THE GREAT COLLAPSING LITERARY ESTABLISHMENT
WHY THE DANIEL HANDLER CONTROVERSY CUTS DEEP
We assume our readers have already heard about Daniel Handler’s questionable racial remarks at the National Book Awards black-tie event Wednesday night. We want to place Handler and the controversy within a larger context.
The first thing to know is that Daniel Handler is a much more powerful individual in the establishment publishing system, and by extension, in the approved, New York-based literary world, than the subjects of other recent literary scandals.
For one thing there’s Handler’s immense wealth, as outlined in this New York Times article by Handler himself in this New York Times article:
Daniel Handler “Lemony Snicket” series of children’s books have sold upwards of 60 million copies and counting, by two separate giant publishing companies, HarperCollins and Little, Brown. This gives Handler enormous clout in the world of legacy publishing as well as New York literary media, whose members will be reluctant to take him on.
Daniel Handler is also not just friends, but good friends, with many of the most powerful authors, most connected authors around, men like Dave Eggers and Neil Gaiman.
Which means, with this scandal we’re dealing not with relative small fries like Ed Champion and Tao Lin. Or even rich brat Lena Dunham. We’re talking, with Daniel Handler, about one of the biggest, most powerful authors in the entire business.
Which further means, every effort will be made to rehabilitate Daniel Handler as soon as possible. (For one thing, he knows where too many literary “bodies” are buried.) The established publishing system and the literary media have the reach and clout to rehabilitate him.
Yet there’s at least one good reason why they should consider not doing so.
THE INSTITUTIONAL RACISM QUESTION
When controversies like this arise, there’s always much debate about the difference between racism and simple bigotry. Distinctions are made between the racial animus of an individual, and that of an institution. Or an entire institutional system.
This is where what Daniel Handler said– and his comfort in saying them in that setting– takes on greater importance.
When Daniel Handler stood at the podium at the National Book Awards banquet, he was the face of established “Big Five” publishing, of establishment literature in general. As I’ve outlined, he hosted the awards ceremony for a reason– because he’s one of the established system’s most powerful and best-liked personages.
Inadvertently or not, with his remarks Daniel Handler was speaking for establishment literature and publishing. Were his comments emblematic of larger attitudes? If Handler was comfortable making his ill-advised racial jokes in public, we’re forced to ask: What’s said behind closed doors?
The established institutional literary system is classist and elitist, as has been well-documented, including at this blog. Is it institutionally racist as well?
After Daniel Handler’s comments, at the legacy system’s centerpiece, the burden is now on said system to demonstrate that it’s not.