Equal Opportunity in Fictionland

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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