In the 40 years I’ve been writing book reviews for national periodicals, it’s rare that one of my reviews is reviewed. In a recent post, Paul Constant called my review of Sweeney’s The Nest in the Daily Beast “unfair.” “Wrong” I could silently accept, but “unfair” seems unfair. Since I assume readers have not committed his piece to memory, I’ll quote from it in italics and respond:
First of all, I don’t care if marketing materials mention the author advance explicitly: there is almost no good reason for a book critic to ever mention an advance in a review.
Generally I’d agree, but I had a good reason. It was not only Sweeney, an unknown writer, who received a million-dollar advance for a first novel. Three other recent first novelists I mentioned received similar advances, which were used to promote their books as new literary discoveries when, in fact, most if not all of the books were conventional (and therefore commercial) works with a patina of literary sophistication—what I called “commercialit.” As I said, I don’t begrudge Sweeney the money. As I also said (but Constant ignored), my worry is that paying such advances for “commercialit” will make it more difficult for truly literary writers—those who might be read 20 years from now--to get their work published by major publishers.
But more importantly, the Creation of a Term to Identify a Publishing Trend You Just Now Noticed is a bad reviewing trope. LeClair shoehorned four different books into a category — “commercialit” — that doesn’t even make sense. So these books are well-written but “safe,” whatever that means?
Since Constant doesn’t specify how the four books are different or how they are literary, I have my doubts that he has read any of them. They are different in subject but similar in their traditional storytelling burnished with M.F.A. sophistication. I take some pains to say what “safe” means and contrast the four first novels with dangerous literary novels by a range of contemporary writers.
This is not a trend that was created by a new generation of writers.
Middlebrow or commercial fiction has been with us since Hawthorne’s “scribbling ladies.” What seems new to me is that young or youngish writers with M.F.A. degrees are producing work that can be marketed as literary when the work is something less than that. My informants in and from M.F.A. programs tell me that much of their instruction now is in how to succeed, not in how to produce original and quality work.
This is not to say that there isn’t an interesting piece to be written about the publishing industry spending too much money on debut novels. But that piece is not a book review. It’s a reported piece, with interviews and supporting evidence and facts and sales numbers.
What Constant calls my “trend piece” had to be at least partly a review (The Nest was the occasion to examine the larger issues.) because the piece was about literary quality, not something that a “reported piece…with facts and sales numbers” would likely address. My “supporting evidence” is the described limitations of Sweeney’s writing. Readers of the other three novels I mentioned can form their own opinions.
Stop trying to make “commercialit” happen, Mr. LeClair. It’s not going to happen.
I regret to say that “commercialit” has already happened. If Constant is not a fledgling, he should know this. If he’s not happy with my term, he could at least admit literary publishing has been commercialized in the last ten years by the takeover of independent literary publishers by large entertainment conglomerates that can pay enormous advances and reap promotional benefits from those sums. Fledgling writers know this, so it’s understandable—if unfortunate--that they would write for the market that exists.
Finally, Mr. LeClair is always happy to be addressed by and receive advice from an experienced editor, but I have to wonder if Mr. Constant had an editor for his piece (as I did for mine in the Daily Beast). I’m a reviewer, not an editor, but it looks to me as if Constant took an immediate dislike to my remarking on Sweeney’s advance and then offered a series of disconnected questions and assertions that didn’t engage in a coherent way with the argument I was making, and that’s what I thought was unfair. At the top of his piece, Constant makes it known that as a co-founder of a review site he is busy, busy, busy writing. This may explain the slapdash structure and even the slightly snarky address of Mr. LeClair. A worrier, I’m concerned that Constant’s piece may represent some or much of web discourse, blog-like writing that is self-edited or that is so rushed to fill space that it seems unedited. So, since Constant takes it upon himself to advise me in his piece, I’ll advise him to find an editor before he “publishes” in the journal of opinion that he co-founded.
Tom LeClair is the author of three critical books, six novels, and hundreds of essays and reviews in nationally circulated literary journals, magazines, and newspapers.
Thank you for writing in. As you yourself note, there is absolutely nothing new about this friction between commercial fiction and literary fiction. You’re just slapping a new name on an ancient conflict with your “commercialit” label. For centuries, critics played at this silly gatekeeping game, and it’s part of the reason why literary criticism has withered away in the age of the internet. Book critics must give up on this hoary construct — this author is a sellout; this author is a pure artist — if they expect literary criticism to survive as an art form for the next hundred years.
Advocates of commercial fiction like to frame literary fiction as elitist; advocates of literary fiction tend to argue, as you do, about whether commercial fiction is somehow worth “less” than literary fiction. These arguments are both uninteresting; they imply a binary choice where no binary choice exists. I have never once visited a home where the bookshelves for serious, literary novels are separate from the bookshelves for “commercial” fiction. Most of the avid readers I’ve met somehow manage to read and enjoy both. Why not try to find the value in a book, rather than wringing your hands over the attribution of pointless labels?