Behind the Scenes
I. Fontana on Publicity
[This is a comment–regarding some recent posts here–that I. Fontana posted and also sent out to me & Ken, and we thought it was worth presenting on the main page for those who missed it. I. Fontana knows whereof he speaks, and he’s one of my favorite “new” writers out there. Love his short stories, which I’ve linked on HTMLGIANT before, and I know he’s got some other stuff in the works that I’m very, very excited to see published. –N.A.
Nick says it: I. Fontana says it. Presented with no further ado: –K.B.]
Superagent Nat Sobel said in an interview last summer that he chooses at most one in 500 unsolicited manuscripts to represent in a given year. Grove/Atlantic, HarperCollins etcetera — all the major New York publishing houses, in other words — explicitly announce that they will not read any manuscript which does not come from an established agent.
In the early 19th century, literature (and in particular the novel) evolved into a popular art form generally serialized each week in newspapers, which meant that in order to keep the particular novel being read, there had to be narrative pull, even cliffhangers — in general, plot. But this meant that the socalled “unwashed masses” now were exposed to such writing, so that writers no longer had to hang around court or otherwise suck up to aristocrats, publishing their books by subscriptions to the wealthy (which constriction obviously required that the wealthy find such books pleasing). Democracy means including the lowest common denominator as well as the connoisseur.
Nowadays, in order to expose one’s work to the masses, to reach the largest audience, one has to go through a New York publisher. They know how to do it, they have publicity departments and pre-existing connections to the bookstores — though even all of this is by no means a guarantee of significant sales.
Some small presses are finally beginning to become a viable secondary alternative, and it’s possible access to these is strictly meritocratic rather than often based on recomendations from oh, the Head of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Iowa or some lesser light. The most sensible or realistic route for the aspiring young author is now to get an MFA and pay to attend the Summer Writing Workshop at Cannon Beach run by Tin House — less perhaps (perhaps?) to develop one’s writing skills than to cultivate connections.
How far is this from sucking up to the son of the Earl of Pembroke in days past? Certainly if you took Gordon Lish’s cultlike writing workshops for $10,000 in the 1980s and 90s you had a much better shot at getting an agent and/or a contract for a book at Knopf than if you were Josephine Blow working at a cannery in Juneau, Alaska.
On from the MFA to the Ph.d, a teaching job and tenure. Yawn. This sort of life has produced so much real world experience and hard-earned wisdom it’s taken the world by storm. Or not. Oh, wait. Feminism and increased visibility of gays — and multiculturalism produced a new demand you could fit if you could please the emerging demographic. There are a lot of new-style courts and court-artists.
And this has been pretty much entirely good, don’t get me wrong. When Norman Mailer in 1958 in his essay surveying “the talent in the room” and explicitly stated that there were no women writers worthy of consideration… well, he left out, at a minimum Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor, and O’Connor’s novel “Wise Blood” is a far better novel than Mailer ever managed his entire over-publicized, vastly overrated career. (If you want to bring up “The Executioner’s Song” then answer this: How much of that was Lawrence Schiller? How come Mailer, so proud of his overwrought purple metaphors, never wrote anything remotely similar stylistically to such lean prose again?)
OK. Bringing in Norman Mailer brings us directly to the realm of publicity and thus to Tao Lin. In the old days (the 60s into the 70s, more or less) authors of well-regarded novels appeared on Johnny Carson (forerunner of Letterman and Leno) — though sure, I imagine this depended somewhat on their gift for repartee and ability to generate some “cult of personality” in fifteen minutes or less. There also existed more extended formats… Dick Cavett and William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line.” I’m testifying from hearsay at this point.
Who were the most publicized writers of those days? Mailer, Truman Capote and Gore Vidal. Philip Roth(Thomas Pynchon, the most written about in critical circles, maintained his “cult of invisibility” — a novelty at the time. But I have the idle suspicion he died in 1973, after the publication of “Gravity’s Rainbow,” and the ‘Pynchon’ product-line since has been agent-generated and ghost-written.)
Tama Janowitz received enormous attention in the late 1980s. She had worked her way into Andy Warhol’s circle and her mother was an editor at a major house to boot. Who since? Martin Amis gets on TV once in a while, doesn’t he? Who else? We’re dependent on the major review-organs to hear that some new book has a “buzz.” And these places have much closer relationships with the New York publishing houses than is generally known or understood. Sonny Mehta under truth-serum could tell us a great deal.
None of Tao Lin’s four books has been reviewed by the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, the New Yorker or the New York Review of Books . He is published by a small press. He doesn’t teach writing workshops or have tenure anywhere. His dad isn’t a rector at Stanford (I think that was David Leavitt) and his godfather wasn’t Morgan Entrekin the head of Grove/Atlantic like Nick McDonell who got a novel out there with bigtime publicity at the age of seventeen. Tao isn’t Joe McGinness Jr or (John’s son) David Updike, nor Mona Simpson who got a gig at the Paris Review when she was twenty-four. Let’s not even get near the family connections of Susan Minot. He’s not Mary Gaitskill who got Greil Marcus to call her the best writer of her generation or something in Bookforum which she repaid (in Bookforum, possibly in less than a year) by reviewing Greil in turn and graciously anointing him the conscience of aging Boomers married to an heiress everywhere or some such shit.
Hey, this is the way the world works. Most of those writers have had their moments, though I think it’s safe to say they’ve been edited up the wazoo. How much did Joe McGinness Sr reshape and otherwise assist Bret Easton Ellis? Anyone seen the original manuscript of “American Psycho” lately? But who cares. I like most of Bret Ellis’ work. All I care about is what ends up on the page.
The question is how our attention is ever drawn to these pages, and how unlevel the playing field may be. When Proust was first published, he fully expected to pay for positive reviews. Tao Lin, published by a small press, ignored by the big time reviewers, wanted his books to be noticed, so that they would reasonably sell and be read. There’s only so much you can do by doing readings, as those who attend are a limited, incestuous demographic.
Tao has with great invention and wit thought up all kinds of ways to get himself and his books some attention. The obvious model is Andy Warhol, down to the attempt to characterize the books as in effect “money art” (Warhol’s term) and to extend his persona into other fields (Tao’s hamster-drawings and so forth). It’s all a joke, but it’s deadpan, and the MFA strivers seeking to be the eight-thousandth next Raymond Carver or Amy Hempel — or maybe they’ve done a tour in the Peace Corps, trying to achieve at least some pastiche of the Hemingway-style “cult of experience” — hey, William Vollmann does this shit, and Denis Johnson did before writing his college-professor-has-affair-with-tattooed-stripper novel, a fantasy explored (snore) by no less than Robert Stone — hey, literature is supposed to change the world, it’s supposed to tell you all the shit you already know, like war is bad and evangelicals are uncool and there’s homophobia everywhere even if you never leave your college campus –
No, Tao Lin in what seems a totally serious, deadpan manner trying to sell shares in his career — that’s just not funny at all. Worse yet, it’s gets him noticed. He even sells fucking t-shirts of himself on Hipster Runoff, the website you have to penetrate about fourteen levels of in-jokes to even be sure we’re all speaking English.
Edgar Allan Poe’s literary criticism of the 1830s is instructive in that he railed against trends in the response to literature that are still with us now. The New England literary salons which ran things then thought art had to be “uplifting” in order to be worth wasting time on. It ought to “improve” you. We sure still see this attitude today. Let’s expose injustice. Yeah, then we’ll feel good about ourselves. We’re virtuous, and now this has been reified. Any sneaking suspicion we might be a scumbag, or an asshole — hey, we’re writing our master’s thesis on “Beloved.” Maybe we don’t tip the waitress, but they factor the service charge in when you’re in France.
Chuck Palahniuk works real hard on fostering a cult of personality at his readings. So does T.C. Boyle. This is what the big publishers want these days. Personally I don’t like to be read to. Neither did, for one, Paul Bowles. He said he could never remember a word.
Tao’s doing this, and he achieves some originality even here. Reciting the same sentence about eating whale for seven minutes straight offends some who want to be “improved.” The same motherfuckers would have gone to a reading by John Cage and listened to him recite words out of the dictionary for half an hour while somehow sitting still. But that’s High Art. He made choices according the I Ching. Whereas you know Tao Lin is just fucking with you.
When he asks for people to send him money via eBay or any other venue he can think of, I just see it as a joke. It’s a better joke if someone actually sends some money in. Pornstars (female) sell their dirty panties to “true fans” all the time. Showbiz is image. Showbiz is illusion. Tao Lin’s writing does its job. It amuses and there all kinds of hinted and half-perceived real moments of intelligence as real as anything that was ever in Jay McInerney’s one decent book or the entire oeuvre of Bret Easton Ellis. He’s funnier than the writer he professes to admire, Lorrie Moore (who tries too hard).
He’s only twenty-seven years old.