The Emptiness Of Literature Written For The Market


Kenneth Dillon is a writer from New York.

This summer, Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of the bestselling divorce memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” posted an unusual video to Instagram. Gilbert’s warm smile has become familiar to more than a million followers, but in the video she looks sullen as she describes her forthcoming novel, “The Snow Forest,” in the past tense.

“I have received an enormous, massive outpouring of reactions and responses from my Ukrainian readers expressing anger, sorrow, disappointment and pain about the fact that I would choose to release a book into the world right now — any book, no matter what the subject of it is — that is set in Russia,” Gilbert says in the video, which has now accrued nearly 48,000 likes. “And as a result I’m making a course correction, and I’m removing this book from the publication schedule. It is not the time for this book to be published.”

Much of the criticism Gilbert mentions seems to have been shared on Goodreads, the literary social media platform owned by Amazon. The New York Times reported that the now-deleted page for “The Snow Forest” — a 1930s David and Goliath story about a rogue gang of environmentalists fighting to protect the Siberian wilderness from the forces of Soviet industrialization — was overwhelmed by one-star reviews decrying the novel’s setting amidst Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. 

High-profile printer jams are not all that uncommon. In 2017, Roxane Gay pulled her own manuscript from Simon & Schuster after the publisher offered a six-figure advance to the alt-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Staff walkouts in 2020 pushed Hachette to cancel Woody Allen’s memoir “Apropos of Nothing” because of allegations that he had abused his stepdaughter.

But the retraction of “The Snow Forest” is different. Gay and the Hachette staff shared a spirit of activism, producing loud critiques not only of a radical ideology and an insensitive apologia, but also of the companies that sought to profit off the same. By contrast, Gilbert assumed an activist posture simply to dramatize her own position in the book market. The Goodreads reviewers — none of whom had read the book — argued that setting a novel in Russia would represent complicity in its war, which is baseless, never mind silly, especially since we cannot verify whether any of the deleted posts were made by Ukrainians.

Why did Gilbert take this seriously? When she says she does “not want to add any harm to a group of people who have already experienced … grievous and extreme harm,” her sympathy is well-placed but muddled and indulgent. She stops short of an apology to avoid the appearance of scandal, and she doesn’t call for peace to show she had never supported anything else. In other words, she says as little as possible, passing on the easy opportunity to defend her right to free expression and anyone’s right to read or not read whatever they want, both of which are currently and repeatedly threatened in Russia, Ukraine and the United States.

How did a heartfelt writer like Elizabeth Gilbert come to adopt the neutered rhetoric of brand management?

“At issue here is not which novels deserve to be published but rather how institutions incentivize some, repress others and allow yet more to exist independently only when it costs them nothing.”

Two recent books on the state of publishing, “Everything and Less”by the Stanford literary scholar Mark McGurl and “Big Fiction”by Dan Sinykin, an assistant professor of English at Emory University, show how recent shifts in the industry have changed American fiction from the inside out. McGurl is a gifted theorist who writes clearly about Amazon’s complex business ecosystem without losing his bona fides, while Sinykin, a leader in the digital humanities movement, uses data science to identify historical trends in the “Big Five” — Penguin Random House, Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins and Macmillan. Together the authors shed new light on how those companies and their primary sales and distribution partner shape what we read.

This kind of literary criticism is a high-wire act; doing it well means ferrying the reader from the publisher’s office to the writer’s desk without inducing vertigo. McGurl and Sinykin tell compelling stories of the multinational conglomerates that bought up almost all of the independent publishers, enforced standards of efficiency that continue to repress creativity and diversity, and learned to thrive in a marketplace that does not distinguish between Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl”and Torre & Tagus’ Brava Spun Textured Metallic Gold Bowl Decorative Bowl for Living Room & Centerpiece Display. But they both go one step further as they attempt — with some success — to chart a new way of reading novels through an institutional lens, one that challenges the romantic myth of the solitary author that many writers, including Elizabeth Gilbert, have made the main substance of their careers.

Gilbert debuted in 1997 with the short story collection “Pilgrims,” followed by two well-received novels over the next five years. She’d made it as a writer but still felt unsatisfied. After leaving her husband for a quick fling, she asked her then-publisher, Penguin, to finance a trip around the world. “Eat, Pray, Love” is a Goldilocks-style sample of three countries from the same page of the encyclopedia — Italy, where she eats; India, where she prays; and Indonesia, where she meets her next ex-husband — held together with reflections on happiness. The memoir sold over 12 million copies and was adapted into a film by Ryan Murphy starring Julia Roberts as Gilbert, who was catapulted to international fame.

Now in her next act, Gilbert’s career falls somewhere between lifestyle guru and social media influencer. On Instagram, she offers followers writing prompts that have a noncommittal relationship with the actual craft: “Write a letter from love. Begin your letter with this question: ‘Dear Love, What would you have me know today?’” (This is, after all, a letter to love, not from it, whatever that would mean anyway). A self-described “seduction addict,” Gilbert offers mood, not guidance. She wants to give her fans, mostly women, that potent sense of agency that she thinks can help them overcome hardship, accept new ideas, and feel like the main characters in the stories of their lives. 

“Life is both fleeting and dangerous,” she writes in her 2019 novel “City of Girls,” “and there is no point in denying yourself pleasure, or being anything other than what you are.” On her website, Gilbert calls that book “a delicious novel of glamour, sex and adventure, about a young woman discovering that you don’t have to be a good girl to be a good person.” The blurb for “The Snow Forest” describes a more politically engaged if mystical version of the “City of Girls” ethos through “a story of magic, survival and mystery. It tells of the cunning ability of the divine feminine to outwit totalitarian patriarchy, even in the most challenging of circumstances.”

From here Gilbert stretches the schtick too far. The abstract register that helped her express her subjective sense of things like femininity and pleasure breaks apart when used in a social novel. Gilbert tries to generalize her self-help style to say something about the real world, but winds up lost in speculation. In one surprising line from the promotional material for “The Snow Forest,” Gilbert writes that the major theme is, “the incredible power of women working together to produce the impossible — which is something Alexis Kirschbaum and her team at Bloomsbury do every single day.” This unusual complement shows how consciously Gilbert wrote “The Snow Forest” with the market in mind.

The Birth Of The Mass Market

Writers have always obsessed over their audiences and the mechanics of publication. In 1909, Charles Scribner’s Sons was preparing a five-year anniversary edition of Henry James’ adultery drama “The Golden Bowl” when the company received a new preface from the author. James had written critical prefaces for the reissues of his novels many times before, but here the master voiced his discontent with the image chosen to appear beside the title page — a striking reproduction of a hazy London street captured by the American photographer Alvin Langdon Coburn. For James, though, revising his “muddled moments,” however scarce, had been challenging enough; by then most of his work, including this final novel, had been dictated to his assistant, Theodora Bosanquet. Now he felt he would have to compete with Coburn for real estate in the Britain of his reader’s imagination, as if the text alone was insufficient:

Anything that relieves responsible prose of the duty of being … good enough, interesting enough and, if the question be of picture, pictorial enough, above all in itself, does it the worst of services, and may well inspire in the lover of literature certain lively questions as to the future of that institution.

James was too polite to outright rebuff Coburn, Bosanquet and the Scribners, whose contributions were necessary to the publication of “The Golden Bowl,” but the severity of his underlying point is that they threatened the integrity of his work simply by hanging around. Surely James took advice from time to time, but his talent, reputation and family wealth meant he could usually escape the pressures of the industry that still influences most writers. 

After the Second World War, there were more readers in the United States than ever before. The G.I. Bill sent thousands of young men and women to college, where they were exposed to a greater variety and quality of literature. Tons of small, cheap, pocket-sized books were printed to be sold everywhere from bookstores to shopping malls to grocery stores. Sinykin shows that the mass market paperback revolutionized reading in America, subverting the dichotomy between high-brow and low-brow fiction by publishing William Faulkner next to Mickey Spillane.

“The attempt to assign ethical principles like pluralism and multiculturalism to the rational expansion of the publishing industry failed in part because, in the U.S., the right to free expression is exploited by conglomerates and private equity firms.”

Around this time, the critic Ralph Ellison saw the potential to use this new availability of fiction as a tool for social change. Ellison hoped that people who read his novel “Invisible Man,” for example, would recognize in it “the diversity and complexity of American experience” and abandon racial prejudice. He argued that the federal government needed to move away from the patronage model that benefited only an elite few toward a democratic one that could promote equality, both through new ventures like the later National Endowment for the Arts as well as market incentives. That sensibility could also be found in universities, where the proliferation of creative writing degrees — chronicled by McGurl in his groundbreaking study “The Program Era” — lowered the bar to entry for students and gave writers a stable source of income.

There were five main publishers that made Ellison’s vision plausible by opening the mass market. Pocket was the first, joined by New American Library (NAL), Bantam, Dell and Fawcett. Their distributors, long accustomed to printing on demand, soon realized they were sitting on valuable data that could be used to accurately project book sales. While they occasionally took risks with big runs of experimental fiction, the reproducible success of books that adhered to a similar form fostered a strong sense of fiscal discipline. Publishers, distributors and booksellers alike invested heavily in middlebrow writers who offered just enough sophistication to appeal to better-educated consumers but organized their narratives around easily identifiable patterns, writers like Danielle Steel with romance, Stephen King with horror and E.L. Doctorow, who simultaneously defined the parameters of genre writing as an editor at NAL and brought them to market in his historical fiction.

For a time, it seemed that the volume and variety of American fiction had crystallized into a happy symbiotic relationship among the industry players. Blockbusters like Doctorow’s “Ragtime”would cover the tab for the avant-garde; white male writers remained the majority, but more women and people of color were gaining ground. As the heads of the mass market houses grew older and balked at the estate tax their children would have to pay to inherit their businesses, they opted to cash out instead. Ellison died in 1994, leaving thousands of pages of fiction and essays unpublished, his vision in doubt. By the end of the 20th century, none of the five original major mass-market publishers remained independent, if they still existed at all­.

Conglomeration, Efficiency, The Threat To Creativity

The attempt to assign ethical principles like pluralism and multiculturalism to the rational expansion of the publishing industry failed in part because, in the U.S., the right to free expression is exploited by conglomerates and private equity firms that apply the same standards of efficiency to all companies in their heterogenous, leveraged portfolios. Each one of the Big Five is a conglomerate operating any number of semi-independent imprints that used to comprise a dynamic ecosystem. The major multinationals only took that domestic phenomenon global.

Last year, the German company that owns Penguin Random House, already the biggest of the Big Five, launched a bid to acquire Simon & Schuster — to absorb a rival that would make it very difficult for any of the others to compete. One antitrust advocate told the New York Times that, “in order to protect the market from monopolization by Amazon, [they’re] going to monopolize the market.” The U.S. Department of Justice took PRH to court, though the critic Christian Lorentzen notes this was primarily to defend the competitive advantage of just the top 2% of advance earners, since “that’s where the money is.” After the deal broke down, KKR, an investment firm best known for running Toys “R” Us into the ground, acquired S&S for $1.62 billion.

The claim that Amazon presents an existential threat to traditional publishers is not exaggerated, but it contradicts the more complicated reality of modern bookselling. Amazon’s vast supply chain and proprietary feed of customer data, comprised of reviews aggregated from Goodreads and its own digital marketplace, don’t only drive its own activities, but also the rest of the industry as well. By some estimates, Amazon accounts for as much as 50% of book sales and 80% of distribution from the Big Five in the U.S., which McGurl shows are doing better than ever.

The narrative of an existential threat masks Amazon’s complementary relationship with the Big Five and the disproportionate performance of its own imprints. It also ignores the emergence of new sub-genres on Kindle Direct Publishing that do not rely on sales forecasts, including “sexy Black woman/white male billionaire romance” and Dr. Chuck Tingle’s “tinglers,” like “Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls”and “Unicorn Butt Cops: Beach Patrol.” McGurl argues that these particular titles represent vast undercurrents of race and class-based escape fantasies and queer performance art that are intimately connected with Amazon’s service-oriented business model.

Fiction As A Service

At issue here is not which novels deserve to be published but rather how institutions incentivize some, repress others and allow yet more to exist independently only when it costs them nothing. Sinykin and McGurl share a deep concern for how these trends effect creativity, and they land on different sides of the issue.

Sinykin’s computational tools have revealed patterns across a high volume of organizational choices that lead him to somewhat pessimistic conclusions about what is likely versus what is possible. He argues that in order to understand how conglomerate ownership leads writers to make some decisions instead of others, all we need to do is “follow the money,” a premise just simple enough to be true. Stephen King, Sinykin argues, used “Misery,” the story of a novelist kidnapped by a fan demanding new work, to struggle against his own success in the conglomerate environment.

But the rigid logic of Sinykin’s methodology also leads him to reductive and sometimes bewildering interpretations of novels like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” originally published by Knopf, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Sinykin’s model, which attributes what he calls the “literature of embodiment,” or prose that expresses how things feel, exclusively to the nonprofit sector, misidentifies “Beloved” as the product of a nonprofit publisher. Sinykin rationalizes this by reimagining the novel, which concerns the aftermath of slavery and the Civil War, as an allegory of publishing. “By placing black women and their embodied experience at the center of her account,” Sinykin argues, Morrison, “overwhelms the arid institutionalism and racist epistemology of schoolteacher, and thus of conglomeration, leading the model to recognize her novel as nonprofit.” A more satisfying explanation could have been drawn by engaging with Sinykin’s Post45 Data Collective colleague Melanie Walsh’s work, which shows that most publishing data is kept under lock and key, and our ability to use what little we have to interpret novels is limited.

Using data to make sense of the complex histories of the publishing industry’s major players requires overlooking certain incremental changes in the relationships between individuals. Sinykin criticizes the romantic myth of the solitary author while using similar stories of industry executives as a narrative conceit for his book, leaving it unclear to what degree he believes individuals engender lasting change.

McGurl, on the other hand, introduces new theoretical concepts that form a kind of connective tissue between readers, writers and the institutional pressures to which they respond. His notion of “fiction as a service,” a business model writers have increasingly adopted to meet consumer demand for instant gratification through therapeutic literary experiences, neatly explains why Gilbert would have pulled “The Snow Forest.” McGurl makes cogent connections between the significant influence of Amazon’s commitment to customer service and the financial incentives it passes along the chain to its Big Five suppliers as well as the writer, regardless of which company publishes a book. He goes further to argue for the potentially generative quality of the view, in the age of Amazon, that literature is seen as intellectual property. He writes that from “Bigfoot Pirates Haunt My Balls”to “The Golden Bowl,” every novel, even one judged “perfectly worthless for present needs … stands perpetually ready for reactivation as a commodity and, who knows, a work of art.”

“Elizabeth Gilbert passed on the easy opportunity to defend her right to free expression and anyone’s right to read or not read whatever they want, both of which are currently and repeatedly threatened in Russia, Ukraine and the United States.”

McGurl’s earlier book “The Program Era,” has often been willfully misread to validate claims that Master of Fine Arts degrees in creative writing don’t produce good work. It can be easy to miss the fundamental optimism of McGurl’s view if one places too much emphasis on the institutions he so aptly describes. And McGurl may understate the diminishing value of literature conceived in a workshop setting and now as licensable intellectual property. But the statistical reality that most aspiring writers who apply to M.F.A. programs will not be admitted and the unlikelihood that those who do will go on to careers recognizable by conventional measures of success are not to be taken too seriously.

The hackneyed prose styles and narrative structures M.F.A. programs produce don’t seem to bother McGurl either, at least not as much as the writers who claim they’ve avoided the advanced degrees on principle. The same goes for novels in the age of Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing he describes in “Everything and Less.” Permeating all of McGurl’s work is the belief that more people writing and reading the literature they enjoy is a good thing, full stop. This is not to be mistaken as a tacit endorsement of Amazon’s business philosophy, nor is it an argument for the kind of cultural relativism distilled in the slogan “let people enjoy things.” It is instead a sober acknowledgement of the often-forgotten fact that excellent literature will endure so long as there remain curious readers.

A forthcoming memoir by Charles Scribner III, the great-grandson of the man who introduced Henry James to American readers, shows just how much McGurl’s view matters today. “James,” the former Princeton art historian writes, “is a difficult author to read — beyond my patience — but of towering importance to the history of literature. I confess that my enjoyment of his works has been based on their translations to glorious films. …They are all worth watching — perhaps even reading.”

Perhaps. Perhaps, also, American consumers have lost their appetite for reading because they fear giving over their time and energy to an activity they do not feel is productive, and one that may come with problematic side effects if the story is set in the wrong country at the wrong time in history, which threatens our untenable desire for ethical consumption.

In the end, James came to his senses and embraced Coburn’s frontispiece for “The Golden Bowl.” His preface reminds readers that engaging with fiction and using it to think critically about our lives is as important as “every other feature of our freedom; these things yield in fact some of its most exquisite material to the religion of doing,” which we would do well to remember today.