Thursday, March 12, 2015

The False Allure of Commercial Writing

Almost everything that you read was produced in a commercial environment. Even if the intentions of an author are purely personal, artistic or altruistic, chances are there is someone in the infrastructure between the author's keyboard and your eyes who is attempting to make money. This situation dates back to the earliest days of publishing, and now, with technological developments, extends more broadly to "content." At this moment, thousands of companies are scrambling to fill the pages not only of printed publications but of online websites. The demand for all kinds of media has grown dramatically in the last decade, and streaming videos, for example, can hardly be produced fast enough to keep up. This creates challenges for discerning consumers of print and other media.

If I were less self-confident, I might be inclined to confess that many of the complaints that I have about writing amount to excessive pickiness. However, I am not making it up when I say that something that I just read seems like regurgitated filler that some editor squeezed out of a hack writer for a price. As I said in an earlier post, over a period of years I gradually became disgusted with The New Yorker, then The New York Times and then The New York Review of Books. Occasionally one might find something in one of these publications that strikes an intellectual or aesthetic chord, but increasingly that became a rarity for me. On the contrary, clickbait is used everywhere on the Internet and is simply a technological update of former sensational headlines in newspapers. What has been disappointing to me is that even the so-called reputable organizations engage in the same tactics, if only with greater subtlety.

The pattern toward disillusionment that I experience with printed or online publications usually goes something like this: initially the title of an article looks promising; the first paragraph or so looks good; as I delve further into it, a lot of extraneous information begins to emerge, often in the form superfluous name-dropping; and finally there is a vague conclusion that seems to leave you back where you started. The New York Times is ostensibly just a news source, but basic news actually takes up only a small fraction of its space. The rest is really filler designed to bring in additional advertising revenue. I don't think I've ever found any of their long articles satisfactory. The New Yorker attempts more thoughtful, in-depth articles and occasionally succeeds, but I find there such a strong emphasis on fashion, whether in ideas, clothes or writing, that it is difficult to take the magazine seriously on any level.

It took me the longest time to figure out The New York Review of Books, probably because it is less mainstream and its editorial policies are opaque. The NYRB is managed so privately that I have had to make guesses and seek outside sources to get a rough idea of what is going on there, and even then it is still hard to know with much certainty. My current theory is that most of the problems there reside in its editor, Robert Silvers. Although Silvers is highly intelligent, extremely well-read and quite discerning, he has specific expectations of what the publication should be and wields dictatorial control over everything that it encompasses. He is said to be the quintessential micro-manager. The impression I have is that his true vocation is editing the articles of writers and thinkers so as to improve upon them in a manner that suits his aesthetic tastes, even when they are better writers or thinkers than he is. What you end up with is a hodgepodge of academics, literary writers and journalists who are willing to put their writing through the Silvers sieve. The result, I find, is that their articles tend to be blander than they might otherwise be. The long essay format of the NYRB is impressive when you first see it, but it rarely produces ruffled feathers or changed minds. The articles leave one feeling that one has encountered a reasonably wide-ranging account of whatever the topic may be, that it is written competently, but that it serves little purpose beyond providing an overview of what the so-called cognoscenti happen to think about a topic at that given moment. Possibly the problem is that Silvers is too entwined with the status quo to rebel much. Thus, at a time when American literary culture is promoting one mediocre writer after another and holding them to the low standards of academia and the publishing industry, Silvers has advanced the careers of Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Marilynne Robinson, and Francine Prose. To be sure, there may be some entertainment value to be found in the works of these authors and others featured by Silvers, but I have never found any of their articles in the NYRB useful, insightful, provocative or thoughtful. In the end, Silvers is an accomplice to literary mediocrity. Part of Silvers' limitation as an editor must reside in his style, but perhaps a part also resides in his age: he's eighty-five.

The NYRB is not the best example of the point I'm making here, because most of its production seems to follow old-fashioned methods. They produce very few articles per month, and the only change in recent years has been their addition of the NYRblog. That is now looking like an afterthought: they wanted to go trendy to avoid looking like the fuddy-duddies that they are, and then decided that it was too much of a hassle to have a real, interactive blog and accordingly stopped accepting comments. So the NYRB is not as commercial as it might be and its true limitations may relate more to the fact that it is saddled to the preferences of one editor who has vested interests in a network of people and a bygone era that I just don't care about. My guess is that the typical NYRB subscriber is an eighty-year-old retired academic in the humanities.

An alternative to commercial writing is the writing in diaries and blogs. At least there you don't have to worry about the corrosive effects of money even when it remains hard to fathom the motives of the writer. Diaries can't usually be read in real-time, so they are comparatively inaccessible. In theory there could be lots of good blogs, but it might be difficult to find them, given their number. The Internet is already full of dead blogs that people gave up on. The advantage of a blog, like this one, is that the writer has no pressure to fit a specific format or please a wide audience. In my case I am writing about things that interest me and I can tell the truth without worrying about any financial ramifications. No one can fire me. If I get my facts all wrong, I would be delighted to have someone straighten me out, but that hasn't happened so far.

No doubt there are plenty of good books to read that are available, but they are increasingly difficult to find because of all the background noise. The commercial connections of the publications mentioned above make the books reviewed in them somewhat suspect. My conclusion is that nearly everything they have to say about American fiction is an obfuscation, a lie or a manifestation of poor literary judgment. In any case, the bright spot for me is nonfiction. I am less likely to become disgruntled about biographies or science books, because in their case it is easier to determine in advance whether a book is good or not, inasmuch as that depends less on subjective opinion than is the case with fiction. To me it is more than a little ironic that some of today's best science writers are better writers than those who are supposedly the best fiction writers. I actually enjoy reading E.O. Wilson, Freeman Dyson, Steven Weinberg and even Richard Dawkins, because they write well. It is an unsupported myth that fiction writers have a monopoly on good writing. For this reason, the next book on my reading list is To Explain the World, by Steven Weinberg. Science writers and biographers may still have commercial motives - their publishers certainly do - but more often their love for their subject takes precedence over the venality one finds in commercial fiction.


  1. I have a co-worker who did something with the NYRB. I don't know if he was an editor there or what, but he knows a lot of the usual suspects (and admires Judt). I'll have to ask him a bit more about it.

    I like the notion of the editor as accessory to mediocrity.

  2. Yes, I would like to know more too. They're quite secretive. A few years ago I had some communication with Matthew Howard, their Director of Electronic Publishing, and it was obvious that he had no decision-making authority whatsoever.

    I've been picking mainly on Robert Silvers, but a deeper look might show that he is simply following the model set by others in the 1960's. I don't think I would find Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Hardwick interesting at all. They had a commercial connection from the beginning, since co-editor Barbara Epstein's husband worked at Random House. So it is possible that Silvers' promotion of mediocrity has deep roots. In fairness, though, the NYRB was a big step up from the New York Times Book Review, which inadvertently prompted the creation of the NYRB during a newspaper strike.

    Tony Judt probably didn't fit their model well: he refers to Mark Danner, Robert Silvers' protégé, as a "muck raking" journalist rather than an intellectual in an article in the LRB.

  3. I might take issue with one of the points you make in your post--that is, that the NYRB has advanced the careers of Joyce Carol Oates, Francine Prose, etc. It seems to me rather that it started publishing those (rather dull) writers after they had already risen to prominence, in what has surely turned out to be a failed attempt to burnish its own literary reputation.

    1. It would be more precise to describe these writers as establishment literary writers who initially became known without the help of the NYRB. However, when you look at their careers as a whole, the NYRB has facilitated their current status as senior doyennes of American fiction. This recognition has a significant impact on their late careers. Rather than engaging in artistic projects that have a chance of being memorable, the NYRB helps them have lazy, high-status, overcompensated late careers. When they sign up with the NYRB it is virtually guaranteed that they will never produce memorable writing even while, incongruously, their economic and social status within the American arts community remain at a peak.

      There seems to be somewhat of a pattern in New York literary publishing. You achieve recognition by publishing in The New Yorker or the Paris Review; for a time you write reviews for The New York Times; you teach creative writing at prestigious MFA programs and speak at writers' conferences; you begin writing reviews for the NYRB; and finally you retire from academic positions and continue writing articles for the NYRB until you die. The probability of any of these writers producing significant work past the age of fifty is about zero.

    2. One other thought, so as to address potential accusations of sexism: there are some male writers in this category too, but not as many. I'm thinking of Charles Baxter, who wrote one of the most insipid novels I've ever read. It is hard for me to document some of my arguments because the reading would be torture.

      In the end, what we're talking about is the sociology of American literary culture, which itself isn't that interesting a topic.


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