by Karl Wenclas
“There is a belief that one comes to New York to become a writer. This belief is false– or at least incomplete. One comes here to be recognized as a writer.” -Frank Guan
In his essay on Tao Lin in the current issue of n+1 magazine, Frank Guan says that, at least in his early days, Tao “didn’t understand how publishing worked.”
Yet, two subjects of recent literary-scene scandals, Tao Lin and Ed Champion, stumbled into trouble because they understood too well the U.S. publishing system. Tao Lin sensed how things worked from the get go.
Not talent, but connections and the ability to network are the chief requirements for literary success. It’s why both men moved to Brooklyn– to be at what they saw as the epicenter of literary activity. Both men aggressively used personal contacts and relationships to advance their names.
Ed Champion and Tao Lin both knew that IF they were to be published, IF they were to receive advances, IF they were to achieve their ambitions, they needed to be in the right location.
In his long apologia for legacy publishing, “What Amazon Can’t Do,” Melville House writer Alex Shephard stresses the investment made by Big Five publishers in writers. He quotes from an Authors United letter:
“Publishers provide venture capital for ideas. They advance money to authors, giving them the time and freedom to write their books.”
But who are the authors given Big Five largesse? In which writers are the giant publishing houses investing?
A look at recent large advances (information from New York Magazine articles and other sources) shows a slant toward graduates at elite universities located on the east coast. The so-called “Ivy League.”
For instance, Harvard grad Daniel Mason received $1.2 million for two novels. Yale law professor Stephen Carter received $4 million for two novels.
Jonathan Safran Foer, Princeton grad and protégé of Joyce Carol Oates (and whose brother is Franklin Foer) received half-a-million for his first novel, plus $925,000 in paperback rights.
Former Harvard Review editor, current n+1 editor Chad Harbach received $665,000 for his first novel.
Why the huge advances? Are they truly necessary, in a time of publishing cutbacks, for these comfortable gentlemen from affluent backgrounds?
One thing can be said about these young men. They and their work fit the tastes of decision makers in the Big Five publishing industry. This is because, by and large, they’re the same people. They attended the same schools. They carry the same restricted, politically-correct viewpoints.
Are they the nation’s “best” writers? Only when considered by the narrow standards of elite east coast universities and professional Manhattan strivers. Even that’s not explanation enough– more that they merely attended those universities. They have the proper pedigree. They met the right people. They’re assumed to be at the top of the heap. Ed Champion and Tao Lin did their networking after college. The well-rewarded individuals had been doing it all along.
So we’re given, in novel after novel, the viewpoint of a single class. Of a refined and well-educated clique within that class. Missing from the picture is this nation’s large “yawp”; the populist American voice. Missing is a picture of the many levels of American society, the vastness and variety of the American landscape.
Amazon versus Hachette is only the surface argument. The larger fight is between differing views on literature. To put it starkly: should American literature be populist or elitist?
From the moment he appeared on the literary scene in 2005, Tao Lin assiduously and ably marketed himself. (I’ll discuss this in a follow-up essay, “Self-Marketing 101.”) Yet for all his efforts, Tao’s Random House advance, when he finally received it, clocked in at a (relatively) paltry $50,000.
Those who backed Tao Lin’s career are now scampering for cover. Even Frank Guan and n+1. Even Random House. Especially Random House.
Quite a cautionary tale for writers who seek to have success in the traditional publishing system. Quite a paltry argument to bolster Alex Shephard’s defense of that system.
Response to this opinion piece is welcomed; from Tao Lin, Alex Shephard, Frank Guan, Melville House, Random House, n+1— or anyone.