publishing and Toni Morrison

brief notes

This week, in Book Post’s characteristically outstanding update on the state of publishing, editor Ann Kjellberg describes a climate in which “proprietary research mechanisms” are

freezing out medium-sized publishers and diversity in what gets published: “As publishing becomes even more of a winner-take-all business,” it has, like Hollywood, “become increasingly reliant on blockbusters.”

Of course, consumers have lately been taught to associate “diversity” with Marvel movies, the platonic ideal of Blockbusterdom. In other words, from even the most casual engagement with mainstream culture, most of us have eagerly ingested a core component of neoliberal ideology: the promise that capitalism and meaningful diversity are inherently—even thrillingly—compatible. But Kjellberg’s report on the book business, with that spot-on comparison to Hollywood, reminds us there’s a kind of cultural diversity that market power tends to delimit, even quash.

Note, for example, the overall lack of detailed economic critique in this year’s bestselling (and sometimes notorious) nonfiction titles marketed as antiracist. Some of the memoirs, especially, are as brilliant as the buzz suggests, but few if any of the blockbusters can be said to participate rigorously in the tradition of Black Marxism, except in a broad sense. That’s not a criticism of the genre, but an observation about what kinds of books do and do not look like dollar signs to publishers.

In this current phase of history, at least, bestsellers and blockbusters shape who we are. Although it’s possible, to quote some graffiti I once saw near Penn Station, that “in the future everyone will be anonymous,” and although I often fantasize about a culture no longer obsessed with branding and celebrity, big-name works still wield enormous social power, often in direct proportion to the fame of the people behind them. Cultivating diversity among the creators of those mainstream works is crucial. But that diversity is qualified; its limits are mostly determined by skittish, reactionary industries that are existentially vexed and constitutionally allergic to certain kinds of aesthetics, ideologies and voices—especially those that challenge the economic foundations of capitalism.

And yet: a broadening interest in Angela Davis and a viral proliferation of good reading lists over the past year or so speak to the popular appetite for more ideologically challenging content.

A diversity that embraces radical voices is fundamental to the cultural ecosystem (I would even say, to collective survival), but difficult to achieve. I’m thinking about Toni Morrison’s career in publishing, briefly described in her introduction to this edition of Beloved. Although Morrison nurtured a powerhouse roster of authors, her work was not exempt from the impact of frustrating market forces:

[W]hen there was a book that I thought needed doing, I found an author to write it. My enthusiasm, shared by some, was muted by others, reflecting the indifferent sales figures. I may be wrong about this, but even in the late seventies, acquiring authors who were certain sellers outranked editing manuscripts or supporting emerging or aging authors through their careers.

In promoting authors like Davis, Huey P. Newton and Toni Cade Bambara, Morrison inarguably triumphed over the machine she and her more likeminded colleagues at Random House were contending with. But Morrison was a once-in-a-generation, virtuosic Renaissance woman! Though she might have had her literary peers, which among them could boast an editing career as historically consequential as their books?

Artists can’t always rely on the singular visionary to come along and challenge the economic order for them. Saviorism is a losing strategy in the long term, as evidenced by the current status quo. Industries like publishing are more fear-addled and risk-averse than ever. Recent technologies and market trends have only exacerbated a values system that prioritizes profits over literary and cultural imperatives.

We need to experiment with laying new economic and institutional foundations for our industries, supplanting the old anti-ethics of competition, hierarchy and scarcity with principles of wholeness, nourishment, possibility—even abundance.

I’m talking about implementing these values materially, in budgets and infrastructure. But just meditating on one or two of them before the next meeting could make for a fine start. You might find yourself making bolder moves than usual.

The idea of abundance is most needed where it seems the least possible.