Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Little More on The Millions List

Edmond Caldwell of Contra James Wood plays the base to my superstructure in a post on what's really wrong with the list(s) The Millions have published: they're extremely corporate.
For starters, let’s not neglect the way that the list itself – and in fact the whole game of this and other literary lists – was “pre-judged” to begin with, and by an even bigger and more influential arbiter of taste and culture than writers, critics, editors, and academics: corporate sales and publicity departments.

Publishing is currently dominated by the “Big Six” media corporations: the Random House Group (owned by the Bertelsmann corporation), Simon & Schuster (owned by ViaCom), HarperCollins Harcourt (Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation), the Penguin Group (Pearson), Macmillan (Holtzbrinck), and the Time-Warner Book Group. The readers polled by The Millions – whether the “pros” of the first panel or the Common Readers of the second panel – are making their judgments based on an array that has already been selected and set before them, largely by this corporate monopoly.

How largely? The Millions’ lists pretty much reflect the market share. Of the 30 titles represented on the two lists (20 titles in each list, with 10 overlapping), 27 are published by imprints belonging to 5 of the Big Six conglomerates, leaving a whopping 3 titles published by “independent” houses. In other words about 90% of the titles come from the corporate majors. That’s interesting, isn’t it? And here I thought the list was supposed to reflect “quality” and “taste”! If Andrew Seal is disturbed by the fact that 70% of the judges are young U.S.-based creative writers, what kind of response does this 90% figure merit?
Well, a bit of a shrug, honestly. I am no apologist for the continual consolidation of the publishing industry (or any other industry) under fewer and fewer (and more and more distant) corporations, but I don't find compelling Caldwell's implicit belief that quality (even in scare quotes) can be correlated to independence from those corporations. In short, I am not convinced that his attempt to move the conversation to a question of who owns the means of literary production does anything more than nudge us toward a severe reification of outsiderness, an anti-brand mandarinism. His approach, in fact, greatly simplifies the whole question of distinction (which he gets to later): it just makes that-which-cannot-be-corporatized into a new fetish object. Of course, there is nothing which cannot be corporatized, a problem which Caldwell acknowledges (noting the absorption of Sebald and Bolaño), though it apparently does not sway him from the opinion that the lack of independent titles on the list is the most egregious skewing possible.

Caldwell's insistence on looking at the corporations does, however, allow me to refine why I think it is important to focus on the writerliness of the books and judges chosen: writers, to a quite likely unsurpassed degree, have become the faces of the corporations who print them. Caldwell has always made very strong points about the domestication of writers through the marketing (and reviewing) process, and I think he makes some cogent points here.

But I believe that very few people (except those who fetishize independence from corporations) have something like brand-consciousness when it comes to books, though nearly everyone has a very active and even fairly sophisticated consciousness of writers, genres, and forms. A blurb by Junot Díaz or by Gary Shteyngart (two very frequent blurbers, in my experience) or a comparison to Bolaño or Nabokov will make a reader pause to contemplate a purchase in a way that, say, a Harper Perennial logo will not. The point of engagement for a critique, therefore, should be at the figure of the writer—how a consciousness of writers and of the relations between writers is formed, and even more, how writers' consciousness of other writers and of their relationships with other writers is formed.

Caldwell also takes a parting shot at my "fatalism," as I acceded to the inevitability of this type of lists by prefacing my critique with "If ordered lists like these must exist…" Well, I don't really see how I'm going to stop them. They have a manifest utility for a number of different types of readers: they make well-read people feel good, both by allowing them to sneer at them and by allowing them to note what a great percentage of the list they've read; they allow younger (or less well-read) readers to get a feel for which books to allocate their temporal resources toward; they allow readers with well-defined tastes to pick attention-grabbing fights; they allow readers with no well-defined tastes an opportunity to pick up one. These lists don't function as tools for generating a consensus which a critique can overturn or disrupt; they exist to attract a broad range of interests, many of which contradict one another.

Consider the post I put up awhile ago that links to a list of "100 Great American Novels You've (Probably) Never Read." Like nearly every other blogger, from time to time I check what people are searching for that leads them to my site. "Great American novels" or "greatest American novels" is generally among the top few search terms. And this is, I think, just because it's far more common to think in terms of that search string than to find out "what's good" by doing the tougher legwork of reading a lot of literary criticism and reading a lot of literature. Places like The Millions (or Time) aren't stupid: they know that lots of people search for variations on "100 best novels" or "best novels of the century/millennium/decade/year." This is Search Engine Optimization 101, which is another way of saying basic psychology.

So yeah, maybe I'm fatalistic. But I have my reasons.

12 comments:

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thank you for reading parts of my post carefully; unfortunately, however, you neglected to read all of it with equal care and to consider the argument as a whole, with the result that your critique is actually more a reflection of your own (and in my view rather circumscribed and, yes, "fatalistic") literary and political commitments.

You write: "I don't find compelling Caldwell's implicit belief that quality (even in scare quotes) can be correlated to independence from those corporations."

This belief must be very implicit indeed, since I don't actually hold it, nor does the post itself suggest it - in fact that would be the "it's all crap" argument that I explicitly disavow. Nor are the two 'quality' titles I discuss at most length, by Sebald and Bolano (both of whom I clearly think of as important and worthy), published by my supposedly fetishized independents. The "correlation" exists only in your mind.

You argue that I am guilty of "a severe reification of outsiderness, an anti-brand mandarinism" which in turn renders "that-which-cannot-be-corporatized into a new fetish object."

Wrong again. This would true only if I shared your fatalism, your resigned belief (unless it is also your hope) that the field of play "must" remain pretty much as it is. In that case, I'd indeed retreat into "anti-brand mandarinism" and valorization of the Outsider, the Underground, etc. But I don't share your resignation. I think it is possible (extremely difficult, perhaps even unlikely, but possible and also necessary) to radically change the field of play, along the very general lines suggested in the footnote that you either didn't read or ignored because it contradicted your argument. It's moreover a view that is genuinely "implicit" in all that I've written on Contra James Wood. I don't want to stand outside the corporate majors in permanent opposition, I want to destroy them.

You write that I hold "the opinion that the lack of independent titles on the list is the most egregious skewing possible."

Three strikes, Andrew. I'm not playing the listing game at all, complaining that "my" titles (independent or otherwise) didn't make it. Once again, your own fatalism (well, there simply "must" be these lists!) circumscribes the way you read. I'm using the analysis of the 90% corporate composition of the list to get to "bigger issues" of how the particular cultural practice of inanely endless listing serves to reproduce current conditions of cultural production. I conclude by identifying five interlinked ideological functions of this practice - the fashion system, the star system, identity-construction as the sum of market choices, manifest populism, and latent elitism. That's the game as I see it, and if you want to keep playing, you're welcome to it. But maybe next time try to criticize the argument I'm actually making.

Anonymous said...

"That's the game as I see it, and if you want to keep playing, you're welcome to it. But maybe next time try to criticize the argument I'm actually making."

I just don't understand what's driving the snide, condescending, acerbic tone here. Do comments like "Three strikes, Andrew" ever serve to further the discussion or just make one resent the one making such silly pronouncements? Win the battle, lose the character war.

Sure, I guess it's the nature of blog comment pages, but why not try to replicate the basic civility of an in-person conversation? Is that hopelessly naive?

Edmond Caldwell said...

You're absolutely right, Anonymous, I was being unduly snide for the occasion. My apologies to Andrew, and my thanks to you for pointing this out.

Andrew Seal said...

Edmond,

Thanks for the quick response.

Here's what I saw in your post that led me to believe what I imputed to you. Of course, you can disavow this, but I leave it up to the readers of the blog whether it indeed seems as if my reading was as fanciful as you say.

Your mentioning of Bolaño and Sebald was precisely about the necessity of the corporate publishing houses absorbing them from the outside (in your words, "the works of these authors first had to 'make their way' in the independents (New Directions) before being sharked up by the bigger fish"). Furthermore, you mocked the idea that the absorption of Bolaño and Sebald proves "that 'quality' can still win through in today’s corporate publishing environment"--if you do not accept this acquisitional vector of getting quality through the doors of a major house, why should I believe that you'd allow that maybe some quality books were developed internally?

You make no other gestures toward anything but rejection of books that are either not published by independents or not at least published by independents first, and in fact make a blanket rejection of the titles on the list which are published by "the majors" as "middling mediocrities." (Yes, you don't say they're crap, but you don't give them your blessing--rather far from.) I don't understand how I'm so far off in seeing a correlation here. With no real allowance for "quality" novels to have their origins in anything but an independent house and scads of scorn (not rejection, but definitely scorn) for major titles, I don't find my imputation exactly crazy.

More broadly (and in answer to your second point), your unrelenting antipathy toward anything that could be said to be on the "inside" of the establishment (or anyone, like me, who questions the utility such antipathy) does lead me to believe that the starkness of your anger must settle into a reification, and that the only option available to you is the outsider. Such absolutism as you manifest continuously must eventually set up binaries. Perhaps I was premature in imputing one to you, but more on that in a second.

With regards to what I meant by "skewing" (because it wasn't clear, I will admit), I meant not that you had your own titles in mind, but that it was the corporateness of the list which was to you the most salient feature. If I say that a data set is skewed, then I don't mean that there is a set of compensatory points which I wish to interpolate in order to "fix" the skew, simply that there is a statistical anomaly which causes the data points to cluster in one area. (Or, at least that is my understanding.) I hope you will acknowledge that this latter sense of skewing is an accurate representation of your opinion of the list.

A few notes about me before I make one last comment: I find the parenthetical remark "(unless it is also your hope)" to be completely unwarranted. I don't think there is anything I have said that implies that I actually want the current state of affairs of "literature," publishing, or criticism to remain either static or continuing along the trajectory it has been going. Your twisting of my word "must" into something like an imperative, as if I am in fact ordering these lists to continue propagating is similarly unwarranted and unfounded. Acknowledging the limits of my agency and the likelihood that the highly successful form of the book list will continue to be reproduced into the near future is not joining in "the game" nor expressing a desire to do so. In fact, I would argue it is not even fatalism, but I imagine you will not believe me.

Finally, let me put this indelicately: no one, including me, is going to put terribly much weight in things like your (fairly serene) footnote when the entire rest of your argument consists of a sequence of radical-cynical postures. The vitriol prevents you from looking like an actual revolutionary and more like someone who wants to be thought of as one. If you want me to take something like your footnote seriously, maybe it shouldn't be merely a footnote.

zunguzungu said...

Dang. ContraAndrewSeal.blogspot.com is already taken.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Thank you for the quick response to my quick response!

You write: "Your mentioning of Bolaño and Sebald was precisely about the necessity of the corporate publishing houses absorbing them from the outside (in your words, "the works of these authors first had to 'make their way' in the independents (New Directions) before being sharked up by the bigger fish"). Furthermore, you mocked the idea that the absorption of Bolaño and Sebald proves "that 'quality' can still win through in today’s corporate publishing environment"--if you do not accept this acquisitional vector of getting quality through the doors of a major house, why should I believe that you'd allow that maybe some quality books were developed internally?"

I think this is a misreading of what I wrote. Nowhere do I suggest that Sebald or Bolano somehow "lose" their fine qualities by being published by the majors. The corporations might have extra-literary or very narrow reasons (which I label 'tokenistic' & 'totemistic') for deciding to publish them, but that doesn't somehow magically subtract their quality as good or significant works in and of themselves (although it perhaps reflects some effort to "shape" that significance). Likewise my "mocking" statement about quality winning through was in no way a denial that sometimes quality wins through, and the rest of the paragraph makes this perfectly clear: "Austerlitz and 2666 are good books brought to us in a way that sucks the oxygen out of the type of atmosphere in which good books might be much more broadly produced, understood, and enjoyed." How is this a denial that quality can win through? And how can you blame me for thinking (with unfortunate snideness, I admit) that you weren't paying attention to the words I actually wrote? And sure, no doubt quality can sometimes "win through" by being "internally developed." My point is rather different (and, I think, pretty clear as well) that it "wins through" in a way that is ultimately too restrictive and even quite damaging, and that to settle for "what is" is ultimately to settle for too little, and furthermore entails a really tragic waste of human creative potential (i.e., a lot of Bolanos - and even better writers - are doing hard time, etc., because ultimately the same system that gives us the corporate publishing monolith gives us the racist "War on Drugs", etc.). If that's not your analysis, that's fine, and of course you can argue with it or not as you choose, but it's a rather different view than the one you had originally assigned to me.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Unfortunately the Comments box is telling me I have too many characters in my response, so I'm having to piece it up. Critics are everywhere!

******

You write: "You make no other gestures toward anything but rejection of books that are either not published by independents or not at least published by independents first, and in fact make a blanket rejection of the titles on the list which are published by "the majors" as "middling mediocrities." (Yes, you don't say they're crap, but you don't give them your blessing--rather far from.) I don't understand how I'm so far off in seeing a correlation here. With no real allowance for "quality" novels to have their origins in anything but an independent house and scads of scorn (not rejection, but definitely scorn) for major titles, I don't find my imputation exactly crazy."

In this instance I'm dealing with the list in front of me, which was billed as "The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)." Yeah, given that benchmark, the bulk of the list looked like a bunch of middling mediocrities, and at least of the authors I've read it's my estimation that only Bolano and Sebald have a chance of "lasting." I think Rush's Mortals was very fine, too, and Ishiguro has written one or two things I've enjoyed, etc etc, and I've enjoyed in a middling way other authors on the list as well -- but do you notice what's happening here? It's suddenly turning into the whole listing game all over again. Your reading of my argument always stays pretty consistently inside the logic and confines of the game, turning into a debate about the qualities of the works on the list. Once again - although I think it's already clear - that's not my point.

You write: "your unrelenting antipathy toward anything that could be said to be on the "inside" of the establishment (or anyone, like me, who questions the utility such antipathy) does lead me to believe that the starkness of your anger must settle into a reification, and that the only option available to you is the outsider."

Here is a case where we're simply starting from different premises. I'll stand by what I said in my first response (apologies again for the snark), that if I thought the establishment were fixed and inalterable, I would tend to agree (although on the other hand I think there's many, many more people "outside" that establishment than in it. Maybe we're all out here shivering in our reified binaries like smokers on a winter day...).

You write: 'With regards to what I meant by "skewing" (because it wasn't clear, I will admit), I meant not that you had your own titles in mind, but that it was the corporateness of the list which was to you the most salient feature. If I say that a data set is skewed, then I don't mean that there is a set of compensatory points which I wish to interpolate in order to "fix" the skew, simply that there is a statistical anomaly which causes the data points to cluster in one area. (Or, at least that is my understanding.) I hope you will acknowledge that this latter sense of skewing is an accurate representation of your opinion of the list.'

I'm afraid I can't acknowledge it because I have no idea what you just said. My bad, though: It sounds too much like math, and my mind immediately shuts down.

You write: "I find the parenthetical remark "(unless it is also your hope)" to be completely unwarranted."

You're right, I take it back.

Edmond Caldwell said...

last installment!

*******

You write: "Finally, let me put this indelicately: no one, including me, is going to put terribly much weight in things like your (fairly serene) footnote when the entire rest of your argument consists of a sequence of radical-cynical postures. The vitriol prevents you from looking like an actual revolutionary and more like someone who wants to be thought of as one. If you want me to take something like your footnote seriously, maybe it shouldn't be merely a footnote."

Given the snide-snark of my first response, I no doubt deserve this, but beyond that it's equally unwarranted. The post is part of an ongoing blog on which I've never made a secret of my political commitments to the extent that they bear on and frame the analysis at hand. It is a blog devoted to critiquing James Wood as an instance of a particular cultural phenomenon from an obviously Marxist perspective, not a blog devoted to agitating for Marxist revolution, but heck, Andrew, even Nigel Beale could tell right out of the gate I was a Marxist writing a Marxist blog. As far as posturing goes, everyone's just posturing on their blogs - what else can you do in a virtual world? But you don't know the least thing about the rest of my life and practice in the meat-world beyond what you read there, just like I don't about you.

And vitriol? Yeah, one of the most frequent criticisms I hear about CJW is about its tone, its unrelenting hostility, anger (sometimes quite erroneously labelled "personalized") etc etc etc. On the one hand it's a true reflection of how I feel, but I also do it because it's fun and makes me laugh (and there are readers, fit company tho' few, who also find it so). But apparently I'm supposed to adopt the bland journalistic tone that is the official house style of the respectable. From my point of view I wonder where all the legitimate anger and outrage and urgency is, outrage commensurate to the situation in which we find ourselves. Well, actually I can see where it is - on the political right. "The worst are full of passionate intensity," while the left is being polite. Fuck that.

Yours for the Revolution!

Andrew Seal said...

Hmm. I wasn't saying that you believe 2666 and Austerlitz *become* bad because they bear a corporate logo; I was saying that it seemed to me that you imply this acquisition process is the *only* way that the majors can publish "quality" literature--opportunistically "sharking" up an author who has already been celebrated, but who hasn't been snapped up by a "major" yet.

That implication I get from the way you mock the desires behind that acquisition--as if no "major" ever had the least bit of actual interest in publishing quality literature, but simply a bad faith interest in giving themselves cover (in your words, a "varnish of 'literariness'") for publishing a bunch of shitty books. I think "a varnish of 'literariness'" radically simplifies a much more complex economy of taste, and your absolute assumption of the bad faith of corporate interests ("as far as Random House is concerned, Sebald is just the other side of the Dan Brown coin") seems to me extreme and unlikely.

In reference to your second comment (and parts of your first), you may *now* say that you believe the majors can develop quality literature internally and give examples of that literature, but there was no evidence in your post that this might be so. I never claimed to be a mind-reader, just a reader of what you wrote. A similar thing goes for the comments you make about my knowledge of what you do in the "meat-world." If your posts prioritize a different agenda (rant rather than revolution) from the one you pursue in the real world, then I can hardly be held accountable for it.

In regards to your last comment, I don't in the least think that a bland journalistic style is necessary, but I also don't think antipathy is the only opposite to blandness.

Edmond Caldwell said...

You've got a bright future ahead of you in the establishment, Andrew.

Jacob Russell said...

The problem with the list is not that the publishers are Big Corporations, but that it is severely limited in it's selection--as though the independents and small publishers don't exist.

Anonymous said...

I know neither of you, Edmond, Andrew, and I see the points you're both making. Your arguments both make sense; I'm undecided about which to agree with.

But I'm struck by something else here: Edmond argues strongly, but has a conciliatory tone. He makes several concessions, apologizes when necessary.

Andrew, I'm sorry to say, appears to want a fight, and seems prepared to be uncivil about it. Just my 2c.--but I'm much more likely to pay close attention to what Edmond is saying, because it isn't all pique.


--Dawn Q.