Literature On $20,000 A Year: Keith Gessen, n+1, Commerce and Fiction
This is a long one; brace yourselves.


So Keith Gessen's the big cheese now. His new book, "All The Sad Young Literary Men," is getting trashed and praised in more or less equal measure, but it's being talked about. Copies of it are starting to pile up on the best seller tables. Everyone loves that sad young man from Brooklyn, or at least believes that he is doing something important as far as this literature thing goes.

But let's be clear. What Keith Gessen wants to do with literature--according to his April 27 New York Times profile, at least--is not a problem. Taking down the cult of hysterical realism and New Sincerity is a project that's long overdue. American literature is not a tapped vein; there's still gold in it and it deserves mining.

The problem is that Keith Gessen's ambition stops after the takedown.

Let's make literature that speaks to our modern frivolous society, says Geffen. Let's write books that give those venal hipsters more truth than they're getting from Eggers and his ilk. Let's replace that old Believer with something real and pure and better.

Okay. Now what? Who do we speak to next?

Do we bother with speaking to anyone?

Here's another Gessen quote from a 2006 interview with the New York Inquirer.

"This is where McSweeney's and the Believer come in. When we launched, it seemed like they were the ideal representatives of a certain kind of literary position, which states that 1) reading, in any form, is good, that writing is good, that literature is good; 2) all these things are imperiled, and therefore 3) that anything done in the service of these things is good. We disagree with all three parts of that, even #2. And we've said so a number of times."

To disagree with those three points is to agree with the following:

(1) Only certain kinds of reading are good. Only certain kinds of writing are good. Only certain kinds of literature are good. By "good" I don't believe Gessen means "of high quality." I believe he means "should exist." Substituting into the equation: only certain kinds of writing should exist.

(2) Reading, writing, and literature are not imperiled. This is just flat false. Everything that's alive is imperiled. Anything of structure and value requires work to support and maintain.

(3) Taking "good" to mean "should exist", again: only certain things done in the service of literature should be done.

So which kinds of writing should exist? What are these certain things that should be done in the service of a literature which is apparently doing just fine--even though, as Gessen points out, you can't expect to make more than $20,000 a year as a writer in America (and by extension, the world?)

There are two groups in this country who buy "high literature" in overwhelming numbers. There's the academic elite and there's the cultural elite. Both of these groups have some money, sure. They get by, and they spend some of their money at the bookstore. But there are other people in the world besides hipsters and professors. They spend their money at the bookstore, too. They spend it on science fiction, mystery novels, and Da Vinci offshoots. They do this because they believe that high literature is not for them. And if Gessen and his approach are any indication, they're right. Only certain kinds of literature should exist: the n+1 kind of literature.


Here's the problem with literature today. (It's not Dave Eggers.) How do you, personally, find out about a new book? You get recommendations. You read the New York Times and the New Yorker. You check your favorite blogs now and again. Now how do you, personally, find out about a new movie or video game? You walk down any street in America. You open any newspaper. You listen to the people around you talking about the art that really matters to them.

I'm sure that the publishing industry is harder up than it used to be. But I'm also sure that there's money in the publishing industry that could be going to the mass market promotion of new high literary fiction. That money is not going to the mass market promotion of new high literary fiction. I have no idea where that money is going. Whoever controls that money has decided that the mass market is not the place to promote high literary fiction.

Yet there's demonstrably a mass market audience for the stuff. "No Country For Old Men", the movie, wins the Best Picture award and suddenly the M-R shelf at the bookstore where I work is stuffed with people looking for the Cormac McCarthy novel. They finish reading it, and then they come back looking for "Blood Meridian", because word on the street is that the goods are there. (Which they are.) Then they come back looking for "Suttree", for "The Orchard Keeper", for "Outer Dark." "I've read 'The Road', said one woman. "I'm looking for the older stuff. The better stuff."

By accident, film levels of money were put into promoting books. And people bought those books, and money flowed back into the publishing world. And there it stayed, I guess. I imagine it in giant burlap dollar-sign sacks, stuffed into the cupboard under the sink in John Updike's office.

That's the problem with the publishing industry. That's why the literary men are so sad these days. And that's exactly what Keith Gessen is doing nothing about. His critical ambitions and his literary ambitions work within a system that's completely corrupt.

What's more: they flatter that system. They tell that system that it deserves better than Dave Eggers.

What's still more: their explicit goal is to make that system still more exclusive, closed-off, and insular. The effect of that explicit goal is to give books a narrower audience and to give the publishing industry less money. And the effect of that is to ensure that fewer books are published and that fewer writers are able to survive by writing.

N+1, Gessen's literary journal, has been described as "unabashedly highbrow." Why should anyone be abashed about being highbrow, really? Being abashed implies some kind of social discomfort. It implies that what you're doing has offended someone, excluded someone. N+1 still includes our old favorites, of course: academics and the idle, rich, and/or young. It excludes everyone else.

Money flows. Exclusionary politics are the dams that stop it from flowing. The literary establishment has put into place a system of dams that stops money from flowing back into the hands of publishers, bookstore owners, and writers. I don't know why. But Keith Gessen is not doing anything to remove those dams. If anything, he's working through his critical position to shore them up.

This is why it doesn't really make sense to talk about Keith Gessen in the way people are now talking about him, or the way he's talking about himself. Being a writer means accepting poverty, he says from his Park Slope digs. The young idle rich of Williamsburg are a restrictive social class, he says as he takes their money. He mines their lives for material, and keeps it in the family all at the same time.

Accepting poverty is one thing. Actively working to maintain a system where writers are impoverished is another thing. And as loathsome as The Believer usually is, it still provides paychecks to people who wouldn't otherwise get them. It still lets money circulate, and it still gets people into bookstores. Gessen insults the Eggers audience, then steals it for himself, then shuts the door on everyone else, then pats himself on the back for it.

It is probably not a good idea to make myths about this guy. He's not a young gunman riding in to town to clean things up and he's not Jesus knocking over tables. He's not the hero on his journey. He's not performing a "necessary, Oedipal clearing out of the undergrowth," as James Wood says. Gessen is watering that undergrowth. He's making literature safe for the elite again, undoing whatever work Eggers, Safran Foer, and that ignoble crew have done toward generating mass interest in literature.

Their work is bad, yes. It is bad in the sense that it is neither interesting nor true. But it isn't bad in the sense that it should be wiped from existence. The n+1 reactionary push--the push toward a more restrictive definition of what good writing can be, a leap away from appealing to the marketplace--is worse than all the Dave Eggerses in the world.


It's not nice to talk about money when we talk about literature. There's an idea floating around that truth and commerce don't mix. Sure, high literature authors would like to be well paid for their work. It's hard to imagine someone turning down thousands or millions of dollars in exchange for hard labor that they plainly love. But money should never determine the content of literature. Truth should never be sacrificed to commerce.

Sure, okay. But to frame the conclusion in that way--to assume that commerce demands such sacrifices, that truth doesn't have any market value--means that you're making an assumption. You're assuming that the public at large can't bear truth in literature.

According to this assumption, the real moneymakers in literature at present--Harry Potter, the sci-fi and mystery industries, romance novels and DaVinci bullshit--all make their money by feeding off of people's desires to escape from reality. Serious literature, they argue, reflects reality. Serious literature makes people uncomfortable and itchy and it takes you years of special expensive training at colleges around the world, or at least a subscription to the twice-yearly n+1, in order to appreciate it.

To make this assumption is to also assume that a large measure of the reading public is stupid. To make this assumption is to also assume that a large measure of the reading public can't deal with profundity or with reality. This assumption is not a good assumption to make.

Consider Hemingway. Hemingway was furious with Scott Fitzgerald for his practice of deliberately revising his stories to make them stupider and more palatable. Yes, screams the sad young literary man. Yes, hold up the mirror, whether it's commercial or not.

But Hemingway was commercial. Hemingway's prose isn't difficult by any means; his stories aren't difficult by any means. Hemingway didn't sacrifice any truth to commerce, and he appealed to anyone who was willing to pick up one of his books in the first place. He gave the people what they wanted, and what they wanted, funnily enough, was truth.

Hemingway told the truth and made us like it. Shakespeare told the truth and made us like it. Dickens told the truth and made us like it. They all received money and fame for what they did. These aren't gods. These are literary men, and not by any means sad ones. What they did, we can do.

And what they did, they could do because there was a thriving publishing industry. They could afford to live writing bad books while they learned to write great ones. But because the publishing industry has decided to circle its wagons, to cut advertising budgets, and to spend what advertising dollars it does have on preaching to the choir, the job of at once elevating and democratizing literature is now much harder, and the pool of young literary talent is shrinking year after year. Except, of course, for MFA programs, which provide writers who teach with income they can't otherwise get.

This is where hope for literature lies. It isn't about accepting poverty, even if you're not poor. It's about rejecting poverty as an ideal or as a romantic fate. It's about considering readers outside of Williamsburg, about moving toward stories that people want to read. It's about finding the truth, and then it's about telling the truth to the world--not two streets in Brooklyn, a few contemporary lit departments, and a legion of book reviewers in need of quick freelance checks. It's about opening the industry up and letting the money move through it so that book reviewers don't need those freelance checks quite so badly. It's about rebuilding a popular fiction market, the same popular fiction market that let Hemingway be Hemingway and Salinger be Salinger. It's not about starting a magazine like n+1 with an explicitly polemical editorial policy like n+1's, as explained by Gessen in the Inquirer interview:

But the point for us is we're much more focused on the idea of a story's or essay's necessityâ€"is it necessary, does it explain our situation, some part of our situation? If so, then we'll edit it until it's good. Otherwise, it doesn't matter how good it is. [1]

If rebuilding a fiction market means accepting Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer, then by God it means accepting Dave Eggers and Jonathan Safran Foer. Better to accept Keith Gessen, for that matter, if he puts asses in seats. Better "How We Are Hungry" than starvation or extinction.

This isn't a pipe dream. More money could be spent, today, on promoting books. More critical writing could attempt to address itself, today, to a wide audience. These jobs are not being done. And to mythologize someone like Keith Gessen--to promote the idea that this guy is the revolution we need, that this guy is young blood rather than a 33 year old man with a book, a literary magazine, and an ideal audience to insult--is to put off these jobs for tomorrow, or forever.


While I was writing this, n+1 posted a new piece of unsigned cover-your-ass fun. It's nice to know that no one is worried about his reputation or anything, or that no one feels embarrassed about comparing himself to the moon:

At this point a basic inversion takes place. Never mind the moon; look at the finger pointing at the moon. Is it pointing too high, or too low? It makes you want to turn away from that overhyped satellite altogether.

But yes, yes, I know: this article isn't really complete without a review of Gessen's book. And I'd like to include a review of Gessen's book here, but I can't afford to buy it. Sorry, Keith, but there's no money in writing about you in this neck of the woods. As soon as I can get my hands on a good used copy for about five bucks maybe I'll give it a whirl and let you know the results. Or what about this: if anyone out there has a copy of Gessen's book that they've used up, please drop me a line, send it on. That way I can sell it for a slice of pizza if it comes to that.

[1] N+1's submissions page does not even mention payment of writers. It does not even apologize for not paying writers for their work. According to, n+1 "does not pay in real-world money for short fiction." This is not a pot and kettle situation: the amount of "investment capital" in is at present something like $50 for domain name and site hosting, and the amount of money earned by is at present something like $2.50 in advertising revenues and about $50 in tips and door fees from our live shows, divided between four people and spent on food. That said, we still intend to pay our writers as soon as it's remotely feasible, and we work to promote the site in order to pay our writers and bring their work to as many people as we can. That is what you do when someone has done good work for you: you pay them. According to the profile, n+1 was started on four equal shares of $2,000 each. Outside of printing costs to ensure that everyone knows this is a legitimate magazine, not one of these wicked Internet lit-blogs, I don't know where that money went. Why pay writers if it's not expected anymore? If it ain't broke, why fix it?

Posted by future on Mon, 28 Apr 2008 21:03:01 -0400 -- permanent link

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