Monday, November 29, 2010

Blackwell's bite

Several months ago, I blogged about the novelist Elise Blackwell and her thoughts on how and when to use research in the writing of historical fiction. Recently, I’ve been reading her fine novel Grub, a contemporary reworking of George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), that renowned satire of English literary and publishing circles of the late nineteenth century. Grub is a wonderful read: skewering without being mean-spirited, clever without being trivial, clear-eyed and tender at the same time. Blackwell loves her characters but is completely honest about their faults. Anyone who is a writer or is married to one or who works inside a writing community will recognize some of Blackwell’s creations, if not all of them. Writers may also find themselves nodding in agreement at a few of Blackwell’s zingers at the big New York houses. Coming on the heels of the criticism I leveled in my last post, the following passage certainly caught my eye. In it, Blackwell is writing from the perspective of Andrew Yarborough, a novelist and editor who, thoroughly disenchanted with the practices of the big publishing houses, has decided to leave them for good.

There was little good will there toward talent that didn’t sell well, small tolerance for the sophomore slump, no willingness to risk a quiet novel that might prove a sleeper. What bothered him most was the shift to decision by committee. No doubt it prevented some truly horrible books from being published, but it was clear that it overemphasized market concerns and selected for lowest common denominators. He’d had to write rejection letters for several brilliant but peculiar novels he’d badly wanted to publish. . . . He couldn’t say whether he’d quit or been fired, but he remembered the shaking anger with which he’d argued with one publisher over a nine-hundred-page labor novel that was as dazzling and important as it was desperate for substantive editing. “It’s the writer’s job to have the book ready for the copyeditor,” was the line that had infuriated him and started the fight that ended in unemployment.

I’ve got nothing against expecting writers to edit their own work as carefully as possible, but I sure do understand the complaint that publishers choose books according to lowest common denominators. I see that phenomenon all the time in books I peruse. And a prejudice against 900-pagers? Well, I’m afraid that goes without saying.


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