by Karl Wenclas
To survive in the high-priced, high-cost world of New York publishing, literary individuals are forced into a schizophrenic mindset.
On the one hand they’re required to be correctly liberal in their attitudes, if not Leftist. On the other hand they’re placed at the center of power and money in the richest, most capitalist city on the planet. Within the pyramid of hierarchy that defines that city, the realm of literature exists at the highest levels. As the recent swanky black-tie National Book Awards dinner demonstrated.
The compromises which need to be made to survive in this environment, in the waning days of “Big Five” publishing, are many.
No group of New York writers are more schizophrenic than the folks at n+1 magazine. In their publication and on their website they push relentlessly for societal change. Many have been the Marxist-sounding diatribes they’ve published. Their current issue’s entry in this demonstration is titled “On Privilege.” They want you to know: They’re the good guys.
The n+1 staff was at the very forefront of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in Manhattan three years ago. They printed the movement’s newspaper. Their declamations against “the One Percent” and Wall Street bankers have been legion.
At the same time, no New York literary journal has cultivated Big Money and the One Percent as assiduously and effectively as has n+1. They’ve put themselves at the heart of Big Five publishing.
One example of this is their relationship with high-powered literary agent Christopher Parris-Lamb; perhaps the most successful New York literary agent of the past few years. Parris-Lamb was the agent who acquired a $665,000 advance for n+1 editor Chad Harbach.
Not all the advances Parris-Lamb achieves go to New York City-connected writers– it only seems that way. While his list of triumphs includes lesser lights like Hillary Jordan (Columbia MFA) and J. Saunders Elmore (New York University MFA), the list is headlined by the $2 million dollar advance Parris-Lamb obtained in November, 2013 from Alfred Knopf Company for Garth Risk Hallberg ‘s 900-page novel City on Fire. (The novel has yet to appear. The Big Five aren’t known for their speed.)
Hallberg, a NYU grad, made himself a New York literary insider via being a leading editor at the Brooklyn-based literary website The Millions, as well as writing book reviews for the New York Times. It was in one such review in 2012 that Hallberg called the populist, non-New York writers of the Underground Literary Alliance “unpublishables.” Bad grammar aside, Hallberg has well demonstrated that he knows how to be published by the big guys. He apparently didn’t earn demerits by being scornful of the ULA.
Like Christopher Parris-Lamb, who sits on n+1’s Advisory Board, Garth Risk Hallberg has donated financially to his fellow Brooklynites at n+1. In this cozy scene, everyone’s a buddy. (As I pointed out in a previous Opinion piece, there’s strong incentive for ambitious writers to move to New York City to become part of that scene.)
Another Parris-Lamb success is having secured an advance for a book by billionaire venture capitalist and hedge fund manager Peter Thiel. Did Thiel need it? This is one instance where the author is not a New Yorker.
The n+1 Supporters list features many affluent New Yorkers. Their Institutional Supporters list includes representatives of four of publishing’s “Big Five.” They missed Simon & Schuster somehow– but do have a smaller New York house, W.W. Norton, as donors instead.
It’s in this regard that n+1’s networking may have become too cozy.
Are the n+1 editors and their writers capable of criticizing the publishing giants– or any part of the established New York literary scene? Their non-reaction to Daniel Handler’s watermelon jokes at the National Book Awards banquet says they aren’t.
Here’s what resulted when I asked n+1 editor Dayna Tortorici about the matter:
Is it conceivable that Dayna Tortorici, as editor of a well-connected lit journal, didn’t know who Daniel Handler is? That she wasn’t up to speed on the controversy?
It’s possible, given that Dayna Tortorici was promoted very quickly at n+1, given the keys to the car as Editor a mere two years out of Brown. Perhaps she’s still learning the landscape and who the players are.
Ms. Tortorici herself is an example of n+1‘s easy connections to power and money. Her father apparently is Peter Tortorici, CEO of Group M Worldwide, a media company. He’s former President of the CBS network. Here’s his full bio, as given in Business Week magazine.
As far as media capitalists go, Tortorici is no small fry.
This is no problem in itself. One can applaud the success of n+1 at accumulating powerful contacts and impressive financial backers like Peter Tortorici. The problem is that such networking of big-time capitalist money and power runs directly counter to the image they’ve created of themselves as anti-capitalist crusaders fighting against privilege and hierarchy. Can they have it both ways?
It’s a prime example of crony capitalism in a single town, where every action appears based on the principles of “Who do you know?” and “What can you do for me?” It’s an argument for decentralizing the literary and publishing worlds.
Another example of outreach to power is provided by another name on the n+1 Advisory Board and Supporters list. Gary Sernovitz is a published novelist. He’s also Managing Director of Lime Rock Partners, whose task is “building differentiated oil and gas businesses” via technology which “unlocks resources worldwide.”
Once again, this wouldn’t be a problem, I guess, in and of itself, were it not that n+1’s editors have fought strenuously against Big Oil– even predicted its demise– since at least 2008.
It’d be like a person denouncing the Big Bad Wolf, continually, then you stroll by the person’s house one day and glance in the window, and there the person is, in bed with the very same wolf, which has a smile on its face. (This essay is inching close to the famous ending of a George Orwell fable, though the animal Orwell used wasn’t a wolf. You know what it was.)
Gary Sernovitz previously worked in the Investment Research Department of Goldman Sachs. Quite a mighty Wall Street player. We can surmise that during their Occupy Wall Street protests, n+1’s editors weren’t merely holding signs. They were also collecting business cards, and maybe giving a few of their own away.
Ladies and gentlemen, you have no credibility.
What’s the larger picture? What does the situation in New York City– of which I’ve given a scant glimpse– mean in the greater realm of literature and publishing?
It’s a further sign of insularity and cronyism existing at the heart of old-style New York publishing. The city’s literary media– those who, like n+1, should be covering the industry’s machinations (they cover everything else)– are too invested in the top-heavy status quo system to do any credible reporting about it. When scandal does hit, fringe players like Ed Champion can be thrown to the wolves. In the Tao Lin matter, n+1 reacted by stonewalling the story– though they have a long article about Tao Lin in their current issue. Tao went overnight from being an approved “in” writer to nonperson.
With the Daniel Handler fiasco, taking place in one of the New York book industry’s major celebratory forums, the reaction from n+1 and other New York lit journals like it is, “Who, me? I don’t see anything!”
Daniel Handler is the face of power, money, privilege and ignorance in today’s established literary scene. In some small way, so is Dayna Tortorici.
It’s time for change. Real change– not the pseudo kind offered by well-connected literary stage shows: status quo players with Keith Gessen-happy faces slapped onto them. The solution is to move publishing and literary media away from the dominance of that cozy east coast island. To free up the art, and thereby make it easier for all writers everywhere to think and breathe.