and over again, we get fat and stupid. So balance is key: trying out some new things, some different things can help keep you young and responsive.)

But -- again, IMHO; people can do as they see fit -- what a dumb waste of energy it is to join in opinion-brawls. As if anything's going to come of it. Let's face it: In two hundred years, will Rushdie be the writer everyone remembers from the late 20th century? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe some sci-fi novelist will be seen as The Giant. Or maybe one of my literary faves will be seen as El Numero Uno. But then again, maybe novels as an art form will be finito -- again, who knows?

My response to this is to say, so why bother battling over such things? Why agonize over it? Why not instead explore, enjoy, compare notes, explore some more -- and let history and evolution do their thing? Let the quarrels over "importance" go. Evolution and history don't care about me or you anyway, and the chances of us having much of an effect on them are microscopic. The canon of the future will take care of itself, and we'll all be dead by the time history has slimmed the list down anyway. Besides, there's so much else that's so much more worth talking and thinking about.

Including the kinds of things you guys are bringing up. Many thanks for all the input. How do y'all see "the canon"? Useful reading list? Pain in the neck tool of the oppressor? Do any of you see some point in debating the contemporary world's supposed canon?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 7:17 PM


Funny that this discussion has devolved to what seems to be one of your favorite themes, Chris Mitchell at Spiked seems to be on your wavelength:

Last night I was having dinner with my friend Ros and she suddenly asked me to name 5 books I'd recommend she should read. So without any real thought I blurted out the following - Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In The Time Of Cholera, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Michel Houellebecq's Atomised, Toni Morrison's Beloved and, er, I can't actually remember what the fifth one was. Given that my memory is so bad, it was an interesting exercise in seeing which books actually surfaced in my brain quickly, chosen simply because they're the books I remember really enjoying reading, rather than agonising over whether they're "the best" or whatever. Anyone else want to volunteer a top 5 list of whatever comes into their head? The trick is not to think about

I'm beginning to get it. You can bitch slap Rusdie and Morrison regularly for months and then you make this reasonable and amiable claim:

I may like or dislike the work of Morrison and Rushdie, but A) this is a microscopic blog read by about 2 people, B) I get to have and express my opinions, as you do yours, C) I can't see where I'm saying that Rushdie and Morrison are bad or evil people, or D) I can't see where I'm making any attempt to deprive anyone else of the chance to enjoy their work. I have and want no such power, for heaven's sake.

I believe you are sincere in not wanting any power but look what's happened:

Thus, Rushdie and Morrison only belong in the canon for the literary snobs who want to feel superior for all their accumulated knowledge, while King and Rowling belong in the canon for the true reader and lover of stories.

This reads like more piling on Rushdie and Morrison and additionally if I like them then I am ,at least, a literary snob blah, blah,blah.

And then there is this:

There's a kind of arrived-at consensus about who and what's important that we're all familiar with. Look at the NYTBook Review or listen to NPR, and you can be as up to date and familiar with it as you need to be in about 6 months

Hey, I read the Book Review. I read Publisher's Weekly, The New Yorker, Glimmer Train. MobyLives ,.com, Blog of a Bookslut, The Morning New, A Minor Fall, A Major Lift and on and on. I read 2 Blowhards, for heaven's sake, It's called, where I come from, being immersed in the culture. There's an arrived at consensus in some venues which has more to do with business and marketing than cultural mandates. That might be the forces of the free market. if you believe in that.

This is a beautiful piece of backtracking. Thank god for the extra cup of tea you drank:

What I found, without looking for it, was that many of the people who do the writing, reading, editing, selling, marketing, etc, actually don't on a personal level subscribe to what I'm describing here as this collective hallucination. They prefer reading other writers. They think the anxiety about such-and-such a business issue is 'way overdone.

Then you pose this question:

do all industries create such collective hallucinations ( I suspect they do, but I've got no evidence);

The collective hallucination you refer to is part of bringing products to the marketplace and you are being much too humble here. One of the uglier aspects of modern life is the attachment of marketing and branding strategies to everything—museums, religions, sports, books and movies, ad infinitum.

Look here Michael, maybe you are being myopic when it comes to this issue that you continue to pose in various iterations. To use one common example, I have heard James Joyce is an important writer. I've never read Ulysses. What am I to make of his reputation? That it is a plot by Irish Catholic littérateurs to befuddle all right thinking salts- of- the-earth? What I am arguing against is this frequent leap from "I don't enjoy Don Delillo and all those post modernaires including anyone who has, god forbid, gone to a writing program." to "they are a cultural evil foisted on us by some pernicious mechanism" part of which is visible and part which is diabolically masked. Frankly, none of it seems mysterious to me. It is what people do in every area of life. They gossip, they squabble, they lie, they fudge. They promote and they carp…

And from my personal history —I published a small magazine for a number of years. I would have had to have a Luce-like ego and arrogance to insist that every cover, every photo spread, every story and design was something that I personally liked. Was I wrong? Or was I being personally dishonorable?

PS: Was I the only person that found this—with all due respect to its author— ludicrous?

American civic life is indescribably dull. All media aside, we are not a violent country and there just

Posted by: Robert Birnbaum on April 8, 2003 10:14 PM

Hey, Robert. I'm happy to concede that you're a deeper and more worldly person than I am. But I really have no idea what you're going on about. Sorry.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 8, 2003 10:55 PM

You all seem much more informed about this than me, but I humbly offer one comment: I think that "marketing" is perceived to be necessary (like Deb's point) and nobody knows when "the real thing" has 'hit' or not---Michael's point about needing TIME to figure that out---so marketing departments need a 'formula.' So...they need "important literature" vs. "entertainment reading" vs. "women's books", etc. They have to, in probably a fairly rapid and simplistic way, find a category in which to 'market' an author. Because they are getting graded by somebody on book sales and prestige.

I mean---nobody can know in advance if they've really found the new Audrey Hepburn, nobody knew she was "Audrey Hepburn" until the body of her work was completed and she'd lasted awhile. But poor Julia Ormand gets an Audrey role, "Sabrina" and they have to "market" her as something, so she's "the next Audrey Hepburn." They have to push her as something---they've got movie tickets to sell, and the slogan "we don't really know if she's movie star material or not yet" isn't real catchy. So...she's got 5 minutes. But, lovely and talented though she may be, she apparently didn't have that special unique something that made Audrey Audrey and Julia a whatever-happened-to, because marketing will only go so far. Once you're in the movie theater, the reality of the product takes over, and it's either there or it isn't. Just like Oprah can get readers to buy an author's first book--marketing---but I bet they don't buy the second if they think the first sucked. Reality.

And the "marketers" of "Sabrina" are NOT the people who cast Julia in the role, so whether they REALLY think she's the next Audrey Hepburn or not, they've got to stay on message, push the product. Hence, saying things they may not privately agree with.

Posted by: annette on April 8, 2003 11:05 PM

Thank god I was too busy to post earlier today - Michael's defense of our old friend, the canon, was matchless.

I will argue, though, that "The Canon" is for the "true reader and lover of stories." To me, the canon is analogues to the Time-Life Books tree drawing used for evolution. When you're a small fry, it's a simple picture - amoeba, first land animals, dinosaurs, monkeys, us. As you get older, you learn about more branches, each revealing increasing complexity and detail.

Robert, damn it, it's difficult for me to read your posts with interest when you, yourself, don't seem to be what the late Bill Hicks was call a reader. You say: "I would have had to have a Luce-like ego and arrogance to insist that every cover, every photo spread, every story and design was something that I personally liked. Was I wrong? Or was I being personally dishonorable?" There is a wide gap between not liking, or not being interested in something, and actually disliking it.Don't get me started on the disingenuous questions.

I think the dirty little secret is that in publishing, as in Hollywood, it's all about the illusion of being profitable (both as a cultural commodity and with the folding money.) Having been profitable once, in either way, is enough to convince da man to keep you propped up for years... and when the man is propping you up, you know, you get some attention. "Pretty Woman" was a huge hit. And then Julie Roberts was in a decade's worth of crashing failure, costing millions, yet remained a big star until she was cast in "Erin Brockovitch," a role given to her because of her stardom. Talk about your closed circles of deceit.

If it makes you feel any better, Michael, when writers are as popular as Toni and Salman, you can be sure that many of their books are given as gifts, and never read by the recipients.

Five for whoever asked before I go crazy typing in a little box: As I Lay Dying, Monkeys, In Praise of Folly - oh, drat, that's not fiction... okay - Dad, Golden Days, The Triumph of the Egg - which is a short story and now books I hated are popping into my head instead of the good ones. Feh.

Posted by: j.c. on April 8, 2003 11:37 PM

My theory on why books last the test of time is that they are good stories first and art second.

And I use the Canon as a roadmap that may take me to interesting places I want to explore more.


Posted by: Deb on April 9, 2003 10:14 AM


Morrison and Rushdie are both wonderful writers, but not for the reasons publishers frequently cite. In both cases, you're looking at books that are billed as "good for you," so it's no surprise that they're about as appealing as month-old spinach. Morrison is lionized for giving us a view into officially sanctioned "Black Experience," while Rushdie is equally celebrated for his writings on postcolonial India. (His love affair with the unruly, rock-and-roll West has led many critics to disparage his most recent work.)

Their virtues as writers, storytellers, and interpreters of human activity aren't necessarily dependent on the communities they are claimed to portray. But their marketability to a reading populace which makes its decisions from moral rather than aesthetic criteria does depend on them.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on April 9, 2003 12:39 PM

Hey, more great reflections, thanks. The money-and-marketing end of things is fascinating in book publishing. I'd like to muddy the picture up just a bit, though.

While some of what the industry does is done quite cynically and calculatingly (and the results aren't always bad!), a lot of what it does (based at least on what I could see) isn't done cynically. What I found interesting, and telling, is that in some funny, mysterious, and hard-to-explain way, publishing as an institution is genuinely, sincerely behind the idea of Morrison and Rushdie as major writers, even while as individuals many people in publishing dislike their work.

My antennae really didn't pick up conscious calculation in this, or deliberate hypocrisy either. I don't think that, so far as the lit-importance game goes, anyone's deliberately pulling the wool over the public's eyes. I think it's a more interesting case than that -- a case of the institution being sincere, and of the people who make up the institution being sincere, and of the conclusions being different. Our discussion is reminding me of how prize committees in any field often work. Bargaining, compromise, and final agreement -- often on some conclusion or winner who's the #1 favorite of none of the committee's members. It seems to me that -- the virtues (or lack thereof) of Morrison and Rushdie's work to one side -- the thing about Rushdie and Morrison is that, for whatever reasons, they're writers the industry can settle on as literarily important. What makes them settle-on-able? That's an interesting discussion too.

One of the touching and infuriating things about the publishing industry -- and part of what made it fun to follow and cover -- is that it's such a funny combo of calculation and sincerity. It's full of English majors who still remember loving literature who are spending much of their time on books they dislike, on filling out financial projections, and on wrestling with MBA corporate types who are much more skillful at biz fighting. So the ex-English majors continue to dream and hope, and endure bouts of intense bitterness, and wish they could shake free so they could spend some time finally finishing Proust, and then, when they finally do get a little breather, feeling exhausted and reading a mystery instead of a classic because they don't have the energy to face anything more demanding -- and then they return to work saying, "You know, I've developed more respect for the mystery-writing craft than I ever imagined I would!"

Contradictions and multiple layers abound, in other words. An entertainingly messy field, as many of the culture businesses are. There are times when you get so annoyed with all the hysteria and pretenses that you want to smack publishing around and make it behave like a semi-normal semi-rational business, and other times when you're touched by how valiant the people in the field can be, and wish there were no commercial pressures at all.

Well, I'm saying "you" where I ought to say "I." I was, anyway.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 9, 2003 1:37 PM


Personally, I separate the art from the artist as a person. Even though I dislike Rushdie's and Morrison's writing, and more specifically I disagree with claims as to their merits as great serious writers (and there are writers whose stuff I don't like but can agree with their merit as an artist), I have no opinion on them as people. If I met either one of them, I quite probably would like them as they seem intelligent from what I've read in interviews with them and such. I typically like intelligent people. That's a small distinction, but an important one.

So, I'm not dogpiling on you if you like Rushdie or Morrison, you're welcome to your preferences, but if you feel they are great literature, we disagree. I don't think there's a supportable case for their writing having lasting artistic merit and influence - their real audience is too small, for one. For another, they write in the same mode as Joyce does in "Ulysses", which nearly no one but the DeLillos and Charles Fraziers (i.e. the insular "academic" "literary" clique [two scare quotes in a row! good for me!]) of the world emulate. Most readers could give a flying star-spangled fandango for stream-of-consciousness or another literary retread of the Odyssey. (I think sampling older songs like they do in hiphop and rap is derivative, and thus making any "new" creation less meritorious in its own right, too.) But, as pointed out earlier, only time will tell.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 9, 2003 2:03 PM


"But their marketability to a reading populace which makes its decisions from moral rather than aesthetic criteria does depend on them."

I think that's a dubious distinction. Most readers do not select their reading from a moral standpoint, and DO select based on aesthetics and entertainment value. (If this is what you are getting at.) Perhaps the only people who select their reading lists based on moral concerns, ironically, are Identity Politics true believers. But then they aren't reading for literary reasons, they are reading for a cause. That's a separate topic altogether.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 9, 2003 2:12 PM

Michael's last posting sounds like he's answered his own question!

Posted by: annette on April 9, 2003 5:41 PM

I regret to announce that on my own blog I have gone on, at Birnbaum length, about this topic.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on April 10, 2003 6:07 PM

On this topic, I'd suggest Richard Kostelanetz's old book from the early 70s, THE END OF INTELLIGENT WRITING. It's available now only as a used book, though I hope it will be reissued. The book mixes criticism of criticism with criticism of publishing motives in a way that I sometimes found vexing. Do people slam the avant garde because they dislike the avant garde or because they want to protect their literary clique? RK's own model examples of avant garde make me roll my eyes, and nobody has give me a clique yet to order around. But anyway, it is a fascinating book that you must order used from Amazon. Then push Routledge to re-issue with updating from RK.

Posted by: David Blad on June 18, 2003 6:40 AM

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