Who is John Colapinto? Why should we care that 40 U.S. publishers have declined to publish his novel?
This story is about more than a single unpublished novel. It’s about the mindset of established U.S. publishing– more, about the timid, politically-correct mentality of many literary people inhabiting Manhattan island. “Thou shalt not make waves.”
The novel, Undone, about con-artists trying to bilk a writer, involves possible or suggested incest. Dark, comical, satirical– it’s clearly been deemed too much for American readers.
(This matter has been amply covered in Canada, such as here.)
(For background on John Colapinto, read his wikipedia page.)
NEW POP LIT: Can a novel be both “pop” and literary?
COLAPINTO: I’ve staked my fiction writing career on it, yes. I want to be accessible, readable and entertaining, but I don’t want to sacrifice the pleasures and difficulties of literary fiction. In the case of my first novel, About the Author, which is, on the surface, a straight suspense thriller, the “literary” elements include an unreliable, and quite unlikeable and self-deluded narrator (it’s fun reading all the fulminating Amazon and Goodreads reviewers who angrily give the book one star because they “hated” the narrator), and also the form and structure of the novel, which, at the end, reveals itself to be a confession written in real time (a British reviewer likened it to an MC Escher drawing). Undone can also be read as a straight suspense narrative (will he or won’t he succumb to temptation?), but its difficulties and complications are moral and tonal. The book confronts readers with disturbing emotions and attitudes, mostly sexual, and implicates the reader by making him or her feel sympathetic to the characters who are behaving so badly. The book also refuses to take the requisite tone of proper Oprah-style somber gravity when dealing with its sex offender villain, who is presented as an often very funny and dashing individual whose sardonic opinions about the hypocrisy and mendacity of American culture many smart readers have identified with. Pure “pop” writing keeps things simpler, in terms of reader identification. My book makes things a little less comfortable for the reader.
NEW POP LIT: A theme of Undone might be nature versus society. Does society impose too many arbitrary rules on we the people as individuals?
COLAPINTO: Societies emerge from the grouping of people in a given geography, and the rules that grow up to govern behavior are a way to try to control all the wild and unruly impulses that would otherwise break out and cause things to descend into chaos: murderous rages and rivalries, sexual acting out, and so on. I suppose on that level I think we need the rules imposed on us—human beings are just that volatile, just that close to slipping out of control, just that animalistic and, really, savage. Undone dissects the destructive impulses that lie just under the surface of calm society, even under the skin of an otherwise highly civilized, good and decent man. The problem is that, even when we recognize an impulse as uncivilized, this doesn’t change the fact that we are in its awful grip, and some impulses are so wrackingly powerful, so life-destroyingly insistent—most obviously the sexual impulse, which is nothing less than the imperative for any organism to pass along its genetic material and thus guarantee the propagation and perpetuation of the species. In the face of such encoded reflexes, which surely originate in the most basic areas of our dinosaur brains, society’s rules are pathetically ill-equipped to hold us back from answering the primitive urge. This strikes me as an endlessly fertile subject for fiction—and a subject which, in recent years, editors and writers seem to have shied away from. Hence my (suicidally stupid?) decision to address it in as bold and disturbing a way as I could dream up.
NEW POP LIT: There are two main reasons for any company to publish a novel. First, that it’s entertaining. Second, that it has literary quality. By all accounts, Undone scores on both counts. Why won’t New York book companies then publish it?
COLAPINTO: Editor after editor praised the book, extravagantly, then apologetically added it was “too difficult” to publish, owing to its theme, which either made them “too squeamish,” or left them “drained” or otherwise troubled. One bigwig executive editor at a major house called it “wry, provocative and beautifully written,” then sniffly wrote, “but it’s not a world I want to explore or live in.” In other words, he was morally above this degraded and shocking material, he was too tasteful, poised and literary. I later spoke with him in person, over lunch, and he was, once again, highly complimentary of the book but he now took an almost pleading tone as he begged me to tell him how he could sell a book about “incest” (it’s not about actual incest) to his marketing teams, and how those teams could then convince the major book chains to buy the book and display it prominently. When he saw that I wasn’t sympathetic to his plight—I, after all, had taken the five year gamble of writing the thing and was thus not so interested in hearing about how frightened he was of going out on a limb with it; that’s what publishing is: going out on limbs; taking risks; trying to deliver something that readers haven’t seen 50 million times before—he took a new tack, telling me: “Besides, Michiko doesn’t like plotty novels.” He was referring to the all-powerful NY Times critic, Michiko Kakutani.
NEW POP LIT: Are U.S. publishing mandarins too uptight?
COLAPINTO: About certain subject matter—you bet. This isn’t to say that they won’t publish stuff that’s allegedly “shocking,” or “troubling,” but it’s all the sanctioned, proven subjects written about with the proper tone of solemnity, and with resolutions that involve soothing elements of “recovery” or “redemption”—books, in short, that are carbon copies of earlier books that made it onto the bestseller lists. Thus the parade of novels (or, God help me, memoirs) detailing the most grotesque examples of childhood sexual abuse, or physical abuse, or drug addiction (yawn), or whatever the particular dysfunction de jour happens to be. This stuff is so predictable as to be laughable. And then they congratulate themselves for their “courage” and “guts” and “bravery” in publishing such “raw” and “real” material. In a way it’s kind of hilarious. Or it would be, if so much wasn’t at stake.
NEW POP LIT: Does the suppression of Undone signal the lack of real freedom of expression in this country?
COLAPINTO: I’m not sure. I do think it signals the terrible timidity and fear of publishers in the face of a grinding worldwide recession that has, along with the rise of the e-reader and the distractions of Youtube and social media, made book sales plummet. This relates to my earlier answer. Like Hollywood studio executives who are constantly trying to get a hit by emulating what has already been done, editors today have a fanatic terror of their corporate pay masters who will fire their sorry asses if they publish too many books that are not smasheroos, so they instantly reject anything that is a little darker, a little weirder, a little more original or less categorizable than what they’ve seen before. Whereas they should be in the business of seeking out just such new and refreshing or risky or dangerous stuff, they’re engaged in just the opposite. It’s a sorry state of affairs and lest you suppose I say this out of sour grapes over the universal rejection of Undone, I will tell you, in all seriousness and honesty, that I had already diagnosed this trend in publishing years before I even wrote my novel—and that I wrote it with full consciousness that I was writing something that would terrify them. Am I admitting to writing a book that I knew they would reject? Yes. Am I crazy? Possibly. But at the same time, I did dream that there would be that one outlier editor, that lone wolf who would love the book (as, thank God, many readers in Canada have) and recognize that, in a time of terribly depressed book sales, you might want to publish a book that will generate some debate and controversy, that will get readers arguing and talking—and thus drive sales (given that this seems to be the only thing that matters to them). I did find that editor—in Canada. But Canada’s a small country and I live in the USA, and my dream was for an American publisher. Apparently, I can keep dreaming. The book is going through a whole new round of rejections even as we speak.
NEW POP LIT: What’s been the response of the New York literary world to this suppression? Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t read a lot of buzz in the U.S. about the matter.
COLAPINTO: No one has taken it up as a cause, although I also admit to not having hired a U.S. publicist and tried to shoe-horn it into the American media. For one thing, I’m too cheap and for another, it just strikes me as unseemly. I’d rather people somehow “found” the book. Although, actually, I did tweet maniacally about it for a while to my 130 followers, hoping to stir some indignation or interest. Nothing. A few of my followers, it must be said, are highly influential people in the media who might well have taken it up as a subject to write about or explore—if only as one example (among many others) of timidity in book publishing today. But nothing. It has been a bit of a disappointment. Through the string-pulling of a friend, I got a culture blog, HeadButler, to invite me to write about the debacle, and that little essay of mine was picked up by the Huffington Post where it managed to climb onto the list of “Featured posts”—and I briefly entertained hopes that the Times or some other august organ would pick it up. But no. I’m not sure what to chalk this up to. Being a typically insecure writer, I tell myself it’s because I’m not a famous guy, my little personal disaster isn’t “News that’s fit to print,” not a subject of national importance. And while this is no doubt true, I do sometimes think that my story, along with that of other writers of my acquaintance who are suffering similar rejection, could be part of a larger cultural trend story examining why mainstream fiction is so unutterably dull and predictable these days.
NEW POP LIT: Are ideas today expected to fit an acceptable narrative? Are we drowning in political correctness?
COLAPINTO: Well, inevitably, I think political correctness does apply to the case of Undone. The book was, as I mentioned, a deliberate provocation in the sense that it took on subject matter that I knew publishers were particularly sensitive about these days: heterosexual male desire. Ever since David Foster Wallace excoriated Updike and Mailer and Roth in a 1997 essay, calling them priapic narcissists and railing against the “patriarchal” tone of their writing about sex, publishers (and authors) have been very careful indeed about how they address the inconvenient truth of male desire. “Trigger warnings” were suddenly being issued to college students about literary classics involving rape. Suddenly all the protagonists in novels were either pre-sexual nine year old savants or neurotic hipsters too neurasthenic to entertain anything but guilt and shame about their tepid sexual impulses (which they were too timorous to act on). This began to strike me as a little dreary and humorless, to say nothing of the fact that, as a writer and human, I don’t like it when I catch wind of proscriptions on expression.
NEW POP LIT: Given Fifty Shades of Grey– or masses of hyper-violent novels cranked out by the conglomerates– is there any credible excuse not to publish Undone? Something seems wrong with their standards.
COLAPINTO: Fifty Shades of Grey, besides being one of the most execrable pieces of writing every perpetrated—and not even in a fun way—would never have been published by an established house if it had not already proven itself a massive hit amongst zillions of Twilight fan fiction readers on the Internet (see my earlier musings on publishers going only with “sure things”). The horrible, horrible irony of Fifty Shades is that of course it never should have been published, and not because of its limp “sex” scenes, but because of its unspeakable writing, which is a true crime against man and nature. Yet the geniuses of New York publishing, smelling guaranteed dollars, brought out this nightmare—and were rewarded with incredible sales. So all the wrong lessons were learned. As a final thought on this matter, I think that Fifty Shades was ultimately something publishers could get their heads around because it’s really so harmless, so toothless and inoffensive in its treatment of sex: it is soft titillation fiction, suburban mom masturbation material for use after a glass of Chardonnay when the husband and kids are off to bed. My book pushes more uncomfortable buttons, and it does so without apology and even with some flare and fun—which may be its biggest crime. It doesn’t have the requisite sorrowing tone. That same editor who whined about selling Undone to his marketing team told me that it was “too entertaining for its subject matter,” which remains my favorite statement on the book.
NEW POP LIT: Is it time to move publishing out of New York?
COLAPINTO: Yes. Move it to Detroit.