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.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.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?
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.