How the Literary System Really Works

preppy girls II


There was an interesting article by Zach Schonfeld posted at Newsweek recently– necessary background on author/producer/media personality Lena Dunham and how she came to obtain such a large cultural profile:

The article is important, because it shows New York media, in the form of the New York Times, designating a young individual from a privileged background as worthy of extensive coverage.

The reason I say “literary system” and not “publishing system” in the title of this post is because the Big Five publishing conglomerates are only part of the equation. What gives them their clout is their relationship with the major organs of traditional media.

We’ve seen advocates for legacy publishing such as Laura Miller at Salon, Evan Hughes at Slate, and Alex Shephard of Melville House paint quite a rosy picture of how beneficial the Big Five are to writers. To quote from a much-circulated Authors United letter, “Publishers provide venture capital for ideas.” Alex Shephard in particular stresses this. The Amazon versus Hachette debate “is about the future of ideas.” In his essays he uses the words “quality” and “literature” over and over when referring to Big Five activities. The Lena Dunham memoir, narcissistic and trivial, for which she received an advance of $3.7 million, blows this argument out of the water. The “future of ideas”? Really?

We see the Big Five and/or their New York media colleagues not only accepting writers from a fairly narrow pool– often well-connected Ivy Leaguers (Evan Hughes for instance), but in the case of Lena Dunham, actively seeking them out.

At minimum, Lena Dunham’s memoir, and the amount of venture capital invested in it, is no argument for quality, for literature, nor for the Big Five publishers. Nor for “old literary media.”



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