Controversy — January 23, 2014, 2:47 pm


Romance writers, Jennifer Weiner, and the future of publishing

Illustration by Thomas Allen

Illustration by Thomas Allen

The New York literary industry stands at the front door and frets over the guest list, while everyone else is sneaking out the back. There are many better parties. Though e-books — and soon we’ll call them books — will not destroy the publishing industry any more than paperbacks did, they have already fractured and decentralized it. You can feel, in literary corners of the city, the depreciation of old-style New York–centered prestige. It manifests as a sense of lessening atmospheric pressure, a feeling that you do not have to be here to make it.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t want an invitation. Few writers appear more covetous of old-media respect than Jennifer Weiner, the author most recently of the bestselling novel Then Came You, and an agitator, on her website, Twitter, and elsewhere, for the inclusion of commercial fiction — and by extension commercial fiction written by and for women — in the New York Times Book Review. Weiner’s self-advocacy aroused enough emotion to earn her a profile in the January 13 issue of The New Yorker, and many people are now debating in the very forums that exclude her work the question of whether she belongs. The New Yorker will never publish her fiction, but a profile is another story. Weiner may not realize how flattering old media finds her attacks. In her, it has found someone whose cultural influence isn’t limited to literary New York, and yet who shares its belief that New York is the only town in the game. Aspirants validate establishments.

Weiner has a few things straight: she’s a commercial rather than a “literary” writer, and female writers of commercial fiction for women are perhaps the least-respected writers in America. They are definitely the least respected by the male-dominated New York houses and magazines. But in tracking the conversation about Weiner, it’s easy to forget that the most popular and lucrative genre of writing in the United States is commercial, female-dominated, and almost completely independent of New York.

Romance novelists, a group I write about in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine, only care about the New York Times Book Review insofar as they appear on its bestseller lists. In stark opposition to New York writers, they don’t worry about being un-literary. They consider the idea of literariness irrelevant to their project. Last August, at the Romance Novel Convention in Las Vegas, I met Angela Knight, a New York Times bestselling author of paranormal erotic romance, and when I asked whether she worried about being accepted by the literary establishment, she said plainly, “Fuck them.”

Good romance writers can earn a living without anyone in New York publishing knowing their names, because they publish and promote their work themselves. A traditional publishing house might give an author 25 percent of the net price on an e-book (meaning that if an outlet marks down your title, you get 25 percent of the discounted price). The e-book distributor Smashwords, by contrast, forbids outlets from discounting and returns 60 to 75 percent of the cover price to the author. The Amazon, Kobo, and Sony e-book stores offer similarly good rates.

Romance titles are priced low, usually around four or five dollars, which makes it easier to sell a lot of them. A known author, rolling with Facebook and Goodreads promotion, can move more than a thousand units daily on Smashwords alone. A 60 percent cut of two thousand $5 e-books is $6,000. If your book sells well for a week, you’ve made $42,000. Publish two books a year, a not-unusual pace for an e-book author, and you’ve earned $84,000 before taxes. And that’s just from Smashwords — because contracts with most e-book distributors are nonexclusive, you can sell through other distributors, too, so you may have comparable revenue coming from Kobo, Amazon, and others. And this is assuming you’re not a top-tier author. The writers in the winner’s circle, which in romance is big, can easily pull six or seven figures.

Jonathan Franzen has criticized Weiner for being self-promoting. Romance writers would find this criticism hilarious. They are, like Weiner, excellent marketers. HP Mallory, a writer who always wanted to drive a Land Rover and now does, has 35,000 likes on Goodreads and 8,700 Facebook fans. The Facebook pages she makes for her characters are equally popular. Mallory, along with writers like Bella Andre, Catherine Bybee, Barbara Freethy, Abbi Glines, Liliana Hart, Colleen Hoover, RL Mathewson, and Kirsty Moseley, have figured out how to turn their finely tuned genre writing into money. By self-publishing, they cut out the suits who once took cuts.

Why isn’t the literary industry paying attention to all of this? One reason — and I think Weiner would agree — is that romance is genre fiction, written almost exclusively by women. Self-styled literary readers don’t read books that wind up, as every romance does, with a happily-ever-after (an HEA, in the language of the genre).

But another reason is that romance novels haven’t been well served by the New York bookstores where the literary industry shops. For her 1984 book Reading the Romance, still the definitive study of the subject, Janice Radway had to travel to an all-romance bookstore in an anonymous Midwestern town in order to gather enough readers to anthropologize. Today, outside the purview of New York publishing’s sales and distribution, romance writers have found success with e-books and self-publishing. “What’s now becoming clear to everyone,” Smashwords founder Mark Coker told me, “is that romance was underserved by the traditional retail model.”

And that is where Goodreads and Facebook have come in, as well as message boards, author blogs, and mailing lists. Twitter, insufficiently direct and interactive, doesn’t hold sway in the romance world, where the only vital relationship is that between reader and writer. Critics and publishers don’t factor in at all.

In the annals of New York literary history, husbands who relied on their wives to be their scribes and editors are embarrassingly plentiful. Romance has inverted the model. Last year, the Novelists Inc. conference in Myrtle Beach featured a panel intended to teach the husbands of romance novelists how to be their wives’ assistants. “Five of the women there,” Brenda Hiatt, one of the panelists, said to me later, “their husbands have retired from their jobs.”

I should mention that most romance writers have very traditional marriages — at least until the wife starts writing. The man plies a middle- or upper-middle-class trade, and the woman works part-time or takes care of the kids. But a big royalty check has a way of altering a marriage contract.

You see a certain pattern: a husband who respects his wife’s success, knows he’s not her audience, and, not being a writer, evinces little anxiety about any of it. “Romance,” said Angela Knight, “is written by women, edited by women, sold by women, read by women.” The autonomy extends even into the marriage. Lynn Lorenz, who makes a good living writing gay erotica for women, told me that her family “loves the extra income; it’s bought us two cars, a new washer and dryer, dishwasher, microwaves, vacations.” Her husband, who works full-time, doesn’t read her books.

Successful commercial romance writers have economic power in their relationships and in the world. They have sales, fans, and control over the marketing of their product. Few of them see any reason to lose sleep over New York. Few even mention it in conversation. The literary industry is lucky Weiner is so pissed off at it. At least her anger is attention. And she’ll have a platform in the literary world as long as she keeps tweeting to her 81,000 followers that she isn’t taken as seriously as Franzen, because someone has to spread the news of the cultural relevance of the institutions that created him.

It’s not Weiner’s desire for inclusion that should scare New York. It’s the threat of her indifference.

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chance that a country to which the U.S. sells arms is cited by Amnesty International for torturing its citizens:

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A newly discovered lemur (Avahi cleesei) was named after the comedian John Cleese.

Kavanaugh is confirmed; Earth’s governments are given 12 years to get climate change under control; Bansky trolls Sotheby’s

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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