“Ode to New York Publishing”

empire state


Handler, Champion, Dunham, Tao Lin

What a bad year for writers it’s been!

Rapists, racists, abusers and crooks,

These are the people writing our books?

Agents are worried, publicists sad

Amazon no longer looking so bad!

One move only appears to be smart,

Time to move publishing out of New York!


Spinning Ursula K. Le Guin

Media accounts of Ursula K. Le Guin’s speech at the recent National Book Awards portrayed it as a full-out assault on Amazon and new publishing. They also gave the impression that the speech was received with general acclamation.

Watching the speech, one sees that Le Guin’s remarks were as much an attack on Big Five publishing as against any alternative. She mentions “all the writers who were excluded from literature” (Underground Literary Alliance, anyone?) and speaks of “the producers who write the books.”

Well, yes! The writers ARE the chief value in literature. DIY publishing is one way to give the writer full control over his-or-her art, which isn’t the case in legacy publishing. The old way of doing things puts the writer as supplicant, subservient to the agents, editors, and others who wield power in the Manhattan skyscrapers.

Le Guin spoke of “writers who can remember freedom.” We’d argue that writers OUTSIDE the established publishing system have more freedom over their words. There’s no “go-along-to-get-along” game playing involved in Do-It-Yourself.

Even Le Guin’s much-talked-about critique of capitalism might be better understood as an attack on old-fashioned crony-style capitalism; gigantic oligopolies like publishing’s “Big Five” than on individual entrepreneurs– those who use Amazon merely as delivery system for their art. Should Amazon ever try to exercise the monopoly power they’re accused of having, fresh alternatives would quickly be found. As Amazon itself likely knows better than anyone. This is a changing world– where power belongs to the artist. If said artist is willing to take it!

It must also be said, in looking at the video of Ursula Le Guin’s speech, that audience response during the speech was nervous; the applause when it was over, tepid. Members of the apparatus aren’t as brave as they portray themselves– certainly not when their bosses are in attendance!

We’ll give the final words in this post to Ursula Le Guin, adding only that truer words couldn’t be spoken: “–resistance and change begin in art, and often in our art.”


Latest Big Literary Scandal


Handler Suspicious


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.


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.


Inside Out or Outside In?

empire state

Here’s a question for everyone: Why did Tao Lin receive an advance from Random House for $50,000, while Lena Dunham received one from RH for $3.7 million?

As with most questions, there are likely multiple answers. One of them is the location/ background of the authors.

The trick with New York “Big Five” publishing is to look at New York as an Imperial city; practicing Imperialism in regard to writers and literature. Most of the Imperialism practiced is within country.

This is a theme I play in my satirical ebook novel The McSweeneys Gang. (Not recommended if you believe in the current literary scene.) Other cities across America, even literary centers like Iowa City, are treated like outposts by the core city, which must be thought of as akin to Rome circa 100 AD or London circa 1890. The east coast, from Washington D.C. to Boston, is the nation’s power corridor. Literature’s home country. If you’re raised and/or educated within this corridor, you’re part of literature’s native population. All else is strange territory populated by barbarians.

The attitude, then, from within the power corridor is always Inside Out. Big Five apologist Evan Hughes will travel to Detroit to write a book about this exotic spot’s more violent and bizarre happenings, like a Victorian reporter curious about the unknown and, for him/them, the unseen.

A host of journalists traveled to Alaska in 2008 to cover the quaint and barbarically exotic Palin family.

Again: Inside Out. The Imperialists covering the world, they the only acceptable voice.

Outsiders like Tao Lin or Ed Champion who travel to the Imperial City to join the establishment literary scene have reversed the viewpoint. They’re Outside In. One wonders if it’s possible for them to truly fit in, to be accepted as equals.

When it comes to publishing clout, and the attached-at-the-hip New York-based literary media, the Imperial City with its near provinces has had more influence over what’s determined to be literature than the rest of the nation/empire combined. The rise of indy ebooks gives the opportunity to balance this equation.

(Read http://www.newpoplit.com’s Opinion page for more thoughts along these lines.)

-Karl Wenclas

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.”


How Not to Back Your Authors

ONE OF THE BIG arguments used by advocates of publishing’s “Big Five” conglomerates in their debate with Amazon is that they support their writers. NEW POP LIT asks the question: Do they?

Here’s an exchange of emails which took place October 7 between NPL editor Karl Wenclas and an unnamed publicist at Random House’s Vintage Books division. The publicist did not sign his/her emails. A ghost? A computer program?


Hello! Has Random House released a statement regarding its author, Tao Lin, and the recent scandal he’s been involved in?

Would a Random House representative (or the author himself) be available to answer a few questions about the situation? 

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Karl Wenclas

(From VintageAnchorPublicity)

You should contact Meville House.  They published the book RICHARD YATES.  We do not comment on books we did not publish.

Tao’s more recent book Taipei is listed as a Vintage Contemporaries Original.


Not yours?


(From VintageAnchorPublicity)
It is, but the controversy is about his book from Melville House. You should talk to Melville House.

There you have it. The person/ghost/program behind the unsigned emails is clearly running away from the matter. Could a publicist for a politician or sports team get away with such behavior? Well, maybe.
The questions we planned to ask, by the way, were not about the “Richard Yates” book. They were/are questions fitting to ask his biggest, most recent publisher. Here are the questions:

1.) Have sales of Tao Lin’s book gone up because of the controversy?
2.) Does Random House/Vintage Books have regrets about publishing him?
3.) Will Vintage change its marketing of Tao Lin because of the controversy?

Business-oriented questions appropriate to be asked of a publishing company. The unknown publicist seems to have inadvertently answered #2 and #3, anyway.

p.s. We’re still waiting on a response from Melville House!