Saturday, June 13, 2015

Trends, Book Sales and Literary Aesthetics

I am re-reading Silences by Tillie Olsen.  There is a section where she describes Thomas Hardy shutting down creatively after the vitriol that followed the publications of Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure.  In the 1890’s, books were often broken into sections and published in magazines or journals as serials, similar to the concept of television series today.  Readers read the book, say, three or five chapters at a time then had to wait for the next issue of the journal to continue reading the story.  If the serialized publication was well received, the story would likely be released in book form. 

Using quotes from The Life of Thomas Hardy, which includes Hardy’s writings in notebooks and letters, Olsen recounts this situation: The editor of The Graphic (the newspaper where Tess was serialized in 1891) was worried that readers would take offense to a flood scene.  In the original scene, Hardy wrote that Angel Clare (a male character) carries “Tess and her three dairymaid companions” in his arms across the flooded lane.  The editor “suggested that it would be more decorous and suitable for…a periodical intended for family reading if the damsels were wheeled across the land in a wheelbarrow.”

That is the level of censorship Hardy and other writers of the 19th century had to endure.  Men and women were not supposed to touch in the Victorian Era unless they were married or related and even then they weren’t supposed to touch in public.  Imagine the response Hardy received when Alec rapes Tess, and Tess delivers Alec’s child!  But this is what blows my mind even more: The Graphic seemed to be one of the progressive newspapers of the day.  Between 1889 and 1890, Hardy sent Tess to Murray’s Magazine, which rejected the novel “on the score of its improper explicitness.”

This helps me put present-day publication processes in perspective.  Censorship of one kind or another is inherent to publication.  In 1891, censorship took the form of strict moral, gender and racial codes in Britain and the U.S. (and any country for that fact).  Not only were there restrictions placed on male/female interactions in art, people of color had no literary voice.  By the 1890’s, U.S. slavery had ended (i.e., in the de jure sense), thus there was no longer a market for slave or free-negro narratives.  Whereas W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington were publishing much-needed texts on racial/social reform during that time, there weren’t any books of fiction (as far as I have researched) published by black people or people of color who were open about their race.  Most Harlem Renaissance luminaries were infants in the 1890’s or not yet born, e.g., Claude McKay was born in 1889, Zora Neal Hurston in 1891, Langston Hughes in 1901.  They wouldn’t have the opportunity to get their work out into the world until the 1920’s although McKay released poetry collections in 1912.

Today’s western publishing world is obstructed less by censorship and more by gatekeeping, which takes the form of trends, book sales and editor/publisher’s literary aesthetics.  Sex is and has always been trendy even if only in suggestive form.  This is in part because the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction.  We’re making up for centuries of sexual repression.  Vampires, speculative fiction, female murders/heroines/submissives are also trendy in the U.S. now.  Trends translate into book sales, and for mainstream editors and publishers, it’s all about book sales. 

Literary editors and publishers are more interested in craft and narrative, but they succumb to trends as well.  White-lit is, always has been and always will be, trending; whereas, people of color who write in any genre are usually considered trendy by a small sub-group.  For example, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, racial identity/empowerment writers were trendy.  Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Maxine Hong Kingston, Gabriel García Márquez, and Ntozake Shange all had books out.  Some writers who hit the scene in the 1970’s continued to produce in the 1980’s, e.g., Davis, Lorde, Sandra Cisneros, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison.  In the 1990’s, African-American writers were covering so many themes that they weren’t just a trendy sub-group—they established somewhat of a cross-over niche.  Walker and Morrison were not only literary, they were also mainstream.  Terry McMillian no longer appealed to black women alone, white women were loving her too.  Eric Jerome Dickey had straight readers and gay readers; he crossed racial lines as well.  

Today editors and publishers are looking for trendy sub-group writers who have cross-over appeal.  The sentiment seems to be: The wider the readership, the higher the book sales and profits.  Ethnic-lit (i.e., books by writers who have immigrated to the U.S. or whose parents immigrated to the U.S.) is a perfect example of this, e.g., Americanah, The Book of Unknown Americans, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, etc.  The white- and black-American experiences don’t adequately address the breadth of immigrant/first-gen experiences, yet people from different nationalities read these books.

Regardless of trends and publication gatekeeping, writers, i.e., writers who are and aspire to be artists, have an obligation.  As Junot Díaz said, “Artists are fundamentally attracted to the things that no one is trying to deal with.  That’s what art’s nature is… it immediately goes for an absence.”

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