What if Writers Were Treated Like Soccer Players?
Told you I’d be back soon to catch up on these weekly posts! Next week I’ll put together a recap linking to all of the posts in the series so far, and including a line or two about what they cover. And then, in addition to writing about one (or two) new books, next week I’ll also post a May overview with some more data, a look ahead to the New York Rights Fair, and some (likely irrelevant) notes about May titles that I won’t have time to read, but that sound pretty interesting.
But first, let’s get back into the groove of talking about some fiction (I’ll try and do more poetry throughout the course of this year–for all my grousing, I did enjoy most of it) along with Radical Idea #2.
* * *
First off though–the No-Nobel Prize Hot Take Factory!
As you probably know already, over the past few months, a somewhat baroque scandal tore its way through the Swedish Academy. I think I have the bare bones of this right, but if not, forgive me. I haven’t read all of the articles, and I’d rather focus on the aftermath and not the sordid details.
Anyway, my incomplete understanding: One of the members (Katarina Frostenson) runs a cultural organization with her husband that’s funded by the Academy. OK, that’s a bit weird. Especially because it’s called “Forum.” That’s so pretentious. Or a good name for a bathhouse. Definitely the place I’d go if I were looking for hot tips on who to bet on for the Nobel . . . Regardless, the head of the Academy raised some objections about this relationship between the organizations and tried to get Frostenson thrown out. That ended up splitting the committee and causing incredible amounts of vitriol and a number of people stepping off the committee. (Which is a problem, since members are appointed for life and their seats can’t be filled until they die.) Amid all of that, Frostenson’s husband was accused of harassment by eighteen different women. AND he’s allegedly the person who’s been leaking the winners in advance and fucking up all the odds in London. Such a mess!
As a result, the King of Sweden had to intervene, and the Nobel Prize for Literature has been cancelled for 2018.
Who knows what this means for the future–maybe two prizes next year?–but for now, it’s generated a number of steaming hot takes, each one hotter and more delicious than the last!
First up we have a New York Times op-ed from Tim Parks, King Curmudgeon of International Literature. (I guess? I really dig him and all his controversial comments.)
The real comedy, however, is that it has taken accusations of sexual abuse — directed not at a member of the academy, but at the husband of a member — to call the prize into question. It requires very little reflection to see that this international award for literature never had, nor ever could have any credibility at all. It is nonsense.
Hell yes! That’s how you kick off a take! Sexual abuse? Sure, sure, but the prize was nonsense–nonsense!–all along.
Such is the world’s eagerness that some solid ground be established in the shifting sands of aesthetic taste, such our desire to have our own literary favorites crowned and “canonized,” such the ambition of writers themselves to believe that they have joined the “greats,” that the Nobel has become the centerpiece ceremony in our annual literary liturgy, source of endless speculation and heated controversy.
Not only is the prize “nonsense,” but the fact so many people pay attention to it–to shore up their own tastes, to truly “make it”–is also ridiculous. This is golden. There’s basically no defense against Parks’s attack: No matter how you respond you’re giving outsized importance to a prize that’s not the absolute arbiter of literary greatness, and only seems as such because we keep talking about it.
And yet, why would misbehavior or bickering make a person any less able to judge the quality of a work of literature? You don’t have to be a saint to recognize a good book. And why would the fact that the Academy’s members are old or young, men or women, make it any more (or less) credible when it decided to confer greatness on a writer? I have met Per Wastberg, who leads the four-person team within the Academy that does the groundwork for the prize. He is charming, industrious and absolutely serious, certainly as well qualified as anyone to handle this task. It is the task itself that makes no sense.
The namedropping at the end is wonderful, especially the way he uses it as a defense for again dismissing the prize as “making no sense.”
Literature is not tennis or football, where international competition makes sense. It is intimately tied to the language and culture from which it emerges. Literary style distinguishes itself by its distance from the other styles that surround it, implying a community of readers with a shared knowledge of other literary works, of standard language usage and cultural context. What sense does it make for a group from one culture — be it Swedish, American, Nigerian or Japanese — to seek to compare a Bolivian poet with a Korean novelist, an American singer-songwriter with a Russian playwright, and so on? Why would we even want them to do that?
And to be clear: Parks has a good point here. At some point in time the Nobel Prize has gone from being a prize with a really solid purse, to a sort of global Literary Hall of Fame, complete with all the dumb-ass arguments about who “deserves” to be included, who doesn’t, what this means for culture, etc. It’s a prize that makes the publishing industry money, which is probably where this problem really comes from. (If a prize doesn’t shift enough units then it’s not really a good representative of aesthetic quality. See: Booker vs. National Book Award, Pulitzer vs. National Book Critics Circle Awards.) Bring it home, Parks!
As the Swedes squirm with embarrassment, the real butts of this farce are the critics who insist on taking the Nobel seriously. One might as well debate the choices of Roman Catholic cardinals when they announce a new saint. It really is time to grow up and concentrate on the books themselves, without this razzmatazz of winners and losers.
Razzmatazz! You win, Parks.
* * *
Parks definitely brought it, but I’m not sure he has the white hot heat of Adam Kirsch in The Atlantic.
Readers Don’t Need the Nobel Prize in Literature
And we’re off! Whereas Parks was like, “hey, yo, why do you give this group of 18 rando Swedes so much god damn credit as if they’re some sort of liteary demigods?,” Kirsch is like “fuck the Nobel Prize.”
Will a year without the Nobel deprive us of the chance to make the acquaintance of a writer we would love and admire? Here the answer is a pretty clear no. For decades, the choices of the Swedish Academy have failed to provoke much interest from American publishers and readers.
Oooooh shit! That’s a bold claim that can not be proven at all–a great way to blast off a Tomi-Lahren-level hot take.
(This seems only fair, since over the same period the Swedish Academy has resolutely ignored American literature: The last American writer to win the prize was Toni Morrison, in 1993. No, Bob Dylan doesn’t count.) When was the last time you heard someone say they were reading J.M.G. Le Clézio or Herta Müller?
BURN. If you read Le Clézio of Müller, you might as well go die in a hole, loser. Also, Bob Dylan’s lyrics belong on bathroom walls.
This is not just because American readers are resistant to fiction in translation, as publishers often complain. On the contrary, over the last two decades, many foreign writers have made a major impact on American literature. W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Elena Ferrante, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Haruki Murakami have all been celebrated here and around the world; none has won the Nobel Prize. But then, the failure of the Swedish Academy to reflect the actual judgment of literary history is nothing new. If you drew a Venn diagram showing the winners of the Nobel Prize in one circle and the most influential and widely read 20th-century writers in the other, their area of overlap would be surprisingly small. The Nobel managed to miss most of the modern writers who matter, starting with Henrik Ibsen at the beginning of the 20th century, and continuing through Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Anna Akhmatova, Jorge Luis Borges, Aimé Césaire, and many others.
We’ve all seen about 42 Buzz Hub listicles of great writers who didn’t get the Nobel. (Actually, I want to make a list of authors Kirsch didn’t name. Where’s Nabokov? You’re just as bad as the Academy!) That said, neither Ferrante nor Murakami belong on any such list. But if you’re listing top-level international authors that your local Barnes & Noble clerk might recognize, you might as well throw Muriel Barbery, Kazuo Ishiguro, Svetlana Alexievich, and Orhan Pamuk on there. Er. Wait. Those last three . . . nevermind. THE NOBEL PRIZE IS BAD.
Literature is at least produced by individual authors; but in this case, the Nobel’s reliance on ostensibly expert judgment runs into a different problem. For literature is not addressed to an audience of experts; it is open to the judgment of every reader. Nor is literature progressive, with new discoveries superseding old ones: Homer is just as groundbreaking today as he was 2,500 years ago. This makes it impossible to rank literary works according to an objective standard of superiority. Different people will find inspiration and sustenance in different books, because literature is as irreducibly pluralistic as human beings themselves.
This is one of the anti-Nobel arguments that gets my hackles up. A group of people are given the opportunity to give out a million dollar prize once a year to a writer. They do it based on whatever foolish, fallacious, genuine, or misguided reasons they do, and they’re blasted away for creating a crap canon. It’s still just a prize determined by 18 people! Going back to Parks, you’re the one giving them this regal status as ultimate arbiters. You don’t see people pissing on the National Book Award choices in this way even though they’re just a questionable and lame. But in that case, it’s just a “prize,” not the Nobel . . . Main point: From a literary value point of view, the Nobel is only as important as you make it.
Good criticism helps people to find the books that will speak to them, but it doesn’t attempt to simply name “the most outstanding work,” in the way the Nobel Prize does.
This is a joke, right? Like people read good criticism.
A book earns the status of a classic, not because it is approved by a committee or put on a syllabus, but simply because a lot of people like it for a long time. Literary reputation can only emerge on the free market, not through central planning; and the Swedish Academy is the Politburo of literature.
I’m not sure I want to value the market over the experts–the undermining of specialized intelligence is how a reality TV star becomes president–but I respect the intent of the bean ball.
* * *
Let’s talk about Japanese cults!
I’ve been wanting to read Nakamura for a while. Soho has brought out a number of his books, all crime novels that sound fairly interesting. But time constraints and the feeling that it was never quite the right time for me to be reading him, kept me from ever actually starting any of them.
And then this series and a book about cults. I’m absolutely captivated by cults. (That sounds like a bad pun.) There’s just something inherently interesting about groups that instill and abide by a system of thought that’s so far outside the norm. And they serve fiction really well. Great backdrop for constructing interesting characters, and it’s generally pretty easy to raise the stakes plot-wise when you’re writing about people who feel the world is about to end, through divine intervention, the arrival of the UFOs, or by government siege.
All of this–along with the recent success of Wild Wild Country–had me rather psyched to jump into Cult X. And for about 70 pages, I was enjoying it. Then for the next 350, I felt like we were both just going through the motions of book and reader, neither of us really giving it our all. Then, for the last 80 pages, there was pretty much open antagonism on my part, and a latent resentment against this book for being 505 pages of disappointment, myself for forcing myself to read books I don’t like just to come up with a third of a witty post, and for cults that straight up suck. Be more interesting! You’re a god damn cult for Christ’s sake!
I really just want to move on to the fun stuff, so let me quickly articulate a bunch of reasons why this book just doesn’t work:
There’s no larger context. Everyone in this book is in at least one cult, usually two, and sometimes even three. This is insanity. Without any non-cult characters to serve as foils or natural contrasts, everyone’s actions are really untethered, and it’s impossible to get a sense of the scope of things.
What is the plot of this book? I’ll admit–I lost the thread somewhere in the middle of this. It opens with a detective telling a guy he found out the guy’s maybe girlfriend, question mark?, was involved with a religious group and or cult. The guy goes to said religious group, immediately joins up, hears some pop science lectures, is recruited into a competing cult where there is another two-cult member who is trying to undermine this second cult by following the mandates of a third cult and blowing all the shit up while avoiding human casualties so as to better bring attention to financial inequities? And this blow shit up cult member is betrayed by another cult member and maybe the leader of cult number two? Forget it. This is more ridiculous than the Nobel Prize.
So, so many ideological monologues. I’m not even going to make fun of the pop science bits from cult leader #1 about quantum mechanics, consciousness, and galaxy mind. That’s just New Age stuff that you can find in any dorm room with a black light poster. The other stuff–the longer justifications–are more tedious to read.
“Japan should become a country that speaks out for peace. We should be hated by all the countries that long to go to war. So, you’ll ask, if another country starts a conflict, do we just ignore it, even if people are suffering? What an extreme opinion! However, have you ever though about what’s behind such a conflict? The calculations of many larger governments are tied up in the interest of the over-sized weapons industry.”
I take it back: You can find these rants in those same black-lit dorm rooms.
Some of the repeated phrases are so awkward. There’s a bit near the end where two police officers–who end up being connected to Cult #3, because naturally–are described as such on page 403: “One man appeared to be in his fifties, the other in his thirties.” OK, that’s odd on its own, but let’s just move on to page 407, where we find this: “When Takahara woke up in his hospital bed, two men were looking down at him. One appeared to be in his fifties, the other in his thirties.”
No Nobel for you!
* * *
Radical Idea #2: Treat Writers Like Soccer Players
The Problem: Independent presses are stuck in a grind, where they develop literary talent to the point that an author breaks out, at which point the author immediately jumps to a much larger press for more money, and the indie press who launched their career gets nothing. This is exacerbated by agents, who are pretty much the core problem for all the rest of my “radical ideas.”
The Solution: Create a system for authors and publishers that’s similar to the one for international soccer clubs and their players. When an author is ready to start publishing, a publisher can purchase their career. For, say, $20,000 you get to publish anything the author writes over the rest of their life. This amount is split between the author themselves and their agent, as is royalties on all copies sold of all of their works. No earning back advances–you get paid from the first sale onwards. But the publisher who purchased your literary career gets to do all of these books. No trying to play one publisher off against another–you signed and now they control your career.
What Happens if Another Press Wants an Author? Let’s use Knausgaard as an example for this. Archipelago signs him on for $20,000, and he’s going to get 10% of all sales for his books. Once My Struggle blows up, Penguin realizes that they fucked up and should’ve boarded the Knausgaard train instead of their constant investment in the seasoned Columbia MFA stars who all have high floors and low ceilings. So they go to Archipelago and offer a million dollars to take over Knausgaard’s career. If I were Archipelago, I’d take it, then invest that million in acquiring 7-10 unpublished authors with the right combination of plot, character, and style to blow up.
Is This Really a Benefit? It definitely rewards the editors and publicists who help make an author succeed, and once you’ve lost an author to a big contract–and been left with nothing to show for years and years of work–you’ll see the justice. Beyond that, it’s a way of keeping the smaller presses alive. Although there are a fair number of highly touted debut writers who come on market from the largest presses, a lot of writers need to crank out a few books with the mid-table publishers–those presses that can’t sell 100,000 units, but can spend the time helping writers hone their craft, and can invest the manpower and literary cache into building them a loyal audience. Also, there are no more agented auctions, which, thank god. A world without agents playing presses off one another and lying behind both their backs? SIGN ME UP.
Do Authors Get Anything Out Of This? Sure! They get an upfront chunk of change and the freedom to write whatever they want. That’s the reciprocal nature of this arrangement–once you’ve bought an author, you have to publish all their books. Here’s a possible career path for a mid-list author: first book gets a $3,000 advance, sells OK; bit of publicity gets them a $20,000 two book deal, but the books don’t sell at all; with the fourth book, they’re trying to write the most commercial thing possible, dreaming of a breakthrough before settling for a $500 advance and a free subscription to the press’s publications. Harsh but true! None of those advances earn out, and the author ends with $23,500 in writing revenue. And besides, if this is really a soccer-star system, presses will get them a variety of sponsors to supplement their income. Rodrigo Fresán’s new novel, brought to you by Tucks medicated pads: “Reading a long book without Tucks is like sitting on a bed of nails. Tucks! For all your discomforts.”
How Would Your System Be Any Different? If agents–who all have very high advance algorithms for projecting individual book and total career sales–know that an author is likely to earn $20K for their career, they can get a small press to put up $25,000 to start, and then with every book produced, the author gets 10% (or more) of the total sales. So 1) they’d make more under the soccer player scheme, 2) would be free from most marketplace demands on their writing, and 3) wouldn’t have to go through the insane stress of finding a publisher each time they complete a book.
This Just Sounds Like Slavery With Extra Steps. OK, Morty. But actually, this is a much more complicated relationship. If an author is dissatisfied with their publisher, they can demand a trade. And they have leverage–they can hold out and just not write! If you’re a publisher sitting on a $50,000 investment and the author isn’t giving you any books to print, then you’re better off selling them to a competitor. And from the publisher’s point of view, if you’ve invested so much upfront, you’re incentivized to do all you can to sell the author’s books. In fact, the most exploitable option is to publish the author in question so well that they garner the attention of the bigger clubs and you can get the sales from one-to-two great books and then sell the author off.
Anything Else? I love the idea of authors getting regular paychecks without having to “earn back” their advances. Also, the numbers above? No way they would start at that level. If this idea were to be implemented, it would be with the authors who can’t command that sort of transfer fee. It would likely start with a bunch of $5,000 purchases, and after a few exploded, and small publishers made bank, then you would see more presses playing along with this idea.
Who Would You Buy First? I don’t want to name any of our authors, or the prices I would pay, since that’s mean or illegal or uncouth or dumb. Instead, I’ll say that I would most definitely buy Brian Wood’s career for $10,000 with a guaranteed 10% royalty on all future sales. In a second. And then I’d sell him to Grove for $100,000 after a couple great books.