Friday, December 30, 2011

Helen DeWitt's Scathing Critique of the Publishing Business

In the preface to Dan Visel's interview with Helen DeWitt, DeWitt offers a raw and heartfelt lamentation about the cruel, inefficient structure of the book publishing business:

"So we really have no chance of being contemporaries of our own contemporaries, even if we want to--if we stick with the conventional publishing model. Books I wrote or started last year, five years ago, 10 years ago, might get into the public domain in 2012, 2022, or never. The determining factor is not the quality of the books; it's the extent to which Helen DeWitt can marshal the social skills, the obstinacy, the willingness to suspend writing indefinitely to wheel and deal, to get the f------ into print."

I've only had one brief foray in the book publishing business so far--I wrote a chapter for the anthology Basketball in America and then had to fight tooth and nail for years so that I and the other chapter contributors could receive the (small) royalties that the book's editor had promised to share with us; the issue was not the money (regardless of whether it had been a small amount or a small fortune) but the principle: not everyone can be smart or talented but everyone has the ability to be loyal and to keep one's word--and there is nothing worse than a betrayer, someone whose deeds do not match his words or who is, as I like to put it, with you win or tie. The anthology editor promised that the other contributors would receive an equal share of the royalties and I would have pursued him to the ends of the Earth (and the end of time) whether the amount in question was two cents or $2 million.

Though DeWitt has had much more interaction with book publishers than I have, her frustrating experiences with editors--and with the general nonsense pervading the writing business--mirror many of the experiences I have had with magazine editors and website editors. One of my ideas was stolen without attribution or compensation, I have had a strange, nonsensical and offensive title attached to one of my articles, I have had a strong lead sentence butchered beyond recognition for no conceivable reason and I have submitted accurate copy only to have inaccurate information included in the text (I have also been berated, in vulgar and threatening tones, for simply telling the truth about such matters--not that empty words from cowards could for one second stop me from telling the truth).

Like DeWitt, I have had editors enthusiastically praise my work and make promises of future assignments only to inexplicably fail to follow through on those commitments. Those situations are even more baffling when one considers the commercial success enjoyed by people who simply do not possess the most basic writing skills and people whose work is the very definition of "hack job." This is not a new problem--more than 150 years ago, Edgar Allan Poe declared, "The most 'popular,' the most 'successful' writers among us (for a brief period, at least) are, 99 times out of a hundred, persons of mere effrontery--in a word, busy-bodies, toadies, quacks."--but it is frustrating as both a writer and a reader to have one's senses assaulted by garbage and to know that a lot of people are being well compensated to produce that garbage.

In the Visel interview, DeWitt explains why the current publishing model makes it difficult for quality writers to be fairly compensated for their work:

"A painter is not expected to hand in a painting and then set aside a year or so to a) changing it in light of comments from the gallerist and b) waiting for the gallerist's staff to touch it up before deciding whether all the alterations can be allowed to stand. (The painting is not thought deficient in value if untouched-up by the gallerist, the receptionist, the gallerist's girlfriend.) A painter can paint. Do we think that any painter, regardless of ability, is automatically superior to any writer? I don't think so, but we have a system of production that presupposes that position, and the result is one with crippling financial consequences for writers."

Painters and other visual artists often face daunting obstacles, too; as I noted nearly two years ago, pottery maker extraordinaire George Ohr had boundless confidence--he declared "When I am gone, my work will be praised, honored, and cherished. It will come."--but when he died he was considered an eccentric and his contributions to the art world were not recognized for quite some time. The 37 year old Vincent Van Gogh sold just one canvas prior to committing suicide. Suicidal thoughts are a frequent companion for writers and artists during their lonely journeys through this deeply flawed world (at the height of her despair, DeWitt sent an email dispassionately describing how her body should be disposed of after her suicide but her Jerzy Kosinski-style attempt to end her life with a sedative-aided asphyxiation failed).

What does all of this mean? An old episode of the "Simpsons" springs to mind: I don't remember the dialogue verbatim but, after a typical half hour of mayhem, Homer Simpson tried in vain to articulate some explanation or meaning for what had just happened but his precocious daughter Lisa mused that perhaps everything just happened randomly with no underlying cause and no deeper meaning. Lisa's answer seems to describe not just the bizarre business model of the publishing world but also the bizarre and tragic state of the world in general, a place where one billion people are starving at the same time that a small group of people enjoy unimaginable material wealth.

1 comment:

  1. On top of that, The Last Samurai is nearly out of print. I managed to get a hardcover for 10 bucks a couple weeks ago. Dewitt said she thinks it must be from some unsold stash that Amazon managed to acquire.


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