We Are All Cold Callers Now: Sam Lipsyte’s Savagely Satirical Fiction

“The consolation of acute bitterness is the biting retort.”—Hark

1.“Is it too soon?” It’s one of those recurring cultural questions that has lately been revived in the context of the #MeToo movement, regarding the matter of when, if ever, such high-profile sexual abusers as Charlie Rose, Louis C.K., Mario Batali, Garrison Keillor, and Kevin Spacey might make their way back into the public sphere, or at least a paying job. Alpha males, however disgraced, get twitchy on the sidelines, and so, as James Wolcott put it in his Vanity Fair column on “The Return of the Scuzzies, “we hear the # MeToo Men tap on the microphone as they seek to reintroduce themselves.”

For a male fiction writer, a foray into this massively trip-wired territory might seem about as inviting as a several-mile stroll atop a third rail. Yet there, in the pages of the Nov. 19, 2018, issue of The New Yorker, was the fearless edgemeister Sam Lipsyte with “Show Recent Some Love,” surely the first male work of fiction to address, in no way obliquely, the issues raised by the movement. To do this in what we call “the current climate” was an act of perhaps foolhardy courage; to have pulled it off with as artful and well judged mixture of sensitivity and sharpness as Lipsyte did, is a high-wire achievement of no small dimension.

The story succeeds in “going there”
without inducing moral nausea because the ogre of the piece, the abusive and
predatory Mike Maltby, CEO of Mike Maltby Media Solutions (now renamed Haven
Media) is unambiguously presented as one of “history’s ceaseless cavalcade of
dickheads.” Left to navigate the treacherous cross-currents of Maltby’s ignominious
departure is Isaac, his one-time stepson, whom Maltby rescued from a life of
video gaming and Jagermeister shots by giving him a job as a copywriter. Not
unreasonably he fears for his position now, given the toxicity of his
association with Maltby; underneath Isaac’s vocal disgust he also experiences
involuntary and unnerving spasms of sympathy, as confused and anxious humans
will do.

In Lipsyte’s fiction it is the
wives who see right through the husbands, and Isaac gets pinned to the specimen
board of contemporary male fecklessness by his wife with this observation:
“Standing next to a villain and hoping people will notice the difference is not
the same as being a hero, Isaac.” Isaac stands in here for the legions of men trapped
in the queasy twilight zone between innocence and complicity. “And don’t be
certain they won’t come for you one of these days,” she adds with brutal
directness.

Since his 1999 debut story collection Venus Drive Sam Lipsyte has published four novels and two more collections that have established him as the premier anatomist of contemporary male malaise and sexual confusion. A skilled and consistently hilarious satirist with tummler-tight timing, he explores with merciless and lacerating precision the demoralized state of the urban man-boy and alterna-dad, marinated in gender guilt, trapped in the low-paying and uncertain jobs that are the portion these days of liberal arts majors, barely tolerated or peevishly despised by his spouse and children. Call him Lipsyte Man—a baffled and wounded specimen.

2.A North Jersey native and high school shot putter and teen literary phenom (“a little show pony writer”, in his words), Sam Lipsyte amusingly was named as a Presidential Scholar of the Arts by none other than Ronald Reagan; the award was given to him by the once famed virtuecrat William Bennett. A no doubt formative lesson in the uses of cognitive dissonance. He attended Brown in the late ’80s in its peak years as a powerhouse in semiotics, cultural studies, and advanced fiction, studying with such luminaries as Robert Coover and graduating in the same cohort as Rick Moody and Jeffrey Eugenides. Dispirited by the hegemony of literary theory over practice, however, he drifted into music for a time when he came back to New York, fronting a noise rock band called Dung Beetle and dutifully picking up the bad habits of dissipation the position called for.

Sam’s path back to literature took him through Gordon Lish’s fabled and/or notorious writing workshop, where the shameful and unsayable were quarried for the rawest of raw material. Lish was also fanatical on matters of style, and perhaps Sam’s chief takeaway from his time in Gordon’s boot camp was that every word of every sentence had to count. “There is no getting to the good part. It all has to be the good part,” he once approvingly quoted Lish.

Venus Drive, published in 2000 by the much-missed literary magazine and publisher Open City, strongly reflects that aesthetic. Its sentences display aphoristic economy and keenly calibrated rhythm, as in this specimen: “His eyes had the ebb of his liver in them and he bore the air of a man who looks right at you and only sees the last of himself.” Several of the stories draw on the druggy discontinuities, moral squalor and grim, bone-in-your-throat humor of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. One character does Keith Richards considerably better by shooting up his mother’s cremains. (What stage of grief is that anyway?) Another informs us with addled precision that “I wasn’t nodding, I was passing out.” William Burroughs’s algebra of need was clearly a familiar equation to the author.

Other stories engage with a broader consensus reality, specifically the emerging service economy that appears to be our portion until the robot overlords dispose of us. In “Probe to the Negative”—the very title can be taken as an ars poetica—a failed artist with dependency issues works as a phone marketer under the faux-helpful supervision of Frank the Fink.

“Maybe Frank was a decent guy once, but he’s management now … the higher you move up, the more of a tragedy you are,” the narrator mordantly observes. But as he also says, “We’re all cold callers now,” an epitaph that has ominous ring of truth.

“My Life, for Promotional Use Only”
opens with a perfect snapshot of the emerging dot-com economy:

The building where I work used to be a bank. Now it’s lots of little start-ups, private suites, outlaw architects, renegade CPA’s, club kids with three-picture deals. It’s very arty in the elevators. Everybody’s shaved and pierced in dainty places. They are lords of tiny telephones, keepers of dogs on battery-operated ropes.

The basis of
effective satire is simply close, cruel observation.

I heard Sam Lipsyte read one of his stories at an Open City event, a literary event for me of major proportions. So I made my predatory desires known and as a result became the editor of his first novel, The Subject Steve. The shock of recognition I experienced upon first reading it was electrifying; somehow this young writer managed to channel the irreverent and unruly reading of my formative years of the ’60s and had made that sensibility his own. It was the first of many times he has caused me to use my inhaler for an episode of laughter-induced asthma. 

Black humor had emerged in the late ’50s as a literary mode and broader cultural style as a release valve for the stifling seriousness and repression of the decade and also an expression of paranoia and delayed trauma from the horrors of the late war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. Its strategies were the send-up, the put-on, the resigned shrug, the spasm of panic, the barely stifled scream, the bitter laugh, the taboo-busting saying of the Unsayable. It was born on whatever day the first lampshade joke was told. Its emergence was coterminous with and fueled by what Wallace Markfield, a now forgotten black humorist himself, called in 1965 “The Yiddishization of American Humor”—comedy that, drawing on the traditions of the Borscht Belt and the shetl, was” involuted, ironic, more parable than patter”—and infused with a distinctively Jewish fatalism.

The ur-black humorist was of course Joseph Heller and as I read The Subject Steve I could, I thought, detect his influence in every line. Begin with the book’s premise: The book’s narrator and antihero Steve is informed by two quack doctors that he is dying of a disease unquestionably fatal, yet with no discernible cause nor duration; they dub it Goldfarb-Blackstone Preparatory Extinction Syndrome. A terser name would of course be “Life.” Lipsyte elaborates this illogically logical Catch-22 premise with caustic wit and a verbal energy that recalls Stanley Elkin at his most manic. Savor the spritzing pungency and tart wordplay of this passage:

The bad news was bad. I was dying of something nobody had every died of before. I was dying of something absolutely, fantastically new. Strangely enough I was in fine fettle. My heart was strong and my lungs were clean. My vitals were vital. … My levels were good. My counts were good. All my numbers said my number wasn’t up.

Heller’s brilliantly morose novel of white collar angst, Something Happened, is also a presiding influence on this and subsequent novels by Lipsyte. Steve quits his indeterminate cube-based job, stating in his exit interview: “My work, albeit inane, jibed with the greater inanities required of us to maintain the fictions of our industry.” He fails to get much sympathy from either his divorced wife or disaffected daughter, and fleeing a media frenzy goes on an increasingly violent and saturnalian New Age odyssey in search of a cure or at least of modicum of certainty.

The Yiddish word for a hapless soul like Steve is “schlemiel,” a character without much agency and dignity, buffeted by domestic or historical forces far beyond his resistance. The schlemiel is a stock figure of black humor fiction—Yossarian, Billy Pilgrim, Benny Profane, just for starters—and can be traced as far back in American literature as Lemuel Pitkin, the All-American designated victim who gets literally taken apart in Nathanael West’s Depression-era demolishment of the Horatio Alger luck-and-pluck, A Cool Milllion. With The Subject Steve Lipsyte had revived a tradition of gleefully cynical disillusion that had largely faded from our increasingly earnest literary fiction.

Sadly, rather too much black humor of a distinctly unfunny sort attended the novel’s publication, as it was literally published on Sept. 11, 2001. Irony of any sort, however well achieved, was not in favor that grievous season; the reviews were complimentary enough but thin on the ground, and sales suffered accordingly. As a result Sam’s next novel, Home Land, was not offered on (with the keenest possible sadness) by me, and went on to garner an astounding 22 editorial rejections before being finally published as a Picador paperback original in 2004. That the novel quickly became the book to be reading on the L and M trains and with each passing year feels more and more like a masterpiece—to the point of having been selected by Christian Lorentzen in New York as one of the canonical works of fiction of the newish century, calling it “a Gen-X Notes from Underground—must prove something besides the need to pick your pub date carefully, but what? Perhaps that as the Iraq War and the broader war on terror were both clearly becoming clusterfucks of Vietnam-esque proportions, black humor Lipsyte-style acquired a new relevance and resonance that has only become stronger in the 15 disillusioning years since Home Land’s publication.

Among other things it has one of the best premises for a comic novel ever devised. Lewis Miner, aka “Teabag,” the member of the Eastern Valley High Class of ’89 who most conclusively has not panned out, pens a series of uproariously bitter letters to his Alumni Newsletter, bringing his cohort of bankers and brokers and doctors and state senators and “double major[s] in philosophy and aquatic life management” up to date on “the soft cold facts of me.” At first he “shudders” at the prospect of his successful classmates chortling at the particulars of his dismal tale, but quickly rethinks his phrasing: “Shudder, in fact, is not quite the word for the feeling. Feeling is not quite the word for the feeling. How’s bathing at knifepoint in the phlegm of the dead? Is that a feeling?”

Miner rents a dismal apartment in his hometown, attends the occasional “aphorism slam,” and ekes out a sort of living concocting fake anecdotes for a soft drink’s newsletter Fizz (while spending even more time trawling the net for lovelies in legwarmers). His dispatches at once satirize the nauseating smugness of most alumni updates and recount in granular detail the hell on earth that was most people’s experience of high school. The novel’s climax takes place at a predictably disastrous tenth anniversary “Togethering” reunion—“one big horrible flashback,” as these things tend to be.

Miner’s spew of snark is a beautiful thing to experience and he represents Lipsyte Man in his first full incarnation. Imagine—work with me on this—if Rodney Dangerfield had somehow managed to attend Oberlin or Hampshire College, but emerged with his sense of humor intact. Miner and his successors also partake a bit of W.C. Fields’s befuddled in-the-American-grain misanthropy and his sense of terminal male embattlement. These suckers are never going to get an even break.

Published in 2010 in the rump of the Great Recession, Sam’s next novel The Ask shifts the scene to an academic setting: the development office of an institution its denizens call the Mediocre University at New York, whose art program affords the marginally talented the opportunity to “take hard drugs in suitable company, draw from life on their laptops, do radical things with video cameras and caulk.” Milo Burke is a failed painter who works there none too effectively; as the book opens he has been cashiered for using an ill-advised epithet to an obnoxious coed whose ‘father had paid for our shitty observatory upstate.” Saddled with a wife and young child, his one route back to a paying job is if he can engineer a hefty give from his college friend Purdy, who ‘had been one of the first to predict that people only really wanted to be alone and scratching themselves and smelling their fingers and firing off sequences of virulent gibberish at other deliquescing life forms”—in other words a pioneering internet tycoon. (One of the many updated and flourishing Milo Minderbinder-types who populate Sam’s fiction.)

In Milo Burke, Sam Lipsyte perfected his portrayal of the sad sack contemporary male—a failure at work, a barely tolerated presence at home, overloaded with seemingly immortal student debt and untenable notions from his trendily overpriced liberal arts education. All that Lipsyte Man has to fight back with is his hefty reserved of disappointed spleen and a verbal facility that is a consistent delight to the reader if not to his interlocutors. The Ask is saturated with the feeling that the promise of American life has curdled and vanished, leaving us the task of managing our disappointments as best we can. Sam’s acute sense of the small-bore sorrows and indignities of contemporary domestic life sometimes puts me in mind of Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pecuchet, his late, terminally disenchanted satire of two dimwitted clerks failing to escape their petit bourgeois fate. Wherever you go, there you are—unfortunately.

Eight years on, with his new novel Hark, Sam engages with the Age of Trump, aka the Big Con—a time when our disappointments are so acute that the need to believe on the part of a large percentage of the citizenry apparently cannot be extinguished by the preponderance of evidence or application of common sense.

The first thing to be said about the book is that Sam has never been sharper or funnier. It is my habit when reading a bound galley for review to dog ear pages where passages that made me laugh or that seem worth quoting strike me. My galley of Hark is so comprehensively dog eared that the whole thing resembles a dog’s ear. The second thing to be said is that Hark presents Sam’s most socially expansive portrait and diagnosis of American life, tinged with a slightly futuristic and dystopian vibe. It features the largest canvas and cast of characters of all his novels, and is the first of them to be written in the third person rather than the first, allowing access to a several competing and complimentary points of views and interior realities.

The Hark of the title is Hark Morner—his mother mistook the word in the Christmas carol for a name rather than an exhortation—who has accidentally drifted from stand-up into guru status when his routine on “Mental Archery” and its sharpening of “focus” proves congenial to corporate conventions and TED-type conclaves. Despite his lack of internal conviction he has attracted a circle of seekers who see in him whatever it is they seem to need. Chief among them is Kate Rumpler, an heiress and financial angel who is on her own private atonement tour, flying bone marrow from donors on flights around the country. Then there is the obligatory Lipsyte Man, Fraz Penig, an unemployed—actually never-employed—filmmaker who tutors the children of the one percent for a sort of living and produces video content for the Harkist website. He is married to Tovah Gold, a poet who earns the real paycheck in the family concocting bullshit-speak for something called the Blended Learning Enhancement Project”; both partners are “locked in a low-level quotidian apocalypse” and the marriage is mired on the shoals of her boredom and barely contained annoyance. (“The qualities in Fraz she once claimed to adore are not so adorable anymore.”)

Hark, a cipher to himself and an empty vessel similar to the figure of Chance in Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, serves as a blank screen on which these and other characters project their ambitions and unreasonable hopes, family, work, sex, country and community having proven to be letdowns or outright delusions.

Lipstye’s satire in Hark has never been more cutting or timely. Meg, one of Hark’s acolytes, excitedly extols the virtues of something called Mercystream: “It’s amazing. Instead of letting refugees into the country, we can give them laptops and listen to their stories as they stream them from their camps. It’s all about empathy.” Fraz’s prematurely wised-up daughter Lisa declares, “School’s like a factory where they make these little cell phone accessories called people.” Musing on the root of her attraction to Hark, a character decides, “Your brain gets tired, brittle. It’s a bitch being attuned to the bleakness all the time. You crave a certain stupor, aka belief”—in itself a neat capsule statement of the novel’s controlling theme.

Lipsyte crams quite a lot of event into Hark’s 284 pages, much of it violent, some of tragic and fatal, and some of it even mystical and visionary, with a final chapter taking place in what is clearly the afterlife. To my mind Sam is attempting to craft a contemporary parable about the birth of religion, how faith, battered into near-extinction by the fraudulence and mendacity of the world, will batten on to the nearest plausible object. In this sense the novel is strikingly similar to Robert Coover’s The Origin of the Brunists, the powerful, even overwhelming first novel of his teacher at Brown that similarly deals with the birth of a cult in the wake of death and disaster. There are also many parallels to be found in the way Nathanael West handles the volatile mixture of credulity and rage in the people he calls “the disappointed” in his indelible The Day of the Locust. In this as in so many other ways Sam Lipsyte is West’s truest successor among our living American novelists. I can offer no higher compliment.

3.Sam Lipsyte began writing in earnest in the early ’90s, just as the pundits were declaring the end of history and a global reign of liberal (or neoliberal) democracy and a goodies-producing market economy stretched into the foreseeable (hah) future. It was not perhaps the best psychic weather for a natural-born naysayer with a provocateur’s instinct and a shot putter’s explosive delivery. But what happened on 9/11 and the subsequent dot-com crash and then the Great Recession opened up a space in the culture for the sort of uncompromising and truth-telling satirist Sam was born to be and the mode of black humor most congenial to his extravagant gifts of language and imagination. It is a critical commonplace that the brain-numbing events of the Trump presidency have rendered satire powerless—a critique of fiction’s incapacity in the wake of American idiocy that dates back to Philip Roth’s in the early ’60s, a time of comparative legibility. Tell it to Aristophanes, Juvenal, Voltaire, Jonathan Swift, Gustave Flaubert, Mark Twain, Bertolt Brecht, the George Orwell of Animal Farm.

Tell it to Sam Lipstye. And then you’d better duck.

Image: Flickr/Pete Banks

The Open Refrigerator

A few decades ago I was sitting in a college seminar room listening to the professor discourse quite penetratingly on Thomas Mann’s monumental and once ubiquitous novel The Magic Mountain when my mind wandered to the question of just how this novel came to be published. Presumably, that callow and ignorant undergraduate in the basement of Goldwin Smith Hall thought someone — some editor — must have read the thing and recognized it for the great book that it was. And how hard could that have been anyway? Hell, even I knew it was a great book, if a bit long and occasionally opaque in meaning. I was a senior and the unpleasant prospect of graduation and the necessity to find some paying work was weighing on my mind. Why couldn’t I become that guy? I loved books, loved them even more than my other obsession, basketball. That might be a satisfying line of work.

And so it has turned out to be — albeit orders of magnitude more complex and riven with stress and uncertainty than my younger self could have imagined. Oddly enough, I now work in something called the Knopf Doubleday Group as a Doubleday editor, and our sibling imprint Knopf published The Magic Mountain in 1927. Its paperback line, Vintage, still has it and most of Mann’s other works in print. In truth it really wasn’t all that hard for Alfred Knopf to decide to publish The Magic Mountain. His relatively young and thrifty firm — started in 1915 on, no kidding, $5,000 worth of capital after a couple of years of apprenticeship at, yes, Doubleday and Mitchell Kennerley — had made its reputation as a publisher of literary books of high quality in translation, and in 1921 it had signed a contract with the German publisher Samuel Fischer for the exclusive rights to Mann’s works in English. The first fruit of that agreement was the 1924 American publication of Mann’s epic family saga Buddenbrooks. (Rather shockingly to me, the book had been published in Germany in 1901 and remained un-Englished for more than two decades. It was a larger and slower world.) The Magic Mountain was published in Germany in late 1924 and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece of modern European literature, so it was, as we say, a no-brainer for Knopf to continue with Mann. (Since Knopf did not read German he would not have read The Magic Mountain until H.T. Lowe-Porter translated it, but we can assume that he was guided by a reader’s report from someone who did — maybe his friend and informal adviser H.L. Mencken — as well as by the European reviews.) Their author-publisher relationship would ripen into a lifelong friendship and became one of the most storied such associations in American publishing history.

Sadly, The Magic Mountain, once a fixture of every middlebrow household’s bookshelf, has fallen off sharply in its sales and cultural currency, as has the rest of Mann’s oeuvre. He and it are too forbidding, demanding, and German for contemporary tastes. I just checked the sales pace of his Vintage paperbacks, as telling a data point on the matter as you can imagine.

I love being able to do that, as I love just about every other aspect of my job here in the heart of New York’s literary-industrial complex, for which, it seems, I have been selected to speak. As much as I’d like to conceive of myself as a sort of free-floating and entirely independent literary sensibility and quality inspector, the fact of the matter is that I am utterly a creature of corporate publishing. My first job in publishing was as a copywriter in the college textbook department of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which had been transformed by the buccaneering William Jovanovich into a huge communications conglomerate that included, no kidding, Sea World as one of its holdings. (Insert Flipper joke here.) Then I became an assistant editor in the education department of New American Library, the large and once pioneering mass-market publisher owned at the time by the Times Mirror corporation. Two years later, I became an editor at Viking Penguin, the American wing of the truly global Penguin Books, owned by the Pearson Corporation. Eight years on, Penguin bought New American Library from Times Mirror, and not coincidentally I moved to the independent and, uniquely, employee-owned W.W. Norton for 10 years. A major player in the textbook market, no one could plausibly call Norton a small press — it had the resources to play with the big boys and occasionally it did. In 1998 I came to Doubleday, which was at the time part of Bantam Doubleday Dell, owned by the German communications conglomerate Bertelsmann. Within a year the Newhouse family-owned Advance Publications had sold Random House, which comprised the imprints Random House, Knopf, Ballantine, Vintage, Crown, Pantheon, and several smaller entities, to Bertelsmann and so we became Random House, the world’s largest trade publisher at the time, with publishing companies in more than a dozen countries. And just two years ago a joint-venture merger between Penguin and Random House was completed to create Penguin Random House, a staggeringly large (in publishing terms, at least) international behemoth with gross revenues of almost $4 billion annually. Whoa.

And what do I think about this, and how does all this stunning and obviously inexorable consolidation in my part of the publishing world affect my work as a book editor? In answer to the first question, I am enough of a nostalgist and publishing geek to look back with longing to the so-called golden age, when the great houses — Knopf; Scribner’s; Random House; Viking; Doubleday; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; Henry Holt; Simon and Schuster; Pantheon; Harper Brothers; und so weiter; and the mass-market giants Bantam, New American Library, Fawcett, Pocket, and Avon — stood firmly on their own financial feet and had distinct editorial identities and idiosyncrasies. I came on the scene in the ’70s just as the wave of mergers and buyouts was gathering force, and I witnessed enough traces of the old order to have taken its measure. But I’m enough of a realist to understand that things happen for a reason. Clearly the forces that have shaped trade publishing for the past four decades dictate that houses must go big or go away. These forces may be deplored, but they will not be argued away or resisted.

As for the second question, my work as an editor is both entirely unaffected by these huge changes in corporate alignments and profoundly in sync with them. What do I mean by these seemingly contradictory assertions?

At the simplest, most basic level, I’ve been reading for a living for 37 years. I arrived at New American Library with a literary and intellectual sensibility formed by the unruly rebellions of the ’60s and the spiritual deflations of the ’70s, with a taste for the novelists and thinkers who had either helped to cause or best reflected and interpreted those rebellions and deflations. I’ve read thousands of books and proposals since then, and I believe I am a better reader than I was at age 27 — I know more because I’ve read more and my judgments are (I sure hope) better informed and more mature. But at the primal level where reader meets text and experiences emotions ranging from boredom and impatience to I-love-this-and-have-to-have-to-publish-it excitement, I think I am still that young man in the hunt and on the make, always searching for the big wow. This process takes place in the private arena of the mind and is entirely unrelated to the corporate arrangements of my employer. It is, quite literally, where I live, where I feel I am most myself.

As for the editing of those books that wow me when happy circumstances dictate that I get to acquire them, that process too takes place in a private arena. When I encounter a sentence that is inelegant or ungrammatical or inefficient or ambiguous in meaning, or a scene in a novel that is implausible or overdone or superfluous, or a plot that drags or goes off course or beggars credulity, or a line of exposition that falls short of the necessary clarity, or feel that some subject is missing and requires coverage, I point those things out to the author and with a carefully calculated mixture of firmness and solicitude suggest ways they might be remedied. I do this usually at nights and on weekends, sometimes on my bus ride to and from work, very occasionally in my office on slow days with my door closed (yes, I have an office with a door that closes), with a complete absence of business calculation beyond the largest context — that a book that is bad or just not good enough is a book that will embarrass me and my employer and be poorly received and will not sell.

But as I read those submissions and edit those manuscripts, on another cognitive plane I am reality testing what I am reading. What other books — the fabled and often tiresome “comp titles” — are like this one, and how did those books sell? (We are always fighting the last war.) Is it too similar to something we published recently or are publishing in the near future, or to a book some other house has or shortly will publish? Are there visual images in the book that might be utilized on the cover? What writers of note can I bug for prepublication blurbs? Is there something about the author, some intriguing or unusual backstory, some charisma radiating off the page (and maybe the author photo? Don’t act so shocked) that suggests that he or she will be a publicity asset? What might a reasonable advance be, given the amounts that have been paid recently for similar books, or might reason for some reason be thrown out the window? (A friend and colleague of mine refers to this feeling as “Let’s get stupid.” More on this matter shortly.) What colleagues in the company, in the editorial department, in marketing, publicity, and sales, could I ask to read the book to drum up support for it? What is my “handle” going to be — the phrases or brief sentences that briskly encapsulate a book’s subject matter and commercial appeal? These and all sorts of other questions will be popping up in my brain, and inevitably there is some crosstalk and bleed-through between the two cognitive spheres. If you want total purity in these matters, go join an Irish monastery and work on illuminated manuscripts, not a New York publishing house. Or at the very least a quiet and scholarly and well-endowed university press.

Nobody really knows how an editor works besides his or her authors and possibly his or her assistant. Yet I am quite certain that, allowing for differences in personal style — some editors go for close-in textual work, some prefer to hover somewhere above the text and make broader observations and suggestions — the process described above is close to the way that my fellow New York editors operate. And there really are not too many of us. I would say that, taking in the six major corporate houses and the handful of sizable independents, that there might be something like 250 editors at a rough count working in adult trade publishing. It’s a fairly clubby group. Most of us know each other either personally or by reputation, and we watch each other’s activities, especially acquisitions, obsessively, aided by our very own digital town crier, the website Publishers Lunch. The society of editors has, of course, its doppelgänger or shadow world in that of the literary agents with whom we deal and whose functions — chiefly the discovery and care and feeding of writers and creating the market for their wares — overlap considerably with ours. Let’s put the number of agents who count (sorry, but we think that way in this town) at 150, and you can grasp how really small-town and incestuous and ingrown the literary ecosystem of New York publishing is. In such a small and hyperconnected world, fueled by the twin forces of ego (our sense that we are at the top of the heap) and insecurity (our sense that we might vanish any year now under some technological Anschluss, that we are in economic terms pissants compared, to, say, the computer-game industry, and how many people in this country care about books anyway?), the arrival of a literary property that holds the promise of both review and publicity glory and substantial sales, can instantly engage the forces of irrational exuberance. And that brings me to the subject without which no consideration of the work of the New York trade editor can be complete: money.

Lord, we have a lot of it. And lord, we need a lot of it. I work in a 50-story mixed-use office and condominium complex in Midtown North, bordering on Hell’s Kitchen. When I approach this building arriving at work in the morning or returning from one of those storied publishing lunches, I look up at it and start doing calculations in my head as to what our offices must cost to rent, and to heat and light and air-condition, let alone the expense of paying the salaries and the benefits and the T&Es of all the people working here. Then I add on the cost of our humongous and totally up-to-the-minute warehouse and fulfillment center in semirural Maryland and all the folks who work there, and I ask myself what have I done to help my company cover the truly enormous nut that one day’s operation must entail and try to avoid the obvious answer that, whatever it is, it is not enough. So I head through the revolving door and up the elevator and tank up on the not-at-all-bad Flavia coffee in the common area that looks like it was decorated with fixtures from the set of some late-’60s Polish science fiction film and start answering the e-mails that have piled up since the day before. Welcome to my world.

What is both odd yet understandable is that the response to the inexorable financial thirst of corporate publishing houses on the part of its editors is less the exercise of thrift and discipline in the matter of acquisitions than a profligacy that is sometimes truly jaw-dropping. I am the son of Depression-era parents, part of the last generation of Americans to be told to close the refrigerator door because it wastes electricity, and I have to say, this really bothers me. Especially when I do it myself. Because, you see, we are all English majors, and while few of us are truly innumerate, finance and accounting are not where we live, and agents have become immensely skilled at orchestrating competitive bidding situations, even for first novels by complete unknowns, the results of which sometimes reach so many hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars that the amount begins to feel abstract, even as what Lord Keynes called our animal spirits become aroused and engaged and the amount goes even higher. Plus, by the way, we are not crazy, or at least not always. We publish into a winner-take-all marketplace where one or two high-risk/high-reward properties can make a publisher’s fiscal year, so there is a definite financial logic to this sort of behavior, even if, as often happens, we are disastrously wrong. And this inflationary dynamic extends backward from the megasellers, actual and merely hoped for, to the books we term midlist, to the point where only a small percentage of the books we publish end up earning out their advances. We’re leaving the refrigerator door open most of the time, and a hell of a lot of electricity is being wasted.

That’s New York publishing for you, the literary home of the wider Gotham disease that Tom Wolfe dubbed the Big League Complex. This suggests a sports analogy to me. There has been an American publishing industry for a little under two centuries, once widely dispersed across a number of urban centers, but now almost entirely concentrated in New York; let’s call it the major leagues. Over the past 70 years there has arisen, for reasons too complex to unpack here, an increasingly widespread and professionalized creative-writing industry, and just as the major college athletic programs groom and showcase top-tier talent for drafting by the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, so do the MFA programs groom and showcase top-tier literary talent for the New York publishing houses. There are these days about as many uncredentialed walk-ons in our literary fiction as there are walk-ons in major league baseball.

In 2013 Chad Harbach, author of the widely acclaimed novel The Art of Fielding, holder of an MFA from the University of Virginia, and a founding editor of n+1, published in that magazine an acute anatomy of what he characterized as the two dominant cultures of American fiction, “MFA vs. NYC.” By “MFA” he means the university-based degree-granting system, which now numbers an amazing and, to a book editor, unnerving 1,269 such programs. By “NYC” he meant not only the New York-based publishing houses and the prestige-conferring magazines such as The New Yorker and the Paris Review, but the whole society of writers and editors and agents and publicists and booksellers and, yes, even MFA teachers who make their home and their living here. Broadly and reductively described, the MFA world runs on credentials and degrees and connections, a highly networked “system of circulating patronage,” as Harbach puts it, largely detached from commercial imperatives. Broadly and reductively described, the NYC world runs on money and prestige. NYC is, of course, also highly networked, and one can cite many NYC-ish writers whose prestige is decoupled from their sales, but by and large and in the end we are all highly aware of and finally judged by the metrics of the market.

Yet, as Harbach admits, NYC is where a good part of the MFA sets its cap, for here is where the big payoffs and the lasting glory are to be earned. So to complete the sports analogy, one might propose that the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) = NCAA (no explanation needed). Both have a limited number of top drawer competitive programs where the truly talented gravitate, and those programs are devoted to preparing the truly talented for their sometimes highly compensated entry into the big leagues. NYC does not formalize this process with anything like a draft (though that would be quite an amusing thing to contemplate); in its place is a system of recommendations whereby the marquee writing instructors pass along their most promising students to their agents, who bring those young writers and their work to editors with all the smarts and salesmanship and market knowledge at their command. When the stars are in alignment — when the right book hits the market at just the right time with just the right spin and buzz — the payoff can be immensely lucrative, approaching and in some cases exceeding a million dollars for a first novel by a hitherto unknown writer. (Such news is usually greeted by a soundtrack of bitching and moaning and gnashing of teeth by hitherto known writers.)

On occasion the books so singled out will earn back their advances, and their authors will go on to notable careers. But just as many a number-one draft pick will, despite their heroic compensation, struggle as a professional athlete and slowly fade into obscurity, the good fortune of such a young writer can prove temporary and illusory. The excitement that accompanied the first novel’s acquisition somehow does not carry over into the reception by the reviewers and the reading public; the sales disappoint; and in a New York minute, yesterday’s hot property becomes today’s expensive liability.

We’ve traveled a long, long way from the storied four-decade publishing association of Alfred Knopf with Thomas Mann, nostalgia for which is a fairly useless emotion in our Godzilla vs. King Kong world of death-match throwdowns against Amazon and Apple and Google and the Justice Department and adversaries yet undreamt of. So whither “the art of literary editing” in such a world? (It’s really a craft and a profession, but let it pass.)

My crystal ball is cloudy, but it seems to me that unless the creation and dissemination of written artifacts of literary intent becomes a fully digitized and DIY enterprise — and it might, every typing man and woman his or her own imprint — the exercise of informed taste and judgment, the expert guidance, and the infectious enthusiasm that are the editor’s stock in trade and unique contributions to the publishing enterprise will remain indispensable. For all the wrenching changes in trade publishing in the past decades, I know that my colleagues and I pretty much go about the thing in a fashion very similar to the way the editors I watched and learned from were doing it in the ’70s, and they were doing in a fashion very similar to the editors they learned from. Sometimes I think we’re like blacksmiths or bespoke cobblers — how many ways are there, really, to shoe a horse or a human?

But here’s an ironic and unexpected note to finish on: it seems that Alfred Knopf took a somewhat dim view of editors and did not regard them as so central to the publishing process as many (including editors) would have it. In his generous review in 1950 for The New York Times Book Review of the marvelous collection Editor to Author: The Letters of Maxwell Perkins, Knopf gives full credit to Perkins for his almost superhuman tact and patience and graciousness and his central place in the creation of the American literary canon of the first part of the 20th century. This was something, of course, that he would have witnessed in real time as a competitor to Scribner’s, which employed Perkins. But towards the end of his review Knopf registers this demurral: “Perkins’s influence on his own authors was clearly all to the good, but his influence on other publishers’ editors and consequently on American publishing, as a whole, has been something else again.” He goes on to argue that, for one thing, novelists in an ideal world would deliver their novels to their publishers without needing or expecting Perkinsesque editorial aid and comfort, and for another that publishers themselves have become so focused on the business aspects of their enterprise that they have become too dependent on editors to tell them what they should publish rather than reading the books themselves. He concludes, “I can only hope that this trend may be reversed, that the harassed publisher will consider hiring instead of an editor, say, a very competent business manager and thus become freer himself to spend more time with the people who write books for him and for others. For we have seen only one Perkins in a generation.” That must have been a fun review for the editorial staff of Knopf to have read on a Sunday morning in March 1950.

And with that mixed and chastening message, farewell for now from the Knopf Doubleday Group.

This essay is excerpted from the forthcoming anthology Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Travis Kurowski, Wayne Miller, and Kevin Prufer.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.