Here Comes Everybody

Here Comes Everybody

Women writers are far outnumbered by men in magazines and book reviews, but why? Part of the answer lies in book publishing.


A few years ago, the literary world was beset by a bogeywoman who came bearing bad news and the numbers to prove it; her name was VIDA. Some assumed this moniker was an acronym or a misspelled allusion to Virginia Woolf’s famous literary paramour, Vita Sackville-West, but it wasn’t. VIDA was an all-caps neologism that would come to haunt the dreams of editors of magazines large and small, eminent and less so, with your author, dear reader, included among those unsound sleepers. 

Veedah. Veeedaahh….

If you are an accredited member of the magazine world or else a vigilant fellow traveler, chances are that you already know about VIDA. You have heard of the Count, which tallies bylines by gender at publications that “are widely recognized as prominent critical and/or commercial literary venues.” You have opinions about what the numbers mean and how magazines should or will respond to them. If you are a partisan of the Count, or a feminist, or a woman writer, there is a good chance that, having read the opening paragraph of this essay, you are puzzled or angry. If you are a reactionary, an embattled editor or a plain old contrarian, you may already be cheering: Look, here we go, a woman writer and editor socking it to those sourpuss byline-counters! It is easy to incite, in the small community that cares about such things, indignation or delight, because the battle lines have been drawn, it seems—demands issued, sops and reassurances offered—and little has changed. 

* * *

The summer of 2013 was a season of outrage. Maybe it was the impending collapse of the current world order; maybe it was the dreadful heat. Whether or not those months marked some sort of historical nadir, indignation was the order of the day: over the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman; the NSA’s broad surveillance of cellphone records and lord knows what else, as revealed by Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald; #solidarityisforwhitewomen, a Twitter hashtag created to draw attention to white feminists’ failure to understand and address the concerns of feminists of color; the exploitative, even “rapey” video for the summer’s most popular jam, “Blurred Lines,” in which blue-eyed R&B crooner Robin Thicke (son of TV’s Alan) cavorted with bare-breasted dancers and even pretended to inject one of them in the buttocks with a giant syringe. Soon Miley Cyrus would outcrass Thicke at the MTV Video Music Awards, when, during a dismal duet fusing that song with her single “We Can’t Stop,” Cyrus twerked and grinded on the body of a zaftig, black backup dancer.

Twitter, whose 140-character limit is uniquely conducive to spontaneous, grammatically perverted confessions of bad behavior as well as denunciations, tellings-off and other expressions of outrage, has not just amplified the volume of simple thoughts and emotions but elevated them to high camp. Thus, by August, when President Obama and his advisers believed they had no option but to bomb Syria in retaliation for its deadly retaliations against its citizens, the chatter from the feeds of America’s less militant millions seemed to coalesce into a seething hive-mind of anger and fear almost as humid as the sweat of the strongmen peddling grave hypocrisy and lethal confusion.

On Twitter, Miley’s missteps and Syria’s death toll seemed to occupy nearly the same space, each further galvanizing the ire induced by the other. One may not be able to properly measure proportion and consequence in so few pixels, but there was a conversation, of some kind, about what we value as a public—about what we do, and should or shouldn’t—that took place between “the media” and “ordinary folks,” who get to speak to those in power (or at least fire off a few choice words @them) only in comment sections or on Twitter. As Twitter raged, the credentialed media roared back. Bill Keller, former executive editor of The New York Times, didn’t particularly care for the negative reaction to his stumping for the Obama bombing, calling three times in one editorial for serious discussion about the crisis in Syria after dismissing the opinions of Times readers (they were not as “sophisticated,” it seems, as he had thought) that ran counter to his own. All those voices shouting at him from cyberspace must admittedly have been a little irritating, but usually, as Keller surely knows, one does not begin a serious conversation with an injunction to Shut Up.

Nor is it just regular old readers who are asked, often, to keep their voices down. Jennifer Weiner may not be the most aggrieved of the planet’s bestselling novelists, but she is possibly the most vocal—not just about the dearth of attention paid to women writers, but specifically to those who, like herself, write commercial fiction. Weiner has often taken to Twitter to criticize review sections, particularly The New York Times Book Review, still published each Sunday as a stand-alone supplement, for ignoring her ilk. “Jennifer Weiner Is Mad at The New York Times Book Review Again,” wrote The Atlantic Wire’s Alexander Nazaryan in September after a fresh contretemps. Weiner was not happy with his take, particularly with the word “strident” used to describe her critique. “One book blogger suggested to me that the easiest way for the Book Review to quiet Weiner is by hiring her,” wrote Nazaryan. “Hey, it’s an idea.”

It was an idea, yes. But not a very good one.

* * *

According to its website, “VIDA was founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.” The publications whose bylines it counts include the general interest magazines The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Harper’s; The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books (the latter two published in Britain); several more literary journals—Tin House, Poetry, the Paris, Boston and Threepenny reviews, and Granta (also in Britain); and two journals of politics and opinion with notable book reviews, The New Republic and The Nation. Publication in these venues, according to VIDA, “furthers the careers of writers by bolstering applications for grants, residencies, employment (academic and otherwise), graduate programs, awards, and more. Winning/earning/receiving these types of honors affords writers the time and resources needed to continue/advance their careers.” 

The numbers revealed by the Count are not encouraging. Many more male bylines appear in these publications, both for reviews and articles, than bylines by women; leading magazines go weeks or months with just a woman or two in the table of contents. Although VIDA does not count women (or people) of color separately, there is no doubt that those numbers are even more dispiriting.

Neither does VIDA count bylines in Rolling Stone, Fortune or Scientific American, or on the op-ed pages of prominent newspapers. Its mission has, from its inception, targeted not journalism broadly but journalism’s relationship to book publishing and, even more specifically, to prestige or literary publishing (the Count includes not just the bylines of reviewers, but also the gender breakdown of the authors being reviewed). These are the publications where award-winning novelists and essayists mingle most comfortably with award-winning journalists and critics, and there is considerable overlap in these spheres.

There are two separate economies in book publishing: the material economy, and the economy of prestige. VIDA’s mission statement tellingly does not mention anything about the actual selling of books. And while publishing has two economies, the work of writers is traded in three currencies: money, meaning book sales and author advances; status, meaning reviews, awards, fellowships and general cachet, which are not strictly quantifiable but pay dividends nonetheless; and a third, which I can only describe as the actual life of a book, which is its movement through the world after it is published. Sales do contribute to this third currency, but only so much, because it is intangible, uncountable and ultimately unknowable, and yet still entirely, wonderfully real. It has been described, incompletely, as a book’s legacy—whether it will still be read ten, twenty, fifty or 100 years from now, whether it will become canonical when we are all dead—but the actual life of a book is not just posthumous.

Sheri Holman has written four novels. One, The Dress Lodger, has sold at least 250,000 copies. Of the novels she’s written, three of them were passed along to me not as gifts but casually, plucked from bookshelves of other readers because they had enjoyed them and I might, too. Of these three readers, two were men; the first was my mother, who gave me her copy of The Dress Lodger some time ago, during my first job in publishing, at a prestigious magazine, when my sense of books and their value was about as skewed as it’s ever been. The cover featured a street scene, nineteenth-century looking, in muted colors, and a woman in a beautiful blue silk dress turned away from the reader, revealing a swath of her beautiful back. I did not want to take the book. I did not read novels adorned with back-baring women in beautiful blue dresses.

Readers necessarily judge books by their covers, as do book review editors. It is an imperative of time and efficiency. When every book sent out by publicists is hailed in the marketing material as a masterwork, you have to start sorting somewhere, which is why the trade publishing world uses a specific formula in designing book covers. Take a bestseller, copy its look, and stuff a book that sort of resembles it in between the front and back flaps. Get blurbs, the famouser the better. Make sure people know this book is for readers of that book, even when it isn’t, as was the case with The Dress Lodger, which has sold so many copies in part because it was mistaken for a historical romance. Readers picked it up looking for Philippa Gregory, and instead they got Sheri Holman.

* * *

Since the publication of The Dress Lodger in 2000, Holman has written two novels, both of which have been critically but not commercially successful. Holman is one of the best novelists working today. She crafts sentences worth underlining, pages to be dog-eared for rereading. She also reinvents herself as a writer with each book. None of her four novels is set in the same period, has the same mood or protagonists who seem alike. The striking differences in her novels are reflected by their covers, none of which look anything like the rest. There are no more blue dresses.

I’ve been told by numerous sources (who preferred not to be identified) that Sessalee Hensley, the chief fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble, is the most powerful woman in publishing. As the one remaining major retail chain, Barnes & Noble has for now a monopoly on soft power with publishers. The company decides which books to sell, the quantity of each they will buy, where and how they are displayed. Hensley’s like or dislike of a book is believed to be a key factor in its commercial success, so much so that publishers seek Hensley’s OK for the most obvious selling point of a book: its cover. Without her approval, it’s back to the drawing board.

But even with Hensley’s backing and an entire marketing machine geared up to fire, fire, fire, there is no guarantee of a bestseller. The mood of publishing is timorous at best. With the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, many of the big houses are hoping that an emerging genre, “new adult,” will become their magic goose, especially in the e-book market, which has steered the rest of publishing toward the “super populist.” In the erotic subgenre of new adult fiction, sexy people in their early 20s have sexy sex, and presumably do some other stuff, too; the point is the sex. Authors in the mold of E.L. James, many of whom began their careers by self-publishing, are already laying millions of golden eggs.

The new adult genre is clearly intended for the mass market. More nuanced fiction that isn’t of an obvious commercial genre—much of which is written by women—often brushes up against the literary. Publishers have various terms for the books that straddle this line. One of the ugliest and yet most useful is “upmarket.” The writers who may be lumped in this category are diverse in their output and their ambitions.

One commercial editor told me that many of her writers once cherished literary aspirations, but that they’re comfortable in the “upmarket” category, in part because it’s more lucrative. “If you cash in on the monetary market, you won’t get prestige. A lot of writers are OK with that.” Few writers have control over their covers, let alone the way their books are marketed, but if an agent or publisher says that this lacy dress or that whispery veil might entice more readers, who are they to object? Readers of literary fiction, especially women, will buy commercial titles as well. But the phenomenal popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey or the Twilight series or Nora Roberts among women who do not specifically identify as “readers” suggests that the reverse is less true. It’s hard to blame women writers for trying their hand at the commercial market when the literary one is so inhospitable.

For writers of work that is unambiguously ambitious, this choice is more difficult in that it may not be an option at all. Had Sheri Holman continued to write novels that could be disguised with blue dresses, she might be far richer and more famous than she is today, but she cannot or will not and has paid the price. She describes complaints she’s seen online from readers of her newest novel, Witches on the Road Tonight: “There are not enough real witches in this book!” But she does not need to tell me about the limited visibility of her novels in critical circles, or the generally favorable notices that are something, but not enough to lift her into the pantheon, to grant her the status she might deserve, because she fails to fit into any of the easy categories. When I discuss this with her on the roof of her workspace in Brooklyn, the borough now called home by so many rising literary stars, there is some bemusement but also exhilaration in her bright green eyes. “You know my problem?” she says, not a question but an answer. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be.”

* * *

It is not uncommon for writers without a graduate degree in writing to blame MFA programs for the conventional dullness of much of today’s literary landscape, but given the number of our best and most original working writers who have emerged from or now teach in these programs, this criticism seems misguided. What is certainly true is that these programs have promoted the proliferation of the A-student writer: someone who has learned early to write fiction that sounds professional—to write stories that look a lot like good stories. Some writers, like Lorrie Moore, left school with inchoate original voices and manuscripts that would become stunning debuts. Far more writers end up with a novel or six-pack of short stories that are decent but unremarkable; they are essentially exercises in good writing or, if we are less gentle, facsimiles of it. The more that agents and editors and publicists applaud their work, the less these writers might develop, organically, as writers, but they do learn a lot about professional success.

“What happens to writing when every sentence can be—hence is under peer pressure to be—its own marketing department?” This question, recently posed by John Holbo in the blog Crooked Timber, is a worthy one, but so is its inverse: What happens when sentences  are not under pressure to dance, to hook the reader on their own terms, because the marketing of a writer secures his or her reputation as a writer of good sentences? Publishing isn’t insulated from the cult of youth that pervades our culture, from the uncanny bodies of alien, antelopic young women to our fascination with the child prodigy. But unlike modeling or even mathematics—a field in which a disproportionate number of scientists do extraordinary work in their 20s—writing good fiction is work that demands skill and insight, even wisdom, which may develop over time, both by living in the world and by continuing to read it, in books. It is a craft that might not be best accomplished by its youngest practitioners, who may need more time to grow, with the aid of genuine critical response to their work, rather than so much hype as a cast, or even a caste, of literary characters.

But that runs counter to our intellectual climate. As Adam Kirsch pondered in The New York Times’s inaugural “Bookends” column, “At a time when few people care about literature, why waste precious time and space attacking a bad book when you could be celebrating a good one? Isn’t writing a bad review a kind of disservice to literature itself?” So much of publishing has become a celebration of itself—understandably so, when it has little else to celebrate. But what happens when the book party is over, the plastic cups of wine overturned, the towers of cheese toppled, the crackers crumbled into bits, with the notices—or worse, lack thereof—arriving in the morning news? The culture of celebration masks a shadow culture of fear in which the industry and its laborers daily toil. Fear of net losses and bad reviews; offense and indignation; saying the wrong thing to the right person at the right party, where one is meant to celebrate and you are an insider, or at least have been let in the door. One false move, it seems, can kill a book, a contract, a job, even a career. 

There is always retrenchment in times of recession, fear and social unease. In the halcyon days of the 1990s, with the economy booming and Bill Clinton blithely blowing his saxophone, before the seismic changes wreaked by Amazon and e-books—before it seemed that the one and only future of everything lay in the rhizomatic behemoth of the Internet—there was a sense, in publishing, of more room at the table. Identity politics taught that the experiences of people who were not white or male were worth taking seriously, and nonwhite authors, many of them women who had been writing for a long time already, flourished critically and commercially: Isabel Allende, Amy Tan, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez. They would be joined, at the turn of the millennium, by a plethora of new “global” writers, such as Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri, as well as unexpected male voices, like Edward P. Jones. School curriculums resurrected Zora Neale Hurston and Gwendolyn Brooks. And then, of course, there is, was and always shall be Toni Morrison, whose novel Beloved was deemed in 2006 “the single best work of American fiction published in the last 25 years” by a New York Times survey of leading critics, writers and assorted “literary sages.” 

Perhaps this really was a better time, one in which diversity was fostered rather than repressed. But among the Times’s other contenders, the only book written by a woman to receive multiple votes was Marilynne Robinson’s transcendent prose-poem Housekeeping

When The Flamethrowers was published to much fanfare last spring, it was hailed as a new standard for ambitious women writers. It is the second novel by Rachel Kushner, whose first book had been nominated for a National Book Award in 2008. The cover boasted no pink, no veils, not even any flames, but rather the face of a lovely young woman looking, grim and determined, dead-on at the reader. Her hair falls in two loose golden braids, and vertical streaks of war paint anoint her cheeks, like a blond Pocahontas. Early buzz had it that this was the book to watch, and reviewers did. So when Salon’s Laura Miller called The Flamethrowers a “litmus test for reviewers, especially the male ones” it became just that: a barometer rather than a novel.

Kushner is talented and ambitious, but would her book have earned such attention were it not about a leggy blonde who rides a motorcycle? Would the aristocratic poet Frederick Seidel, known for his love of pretty women and Ducatis, have bothered to take a look, let alone grouse about it, in The New York Review of Books? Were the heroine of The Flamethrowers a stumpy lesbian pedaling a bicycle, I suspect the answer would be no. It would be a different book, too, but that’s the point: a different book, with a different title, different jacket, different set of boosters and detractors—a different litmus test altogether.

Alice McDermott, age 60, and Joan Silber, 68, are both writers of excellent fiction that might be described as “quiet” or “intimate.” Having made the National Book Award longlist, in October they were cut from the roster of official nominees, which comprises George Saunders, Thomas Pynchon, James McBride, Rachel Kushner and Jhumpa Lahiri. Lahiri and Kushner are two of the most visible literary novelists working today, and they are also, in their mid-40s, very beautiful. I have already described the cover of Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Lahiri’s new novel, The Lowland, has earned a distinction few books by women can boast: a text-only cover, the title painted with bold tremors in a large, slanted font that has recently become fashionable for fiction by men. They, at least for the moment, have found a seat at the table.

One of writers’ best-loved metaphors is the room, specifically Virginia Woolf’s, which she introduced in the 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own.” The essay was adapted from Woolf’s lectures to women studying at Cambridge University, an opportunity she never had and keenly envied; her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, who had a distinguished career in writing and publishing, did not believe in formal education for girls. The room that Woolf envisioned was not merely metaphorical. “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction,” she remarked, acknowledging at once both the amateur and privileged aspects of the literary endeavor. For the most part, it is the second requirement—the room—that we remember. The money has dropped from the axiom, not because it is crude but because now it seems less true: if writing is a profession, then people get paid for it, just like any other trade.

The room as metaphor has fallen into disuse for the same reasons it was first employed. For Woolf, writing was a solitary intellectual and emotional pursuit, one undertaken in private, with the only voices talking to the writer those in her head. In the age of the Internet, writing in solitude may seem old-fashioned. Why write alone, in silence and contemplation, fear and desperation, when you can compose in the company of your peers, the more the merrier? The Internet specializes in voices—not in cultivating or curating them, but in providing near-innumerable platforms for their sharing. This has created, or at least exacerbated, a crisis in sorting, filtering and, ultimately, perceived legitimacy. It’s not that there isn’t enough space to publish; it’s that the number of paying, reputable outlets, particularly those in print, has shrunk. The insider/outsider problem has become more vexing as aspiring writers come knocking on virtual doors, which is a lot easier than marching into the office of an editor or publisher. These writers don’t want to be confined to rooms, which feel less like oases than echo chambers. They want inside other, bigger rooms—rooms with good acoustics. They want access to the Great Halls of publishing, and a chair at the heart of the feast. 

* * *

For literary gatekeepers, the Internet can look like a wild frontier full of scoundrels and cheats rather than a choir of voices, each awaiting his or her solo. It’s a little scary for those who make their living in print—again, myself included. Which is why it was both horrifying and terrifically gratifying to watch Jonathan Franzen go bust about Twitter, texting and “technoconsumerism” in The Guardian in September. His essay, which was adapted from his recent book The Kraus Project, was a hobgobbled mess of confused and confusing complaints—a projection onto the fin-de-siècle Austrian writer of Franzen’s own anxieties and irritations with the cadences of modern life and its expression in words, particularly on the Internet. Kraus, like Franzen, is a PC, Franzen writes, not a Mac—or they would rather live in the “uncool” world of the former if they had the choice. (Franzen even lashes out at the actor who plays Apple’s iconic computing machine in a TV advertisement.) The question of why this particular banality is relevant points to a larger mystery: What is Franzen so angry about, beyond the fact of the Internet itself and what it has created—namely, space for writing without gatekeeping, without editing? Sadly, much of what he says that is prescient is lost in his sparking and fuming. The spectacle suggested nothing so much as the anger of older, whiter, maler conservatives after the last presidential election, when it seemed that women and minorities had finally overwhelmed them as a demographic. Perhaps, like them, Franzen is furious because he is afraid—because he senses the inevitable creeping forward of his own demise. 

When the Canadian writer David Gilmour joined the fray, wittingly or not, just a few days later with his comment about not teaching women writers because he doesn’t love them (the exception being Woolf), the backlash on the Internet and among students and his colleagues at the University of Toronto was hardly surprising—but then neither was the thought itself, only its being spoken aloud. How many men feel this way, whether or not they will say so in public? Gilmour’s transgression may not have been intentional, but it did seem to signal a change in the weather. Literary largesse is easy in times untroubled, when one is comfortably sitting at the table, eating voraciously with knife and fork, a napkin lap-handy for the occasional pat to the lips, to clean them or to cover a smirk when this woman or that black writer is ushered in, eyes gleaming as she sets sight on the men licking their chops and chewing the fat. If one man is asked to scooch over, he might do so, especially if this new guest is young and comely or he admires her work. But if a whole bench must be squeezed, or even displaced, someone is inevitably bound to drop his silverware, and the ring will resound throughout the room.

Franzen is right at least in one way: things are not what they used to be. The degradation of American language and literature predates Twitter, even the Internet—let’s blame it on TV and failing schools, for old time’s sake—but sentences do not sound the way they used to. They lack surprise, richness, reach; their syntax is flat, their diction pretentious or just boring. Has there been a writer who has packed so much into each discrete clause since Angela Carter, one whose imagination ranged wider? There is perhaps, in the defensive postures of the publishing elite, a sense that literary culture has lost something that no number of critical plaudits and national awards can replace, that our problems are not just numeric but intellectual and aesthetic. 

So in 2010, when Time put Franzen on its cover a week before the publication of his megablockbuster Freedom, declaring him if not “the” then at least “a” Great American Novelist, the exercise seemed more nostalgic than anything else, a yearning for a time when men were men and literature was literature and the Great American Novel was a feat merely waiting to be accomplished rather than a concept that now seems nearly as absurd as American exceptionalism itself. Franzen’s off-and-on-again ally, Oprah Winfrey—by far the most influential literary critic of the twenty-first century—has appeared on the cover of her own massively successful magazine every month since it was launched in 2000, some 160 times. Franzen’s frowning visage, rendered crisp but painterly in a brooding palette, appears less a photograph than a portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man, representing the values of a bygone past selectively remembered, without these new and pesky blurred lines to obscure our vision.

* * *

Counting is crucial, but it is not a conversation; it’s arithmetic. Neither is indignation an especially useful rhetorical mode; it can be dismissed as mere noise, easy to ignore, especially when glossed as “shrill” or “strident,” words that are code for the whining of women. Publishers and editors tend to react poorly to the shouting of outsiders to be allowed in. As gatekeepers, one of their jobs is to keep people out, and for some it’s part of the pleasure of the work—the culling of chaff, riffraff, the unserious or the unsellable. There are reasons to be optimistic about the numbers, lousy as they are. Sarah Weinman of Publishers Marketplace, which monitors book contracts as they are signed, has told me that increasingly publishers appear less eager to find the next great novel of white male existential crisis. There is “Jonathan fatigue” (see: Franzen, Lethem and Safran Foer), and perhaps a recognition that because women read significantly more books than men do, risks might be worth taking. Readers read, and they occasionally appear even to read books by women when their covers are green or red or navy blue. Perhaps more realistically, and very cynically, as the money to be made by becoming a distinguished author disappears, men will migrate to more profitable careers, and writing will become, like teaching or nursing, a women’s profession.

There are no measures to compel editors in their choice of whom to take in or leave out, furious, in the bitter winds of the Great Unpublished. And while publishing is an industry, writing is not. The extent to which it has become one today is literature’s loss and capitalism’s gain, because writing is, at its best, at once an exploration and a performance—a high-wire act. Writers are supposed to fail, and then perhaps fail better, and then perhaps even to do something great: create something that is rare and true, that tells us what we did not know; something, most likely, that the writer learned only in the writing, a process that is terrifying and gloomy and, above all, without guarantees.

What the current numbers reflect is not so much hostility toward women writers, I think—though there is some of that, as well as condescension and denial—as complacency. Editors are not obliged to give any one writer a certain number of column inches, but it is incumbent upon us to do the best we can, not just to create a product, but to broaden and deepen the world of ideas in a culture that would sooner erase them. The men and women who work for “high-brow” publishing houses and at the magazines VIDA monitors didn’t get into the business for the money. Hopefully, even the most jaded still believe that words do matter, and getting the best they can onto the page is not just a responsibility but an achievement and an affirmation. When we rely on the usual suspects, and new writers who look just like the old ones, we are doing a disservice to readers—not just as consumers, but as interlocutors who wish to engage with the most compelling writing and thinking we can provide. If we are going to present what we publish as valuable intellectual work, then we owe it to readers not to cheat, cut corners or maintain the status quo. The present configuration of bylines is not just an ethical disappointment, but an aesthetic and intellectual failure—a victory for old news and the second-rate. 

In the end, good writing can be professional, but great writing is, almost by definition, amateur. It does not necessarily know itself or its audience. Not long ago, Marilynne Robinson described her perception of the state of literature to an interviewer, a woman who had been her student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop:

I think that there’s a reluctance in all writers in early stages of their development to really commit themselves to trust their interests as being actually focused on things that are interesting. To realize that they do not have to talk in the same dialect that is being talked around them, in terms of literary convention and all the rest of it. Something that I sometimes say, and even sometimes believe, is that there has been a loss of the cult of genius. When I was younger, I remember going around totally deluded by the idea that other people might, in fact, be geniuses or at least be able to express this in any intelligible fashion. The idea that you might do something radically brilliant—that assumption is very empowering and it has given the world a lot of really interesting things to look at. It’s a side effect of the cult of normality—the idea that it would be preposterous and perhaps undesirable to single yourself out in that way. I think that’s why a lot of stuff that basically amounts to breaking china is seen as being creative when, in fact, it’s as subservient to prevailing norms as anything else is, as obedience to them would be.

If a book fails to sell a million copies, an article doesn’t get 100,000 clicks, an award goes unwon or a novel unacclaimed, there should be, for writers who aspire to excellence, some consolation in the currency of words’ afterlife. As David Gilmour said in his now notorious interview, “What happens with great literature is that the shadows on the pages move around…. Great literature organically moves, and it never stays still. You don’t get tired of it.” This is the real life of a book, as it is read and reread and passed from hand to hand.

* * *

By mid-autumn, it seemed that at least a few things in the world were looking up. A slip of John Kerry’s tongue forced the Obama administration not to bomb Syria after all of the threats and blustering and high-security-level strategery had failed. Larry Summers withdrew from consideration as chair of the Federal Reserve, and Janet Yellen was nominated in his stead. Alice Munro, an 82-year-old Canadian woman who published her first collection of quiet and intimate short stories about the lives of women at age 37, beat out Philip Roth, Haruki Murakami and other perennial favorites for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Perhaps all of the anger and indignation, the moans and the tears, had cut across the din and were heard in the halls of power. The women of the Twitterverse celebrated Munro’s triumph with an unseemly relish, singing their hails and hosannas across the Internet, as if her win were a sign that despite the current numbers, the odds were changing in their favor. The trumpets were sounded and the cannons loaded, battering rams shunted up against the gates. The tambourines are ringing in the distance, and it is beautiful to hear.

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