We’ve Got Freedom On Our Minds


Arts & Culture

Lorin will be guest blogging this week over at The Atlantic for Ta-Nehisi Coates. We’ll be reading, and hope you will too. Today, in his first post, he tackles the hubbub surrounding Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, and the magic of discovery for literary fiction:

But already, in the first mini-backlash against the book—or really, against the all the attention it’s received—we hear it implied that fiction should restrict itself to entertainment or fade into obscurity: that critics should spend more time celebrating mass-market novels because they’re what the people “actually” want. This fake populism pretends to speak for women (as if women weren’t the overwhelming consumers of serious fiction, whether written by women or men). Really it’s the logic of the Hollywood blockbuster machine.

Unfortunately, you find the same logic at work all over publishing today. Without a complex network of local bookstores and local reviewers, more and more houses see the blockbuster as their only viable business plan. They spend vast amounts signing up and promoting books that seem written to spec. That model is great if you’re publishing mysteries, or vampire books, or chick lit, or books about Founding Fathers. A good formula, well executed, can be a beautiful (and profitable) thing.

But for literary fiction, the fiction of discovery, formulas are death. In my 12 years at FSG, we saw publishers lose millions every season trying to corner the market on the Big New (preferably Young) Literary Sensation. Meanwhile really tricky, idiosyncratic writers—Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson, Elif Batuman, Richard Price, Sam Lipsyte, Roberto Bolano, James Wood, Hans Keilson—confounded even the most charitable expectations of the chains, and went through one printing after another. Now Franzen seems poised to do the same thing on a much, much bigger scale.

I name these particular authors, all published by FSG, only because I was there when it happened: I know for a fact no magic was involved. The books succeeded because critics kept yelling eureka (and because some resilient booksellers, like that clerk at Cluster of Grapes, kept putting them in customers’ hands). These books may never have cornered any market. That wasn’t the point. They found the readers who needed them. Each became a few thousand people’s favorite book.