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Processing: How Dan Sinykin Wrote Big Fiction
"The book explains how American fiction works by following the money."
On a semi-regular basis, I interview authors about their writing processes—you can find previous entries here—and this week I’m excited to chat with Dan Sinykin whose book Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature was published last week. As that subtitle implies, Big Fiction is a rigorous and fascinating look at the last few decades of corporate conglomeration in publishing and how it has shaped American literature in everything from what types of books are published to how we conceive of genres. (For a good sample of the book, check out Sinykin’s illuminating Slate article about how the modern genre of Fantasy fiction was shaped by the tastes and marketing ideas of one man: Lester del Rey.)
I asked Sinykin about how the market shapes literature, the always precarious state of publishing, and organizing and writing Big Fiction.
Big Fiction is divided into roughly chronological chapters but also organized around topics such as “How Women Resisted Sexism and Reinvented the Novel” and “How Literary Writers Embraced Genre.” Can you talk about how you organized and structured the book?
The book explains how American fiction works by following the money. How a publisher acquires, edits, and publishes—and, as you’ve written about, how much its books sell—depends on its institutional structure. The organizational frame of Big Fiction, then, is the sector, and there are four: mass market; trade; nonprofit; and independent. The mass market and trade chapters ballooned so big that we split them in two, so there are six chapters. We ordered them, as you say, roughly chronologically, beginning with the invention and expansion of the mass market, leading to Times Mirror’s acquisition and decimation of New American Library in 1960, and then making our way through the expansion of Random House, the invention of nonprofit literature, and the continued role of independents, ending with a conclusion accounting for the twenty-first century. We wanted readers to have a sense of each chapter’s story, so we offer those “How x, y, z” subtitles, which came quite late in the process. There are a thousand stories to tell about what conglomeration has done to fiction and I can only tell a few, so I chose those that leapt out to me, such as how Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Alison Lurie did fascinating things with the novel form against the backdrop of misogyny at Random House, or how major writers such as Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy, and Toni Morrison played with genre techniques in the 1980s and 1990s, both of which stories are influential for later writers.
Big Fiction is an academic book, I hope it is fair to say, yet it’s accessible in style. This is a book anyone who is familiar with or interested in publishing could read and not get lost in weeds of jargon that bogs down some academic texts. I’m curious how you thought about literary style when writing Big Fiction? And a follow-up question would be how you thought about readership?
Yes! From our first conversation in 2017, my editor and I agreed we wanted the book to sit in that tricky category: academic trade. To take your follow-up question first, we decided we would try to reach people who work in publishing, authors, and others with personal investments in the industry who aren’t academics (and academics, too, of course); and we designed it to be appealing, hopefully, for any book lover on the off-chance it breaks out. I turned to models such as David Graeber and David Wenbow’s The Dawn of Everything, which I love, and Jill Lepore’s If Then, which, although I quibble with it, does a good job of balancing argument and narrative, of expressing argument through narrative. Publishing history is rich with fascinating characters and compelling stories—so much so that I include a glossary with mini-biographies at the end. I had a lot of material. In every case, then, I was, on the one hand, drawing on techniques from fiction to bring all my details and facts from the archives to life, and, on the other, I was figuring out how to make this or that person’s story expressive of institutional change and systemic forces. Finally, I just love words, and sentences, and I want to be a pleasure to read. I look to the prose of critics I admire—Ari Brostoff, Sarah Chihaya, Tobi Haslett, Jesse McCarthy, Emily Ogden, Ryan Ruby—and study it. I try to write as well as they do. I fail, but I try!
Recently, I was listening to a podcast of history lectures that opened with the professor opining about the two ways to study history: looking at the faceless forces shaping events or at the individual personalities who alter the course of history (for better or worse) through their will, vision, and/or incompetence. He came down pretty squarely on the side of individual personalities, but I admired the way Big Fiction balances the two. You discuss how huge market forces like financial crises changed publishing and how individual editors, authors, and others have shaped literary history with their own tastes and insights. There’s lots of forces and personalities here. How did you think about the balance in this admittedly reductive binary?
I’m obsessed with this. I think about this all the time. I thought about this problem more than anything else in the book. It’s especially salient for literary history because we celebrate very special individuals—authors—and erase the whole messy business of publishing and its role in making books. Clayton Childress, a sociologist, has a great book about this, Under the Cover. I’m experiencing that imbalance now, in interviews like this (to no fault of yours, Lincoln!), where I’m plucked from the network of people who worked hard to make Big Fiction happen and invited to speak as its sole authorized representative. Which of course I am: that’s the whole fiction of authorship! My first step, then, is to demystify authorship, situate the author among her networks, and explain how it is that so many conglomerate figures play a role in the words you read in the pages of your books. In Big Fiction, I talk about agents, editors, publicists, subsidiary rights managers, wholesalers, booksellers, et cetera. But here we’re still discussing individuals, if a much larger group than most people think about when they think about books. Every one of these people makes decisions constrained by their economic and institutional context. So we need to understand those constraints. What changes when a publisher goes public, is acquired by a conglomerate, becomes a nonprofit? How did the rising hegemony of shareholder value force people’s hands? You can’t understand the explosion of fantasy and romance novels in the 1980s without understanding inflation, urban sprawl, the rise of the shopping mall. Everything I learned in my years of research led me to coin a new concept, conglomerate authorship, to name the complex of individuals and historical forces that is ultimately responsible for the books we read.
You say that your study of the conglomerate era was inspired in part by Mark McGurl’s The Program Era, which looked at how the rise in MFA programs shaped American literature. If you had to pick a topic for a third “era” to study—a force as consequential to American fiction as conglomeration and writing programs—what would it be? (Feel free to skip this question if that’s the topic of your next work of course!)
Fun question! A couple that quickly come to mind have already been done well. McGurl’s own follow up to The Program Era is Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon, which is a dizzying tour through the perverse and wild expanses of self-publishing in the twenty-first century. It treats Amazon as the key literary institution of our time. Beth Driscoll and Claire Squires have co-written a pair of books on the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is a fitting symbol for the internationalism of publishing. By the time I finished writing Big Fiction, I felt that this—internationalism—was the book’s biggest lacuna. Three of the Big Five are based in Europe. Foreign rights have become increasingly important since the 1990s. I’m working with a couple of scholars now specifically on the international bestseller.
One thing I admired in Big Fiction was your willingness to discuss how material conditions and business decisions affect artistic output. Many authors have an attitude that the art is the art and the artist’s job is to make art and let the business people worry about the business side. A noble goal. Yet I think it’s obviously true that practical and material considerations come into play no matter how much we tell ourselves we aren’t writing to the market. E.g., even if you’re an experimental literary fiction writer who abhors market trends you still might be more likely to focus on novels than the harder-to-sell short story collection. Do you think it is useful for authors to know about “how the sausage is made”? Or is it better for, say, novelists and poets to think as little about the business side as possible?
The unconscious is a wonderful thing. There’s so much we can know about without knowing about it. I think disavowing knowledge of the business side can be useful for authors, both professionally and personally. But any successful author, whether of a blockbuster commercial novel or experimental literary fiction, has internalized a market: this is one of the great insights of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. How does this work? If the experimental writer has an agent or went to an MFA program, they will have absorbed knowledge of their competition and of how to shape their work informed by what books are successful in their field, even if that field lives through tiny presses disgusted with Big Five market trends. The experimental writer can learn these lessons just by being an attentive reader of their aspirational peers. Big Fiction argues that the constraints and incentives of the whole industry are baked into the books themselves, so even just that act of reading is training into business and markets. For some writers, say Percival Everett or Philip Roth, it’s no problem to think about business. But adopt the posture that keeps your ink flowing.
Your book is coming out during a somewhat precarious time for publishing. (Although when is it ever not precarious?) Rising paper prices and other costs are causing production chaos. Simon & Schuster, one of the big conglomerations, was just purchased by a private equity firm after the government prevented a merger with another big conglomerate. That conglomerate, PRH, just went through a round of layoffs. And that’s not even getting into “A.I.” writing chatbots, TikTok’s planned imprint, and many other dangers and or opportunities depending on one’s points of view. Not to put you too much on the spot, but what do you think the state of publishing will be in 5 or 10 years? What trends do you think have the most potential for disruption or positive change?
My experience as a literary historian has taught me to take the anxieties of the moment with a grain of salt. Authors felt that conglomeration would destroy literature as far back as 1977. The 2008 financial crisis coincided with the emergence of the Kindle and e-books, which many felt might do to publishing what streaming did to music, film, and TV—but the Big Five came out stronger than before. My understanding is that PRH was doing as well as ever as recently as a couple of years ago, but that it had to pay a $200 million termination fee to Paramount after the failed S&S bid, and that that’s at the root of the layoffs, rather than a structural issue. It seems like the paper concern was tied up in Covid supply chain problems and inflation, both of which might be easing? S&S might get wrecked by KKR or it might not, but when Times Mirror bought New American Library in 1960—the most culturally significant mass-market publisher at the time—it brought in McKinsey and fucked the place. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, and publishing lives on. That said, what are the big developments coming down the pike?
We can’t ignore the unbelievable scale of literary production happening in self-publishing, fan fiction, and Wattpad. It’s vast. So far, that world has largely existed in parallel to mainstream publishing with relatively few crossovers. But I think smart mainstream publishers are paying close attention: more to poach writers than anything else. We might think about self-publishing, fan fiction, and Wattpad as R&D laboratories or as farm teams where ideas or players are tested to see if they’re ready for the market or the big leagues. It’s all digital and there’s an incredible amount of data there that I don’t think has been truly taken advantage of. One experiment we’re seeing play out there first is the adoption of A.I.—which I know you’re vocally skeptical about, Lincoln! I share some of your skepticism, but I don’t think A.I. is going away. There was a good piece in The Verge already more than a year ago about how professional self-published authors who live off the profits from writing six or eight or ten books per year have already adopted ChatGPT to outsource, say, the labor of description. I think we’re going to see a lot of legal battles over copyright and A.I. in the next few years—we already are. And we’ll see where A.I. ends up fitting into publishing. It’ll be a supplement, not a replacement.
Let’s not forget small presses. I think we’re in the midst of a golden age for small presses. If you compare today to the 1980s, we’re in a great place. Akashic, Archipelago, Arte Público, Belt, CLASH, Coffee House, Deep Vellum, Dorothy, Graywolf, Kaya, Milkweed, New Press, NYRB, Other Press, Sarabande, Sublunary, Transit. I hope we continue to see the flourishing and growth of this sector.
Since the readership of this newsletter is largely (I think) authors or aspiring authors, what advice would you give writers who are looking to publish in these chaotic times?
Find your people. Everyone tells writers that they need to read a ton and it’s true. Take it a step further. Notice where the writers you like publish. Figure out who their agents are, their editors. If you can afford a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, that’s the easiest place to get this information. Otherwise, Google around. These are the agents, editors, and publishers you should reach out to with your own work. Who would you feel proud to be on a list with? Big publishing, prestige, prizes are as unequal as our deeply unequal society, but don’t let that discourage you. Remember the extraordinary small presses I mentioned in the previous answer. If you find your people, your community, your readers, wherever they are, you’re doing it right.
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