Reading in the Conglomerate Era: Or, Do Small Presses Even Exist?
By Hilary PlumOctober 24, 2023
Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature by Dan Sinykin
All the Pretty Horses was also McCarthy’s most accessible, easiest-to-read novel to date, Sinykin notes, so it was much better suited for a big mainstream release. This chicken/egg phenomenon is the slippery subject of Sinykin’s book, which seeks to foreground the constitutive role of conglomerate book publishing in American fiction, over that of the individual author. “To read a book through its colophon is to read it anew,” Sinykin claims. Did McCarthy become newly successful because he signed with a highly commercial conglomerate press and “helped his new minders by writing a much more marketable book than he had before”? Or did McCarthy move away from his earlier style amid some amorphous mix of cultural, aesthetic, and personal reasons, and thus happen to deliver a more accessible manuscript at the right moment, after his old editor had retired and he was necessarily working with a new team? The former is, resoundingly, Sinykin’s argument.
Readings like Sinykin’s that situate works of literature within the—economic, political, sociological—context of their publication have been too rare, and we need them. This book offers a rich, detailed background explicating the everyday reader’s experience of why books published by big commercial presses seem so much like … books big commercial presses would publish. Literature is always a collective project, and its collectivity has been too long underread, undertheorized; Sinykin is right to seek out modes of reading that don’t just focus on the author as individual. By attending to the societal context and financial structures through which books get made, he admirably aims to construct an alternative framework for reading fiction, for understanding how literature takes form within and wields power in culture. Throughout, he highlights the dynamics of the publishing industry’s sexism, racism, and classism, with an attention to detail that becomes nicely relentless. Any student of publishing would benefit from reading this book. In its pages, publishing seems fascinating and action-packed, but myths that readers might harbor about the industry’s glamor, its sincerity, or the purity of its relationship to art will probably get dispelled. Books like this deserve particular credit since they involve a lot of behind-the-scenes knowledge that is hard to get and complicated to air (after all, criticizing the book industry in public can affect one’s ability to get published). Sinykin offers an ambitious answer to the question: What is the American publishing industry like? Because this is a work of scholarship, the answer tends toward historical background rather than contemporary snapshot.
Sinykin is ultimately less convincing on the question of What is American fiction writing like?—considering “writing” both as practice and product. As befits his argument, he initially frames his discussion of fiction writing in collective terms, so that writers’ responses to the incentives of the publishing industry—for example, McCarthy’s mid-career turn to writing “crowd-pleasing literary Westerns”—aren’t simply driven by their individual choices or values, what Gen-Xers might call selling out. Rather, he claims that “conglomerate authorship operates according to the model of emergence”: “conglomerate era fiction” emerges from the workings of a collectivity of writers, editors, sales reps, executives, prize judges, chain book buyers, and others who together form “the conglomerate superorganism.” Sinykin’s thesis means to challenge the primacy of the individual author as agent in the writing of literature and the making of culture in our corporate-dominated media environment. He wants to replace the author we recognize with a collective corporate entity we need to learn how to read.
This book’s insight thus emerges from its attention to all the actors in the making of literature who are not writers. Sinykin offers vivid portraits of the publishing industry’s major players and the factors that inform their decision-making. But interestingly, the act of writing and the role of writers in this superorganism remain conceptually murkier—and this connects to other gaps in the discussion, like his neglect of small presses, which are often the publishing enterprises that writers themselves run. As a writer, Sinykin seems overly influenced by the type of fiction he’s trying to categorize and critique, which keeps him from being able to show us the collectivity he says is his subject. Chatty individualistic character sketches start each chapter and proliferate throughout (early on, a publishing executive is described as a “jowly Italian,” not the sort of phrase one reads much anymore; later, prominent industry figure Jane Friedman is evoked, cringingly, as “a Long Island girl with a Gatsby twinkle in her eye”). His syntax, trapped in the stylings of mainstream character-driven fiction, often depicts writers and readers as a chorus obsessed with publishing trends and corporate rewards and making group decisions: faced with the rise of conglomeration, “[a]uthors […] became anxious”; “Successful authors learn the rules by which they are judged”; “Around 1980, literary types were gravely anxious”; “authors, consciously or not, learn how to write what the industry will accept.” He describes writers as making much more strategic, even cynical, choices in their writing, specifically in relation to the publishing industry, than ever seems convincing to me—and, by his own argument, that’s not what he means to say writers are doing: this was meant to be an account of a “superorganism.” But absent a style that could better represent the discursive dynamics of the phenomenon he’s trying to describe, the book struggles.
Big Fiction’s argument proceeds through a series of close readings of novels, ranging from what Sinykin calls the “middlebrow”—or commercial and genre fiction (highlights include an intriguing reading of Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series)—to canonical works like Beloved (1987) and Infinite Jest (1996). Sinykin argues that all these novels may be productively read as allegories for the publishing industry: “Conglomeration led to the production of fiction that allegorized conglomeration itself.” That is, he reads the publishing industry as the—or at least a—true subject of these novels, even when it isn’t named in their pages.
These readings are interesting for how they foreground the corporate origins of the novel in your hands—helping give language to vague feelings readers may recognize, moments of sensing some underlying tautology, in which you can predict what a novel will be like from how it was published and with what kind of buzz, or notice how many Big Five books drop off in quality after the first 50-odd pages (which are the most important to getting the book published), or witness the emperor’s-new-clothes industry moments when a novel that was clearly “supposed” to be good, but which is not actually good, is dutifully received as A Good Novel (and these are my examples, not Sinykin’s—in general, his takes are probably less bitchy than mine). Yet Sinykin’s close readings are also unconvincingly totalizing, so that the novels he discusses feel unnecessarily reduced to their relationship to conglomeration; novels here seem more like closed operations producing evidence for his thesis, less like multifarious living texts, open to multiple readings. This book tends to define novels by their limits, which usually aren’t the most interesting thing about them, and by their inability to transcend those limits, which I don’t believe.
While reading this book, I kept thinking: during the decades under discussion, conglomeration was happening ravenously across industries, transforming the economy, helping empty out and impoverish cities across the country, cities where writers live. Yet this larger reality recedes from Sinykin’s analysis, and a novel’s investigation of conglomeration and corporate power is read as answering to its occurrence in publishing alone. One might argue that this makes sense if publishing is the workplace of the writer—that is, writers are representing the daily dynamics out of which their work arises—but this also isn’t the case. Some of the writers of previous generations that Sinykin discusses (e.g., Philip Roth) presumably made a living solely from their literary writing, but for decades this has been the exception rather than the rule. Writers are paid by the publishing industry, but they’re also working elsewhere (or they’re already well-off, a real phenomenon we should all talk more about).
Even among those literary fiction writers who publish successfully with the Big Five, few make a living solely from their books. Many get a significant share of income from events, so their workplace may often be made up of (repetitive, impassioned, and/or draining) conversations with bookstore audiences and students and festival attendees and organizers bringing them here and there. Many of us work in the academy, of course (as discussed in Mark McGurl’s influential 2009 book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing), though adjunctification, austerity, and the hierarchical bad vibes of higher ed are undercutting that profession. Increasingly, many literary writers are turning to screenwriting. And many simply work other jobs, stealing time for writing on the side. So, books exist in the terms that publishing shapes, yes, but writing’s origins and activities are more diverse, diffuse, mysterious—both more constrained (since most of society supports literary work less than the publishing industry does, and that includes the academy) and more possible than publishing’s limits suggest, both freer and more precarious. It’s good to consider how fiction reflects its immediate economic conditions, but those conditions are about more than conglomeration in literary media.
I’ve worked for almost two decades as an editor at small, independent, and academic presses, and I publish my own novels and books of essays and poetry with small presses. So I came to this book familiar with the dynamics and pressures of the conglomerate era, as an indie bookstore owner is familiar with the dynamics and pressures of the Amazon era. I understand why Big Five publishing wouldn’t publish my books—an understanding assisted by literary agents who declined to represent the manuscripts in question and were refreshingly straightforward about why. In other words, I spend many of my waking hours in a world that exists in counterpoint to the corporatization and commercialization of literary work that concerns Sinykin.
Strangely, this world—that of small presses—barely exists in this book. Although Big Fiction is concerned with what conglomeration hath wrought on American fiction, the American fiction that is published outside its incentives and furthest from its effects merits little mention. Sinykin’s omission of small presses is striking for how common it is—even in a book in which one might expect small presses to finally appear, they don’t—and particularly given his concerns about the dominance of the “middlebrow” over high art or the avant-garde. Small presses are usually run by writers; they’re often explicitly devoted to communities and experimentalisms excluded from big publishing—and/or just idiosyncrasy. Their smallness limits their market reach but frees them from commercial pressure. They’ve played a vital role historically: for instance, Gwendolyn Brooks left big New York publishing for the smaller Black-owned Detroit-based Broadside Press; mid-career, Audre Lorde and Barbara Smith launched a small feminist press. As Smith wrote in a 1989 essay: “As feminist and lesbian of color writers, we knew that we had no options for getting published except at the mercy or whim of others—in either commercial or alternative publishing, since both are white dominated.” Small presses often do not consider sales potential or funding needs at all when they acquire a book, distinguishing them from both corporate and the larger nonprofit publishers. Sinykin’s discussion of the issues at the center of publishing tends to keep its gaze firmly on that center. His book isn’t that curious about all the life thriving on the margins—which is found at the periphery precisely because of the issues that the core has marginalized.
In this book, as in too many discussions, small presses are cast as historical origin stories, not as an active vibrant component of literature today. Sinykin mentions, for example, the early years of Fiction Collective Two, founded in the 1970s by male writers in New York (FC2 is devoted to “artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction,” and [disclosure] they published my first novel), but he doesn’t mention that FC2 continues to publish steadily as a writers’ collective. Perhaps this is because FC2’s current authors have little mainstream name recognition—perhaps because scholars and critics don’t write about them; perhaps because there is little cultural capital to be gained by doing so, because no one else does. To write about an obscure small-press experimental novel would mean writing about something that no one else has yet deemed significant or an object worthy of attention, which to me sounds exciting but is not how things work—scholars need to gain citations and responses, to join and lead the conversation, not to be celebrating a curio. I’d argue that the limits of Sinykin’s work—what isn’t included or considered, what is invisible within or left outside his thick detailed history—arise out of the genre of scholarship. And so my critique of the limits of scholarship, as it is published today, to some degree parallels his own critique of fiction.
Discussing the dynamics of publishing means, frustratingly, dealing in counterfactuals and speculating about the consequences of exclusion, suppression, absence. For example, when I read Sinykin’s NYT essay on McCarthy, what disturbed me most was that, like Sinykin, I esteem Blood Meridian very highly, but if McCarthy’s work had never become more commercially viable later in his career, it’s unlikely I would have ever heard of that early novel. This is the key problem that writers and editors struggle with: how many shitty destructive books sell millions of copies, and how many catalyzing and radical books miss the chance to be received by the culture that needs them, needs to be challenged by them? These days, the latter books are mostly not published by the conglomerates. Conglomerate-published books overwhelmingly dominate the prizes, the critical circles, and the bookselling channels, so they sell well and are hard to overlook (although, to be fair, the recent rise of the blockbuster model means that the Big Five relegate many of even their own books to obscurity too).
This inequity in access to readership and sales between the Big Five and any smaller press is the reason many writers work with corporate publishers in the first place. Sinykin doesn’t quite take up the situation in these terms—which are writers’ terms. He wants to investigate how the conglomerate era plays out within novels, not in the larger landscape of US literature or culture. To my mind, fiction isn’t necessarily the best genre through which to consider the effects of conglomeration, which has had a profoundly marginalizing effect on poetry—the Big Five publish almost no contemporary poetry—and has commercialized and undermined the genre of nonfiction. (Relevant takes on nonfiction and the publishing industry would include the great podcast If Books Could Kill and James Pogue’s short but punchy article “They Made a Movie Out of It.”) It seems that fiction was selected because that’s where the author’s interest lies—rather than where an inquiry into conglomeration might necessarily lead—and perhaps in response to Mark McGurl’s Program Era.
Sinykin discusses the rise of nonprofits in US publishing as alternative to the conglomerates, focusing on the work of Jim Sitter and on Graywolf and Coffee House presses. (For clarity, Graywolf and Coffee House are not small presses, though they started out that way: they are now independent houses with paid full-time staff members; small presses run largely through volunteer labor, sometimes part-time or piecemeal paid work.) This binary of nonprofit versus conglomerate can be a useful lens, but it also leaves out much of publishing and how it actually works, the pathways through which writing flows and literature develops. Sinykin argues that, starting around the 1990s, nonprofits distinguished themselves from conglomerate publishing through “two keywords”: “literary and diverse,” with multiculturalism the newly relevant value that nonprofits offered their funders. He lays out the bind that writers of color face in an industry where both corporate and nonprofit publishing are white-dominated, where (as Barbara Smith expressed so efficiently) decision-making and access to readership have long been dominated by white, middle-/upper-middle-class norms and demands, in a workforce trained at a handful of “elite” East Coast schools (I attended one myself; I too am a white middle-class woman working in publishing). He presents as examples the novelists Karen Tei Yamashita and Percival Everett—published primarily by the nonprofits Coffee House and Graywolf, respectively—whose writing forcefully critiques the hypocrisies and exclusions of liberal multiculturalism, yet whose books, he argues, also serve as a “prized commodity for [the] niche markets” of their own nonprofit presses, which gain funding through their fulfillment of a liberal multicultural mission.
Sinykin is astute about the problems of this discursive trap, yet I think his writing simplifies how it plays out for the actual writers and their writing. He introduces these writers’ work by noting that, because of the ways they “resisted serving as examples of [their nonprofit publishers’] mission,” the fulfillment of that mission was “not always as the presses intended.” But, later in the discussion, it seems as though the writers and their work may be compromised by that mission, rather than undermining it from within or exploding it outward through their access to a wider readership. Of Yamashita’s 1997 novel Tropic of Orange, for example, he writes: “She indicts Coffee House’s embrace of liberal multiculturalism at the same time that she knowingly acknowledges that her novel will advance that cause.” In a moment that frankly annoyed me, he says of Everett, who has praised Graywolf publicly for supporting his work, that “Ironically, Everett […] fails to recognize that Graywolf and its fellow nonprofits operate according to a parallel racial logic as the conglomerates, one the image of the other in a funhouse mirror.” I do not find it useful to ding writers for appreciating the small group of people who, within a flawed system, have helped to make their work possible. Sinykin’s take here seems depressingly condemnatory, as if the publication of these writers’ books by nonprofit presses beholden to funders might be a sellout so complete that their art would no longer function and would be drained of its critical power—a situation that could then only be observed ironically.
Of course, the best thing about art is that it’s always implicating and exceeding. In some corner, a new escape plan, probably doomed to fail, is forever getting hatched. In important passages in this book, I didn’t recognize the game of publishing as writers and editors actually live and play it—in which people are often collaboratively, inventively trying to slip something cool or radical through, to get something over on the whole bullshit situation. I myself have publicly criticized some of Graywolf’s publishing choices, but I would not go so far as to say that their funding sources could definitively determine how to read the novels they publish.
For example, one of the small presses I work at, like many small poetry presses these days, is affiliated with—but not funded by—a university, tucked under the eaves of the academy. An outside analysis might conclude that such presses need to mold their publishing choices to the university’s interests, or at least avoid publishing books that higher-ups or boards of trustees might not like. In fact, one thing you can count on in the United States is how few people are ever going to willingly read a book of poetry and find out what’s in there. Similarly, I imagine that, at the bigger grant-funded presses, you might publish a book that funders may not love and could feel critiqued by (Sinykin discusses the forcible critique of the publishing industry’s racism expressed in Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure), but the thing is, most of them aren’t going to read the book; they’re just going to hear someone talk about it and want to share in its success. For our part, we writers know that our presses also publish books we don’t respect—we love complaining about this. Our acknowledgments thereof may be “knowing,” but they are also optimistic—not necessarily about publishing, which is reliably disappointing, but about the wild, irrepressible, multifold potential of art. And, I’d add, about the potential of attentive person-to-person collaboration, such as between writer and editor, writer and reader.
Big Fiction includes a beautiful central anecdote about Toni Morrison, which seems as if it might be the seed of the whole project—as Sinykin cites, she movingly described leaving her position as an editor at the relentlessly white Random House as an experience of liberation that inspired the writing of Beloved. Yet, otherwise, writers’ own accounts of their thinking in relation to publishing and sales aren’t foregrounded in discussions of their participation in conglomerate authorship; instead, their novels are left to be read as reflections of publishing dynamics, perhaps testament to those dynamics’ inescapability. Big Fiction struggles to pin down where Everett’s and Yamashita’s agency may lie, where and how the novel may ever liberate itself from its status as product, where the writer and/or reader might seize their power.
I thought here of Ottessa Moshfegh and her second novel, Eileen (2015). In an interview with The Guardian, the author recounted how, after her first novel was published by a small press and had proportionately modest sales, she decided she wanted “a career where I could live off publishing books. That was my prime motivation for writing Eileen. I thought, fine: I’ll play this game.” In contrast to McCarthy (who, for the first three decades of his career, Sinykin says, “positioned himself as an artist through his rejection of commercialism, making a virtue of his poor sales”), Moshfegh declares that she wasn’t interested in “wait[ing] 30 years to be discovered. […] [T]here are all these morons making millions of dollars, so why not me?” She’d be a great example for Sinykin’s book—she deliberately chose conglomerate authorship, eyes wide open—but she doesn’t appear here, perhaps because she is too contemporary (I’m not sure). Big Fiction illuminates the context in which Moshfegh’s choices occur but has less to say about things like her stylish self-understanding and how work like hers also exceeds and messes with its conglomerate-era identity and success. Think of her 2018 novel My Year of Rest and Relaxation, which winkingly incorporates so many features that American high art stereotypically loves—a beautiful, fucked-up young woman who presents herself as better than other women, and who is passive and uninterested in agency (she spends the whole novel getting catatonic), while also serving as muse to a male genius who is important in the art world—and then ends with a reference to 9/11 that can either be read as sentimental, thus pleasing NYC cultural types, or as a joke so subversive that I start laughing aloud whenever I think of it. Well done.
Moshfegh’s first novel, McGlue (2014), was published by the esteemed small press Fence, known mainly as a poetry publisher. McGlue won the first Fence Modern Prize in Prose. I won the second Fence Modern Prize in Prose. My novel Strawberry Fields (2018) has sold about 700 copies, and I’m guessing you haven’t heard of it. This is exactly Moshfegh’s point. Why does Sinykin’s investigation never get here, to what is for writers and editors the crux of the matter: the impact and relevance and financial stability that are either the reasons to work with the Big Five or what we writers miss out on in exchange for other freedoms, other communities?
Like most works of criticism, Big Fiction isn’t really seeking to make visible what the market, or cultural institutions, have suppressed and excluded from view. Sinykin succeeds in showing us the rise of the conglomerate era and in suggesting ways to trace its effects in fiction (I wasn’t always convinced, but other readers have been more so); he illustrates important points of contrast between the conglomerates, the major grant-funded nonprofits, and independents like W. W. Norton (for example, Norton’s publication of literature in translation and of neglected writers of earlier generations). Yet he doesn’t grow curious about the entire world of noncommercial small presses, many of which, notably, aren’t even nonprofits and so aren’t beholden to big institutional funders. In academic discussions—and across liberal and leftist media—it’s much more common to bemoan the problems of corporate-produced art than to attend to and elevate these scrappy anti-corporate worlds. Scholarship is relevant if it’s about what scholarship is supposed to be about, which is what scholarship has already been about. So, although small presses are a potent, heterogeneous, long-standing site of non-conglomerate, noncommercial writing, somehow they are too small to matter in a book about why it matters that publishing is so big.
The thing is, small presses aren’t actually separate from the Big Five or the bigger indies (such as Graywolf, Coffee House, New Directions, Catapult—and, as an aside, Catapult was hardly “funded by a disaffected member of the Koch dynasty,” as Sinykin claims; Elizabeth Koch is not disaffected but participates in the right-wing life and politics of her family). Publishing is an ecosystem. It’s just that the attention and discussion gathers where the money is. But any consideration of American fiction that omits small presses is incomplete even on its own terms.
Here are some major American fiction writers—winners of or finalists for big awards like the PEN/Faulkner or Pulitzer; writers with national platforms and coverage in places like The New York Times and The New Yorker; writers whose books have sold TV or film adaptations, or who have gone on to gigs writing TV or movies—who published one or more early books with small presses: Ben Lerner, Alissa Nutting, Joshua Cohen, Roxane Gay (who also ran a small press, and now runs an imprint at the indie Grove Atlantic), Stephen Graham Jones, Ocean Vuong, Amelia Gray, Nell Zink, Lidia Yuknavitch, Matthew Salesses, Laura van den Berg, Matt Bell, Edan Lepucki, Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi, Daniel Torday, Sarah Rose Etter, Jeff VanderMeer (published by a genre indie publisher), Brian Evenson …
Sometimes these writers’ small-press books were in a different genre than their Big Five books, yet the esteem and readership and even “platform” established through those works mattered, and a writer’s aesthetics and inquiries of course should be traced across their oeuvre. By Moshfegh’s own account, she wouldn’t have written Eileen if she hadn’t written and published McGlue, so her work across these industry sites is interdependent, not separate. Ben Lerner and Ocean Vuong sold more copies of their novels than their poetry collections, I’m sure (though their works of poetry are widely read and well known), but I don’t think one would exist without the other coming first, and certainly not in the writers’ own view and experience. And what do we make of novels like Andrea Lawlor’s contemporary queer classic Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl (2017), which was first published at a small press (Rescue Press, where I’m an editor and [disclosure] acquired it), then sold to a big press (Vintage, part of Penguin Random House) where it was reissued to ongoing success? Is this a small press or Big Five book? Turns out it’s both! (Rescue, by the way, is too small to be a nonprofit—we can’t afford to become one.)
The list above is not short. Yet both popular discussion and expert criticism tend to treat small-press literature and publishing structures as if they didn’t exist or were no more than juvenilia—when writers’ own work and self-understandings attest otherwise. If “to read a book through its colophon is to read it anew,” then why do our critical conversations ignore so many of the colophons where writers and writing live? Why is it always easier to pitch a book—even to an independent or academic publisher—about the problems with corporate cultural dominance than to pitch a book about all the culture that is hardily, imperfectly, collaboratively, weirdly resisting corporate dominance? Small presses may be too small to get into Barnes & Noble or whatever, but we are not in fact too small to read.
Hilary Plum is the author of five books, including the essay collection Hole Studies (2022) and the volume of poetry Excisions (2022). She teaches at Cleveland State University, where she is associate director of the CSU Poetry Center, and where, with Zach Peckham, she co-hosts Index for Continuance, a podcast on small press publishing, politics, and practice.
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