Friday, July 10, 2009

Max Fisher writing in The Atlantic

William Faulkner's first novel, Soldier's Pay barely sold when it was released in 1926. Neither did Saul Bellow's in 1944, Kurt Vonnegut's in 1952, Cormac McCarthy's in 1965, or David Foster Wallace's in 1987. All of these books garnered tepid reviews and bare-minimum sales. Ever since Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1828 debut sold so poorly that the author burned the remaining copies out of embarrassment, flopped first novels have been an American tradition.
Publishers have typically taken the long view, expending great effort and bushels of money to keep struggling authors writing away for years, banking on the hope of eventual literary success. It is to this dedication that we owe America's status as one of the great literary pillars of the world. Now, that dedication is faltering, and with it, the future of the great American novel.
But it's not too late to save the novel.
Random House or Harper Collins would never deliberately cut loose the next Faulkner, of course. But it's not hard to imagine a poor and struggling but brilliant and promising young author living in, say, the lower Mississippi Delta, able neither to scrape by on bare-minimum advances nor to keep the attention of a publisher now desperate for quick successes. With publishers cutting back, there is a risk that we might lose the next Faulkner without even knowing we've lost him. And that risk is real.

Book publishing's increasing obsession with blockbuster names began before the recession made every galley a house's big break or bust. Look at the literary celebrities of the past 20 years: Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Sherman Alexie, Jeffrey Eugenides. All produced big hits with their first books. If Ellis's debut had been a promising but disappointing flop, rather than the epoch-defining Less Than Zero, would his publisher have dropped him before he had the chance to write literature that would ultimately help shape America's understanding of the 1980s? The answer 20 years ago would have been "maybe," but today it would be "absolutely."
As we struggle to understand an economy toppled by the very forces Ellis details -- malicious greed, perilous shortsightedness, debaucherous self-interest -- it's easy to see great literature's value to society.
For the full piece, well worth a read, cross to The Atlantic online.

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