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Book News: The Gatekeepers!

By (January 11, 2015) No Comment

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One piece of the day’s book-news comes, unfortunately, in the form of a windy, tweedy, leather elbow-patched throat-clearing in Slate by former Random House poo-bah Daniel Menaker, who’s upset – in his phlegmatic way – about the upshot of the much-publicized contest between Amazon and Hachette and Amazon’s unseemly desire “to have a say in curating literary culture” … and by extension, the desire of anybody to have a say in curating literary culture – anybody, that is, other than the traditional curators, the “gatekeepers” of the Slate piece’s title. Buried under paragraphs of hem-hemming, Menaker wants to make the case that those tried-and-true gatekeepers, the stalwarts of the traditional publishing houses, are the ones who should have the job. Menaker himself was one of those stalwarts for many years, and he strikes an anthem-style tone:

Right now, the principal intermediaries between writers and readers continue to be publishing companies, large and small. They make their choices, pay more or less for them (usually less), more or less support them (usually less), hope that they have good bets and good luck in the casino that is publishing. In my judgment, there are between 20 and 30 editors and publishers in New York who – along with experienced and discriminating publicists, marketers, and sales reps – have over the decades regularly and successfully combined art and commerce and, in the process, have supported and promulgated art. They are in fact the main curators of our life of letters. They have somehow survived the grinding – tectonic – friction between creativity and business and made a go of both. They are cultural heroes, actually.

Rich, pungent stuff, as all bullshit is. I’ve known as many of these knights errant as Menaker has, and he does their ranks a considerable favor by thinning out all the alcoholics, all the crowd-followers, all the middlebrow functional illiterates, and all the outright morons. If Menaker is right, those 20 or 30 Justice League members have far more to answer for than to brag about, as even a glance at American publishing over the last couple of decades amply demonstrates. Despite their unsung efforts – or because of them – our life of letters has been so systematically dumbed down and commercialized that the bestseller lists look like childrens’ parodies of their counterparts from, say, the early 1970s and the midlist author as a species has all but vanished from mainstream publishing. You can get a pretty clear impression of the almost-sickening combination of craven fad-following and clubbish exclusivity Menaker is defending by forcing yourself to read this choice bit of insufferability:

Publishers are of course always looking for something new, different, better. Like the record producers of the ’50s and ’60s – Ahmet, Ertegun, John Hammond, Jerry Wexler – they want nothing more than to find the next extremely important or highly profitable artist. If they’re one and the same, even better. Someone new, without the disappointing sales baggage that most authors have to lug around. The one in a hundred or more likely thousand who will go on to have a long and important run as a writer of books. Elmore, Zadie, Alice, J.M.

Not sure what Elmore or Zadie or Alice or J. M. – to say nothing of Phil, John, the other John, or Normie – would make of a ponce who unselfconsciously refers to himself as an “analysand,” but they’d surely spot that telling, damning contradiction over which Menaker blithely sails (since he’s too busy hitting that “new” over and over): if your cultural heroes aren’t taking the phone calls of any authors who are lugging around the “baggage” of previous books, they’re going to be turning away the Elmores and Zadies and Alices you could otherwise smugly name-drop down the line.


Since it scarcely ever happens that such a hidebound piece as this one will run its whole length without a side-swipe at the sweaty proletariat of the Internet, I waited patiently for Menaker to take his turn condescending directly to the hordes outside his gated community, and I didn’t have to wait long:

The modern, often online and anonymous, neo-Levellers who object to the “elitism” of publishing arrive at their position from the other side, the populist. They are often writers who have failed to get published by mainstream publishers, even good independent presses. Or readers who decry “snobby,” difficult books.

*Sigh* Yes, certainly, these new Levellers must be the very same talentless, straining authors who’ve been thwarted by the unsleeping vigilance of these 30 gatekeepers. Or else readers who find “snobby” books just too hard to get through (as opposed to the kind of Proustian masterpieces Menaker’s heroes have managed to park at the top of the bestseller lists – unashamedly complicated tomes like Shit My Dad Says or Fifty Shades of Grey)(whoops – but surely not those two, since they began their august literary lives as the works of grunting, anonymous online muddlers). These people can’t be gatekeepers in their own right, Menaker blandly asserts, because “they don’t have the background, wide experience, native zeal, eye for talent, editorial skill, intuition, and intermittent disregard for probable profit necessary to perform the role of literary concierge.” Kind of makes you want to throw a brick through the windows of the nearest traditional publisher, doesn’t it?

“It’s not incumbent on those who defend the publishing industry/business/art and book reviewers to justify the gatekeeping services they perform, however imperfectly,” Menaker says by way of conclusion. “It’s incumbent on those who want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves to explain what, if anything, will replace them.”

This is just a flat, fearful pronouncement, of course, not a point much less an argument. But it’s fatuous anyway; the unwashed hordes of Menaker’s nightmares don’t want to fire the gatekeepers and tear down the very gates themselves – they want to circumvent them and go more or less directly to the reading public, to take their chances in the open marketplace. The less generous among them might add that they’re not all that impressed with the job those gatekeepers have done in the last couple of decades, industriously following fads, feverishly avoiding risk, contemptuously mocking the slush-pile (and plucking things out of it basically at random, or on the basis of a rumor that something is hot right now), hatefully priding themselves on just exactly the kind of exclusive Elmore, Zadie, Alice inaccessibility Menaker so clearly admires. But the more generous among those gate-crashers are perfectly happy to let the old, manifestly faulty system keep creaking along – they don’t want to have a say in curating the literary culture, they just want to give expression to their life-long dream of writing for an audience.

I deal with more of those gate-crashers in any given week than Menaker has in his entire life. I know first-hand that they’re capable of every bit the genius and power of their carefully-curated counterparts. And I know – as Menaker bloody well should – that even whole armies of those curators and concierges have never stopped gluts of garbage from swamping that literary culture.

So it’s entirely possible we’re talking about a mostly-useless occupation finally getting a little bright sunlight shed on it. And maybe the general readers out there, just like the pampered residents of Upper West Side apartment buildings, don’t need their concierges quite as badly as their concierges need them. If the fruits of MY labors were the collected works of John Grisham, James Baldacci, and James Patterson, I probably wouldn’t preen in Slate.