Equal Opportunity in Fictionland

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I
had supper recently at my home in Laramie with a writing professor
from the University of Wyoming. It was the first time we'd visited
together outside the company of a mutual friend (my former wife,
actually) and I noticed she was drinking more and faster than usual.
At last, when we'd killed most of a bottle of wine discussing the
literary projects each of us has under way and I was serving the
salad course, she opened up on me.

"There's
something you need to know," she began. "At your age,
if you're not already a brandname author, you're never going to
sell another novel to a major publisher – nonfiction, maybe. They're
looking for young writers, to start with, besides which, you aren't
the right color, ethnic group, or sex. It doesn't matter how good
your work is, it's all a question nowadays of who you are, not what
you write. It's called multiculturalism – you know? We've had enough
of middle-aged white men, it's time to let other voices be heard.
And you're out of the MFA loop to boot. Somebody refers a friend
of hers to a book editor, or a magazine one, and the networking
goes on from there. I don't know whether you're aware of this or
not, but academia has produced a substantial literary establishment.
Writers are writing for each other now, and most of them are women.
It's all like a game, really, and you aren't in it."

She
wasn't telling me anything I hadn't guessed already; still, I had
it from the horse's mouth now. All she left out was what is likely
the most important thing: my right-wing journalistic affiliations
and the lengthy paper-trail I've left behind in my quarter-century
as a magazine editor and writer. Another glass of wine and she'd
probably have spilled the beans on that one, too – and regretted doing
it next morning. It's interesting that while liberals will admit
discrimin – excuse me, favoritism – where ethnicity and "gender"
are concerned, they can't bring themselves to admit or defend the
suppression of dissenting political opinion. (John Stuart Mill and
all that, you know.)

Anyhow,
her warning (well-intentioned, I have to presume) was timely, as
I'd recently touched on the subject of the New York publishers in
a book review in Chronicles. The problem of the major publishers,
so-called (they don't publish major books anymore, so why do we
give them the credit, no matter how much dough they have to throw
away on junk?) is an elephant whose component parts I've been exploring
for some time now. And not just the "major" publishers
but the "minor" ones too.

Nonfiction
trade publishing has problems of its own which I won't get into
here, but the important thing to know about the fiction market is
that contemporary American literature has been hijacked and, in
the name of "inclusivity," transformed from an open and
living institution into what is really the world's most exclusive
club.

As
I tried explaining to my friend the lady writing teacher, publishing
as a purview of male WASPS (from colonial times down to about 1960)
did not concern itself exclusively, or even predominantly, with
what today would be dismissed as "the white male experience."
Who do you suppose published Anne Bradstreet in the 17th
century? Or made Harriet Beecher Stowe an international celebrity
in the nineteenth and Marie Corelli's awful books bestsellers in
the early 20th? Who published Edith Wharton, Willa Cather,
Ellen Glasgow, and Mari Sandoz? Who gave Mike Gold, Norman Mailer,
Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin contracts? White male editors –
natch. And how about the novelists themselves? The UW English Department's
last visiting writer (Thomas Glave, recently designated "Writer
on the Verge" by The Village Voice) is a gay
black man whose subject as a fiction writer is the experience of
being black and gay. I argued with my friend that being black and
gay is not, properly speaking, a literary subject at all, but a
sociological and political one – that Faulkner didn't write
about being white and straight, nor Flannery O'Connor about being
female and handicapped – but failed to make an impression.
Could it be that writers like Thomas Glave, Alice Walker, Terry
Tempest Williams, etc. ad nauseum write about themselves
because they (unlike Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Proust, and Hemingway)
either know nothing, or have nothing to say about, anything else?
I think that's a valid subject for a Ph.D. thesis (at Bob Jones
University, maybe).

As
my friend explained, literature today (the novel, the short story,
poetry, memoir) is all about "new voices" and "empowerment,"
the assumption being that access to a literary agent, a fat advance,
and a publishing press is just another minority "right"
to be discovered lurking in the Constitutional penumbra. It is about
"expressing oneself," "making oneself heard"
– in other words, about narcissism, politics, and philistinism
rolled into one. Only an amateur thinks of art as self-expression:
Aquinas defined it as reason in making. And yet in our celebrity-drenched
world, even self-expression is insufficient: The literary artist,
laboring in solitude five or six hours a day, is transformed into
the glitzy stage performer – wherefore the rise of the noxious
literary reading, in which "writers" read from their "works",
or better yet works in progress, usually in elegant surroundings
and almost always preceding a wine-and-cheese reception. (On campus
here last fall I listened in amazement as a young Caribbean-American
writer, currently a star at The New Yorker, read a short
story whose sole action was an act of digital sex.) What all this
has to do with the genuine writing life (Balzac in his dirty bathrobe,
Gerard Manley Hopkins being discovered after his death but
still writing poems anyway) is as problematical as the connection
between the poetry of Emily Dickinson and that of Maya Angelou,
who regularly makes a limousine tour of all the best American
colleges and universities.

What
has happened is now plain to see: American literature, like everything
else in American culture, has been hijacked by revolutionaries who
in this case also happen to be literary wannabes: resentful, untalented
but applause-loving people eager to loot something valuable for
themselves on the long march through the institutions. Granted they
admire literature for all the wrong reasons (art as religion and
the artist as priest-celebrity). Granted they have meager talent,
insufficient self-training to complement the mandatory Master of
Fine Arts degree, little if any stylistic distinction or presence
– what Raymond Chandler called "magic." Granted they're
badly educated, largely ignorant of the literature of the bad-old-male-white
past when not actively hostile to it, and therefore without appropriate
literary models who might stand them in good stead. The point is,
they're out to displace what they can neither tolerate nor match,
and the only way they're able to replace it with something of their
own making is by literary sleight-of-hand: networking, self-promotion,
grandstanding, puffery, fakery, and lies. The result is a literary
Potemkin Village, but it's theirs: All theirs, and they intend
to keep it for themselves alone. No boring overprivileged overindulged
white guys of a certain age admitted. (Who needs that kind
of competition?)

As
for the publishers, nowadays post-literate types themselves, they
can't tell the difference between a genuine writer and a pod one.
And don't want to, either. That would be, like, discriminatory,
you know?

February
28, 2001

Chilton
Williamson is a novelist and non-fiction writer, and a columnist
and senior editor at Chronicles.
His most recent book is The
Immigration Mystique: America’s False Conscience
.

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