Critics predicted the death of literature for much of the twentieth century, but at the dawn of the Internet age, the mantra is becoming conventional wisdom. Listen to conservative critic Terry Teachout, crowing in the Wall Street Journal: “55 percent of Americans spend less than 30 minutes reading anything at all.” The reason, he argues, is that “the novel is an obsolete artistic technology.”
This is silly. The Internet does not publish much great literature, but neither did the talkies, television or radio, and the printed word managed to survive those threats more or less intact. True, there is no writer’s slot on Letterman or Leno anymore, and no smart/pretty/sexy young writer will ever be sought after as a dinner guest in quite the way Renata Adler or Mary McCarthy once was. The slots for book reviews in the newsweeklies are shrinking. But whatever impetus drives young people to wish to be writers (and publishers to support them) seems to be growing paradoxically healthier in our merger-frenzied, get-rich-yesterday decade.
First novels, for so long the orphans of the industry, are fashionable again. In 2000, Random House and its sister imprints in the Bertelsmann behemoth will publish a robust sixty-three. Even more amazing, given the underlying economics, is the quiet renaissance in independent literary magazines, a business that makes writing a first novel look lucrative. Staring death in the face in more ways than one, Nobel-laureate novelist and awe-inspiring procreator Saul Bellow, together with his friend Keith Botsford, recently embarked on an admirably quixotic quest to publish, with their own funds, News From the Republic of Letters, which they describe as a “tabloid for literates.” And what is a literate? The editors don’t say, but Daniel Bell, writing in the hyperliterate newsletter Correspondence, explains, “The title, as those who are literate will know, comes from ‘Nouvelles de la république des lettres,’…published by the French philosopher Pierre Bayle between 1684 and 1687.”
I knew that.
Bellow and Botsford call themselves “a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature” and believe that “ingenious technology has failed to give [readers] what they so badly need.” This turns out to consist of commentary, short stories, short novels and essays by writers unknown in the English-speaking world, forgotten literary correspondence and the occasional Bellow original. Most affecting of these so far is the master’s deadpan account of the 1994 luxury Caribbean cruise on which he almost died from food poisoning. Appropriately, the journal has no apparent print schedule and press runs of barely 2,000 copies.
The expansive new Tin House emits a different scent entirely. Edited and published by Portland-based Nation investor Win McCormack, assisted by two New York editors, this thick, handsome paperback magazine is as glossy as a literary magazine can be without actually being a glossy. Indeed, its aesthetic is supposed to be part of its appeal. Previous literary magazines, co-editor Elissa Schappell explains, strike her as “boring, elitist tracts, dense, hard to read and ugly.” Aesthetics aside, its most engaging gimmick is to publish writers you’d expect, writing on subjects you would not. For instance, No. 1 had Rick Moody on Brian Eno, Ariel Dorfman on Roman Polanski, and David Gates on the strange survivalist how-to guide Possum Living. No. 2’s highlight proved to be an extremely confusing attack by the novelist/critic Walter Kirn on his own first novel–which may or may not have been a parody of a Tom Wolfe attack on said novel.