Helen DeWitt Lacerates the Literary World


Arts & Culture

Helen DeWitt. Photo: Zora Sicher.


The literary world is small. Once you’ve worked a few jobs in or around the publishing industry—I’ve been an intern at a trade magazine, an editorial assistant at an old-school book review, a publicist for a university press, a freelancer for more publications than I can easily count, and a fiction writer—it can begin to feel, only somewhat inaccurately, as though you’ve met everyone who works with books. One of my fellow former assistants just replaced another one of our former colleagues as the reviews editor for a prestigious literary magazine. While feeling especially awkward at a New York party a couple years ago, I struck up a conversation with the woman standing next to me. She was my agent’s assistant; she’d just read my manuscript. She had some notes.

As someone who has spent the majority of the past five years writing fiction, this familiarity has had limited professional utility (my “friends” have too much “integrity” to shuffle my work into print-on-demand), and it also presents challenges for the work itself. For one, cynicism is an unattractive quality in a fiction writer, and smirking knowingness can kill a work of fiction as surely as it can kill a conversation. More prosaically, it renders large swaths of one’s social knowledge off-limits in one’s writing, or at least subject to extreme vetting. Most editors and publishers can take a joke, of course (or can pretend to), and recent books by Andrew Sean Greer, Rachel Cusk, and many more take the egotistical denizens of the self-regarding literary scene as their subject. But a more dangerous and difficult task is showing up the still-prevalent notion (at least in marketing materials) of the writer as heroic individual by revealing the process through which a work is transformed—and sometimes even created wholesale—as it moves through the machinery of the publishing world. That is the bold project Helen DeWitt has been taking up for years in the stories now compiled in the book Some Trick

DeWitt’s ruthless honesty about the sausage making of literary production is no doubt autobiographical. She has described her travails in the selling, copyediting, and typesetting of her now classic first novel, The Last Samurai, as well as the baroquely harrowing ordeals with the publishing industry and the financial difficulties that followed. But the generosity and humor of these stories soften any sense of personal grievance into something much more interesting and complicated. The stories are devastatingly specific, and yet they serve as broad parables about the inevitability of being misunderstood, both as an artist and as a person.

The first story in the collection, “Brutto,” is also the harshest. It relates the struggles of a middling abstract painter who specializes in all-white compositions in which the paint is “20 centimeters thick or maybe more, it can take a year before it’s really dry.” Her career is transformed by an influential Italian gallerist named Adalberto, who, upon seeing a stunningly ugly garment that the artist made as an apprentice dressmaker (“Ma che brutto!”), persuades her to sew nineteen more suits for a show in his gallery. Despite her complete lack of creative engagement in the project, she agrees and is given a budget far beyond anything she’s previously had to work with. DeWitt lays out the dilemma ruthlessly, methodically: “Artists are lucky to get a gallerist, and you think if you get a gallerist the world is your oyster, and then maybe you are still teaching or working in a call centre … And there are gallerists that people watch, they can make a career. So you know if you tell one to go away because he is interested in something that doesn’t interest you, probably you will never meet someone like that again.”

The artist becomes, in short order, the instrument through which Adalberto executes his own artistic project. He displays her twenty suits in Milan: “The show could never be so transgressive outside Milan—if you have no sense of style, if you know nothing of design, you cannot see the stupidity of the ugly pocket which only a trained apprentice could execute correctly. But in Milan they practically fainted.” The show sells out. The stakes are raised. For her New York show, Adalberto conceives of a conceptual piece (in the tradition of Young British Artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin) in which the artist will display her blood, urine, and various other bodily fluids in glass containers in the gallery across from her suits. Again, despite her ambivalence, the artist justifies the project as a good career move, and again, the show is a success. In the story’s final turn, her newfound prominence gets her shortlisted for the prestigious Turner Prize, for which she can submit any piece she has made for consideration. “And maybe you would think that this would be the big chance to show what interests you,” the narrator tells us. We know better. She submits the original hideous suit that first caught the gallerist’s attention, along with a glass jar of spermicidal jelly.

If DeWitt had made her artist-protagonist an underappreciated genius—in other words, if she was more like DeWitt herself—the story wouldn’t work. What keeps the fable from bludgeoning obviousness is the genuine pathos created by the relationship between the mediocre artist and the marketing genius. The work that the artist is passionate about is, as far as the reader can tell, hopelessly dull; the work that the gallerist wills into being is, at the very least, superficially engaging. Unlike all-white paintings that take a year to dry, badly sewn suits and exposed viscera are the kind of thing people like or at least are interested in talking about. The dilemma is not between being true to one’s inner brilliance and selling out. It’s a weirder, more uneasy question: to remain obscure making one kind of junk or to become well-known making another. Maybe DeWitt is suggesting that this is closer to the dilemma most artists face than we would like to admit. I’m certainly ready for my Italian patron to convince me to write something with commercial promise.

Throughout the collection, DeWitt presents variations on the “Brutto” scenario. She sets up experiments in which eccentrics and artists are set loose on a world that admires them superficially but wants to leverage their talents for status or money. In “My Heart Belongs to Bertie,” Peter, a writer who has produced a very successful “book of robot tales,” is driven to despair by the fact that he can’t get a hotshot literary agent to sit still while he explains a statistical probability model that he sees as essential to his work. Peter wants to work with an agent and editor who have the sufficient mathematical expertise to help him with his book, which seems rational enough. But the agent, also sanely, tries to steer him away from this line of thinking. “Look,” the agent says, “we could waste a lot of time talking about editors. We’re only interested in the ones who are willing to buy the book we have to sell.” The situation is maddening for both parties, not to mention to this “functionally innumerate” reader trying earnestly to follow DeWitt’s lesson on the binomial distribution. DeWitt is clearly on the side of the writer who shows up to a meeting at a diner with printed PDFs of Gaussian curves, but despite her own painful experience with agents, she also has the skill to dramatize the absurdity of Peter’s position. (She does allow him to devise what he sees as an elegant solution to his predicament, but wisely ends the story before we find out whether it is successful.)

“Climbers,” originally published in Harper’s in 2014, is surely the best piece of fiction about literary publishing in the twenty-first century. It follows a group of young industry-adjacent men and women as they try to turn the work of Peter Dijkstra, an obscure Dutch novelist who has recently spent time in an asylum, into “the next 2666” (notwithstanding the fact that “based on the two pages he had read,” Dijkstra himself “was not a big fan of 2666”). The man on whom everything depends is Ralph, a young agent so vivid in his dogged ambition and vacuous-but-contagious enthusiasm that it’s likely you’ve already met him at a party celebrating the new issue of a literary journal. Ralph’s client Cissy and her friend Gil are intellectuals or at least writers. Their genuine (slavishly over-the-top, in Gil’s case) devotion to Dijkstra spurs Ralph’s mercenary interest, leading to a volley of transatlantic email exchanges with the eccentric genius and a frenzy of interest among the Americans in the scattered notes that Dijkstra sends when pressed for “some pages” by Ralph. (“He could not say why, but he really disliked that use of the word ‘pages.’ ”)

As in “Brutto,” there’s no obvious hero here. Dijkstra, as far as we know, is legitimate, but he’s also willing to manipulate the Americans’ misguided enthusiasm for his own ends. From his perspective, the essentially extraliterary fantasies that Gil and Cissy and Ralph impose on him—some in earnest, some more cynically—are useful insofar as they lead to him being able to reliably afford cigarettes. Cissy daydreams that if she brings Dijkstra to New York, she’ll play the role of Sontag introducing Sebald to New Directions; when juxtaposed with the actual daily life of the obscure, mentally ill European novelist, her fantasies seem absurd. But what DeWitt, through Dijkstra, also understands is that Roberto Bolaño doesn’t become “Bolaño” without the Ralphs and Gils of the world. Whether or not this is a good thing is a fair question because it certainly isn’t fair, but her recognition of it feels unique in contemporary fiction. The fact that she’s doing it under the imprimatur of New Directions, a stalwart of literary credibility, adds another winking layer to the gamesmanship.

DeWitt captures the particular mix of sincerity and jadedness of the publishing world and of those whose job it is to be enthusiastic about highish culture in the face of periodic reports of its demise. In an industry where you’re likely to work with the same dozen people, cycling through escalating roles over the course of decades, it pays to be polite. When writing fiction, I try to forget, or at least suppress, the skills that made me a competent—if deeply undistinguished—publicist, editor, and cocktail-party chatterer. (Living in Boston, where “polite” is the sound a thrown snow shovel makes when it ricochets off a windshield, helps.) But it’s unlikely that those manners can be entirely unlearned. They inevitably exert a malign—if, one prays, minor—influence over the work one does. There’s no getting away clean, in publishing as in life. As DeWitt’s stories show, perhaps there’s no use pretending we’re innocent. It can be honorable—in fact, it’s essentially the first principle of fiction writing—to wrestle sincerely with the problems we know best. It’s probably not good for most writers’ sanity to spend a lot of of time analyzing the cycles of hype, money, and fate that can dictate a career. But DeWitt has already done the work. One little look or two won’t hurt.


Andrew Martin’s debut novel, Early Work, will be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in July.