Discover more from Entertainment, Weakly
An Irrelevance of Talent
Bigots Don't Really Care about Literature
Let’s say in the first sentence that literature is indeed in peril; let’s clarify, however, that this has nothing to do with what authors “can” and “cannot” say about trans women—or about anyone else for that matter. That an author of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s status, to use a recent example, feels it necessary to disguise her incoherent transphobia as a defense of “free speech” or of literary ideals betrays only the banality of her imagination—the same banality that invites Republicans to loudly call themselves silenced, the same imagination that emboldens white supremacist militias to position themselves as victims. Denigrating women as a defense of feminism is not feminist.
The reason fascists have these ideas about victimhood and free speech is because they’ve created a world full of actual victims and actual threats to free speech. And yes, literature is actually in peril for these same reasons: because fascists (and the people who protect them) are dismantling it as a public art form; because they are strangling it as an aspiration.
Some definitions: Literature (not to be confused with literary fiction) is a small subset of creative written works—of any genre—that continually set the standards for all other creative written works, even those that don’t aspire to literature; Fascism is a political ideology rooted in immutability and predestination that denies agency to anyone who doesn’t participate in its categories. Because fascism is a simple, reductive way to classify or “tag” individual human beings, it becomes the most immediately profitable politics for the wealthy elite in societies with extreme inequality and under-regulated commerce. Because one of literature’s greatest strength is to complicate individuals, to both enrich and translate their inner lives, it is, in aggregate (with notable exceptions), an antifascist endeavor.
Culture is where fascism and literature intersect, as well as where, say, disingenuous novelists, newspapers, publishers, and social media platforms can interfere with literature’s struggle against fascism. Culture is where the undermining of literature compounds and accelerates fascist politics; it’s where, in a phrase, shit really gets fucked up.
Take publishers—by all accounts the organizations and individuals one would hope are most interested and invested in literature, even if publishing is not necessarily literature. It takes a lot of people—that is, a lot of labor—to get a work of literature into the hands of a reading public. In New York, home to more publishing professionals than any other American city, the average entry level salary is around $45,000. In a recent article for Vulture, Sophie Vershbow spoke with Laura Harshberger, a senior production editor at Harper Collins, where the starting salary is, of course, $45,000, and where more than 250 employees are on strike: “I recently left book publishing after nearly a decade due to so many of the things the HC Union is fighting to improve,” Vershbow writes—“low salary, long hours, limited opportunities for promotion.” She quotes Harshberger: “In order to truly address issues of inequity in the industry, everybody has to make a living wage.” While union members’ demands, which amount to a $1,000,000 increase in payroll contributions (paltry compared to giving everyone a $100,000 raise, which is about what it would take to make a real living in Manhattan), may seem steep in what we’re constantly told is a “dying industry,” Maris Kreizman pointed out that Harper Collins has just acquired a new memoir from Ron DeSantis, for which they’ve almost certainly paid seven or more figures—just as they did with Jared Kushner’s book in 2022, which was likely only a bestseller because one of Trump’s political committees spent $158,000 on copies the week of its release. Harper Collins describes DeSantis’s new memoir as “a first hand account from the blue-collar boy who grew up to take on Disney and Dr. Fauci,” failing to mention that both of these crusades—one anti-LGBTQ and the other antivax—have resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Furthermore, as Kreizman points out, Florida has more book bans than almost any other state, right behind Texas. It seems, to say the least, in poor taste to buy a memoir from the man who most visibly championed book banning, and reprehensibly so when they refuse to pay their own employees a living wage. In purchases like these—and there are a lot of them—publishers undermine and disrespect the very people who keep their doors open.
The Hill, of course—one of the news organizations that announced DeSantis’s book deal—did not mention the striking workers at Harper Collins, nor the book bans in Florida. Instead, the article speculated primarily on when DeSantis would announce his 2024 bid for the presidency—the only reason, the article implies, that he would publish a memoir at all.
In the publishing industry as it exists today, large sums of money are directed away from the workers who acquire, edit, design, support, and market literature, and into the hands of an already-wealthy elite whose books exist only as marketing tools in political campaigns to further deprive others of their rights, personhood, or livelihood, whether directly (as in the case of DeSantis) or indirectly (as in the case of, say, Barack and Michelle Obama, who received $65 million in 2017 for a two book deal). This Reaganomics of publishing ensures that books with some of the lowest literary standards receive the vast share of attention and resources, while books that seek to raise the standards—and the culture along with it—are neglected, ignored, and undervalued. Most publishing employees, earning far less than a living wage and having to supplement their income with, as Vershbow and Harshberger point out, “freelance work, work in bookstores, work in retail,” do not last long in their careers. They don’t last because they can’t last; and literature itself—the culture itself—stagnates because of it. All the talented writers in the world can’t create a lasting, dynamic literature if there’s no one to push their work to a higher standard, guide them, pay them, or get their work into the hands of readers who might appreciate it. This is why so much of the industry’s marketing efforts have shifted away from individual books: the author, interacting with fans, mining their trauma, and photographed for interviews, is now the primary product of book publishing. Books require a certain skillset to understand and discuss; authors become, in their stead, a minor and vacant celebrity.
The fans themselves are another problem.
This economic destruction of publishing is happening simultaneously in magazines and newspapers—probably the second most important organizations and individuals who should be interested and invested in literature. Just as editors and designers and marketers are underpaid, undervalued, and burnt out in publishing houses, so too are they mistreated and overworked at most magazines—if those magazines survive at all. This has another curious effect on literature.
Because I’ve been reading about ballet lately, that old clip of Fran Lebowitz talking about “audience” is on my mind. Everyone talks about the artists who died of AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s, she says, but rarely about the audience who died with them. She uses the New York City Ballet as an example: “If Suzanne Farrell went like this,” she says, gesturing with her hands as she references one of Balanchine’s most beloved dancers, “instead of like this, that was it! She might as well just kill herself… There was such a high level of connoisseurship. Everything that people like this were interested in made everything—made the culture—better. You know, a very discerning audience—an audience with a high level of connoisseurship—is as important to the culture as artists. It’s exactly as important.”
Obviously, literature’s audience is not avant-garde ballet’s audience—not then and not now. AIDS didn’t decimate people who read serious books nearly every day in the same way it decimated people who showed up at the ballet nearly every night. But this audience has been affected, and has much less of an influence on literature—and (again) on culture—than it once did. It has less influence because it no longer has the forum it once had. With the rise of active and vocal but unskilled readerships—not only social media, Amazon reviews, and the “community” that is Goodreads, but also most book review sections that remain in major newspapers, wherein new books are introduced and evaluated not by critics but by contemporaries with books of their own to market—the public sphere that was once literary criticism is now a niche marketplace, and reading books little more than an expression of individual consumer activity.
Granted, this shift has occurred alongside an important amendment to literature and to culture: pluralism. What began as recognition—that publishing is overwhelmingly white and that the authors of the so-called “great works” are overwhelming cisgender, heterosexual white men—has slowly become action: hiring, finally, editors of color, editors who are women, queer and trans editors—workers, in short, who will acquire and support literary works by queer, trans, and bipoc authors in a way that doesn’t merely fetishize or exploit their otherness, their “voices.” It’s worth noting, too, that these marginalized individuals are unlikely to have generational wealth, which means that wages are the only thing they rely on to survive. As Vershbow points out, “For too long, book publishing has used the ‘a million recent college grads would kill for that job’ trope as an excuse to underpay and overwork its employees. If there’s another liberal-arts or Ivy League grad with an undying love of Toni Morrison or Judy Blume waiting in the wings to work around the clock for paltry paychecks, why pay more to hire or keep employees without a built-in safety net?” In practice, this has meant that college grads from wealthier families tend to succeed in publishing—an actual example of elitism. Ensuring fair wages eliminates the conditions that favor publishing’s equivalent of the legacy admission, and can thereby establish a more diverse, pluralistic literature.
Part of this correction has been a calling-into-question of literary standards, of what makes books “great” after all. Unfortunately, what began as pluralism has quickly unraveled into a kind of egalitarianism—the “just let people enjoy things” of literature, which treats every book as a product of equal cultural value and denies that, say, a reader with so much passion for books might nonetheless have bad taste. Rather than accept that different kinds of literature exist—literatures with different standards—the concept of standards is simply discarded. Everything is taste, preference—again, individual consumer choice. This is where large communities of unskilled readerships are most damaging to literature, and where Goodreads in particular is annihilating the connoisseurship of reading.
While these “free” and unskilled communities—which are built for and driven by algorithms and in truth nothing more than vast data mines that enrich shareholders (who, I’m sure, only read the latest version of How to Make More Money and Get Servants to Work for Less every year)—have accelerated the rise in consumerist egalitarianism, the shuttering of one magazine after another, as well as the decline in editorial expertise, curiosity, and patience in those that have remained, has all but destroyed the forum in which literature’s professional audience once existed. And this too, of course, is a labor issue: editors are not paid what they once were; there aren’t enough of them; and they don’t have the support they once did to take risks, nor the resources to support critics who excite them. And this labor issue is a labor issue of another sort—the fact that the magazine-buying class, or “the middle class,” has continued to shrink as its pay has stagnated and its working hours have increased.
Literature is in peril, in part, because literary critics no longer have the space or the compensation they once had to publicly raise literature’s standards; and they no longer have the space or compensation because the magazines they wrote for either don’t exist or employ editors who are overworked and underpaid; and these magazines are gone, or their editors overworked and underpaid, because the people who used to pay for these magazines are also underpaid and overworked, and cannot afford, financially or mentally, to buy them and read them; and this class of readers is underpaid and overworked because, of course, forty years of fascist policy in the United States has annihilated workers’ rights, funneled compensation to the wealthy elite, destroyed access to affordable healthcare (which keeps people in low-paying and abusive work environments), and not only allowed but encouraged living conditions—particularly housing—to soar to such incomprehensible costs that it’s almost impossible to live alone as an adult, much less have anything leftover to devote any time, energy, or resources to pursuits that don’t involve, relate to, or benefit one’s ability to keep working. Literature is in peril because work, in America, has become totalitarian.
Now, if novelists of Adichie’s stature really cared about literature, perhaps these realities of publishing are worth mentioning in a lecture about “free speech,” particularly if money is speech. Because who’s really speaking here? What are they saying? Certainly it’s not trans women, who can’t seem to get a single word into the opinion pages of newspapers that nonetheless discuss them relentlessly. More importantly, who’s being silenced? Certainly it’s not the “controversial” novelist interviewed the Guardian (guardian of TERFs, surely). If Adichie were serious about literature—if any of the authors “concerned” about “free speech” or “terrified” of being “canceled” were serious about literature—they would advocate not only for writers, for higher advances, but for workers, the people who actually make publishing function, and thereby provide for literature’s possibility as a public art form (as opposed to the private art form of, say, the Soviet novelist’s desk drawer). They would protest alongside unions on strike. They would speak out against the acquisition of cynical celebrity memoirs that extend fascism’s ideological reach. And they would support, in whatever way they can, the most marginalized and vulnerable writers and workers, and not constantly undermine their personhood—which seems to me the antithesis of literature’s project, and a direct attack on culture as a whole. They would reject becoming what they’ve become: vapid, reactionary pawns in the fascist destruction of the future—everyone’s future.
Thank you for reading! If you’ve been a subscriber for a while, you’ve noticed this letter is now called Entertainment, Weakly. Since social media seems so much less stable than it was a month ago, I’ve remodeled a bit. Going forward, I’m working toward making this a “weekly letter against feeling absolutely hopeless about entertainment, culture, and politics, and the way art touches all of them.” Please tell your friends if it seems like something they’d like to read. And, as ever, if you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in my books, Image Control and Some Hell. (In the former I talk a lot about the author as a commodity.) Talk to you again soon <3