The longer I look at publishing the more convinced I am that the most compelling reason to drive a stake through the heart of the industry is the hypocrisy of claiming critical authority on one hand while on the other reserving the right to justify any book deal on a purely economic basis. I was brought back to this theme late last week by the announcement of two deals that exemplify this hypocrisy, but in a way that may not be immediately apparent.
There was, I think, appropriate disgust at the announcement by Simon & Schuster that they had signed a deal for a first novel from Nicole “Snooki” Palazzi. If you’re not up on your pop-culture stars, Snooki is a developmentally-disabled Italian American who regularly appears on an exploitative MTV series called Jersey Shore. As a for-profit enterprise, it’s not wrong of Simon & Schuster to attempt to profit from Snooki’s celebrity, and I don’t fault the book deal on that basis. But having seen clips of Snooki communicating with the demons in her head it’s obvious that her capacity to write a coherent sentence, let alone a book, falls somewhere between the potential literary genius of metamorphic rock and small furry animals. If a ghostwriter hasn’t already been hired it’s inevitable that most of the words and all of the structure in her book will come from someone other than the credited author. Yet this fraudulent business arrangement is being funded and driven by an upstanding member of a publishing community which collectively insists on respect not simply as a money-making enterprise, but as a cultural bastion of taste and merit.
Contrast this with Knopf’s announcement last week of a $2.5 million book deal for the next novel by Kiran Desai. I’ve never read anything Kiran Desai has written, but there seems to be general agreement she can write, if not that she is an important voice. It might at first appear that Knopf spent all that money on the quality of Desai’s writing, except that’s demonstrably not the case. The deal was brokered not for a finished work, but over a four-page proposal. For all I know Desai’s next book will be unmitigated genius from start to finish, but it’s at least theoretically possible that hopes for the project may not be realized despite everyone’s best efforts. What that means is that either Knopf decided to gamble all that money on the quality of Desai’s next book, or Knopf already did the math on the market and expected sales even if the book stinks, and concluded they will make their money back and more.
While Shooki’s book is a fraud, and Desai’s book may aspire to the greatest of literary heights, the people throwing money at these projects are almost certainly doing so solely on the basis of the economics of the market segments they serve. From a cultural perspective, putting Snooki’s book out is pure capitalism, including the fact that the whole project is a lie. But so is Knopf’s bankrolling of Desai’s next project. If one is respected and one is not respected, that says nothing about why money changed hands.
It changed hands in both cases because these names will sell. In neither case was quality the determining factor.
— Mark Barrett