American literary culture appears to be in worse jeopardy than ever. For years, Cassandras have been bemoaning that multinationals have taken over publishing. Myopically focused on the bottom line, they have squandered mega-advances on the likes of the Danielle Steels and the John Grishams, allowing precious few books of literary merit to rise to the surface. That's old news.
What's new and of greater cause for alarm is the sad fate of the few works of literary fiction that had been finding publishers. Where the big publishers had been setting aside a portion of their lists for the serious books, the prestige titles, they have been increasingly using those slots for books that are not books at all. My favorite example is called "The Big Show: Inside ESPN's Sports Center," by Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick (Pocket Books, $23, 308 pages), a compendium of one-liners, diary notes, anecdotes and blurbs.
For those who prefer to read in the evening, and are not acquainted with these gentlemen, Olbermann and his straight man Patrick host a sports program on ESPN weeknights at 11 p.m.; they read the scores, emit strange sounds ("Ggggggghl!"), make sarcastic comments and have a good time. In fact, Olbermann is so hilarious that he may be television's funniest comedian (advertisers taking note have put him to work on a food commercial too: "EAT something!" he orders two skinny Calvin Klein-clad Generation Xers).
NEXXXXXXT! Olbermann opens the show joyously as if he were on a big-city playground waiting to enter a game. Behind one more clip of Roberto Alomar spitting on Ump John Hirschbeck, Olbermann remarks, "We've all seen it more than the Zapruder film!" Another favorite is "we're ALL day to day!" a response to the press release cliche about a player's health.
But a Book! And what did this handsome, well-illustrated volume replace? How many proposals pondering the issues of our day were tossed aside in favor of this strange hybrid? Still, I couldn't help but search the opening "chapter," "A Sort Of Glossary of Terms" for my favorite Olbermann exclamation, "Ali Ali Oxen Free!" Alas, it wasn't there.
The literary pundits of course would never take notice of "The Big Show," which, like the Dennis Rodman volumes (all have very big type), are for sports fans who need a fix between games. What, then, should be said of books hyped as literature that are in fact so ill-written that an earnest high school nerd could have done better? I'm referring, of course, to "The Kiss" by Kathryn Harrison (Random House, 207 pages, $20), the incest story without incest, the memoir that followed her less than-successful novel "Thicker Than Water" on the same subject.
It was New York magazine with a cover story titled "How To Make A Best Seller: The Inside Story of One Publishing House's Attempt To Turn A Literary Novelist into A Marketplace Superstar" (Feb. 10) that sounded the warning.
Corpses, beauty, culture
The central anecdote of the piece exposes how violence and sex and an author deemed hypeable (they come in two basic varieties -- blond, pale, white and male or black-haired ethnic, boots and chains, determine whether a publisher will get behind a book.
When the relatively unknown Bradford Morrow revealed to an editor in passing that "the corpse of a friend's friend had been found in the woods with its foot cut off," she knew. She shouted: "That's your next book!"
"Apparently this author is stunningly attractive," an editor remarks of a Korean-American, 28-year-old author, as quoted in New York. "She also knows how to write." The cultural identity of the author matters far more than what's inside the book. As Tom Engelhardt wrote in an article in the Nation published in March: "The message lurking behind the 'synergy' is that books are an embarrassement, that what matters lies outside their covers."
The assumption is that the purchasers (the sucker born every minute?) won't bother to read it anyway. Marketeers wanted to know whether Paul Auster was still doing Gap ads before they measured his next advance. Marketing people insist that woman characters must be "fundamental to" a book's "meaning and final outcome" since women are the big buyers.
What's changed? It's not only the sleazy writers working according to formula of whom these demands are being made. It's significant literary figures like Auster. It's everyone.
"The Kiss" proves Engelhardt's point. Although there was plenty of hype, originating in Vanity Fair, there is precious little text, as if indeed all the energy had gone into the marketing. The writing is dull and pedestrian, borrowed, it seems, from those titillating romance magazines I read secretly as a pre-teen: "my father takes my face in his hands. He tips it up and kisses my closed eyes." We are told that "his look is one that ravishes." Only here the sex never happens, which leads to the conclusion that it never did happen.