Status Symbols

“There is no science to it, or even art.  It’s a business of hunches.”–Bill Clegg, author of Did You Ever Have A Family, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2015

Every so often (at least once a week) The Wall Street Journal includes a section on conspicuous consumption.  The usually expensive things–houses, jewelry, cars–carry eye-popping prices, as do more utilitarian items–boots, scarves, tennis shoes.  Someone buys these things, of course, not because they are necessary, but because they fulfill a psychological need.  It seems this impulse has reached the publishing industry.

According to the Journal’s story, “Betting Big On Literary Newcomers,” what the big publishers want now–damn the cost–is debut works of literary fiction, “the [potentially] most read book of the year,” and they’re willing to pay a million (or two) in advance to secure it.  Frequent visitors to this blog know I’m all for literary fiction, so more power to the authors pulling down these big bucks, but the selection process is, shall we say, a bit doubtful.

It seems that the social media “have contributed to a culture in which everyone reads–and tells their friends about–the same handful of books a year.  It’s increasingly a winner-take-all economy, publishing executives say.”  This so-called culture “has given rise to an elite new club:  the million dollar literary debut .”  The absence of a sales record “makes debut authors most appealing, publishers say, since there is no hard data to dampen expectations:  ‘You can pin all your hopes and dreams and fantasies on a debut novel.'”  According to the article, some of these “hopes and dreams and fantasies” are coming up short, but maybe that doesn’t matter anymore.  Maybe these guys just want the “buzz,” or maybe it’s just a shiny object they need to acquire.

I scanned the entire story, four broad columns that take up a whole page, and found the word “art” once–in the quote above where Mr. Clegg denies that art is involved at all.  In fact, there’s no mention of literary merit anywhere.  It’s a crap-shoot.  An editor at Putnam’s was “terrified” when she made her first million-dollar bid.  “It made me want to throw up,” she said.  Like spinning the wheel in Vegas.

So–what HarperCollins and Knopf and Putnam’s seek is a “literary” work by a first-time author, unburdened by a history of worth, that will appeal to the bloggers and the tweeters who actually read books.  Whoever has the best “hunch” about that wins.  What’s in the book doesn’t matter.

And this is “literary fiction”?

What Do You Think?

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