Modes of Stylish Knowingby J.T. Price
Making Literature Now
(Stanford University Press, 2016)
In June of 2009, I began work at the Gold Street office of Electric Literature, a publication conceived as an anthology of five stories issued three or four times a year. The editors-in-charge hadn’t quite decided yet on how frequently. Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum were those editors. In the kitchen of a Kensington house party attended mostly by Brooklyn College MFA’ers, Scott had told me about the project and I said I would be keen to have a role. “We can’t pay you much, if anything,” he said, “unless it takes off.” That was acceptable; I had about a six-month cushion, savings-wise, the remainder from years of paralegal work. Five to six days a week then, the three of us occupied one small room on an upper floor of an industrial building adjacent to a construction site, the Manhattan Bridge in view, a new Brooklyn rising overhead. In the mornings, construction dust coated the keyboards at our fingertips. Andy and Scott had salvaged the faux-leather chairs we sat in from a collapsed investment firm. The anthology was well-received, winning favorable notices in The Washington Post, then The New York Times. Sales spiked. We regularly set up a table at the Brooklyn Flea to hawk copies to curious onlookers. Other promotional hi-jinx included “soapbox readings” at multiple locations, like Washington Square Park, where authors read on a veritable soapbox (actually, an inverted milk-crate) to electric organ accompaniment for passersby. For the authors and readers—I had the opportunity to read a Lydia Davis story featured in the second issue called “The Cows”—it was a humbling experience; as might be expected, very few people stopped to listen. New York City, after all. But some did stop! Online, the photos looked great—crazy, but in a good way. “Saving Literature One Reader at a Time” was the super-hero-inflected slogan Andy and Scott had arrived at for their anthology. Within three months, though, Scott was speaking openly about wanting to do something other than publish fiction. He was getting really into Twitter. The future—well, the present, for that matter—was preoccupied by social networking. He said he’d like to do something like that. We were putting the finishing touches on the second issue.
In her acutely perceptive and remarkably shrewd new book Making Literature Now, Amy Hungerford attempts to corral the expansive body of the contemporary literary endeavor in all its variety, the labor, imaginative and literal, that goes into providing readers any level of reading experience. I should say here that while I cannot claim to know Amy Hungerford, insofar as we have never had a real conversation, I have served her lunch. In late 2009, my savings ran out; Andy and Scott said they still could not pay more than a nominal amount for my labor. While continuing to write for Electric Literature’s website, The Outlet, I started substitute-teaching three to five days a week, with occasional proofreading work and other odd freelance jobs on the side. During the summer, my finances were set to take a serious dive, and faced with the question of what exactly to do about that, I applied for financial aid at the Bread Loaf School of English. Room and board is part of the package there, not to mention Vermont in summertime: to bolster the level of aid, students wait tables during breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There, the faculty traditionally sits along the southwestern-facing windows of the dining hall. Amy Hungerford is a beloved figure on that faculty; she leads the students—mostly high school English teachers—through a version of the contemporary literature course she teaches at Yale during the year. In other words, BLSE and Hungerford’s classroom in particular embody where literary labors of love meet the road of a younger generation’s attention. I know this, but never took a course with her during my several summers at BLSE. Not for a lack of interest, just of time.
To a great extent, Making Literature Now, Hungerford’s third published book, revolves around one literary figure: Dave Eggers. It is McSweeney’s, the press he founded with the wellspring from bestseller A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, that features in Hungerford’s first two chapters. Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull Press and, coincidentally, a passerby of an Electric Literature soapbox reading one day in summer of ’09, is the aspiring startup wiz of Chapter Three. His ideas reflect the sort of raggedy transparency that is A Heartbreaking Work’s paper heart, as he looked to give Eggers’s kind of yearning an online form via a social network called Red Lemonade. The site would showcase novels as they were written, with readers free to comment as the pages appeared. When this initial endeavor did not catch fire, Nash conceived of another: Small Demons, a sort of Pierre Bourdieu-meets-Wikipedia hub for the referents a given novel contains. As Hungerford adroitly puts it, Nash intended through a new distribution system to generate “a social network of exceptional human intensity” around the making and then the “unmaking of the novel.”
Eggers, after all, concludes his breakthrough book with a profanity-laced Molly Bloom-esque monologue about a lattice of readers extending from his herculean emotional efforts. Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, and The Circle had yet to appear, but would soon enough. Hungerford documents further steps by others in the McSweeney’s network following the years of the publisher taking root: their former principal book editor, Eli Horowitz, and app developer, Russell Quinn, launched a GPS-anchored, serially published narrative called The Silent History in 2012. This narrative revolved around a “regime of knowledge” and produced “entirely new data about readers’ behavior”; readers of The Silent History assumed the role of writer-contributors, while the authors of the project became, in effect, editor-technicians. Hungerford concludes her book with a consideration of two literary figures of decidedly Eggers-like renown: one to whom Eggers’s work is obviously indebted and another whose memoir-style novel rocketed him to popularity close on the heels of Eggers. In considering these two authors, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Safran Foer, Hungerford models the rationalizations, prejudices, and infusions of present-day context by which any reader, even one of her own standing, assigns merit.
Spend any time (as I have) reviewing new work, and you will find how much relatively less time you have for the classics. Spend any time as an editorial assistant for that matter, or an associate editor for a publication with thousands of pending submissions, and you will discover how little time you have for much beyond what you are assigned by your designated role. And yet that does not stop reviewers from reviewing, or editorial assistants from editing, and good thing, too: the literary production mill demands this labor. Hungerford is mindful of such labor, and exceptionally aware of the demands on her own reading time. “How does the work happen,” she asks, “in the traffic between people, their formation into a group, a coterie, an office, a class, an institution, a public, a counter-public, a school, a neighborhood, a network?”
The sociological point-of-view Hungerford adopts is one that the designers and operators of a social network would readily understand, even if it happens to be somewhat poisonous to the impassioned writer setting out to write fiction as a calling. Self-absorption, i.e. absorption with the task at hand, is a necessary trait for any fiction writer whose work is not generated by popular demand or algorithm; a broad sociological outlook, endlessly complemented by new data, might well obviate an aspiring writer’s sense of personal import before a single word reaches the page.
Hungerford observes the celebrity-blockbuster model on which not only movie-production but novels, too, now find their way to audiences. In some sense, this has been a reality since at least the 1920s, when a maiden effort as undercooked yet of-the-moment as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise could succeed through promotional fanfare, the attractive faces of author and spouse emblazoned in the press. (Oh, and Fitzgerald could write like the blazes.) In another sense though, the midlist, aka the perpetuation of less-than-smashing writing careers until such time as a fair blockbuster work arrives—or else work already extant succeeds at attracting scholars to champion it—was, not all that long ago, a much more real thing. In a deluged landscape, where everyone who wants a platform from which to perform a narrative can have one, the role of marketer commands outsized importance; outsized importance, it turns out, is what marketers make! (At least, literary geniuses are wise to let marketers persist in believing as much.) Bracingly, Hungerford divides literary writers into the professionally celebrated and their “black-hole opposite… the unknown and the unread… subsistence writers and volunteer, part-time literati.”
On some level, this is a false dichotomy. Fitzgerald: first celebrated, then relegated to sales oblivion—he died a failure in his own mind—then lionized posthumously by a veritable marching band of scholars, critics, and rising authors; Theodore Dreiser, celebrated in his life, the whole way through, and all but forgotten now. On another, though, it is obviously the market by which corporate publishers make many of their decisions. As I witnessed inside the office of Electric Literature, it is daunting as an emerging editor of fiction to make a self-defining claim to taste by plucking needles from the proverbial haystack; much more agreeable to choose the name that already has accrued weight of some kind. However admirable a mode of choosing, this turns out to be as much a survival technique as anything else. As Hungerford observes, the relationship between celebrated names and smaller-scale publications in a deluged landscape is often symbiotic: the publications authenticate and help perpetuate the celebrated name’s aura, while the celebrated name helps to sell the publication, to assure its continued existence.
To do justice in a comprehensive way to the independent presses, like McSweeney’s, that currently maintain a role akin to that of the old houses, Hungerford’s book would need to be at least twice (if not three or four times) as long as its reader-friendly 170 pages. As is, her choice of McSweeney’s seems meant to occupy what middle can be said to exist between the successful and the obscure, those endeavors that rise and fall in the shadow of celebrity. Of course, literary endeavors as a whole fall in the shadow of far more busy celebrity-making machinery; authors recognized as successful by their peers may enjoy a level of cultural penetration roughly on par with that of a second-tier PGA golfer. To a great extent, the question of what constitutes literature in this day and age is expressly an academic one—although of course something must be said for cults of fandom as well. As Hungerford makes abundantly clear, academics are themselves overwhelmed by the number of books printed each year, meaning they are fit to fall for the exact same marketing dynamics as do general readers. Hungerford takes pains to note that literary success is not finally a matter of copies sold or the size of an advance, but of aesthetic reception.
As opposed to the two novelists who feature in Hungerford’s final two chapters, Dave Eggers endured a stretch of professional obscurity in his adult life. Foer and Wallace, meanwhile, were each anointed literary wunderkind practically out of the collegiate gates. Contrary to what I would call “consensus” opinion, it is Wallace whom Hungerford deems unworthy and Foer whose work she invests with terrific meaning. That is her prerogative, I suppose; as arguments go, nothing ventured, nothing gained! Arguing the opposite would have registered for many as true, if essentially unremarkable. In what I will color as Hungerford hiding behind the Intentional Fallacy, she presents a highly dubious case for not reading Wallace, whom she casts as the fucker to Foer’s love machine. Yes, in Hungerford’s admittedly polemical view, Wallace sets out “to fuck” the reader, while with his fiction Foer wants solely “to make love.” Having read only a limited amount of Wallace’s work, and not Infinite Jest (and apparently not the memorial tribute delivered by Zadie Smith, or for that matter, the one by Wallace’s sister, Amy, either), she repeatedly cites the D.T. Max biography to cast Wallace as misogynistic and therefore unworthy of her time. To this argument’s credit, it does, of course, model perfectly how any reader might decide which author does or does not deserve notice; everyone holds certain prejudices, associations, grounds for distaste. Therefore, the chapter does fit well into a comprehensive portrait of how the literature of today is generated. And yet to present herself as an authority on the subject of Wallace without having read the work, as Hungerford would seem to do by discussing his reputation at such length, feels, well, hugely unfair. And Hungerford seems to know as much. Maybe her supposition is that Wallace, whose work has already breached academia’s hallowed walls, can withstand the heat. In contrast, her argument in favor of Foer incorporates various criticisms of the author, the kind of endorsement that admits the possibility of its opposite, which, whether you agree with her or not, does qualify her stance as judicious.
A final note: Academics are situated to have an inside track on what will, and will not, be read in twenty years; what will, and will not, comprise the literary landscape of tomorrow. Hungerford declares early in Making Literature Now that McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern was the first literary journal to have a subscription-based app for its readers. This is not factually accurate. The distinction belongs to Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum of Electric Literature. I know because I was there.
Will it become true in time?
I suppose the networks will decide.