The Strange Case of the Reader and the Invisible Hand

By Freely, Maureen | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Strange Case of the Reader and the Invisible Hand


Freely, Maureen, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


They may have set their sights too high, these two. But they have plenty of company. The Mediterranean village in which they are trying to live as cheaply as possible is packed with young writers who share their low opinion of conventional, commercial fiction, who dream of writing something some day that might stand alongside Beckett and Borges, Barth and Burroughs, and who joke, just a little nervously, that there's not much room left on that bookshelf, that all the best experiments have been done already, that if they wrote an entire novel in the shape of a gyre while standing on their head, they still wouldn't get much notice.

And almost every day there comes news of a new defection: X, who set out to be fiction's answer to Wittgenstein, has written a book with a plot. The thriller that Y wrote just to buy another year of freedom has sold to the movies, and so he's decided, what the hell? Why not buy a second year of freedom while the going's good? And so it goes, until summer turns to autumn and the cafes empty out, except for our two shivering aesthetes, who are more determined than ever that they will never, ever sell out.

They buy a charcoal brazier and struggle on through the winter, typing as fast as their half-frozen hands will allow. When spring is almost but not quite in the air, they run out of money, so they go to work for one of the village's wealthier expatriate artists, caring for his children and building his walls. Returning to their unheated cottage at dusk, they find themselves too exhausted to work. So they cut just one corner. They send off their works-in-progress, hoping that their editors will see enough in them to make a reasonable offer.

Their editors couldn't be more different from each other in personality and taste. But their responses are identical: 'we regret to tell you that there's no market for plotless prose, no matter how arresting its wordplay. The sad fact is that today's readers just won't stand for it. But, if, on the other hand ...'

Worn down by their wealthy employers' walls and wailing children, our two shivering aesthetes decamp to the care to discuss that other hand.

You might have no patience for this precious pair. You might even say that they are best denuded of their arrogant illusions, that they should trying living in the real world for a while, if they hope ever to write anything worthwhile. You might add that even Hemingway had to do the real world thing, and that it was by doing battle with it that he found his voice. But when Hemingway sat drinking with Gertrude Stein discussing roses that were roses, when Robert Graves and Laura Riding stuck a pin in a map and discovered Deia, when Paul Bowles packed his bags for Morocco, and Cortazar headed for Paris, they, too, were preoccupied by money. They depended to a very large degree on wise friends with good taste and great fortunes. They also had editors who could afford to wait for the breakthrough book that could be ten years in the making. And they could count on an equally stable fraternity of reviewers, and on bookstores that were not chains. Not every author sold millions, but then again, not every author particularly wanted to. It was still an honourable thing to write fiction for a small and discriminating audience, and an aspiring writer could still make a small amount of money go a long way on a Mediterranean island, if she was better at budgeting than I was.

That was how things were in the mid 1970s, when I first began to write. Four decades on, the invisible hand of the free market has changed the game utterly. The global players that have swallowed up most of the grand old publishing firms must answer to their shareholders, who expect the same returns from books as they do from shoes. No one can wait ten years for a breakthrough book. Even in the small houses, founded for no other reason than to buck the trend, no one can afford not to listen to the sales and marketing departments, without whose blessing no book can go out into the world. …

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