Thinking of writing literary fiction?

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Dark. The weather has never been so good.

By James McWilliams

James Patterson at the Aol Build Lecture Series. (Photo: Theo Wargo / Getty Images)

In 2013, James Patterson, the paperback writer whose volumes are typically consumed between 25,000 and 32,000 feet above ground, earned $ 90 million from book sales. Ninetymillion bucks. As publishers finally scrapped the old-school idea that great authors should publish no more than one book a year, Patterson opened the floodgates. After assembling a 16-member gang of negroes (supplied by Little, Brown and Company, its publisher) and sketching out a series of boilerplate plots, the Patterson team began to venture into the literary world of two to four “BookShots”. a month. He says he plans to write “the way Henry Ford would see it”. He also says he’s responsible for about a third of his publisher’s overall book sales.

The established scholars, as you can imagine, were not impressed. When Patterson’s windfall earnings in 2013 made the news, literary site editor Bill Morris The millions, deigned to taste Patterson’s work while reading (during an international flight) Pop goes the weasel. It didn’t go well. “Books like Pop goes the weasel“, he wrote,” are for people who don’t really like to read but like to be able to say they have read, just as fruity cocktails are for people who don’t really like to drink but like to say they have read. like to walk on drunken knees. “Alcohol analogy notwithstanding, the assessment is fairly standard among readers and writers who prefer Proust to Patterson. Man’s literary good faith is, on the whole, nil.

But according to Clayton Childress, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Toronto and author of the upcoming Under the cover: the creation, production and reception of a novel, the clever set could tone down his snobbery. Renowned writers like Patterson, he told me, “do the literary world a service.” Noting that about “85% of a publisher’s titles do not generate a return on investment,” Childress argues that the income generated by Patterson-like authors (JK Rowling and Stephen King come to mind) subsidizes the risks that publishers take on unknown writers who show literary works. promise. “The system of advances on books,” he said, “is redistributive. Patterson’s success subsidizes the dreams of future Saul Bellows and Toni Morrisons.

Given that Patterson, the world’s best-selling author since 2001, could easily self-publish on Amazon, it seems appropriate – if not mandatory – for struggling novelists with literary ambitions to send him a brief thank you note. but sincere.

Nobody gets into writing novels to get rich. Throughout American history, even the best-known writers, at least early in their careers, have had to make a living beyond the limits of books. As Childress reminds us, Herman Melville was a customs inspector, William Faulkner a postmaster and Kurt Vonnegut a car dealership manager (Saab). Even Patterson worked in an advertising agency.

Noting that “85% of a publisher’s titles do not generate a return on investment,” Childress argues that the income generated by Patterson-type authors subsidizes the risks publishers take with unknown writers who demonstrate literary promise.

However, many young authors today complain that they cannot earn a living with a singular emphasis on writing. Childress thinks this complaint is more of a mythology, if not a right, than a legitimate complaint. There has never been a golden age of authorship. The Job History of Famous Writers – Octavia Butler was a Potato Chip Quality Control Inspector! – is therefore essential to formulate Childress’ most convincing claim: the writing of novels in the United States today – that is, the production of high-end literary works – is “perhaps more profitable than ever ”.

In addition to the trickle-down effect of the big names, Childress highlights the rise of MFA programs as the other development essential to the plight of working novelists. The first of these programs – the Iowa Writers Workshop – was founded in 1936, but it didn’t start to take off until the early 2000s, when MFA programs exploded to accommodate a surge of students who, faced with an uncertain economy, took out loans to enroll. . “More MFA programs in creative writing have been founded since 2000,” writes Childress, “than have been founded throughout the twentieth century. “

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JK Rowling signs copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for 1,600 public school children on October 15, 2007. (Photo: Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty Images)

These programs have helped writers in difficulty in a tangible and systematic way. They “provide an income for novelists, short stories, poets and other creative writers”, allowing them, according to a writing professor interviewed by Childress, “to make a living by writing”. Again, no one in this scenario breaks the bank, but MFA programs, according to a Stanford University English professor, are “the greatest system of literary sponsorship for living writers the world has ever had. never seen”.

Grading student homework takes time, but for the aspiring novelist it’s better than assessing the quality of the crisps (at least as a long-term professional effort). Students in MFA programs, despite the weight of loans, end up doing relatively well, too, with a high percentage of actual jobs in the arts.

The MFA model has other advantages beyond stable literary employment. As Childress explains, writing programs shield experimental writers from the crossfire of the Culture Wars. Before the boom in master’s of fine arts programs, novelists looked primarily to the National Endowment for the Arts for economic support. But with the aggressive meddling of ideological brandons like Jesse Helms, the South Carolina senator who condemned Erica Jong’s NEA-backed feminist novel Fear of flying as a “seemingly dirty and obscene book” (and with Allen Ginsberg bragging about using his NEA grant to buy a Volkswagen bus for a friend), the NEA decided to pursue another tact.

Essentially, he has adopted a “conscious strategy” of funneling money into MFA programs. As Childress explains, the “NEA’s solution to the problem of critical Conservative lawmakers … was to ‘hide’ funding for writers through institutions.” The result, as Childress shows in her writer profile Cornelia Nixon, novelist and professor of writing at Mills College, are often careers that nurture rather than compete with the romantic endeavor.

In a disruptive economy that seems to want to decentralize all forms of service and production – publishing included – there are many writers who naturally bring their talent directly to market through self-publishing. Childress is not necessarily opposed to such an option, and he notes how some writers have been successful in this route. But, as he told me, “by self-publishing the outsized rewards of the lucky few are never redistributed.”

As his elegant book demonstrates, the current model – of renowned writers sharing the wealth with unknown counterparts who appreciate the prospect of an MFA job – is a more cooperative arrangement which, while not ideal, has its merits. better chances of producing quality literature by writers. who have a chance to change our lives with words.

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