Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros21.2RecensionsDan Sinykin, Big Fiction. How Con...

Recensions

Dan Sinykin, Big Fiction. How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature

New York: Columbia University Press, “Literature Now” series, 2023. 313 p. ISBN: ‎978-0-231-19295-8. $30
Cécile COTTENET
Référence(s) :

Dan Sinykin, Big Fiction. How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature. New York: Columbia University Press, “Literature Now” series, 2023. 313 p. ISBN: ‎978-0-231-19295-8. $30

Texte intégral

1Big Fiction is representative of contemporary publishers’ expectation that their authors will “participate in promotional entrepreneurship online” (216): Dan Sinykin’s own effective promotion on social media in 2023 created much anticipation for this study which has legitimately won acclaim from some of the most prestigious US cultural magazines, including the Los Angeles Review of Books, The New Republic, and The Atlantic. An assistant professor of English at Emory University, Sinykin is a member of the Post 45 collective of scholars working on US literature and culture since 1945, and an acute observer of contemporary trends in literature and publishing.

  • 1 Mark McGurl, The Program Era. Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Cambridge, MA.: Har (...)

2Proposing to look at literature, metaphorically, “through the colophon”, i.e. the publisher’s mark, to acknowledge the importance of gatekeepers in the book trade, Big Fiction is literary, publishing and book history all in one. Partially deriving its theoretical framework from Bourdieu’s field theory, it examines how the institutions of fiction that developed in the conglomerate era, since the 1960s, shaped US literature. Sinykin argues that the transformations of literature since the 1960s result from the exacerbation of the distribution of authorial agency to a wider cast of characters within publishing, which defines “conglomerate authorship”. This dilution, and in some cases outright sapping, of agency has led authors to contend with the constraints of conglomeration in their texts, either struggling against or incorporating them. Print culture scholars will not be surprised at the author’s call to reconsider “outsize attention to the author” and focus on the interactions between publishers, editors, booksellers and bookbuyers, literary agents, or publicists: the concept of the author as a solitary genius has long been challenged by literary scholars, book historians, and sociologists of literature, as pointed out in the brief literature review (8-10). What makes this an original contribution is the focus on our contemporary period with its rapid technological transformations (computerized data, birth of social media…), the emergence of new power players, and the use of computational analytics to supplement “traditional” close reading. Building on previous and contemporary scholarship—particularly by Mark McGurl, Evan Brier, and his contemporaries Alexander Manshel, Kinohi Nishikawa, and Matthew Kirschenbaum1— and on evidence in Publishers’ Weekly, Sinykin masterfully weaves together the impact of academic creative writing programs and of the mass market, the rise of chain bookstores, book buyers, and literary agents, as well as the historical and ethnic turns in US fiction since the 1980s, and the influence of public and private donors. This is quite a tour de force. His explanation of the increasing power of chain bookstores is an especially enlightening demonstration of the workings of the conglomerate machine: the advent of computerized data helped stores like B. Dalton to better assess what kinds of books they would select, giving them leverage over publishers who in turn could recalibrate their print runs, and leading editors and agents to transform their own practices. His account of the formidable Barnes & Noble buyer, Sessalee Hensley—who was laid off in 2020 after 35 years with Barnes & Noble—backing middlebrow authors like Alice Sebold, Jeffrey Eugenides or Jonathan Franzen to “fill up the space” in these bookstores—is fascinating. Each cog in the machine is presented through the portrayal of representative individuals, and the 14-page “glossary of publishing figures” with brief, humoristic professional biographies of major players of the 20th century is both informative and entertaining.

3The first five chapters analyze the interconnection between trade, mass-market and nonprofit publishers, and the circulation of genre fiction— and of material formats— from mass-market to trade and vice versa. The story of conglomeration is one of successive shifts in power: the disempowerment of the author, the shift in influence from editors to chain bookstores, as well as the empowerment of a more aggressive generation of literary agents compared with that of the 1940s and 50s, and whose rise in the 1970s, according to Sinykin, “amounted to a revolution in the industry” (54). Focusing on Random House, one of the most important publishers in America after 1945, chapters 3 and 4 signal another shift within publishing beginning in the 1980s, from the coteries of “individual players” who patronized the New York or Hamptons’ parties of legendary (male) editors of the 1960s like Jason Epstein or Robert Loomis, to “systems”. As Sinykin writes, “Success came to depend less on simply knowing the right people […] and more on one’s capacity to accommodate in one’s work the demands of the system.” (96-97) Publishing historians will appreciate the archival work underpinning these two chapters. The last chapter centers on W.W. Norton’s anomalous position in the publishing field, as a “notorious WASP stronghold” (168) whose strength, and indeed, backbone, consisted in its critical editions, anthologies, and trade nonfiction. This was until the 1990s, when this independent house began to diversify its literary catalogue, largely under the impetus of editor Gerald Howard who launched the Old School Books series of forgotten but classic African American “pulp” and acquired both Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting—not exactly the type of texts that immediately fit in with the Norton image.

  • 2 Scholarship focusing on this issue for the 20th century has grown substantially in the last twenty (...)

4Diversity is also central to chapter 5, one of the most incisive, which offers a critical account of the transformations in publishing and of the rise of multicultural literature since the 1990s: it skillfully demonstrates how, in their determination to promote their image as an alternative to the overwhelming whiteness of conglomerates, nonprofit publishers were inextricably bound to the latter “as its obverse” (164). Sinykin suggests that nonprofits’ scramble for multicultural texts and translations in the 1990s was not a fundamentally virtuous move, but rather, “an accident” turned “mission” (141): stimulated by the predominantly white trade publishers’ disdain for these texts, and financed by public (NEA, NEH) and private grants and donations, nonprofits progressively turned to ethnic literatures not merely to emphasize their ethos as alternative publishers, but because these literatures had become “increasingly marketable as well as increasingly desirable for government bureaucracies and the donor class to support” (139) in the 1990s. They transformed the American literary landscape, yet this entailed that “white editors, by and large, were creating the categories to which books by writers of color were assigned” (141). This asymmetrical author of color/ white editor power dynamics in an overwhelmingly white industry, famously satirized by Percival Everett in Erasure, has been the focus of earlier scholarship2 on the pre-conglomerate era. Rather than deplore this asymmetry, Sinykin asserts that the dichotomy between nonprofits and conglomerate imprints induced by their modes of financing ultimately led multicultural writers to navigate publishing according to the type of imprint. While writers like Everett or Karen Tei Yamashita published works that satirized multiculturalism with nonprofit presses in the 1990s and 2000s, other writers of color were more likely to “perform the authentication of identity” (164) when publishing with conglomerate publishers. The success of Colson Whitehead—“the quintessential contemporary literary genre writer” and “the most celebrated currently practicing US novelist”, according to Sinykin (222)–or the works of Paul Beatty exemplify how this form of satire has become common currency among conglomerate publishers in the early 21st century.

  • 3 Alexander Manshel, Writing Backwards. Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, N (...)

5A detailed, entertaining history of publishing, Big Fiction forcefully elucidates the complex transformations of the industry in the conglomerate era, without any sentimental longing for a mythical “golden age” of publishing peopled with “genius” editors (Maxwell Perkins…) or publishers like Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House. In fact, Sinykin’s emphasis on the rampant sexism in the industry, here counterbalanced by the success stories of power players Nan Talese—first female literary editor at Random House—or editor Carol Houck Smith who ultimately rose to President of W.W. Norton, rather speaks to his lack of nostalgia. Still, scholars less enthralled than I by book trade titbits might read Big Fiction to discover Sinykin’s answers to the second part of his question, i.e., how conglomeration changed American literature. I have alluded to the influence of chain bookstores on the rise of middlebrow fiction; another transformation, argued in the light of Alexander Marshal’s Writing Backwards (2023)3, is the rise of historical fiction, seen here largely as the result of its elevation by various prestigious literary prizes in the 1980s, and exemplified by E.L. Doctorow’s postmodernist Ragtime (Random House, 1975), or Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987). Another trend, exemplified by the rise to stardom of “brand authors” Stephen King, Danielle Steel or Judith Krantz—the latter with the help of agent Morton Janklow—, is the predominance of genre fiction and of series featuring recurring characters. The porosity or circulation of genre literature is a key feature in the demonstration, which shows how genre fiction was incorporated, with varying degrees of subtlety and ironic distance, into literary texts. Taking the case of Cormac McCarthy, a highly acclaimed author in France, Sinykin contends that assimilation of certain genre techniques, along with a change of editor and the acquisition of an agent, transformed McCarthy from difficult, obscure writer to successful author of middlebrow fiction. This transformation was particularly visible with All the Pretty Horses, which “tells the story of a teenage cowboy who cherishes the old ways, goes to Mexico, falls in love, kills a man, suffers guilt, and returns to the United States to mourn the loss of the West. It’s easy to love. It is model literary genre fiction.” (121) For Sinykin, the incorporation of the gothic horror genre in Beloved, influenced by the late 1970s craze for horror, is in turn representative of the 1980s shift in literature from an ironic integration of genre into “meta-genre fiction” (as in Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 The Crying of Lot 49) to a more direct embracing of genre, reducing distance from the formulaic.

  • 4 Myra Bloom, “Sources of the Self(ie): An Introduction to the Study of Autofiction in English,” Engl (...)

6While “conglomerate authorship” is characterized by the distribution of authorial agency, Sinykin emphasizes authors’ resistance an apparently ineluctable fate. Here Big Fiction makes the compelling claim that some authors incorporated conglomeration into their very texts, either directly or allegorizing their own struggles within the system, in an attempt to recover some form of authorial agency. This argument, developed in relation to works by Renata Adler, Alison Lurie, Elizabeth Hardwick, and beyond, to autofiction authored by women, is especially cogent. Building on an argument made by Myra Bloom4, Sinykin suggests that several women writers at Random House, in the face of sexism—and racism—“forged new novelistic forms to manage gendered expectations” (73) and contends that autofiction was used by women writers to work from a “position of historic powerlessness in the literary field” to “advertise constraints imposed on them by patriarchy in publishing” (85). While this is likely to lead to new interpretations of the autofictional genre, I am not fully convinced that Toni Morrison’s Beloved presents a similar case of an allegorized incorporation of the consequences of a sexist and racist publishing institution, despite Sinykin’s somewhat bold reading (111-112) of one episode when Morrison’s character, Sethe, realizes that the dehumanizing observations made by schoolteacher’s pupils were written with the very ink she herself had made as a possible allegory for Morrison’s job as editor at Random House for 16 years. Sustained by Morrison’s own account, the notion that she was able to write Beloved after and possibly because she had left Random House and found freedom, is more compelling.

7Sinykin honestly acknowledges the “book’s largest lacuna: the world” (13). Work remains to be done to establish the possible role played by the growing importance of subsidiary rights and foreign markets, as well as the increasingly aggressive approach of literary agents from the 1970s onwards, in the transformation of US literature both at home and perhaps, via a feedback loop, abroad. Still, globalization of US literature outside the U.S. justifiably falls outside Sinykin’s purview, and his analysis is sufficiently comprehensive as it is. Fast-paced, packed with gossip, it is a dazzling, sometimes dizzying history of US publishing in the conglomerate era as it matured between the 1960s and 1990s. Literary scholars may perhaps be frustrated with the brevity of certain close readings, due to the wide array of authors discussed. For cultural historians and sociologists of literature, this study certainly broadens perspectives on the role of institutions of fiction and the impact of the market.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Mark McGurl, The Program Era. Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP, 2011; Evan Brier, A Novel Marketplace: Mass Culture, the Book Trade, and Postwar American Fiction, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, Kinohi Nishikawa, Street Players. Black Pulp Fiction and the Making of a Literary Underground, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing, Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard UP, 2016.

2 Scholarship focusing on this issue for the 20th century has grown substantially in the last twenty years; early studies include John K. Young’s Black Writers, White Publishers: Marketplace Politics in Twentieth-Century African American Literature (University Press of Mississippi, 2006), and George Hutchinson’s works.

3 Alexander Manshel, Writing Backwards. Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon, New York: Columbia UP, 2023.

4 Myra Bloom, “Sources of the Self(ie): An Introduction to the Study of Autofiction in English,” English Studies in Canada, 45, n°1, 2019, p. 1-18.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Cécile COTTENET, « Dan Sinykin, Big Fiction. How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.2 | 2024, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2024, consulté le 18 juillet 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/erea/17393 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/11w9o

Haut de page

Auteur

Cécile COTTENET

Aix Marseille Univ, LERMA, Aix-en-Provence, France

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

CC-BY-NC-ND-4.0

Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search