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'Vamp Me Via Zoom': How personal ads at The New York Review of Books embraced the language of the pandemic
- At The New York Review of Books, COVID-19, Zoom, and vaccines made their way into the personal ads.
- Sharmaine Ong, who manages the ads, gave Insider a look at her favorites from the last year.
- One began: " Tony Fauci Seeks Deborah Birx."
A few days ago, Sharmaine Ong, who manages the personal ads at The New York Review of Books, said she'd be happy to choose a few of her favorite listings from the last year or so, since COVID-19 first brought New York City to a standstill.
Moments later, an email arrived listing her top four.
" Tony Fauci Seeks Deborah Birx — public health wonk seeks earthy Jewish woman for sniggering about the boss after work with our masks off," read one of Ong's favorites, from July 2020, when the real Fauci and Birx were often seen standing behind President Donald Trump at the White House.
Ong, who was promoted to advertising associate in January 2020, told Insider that as the pandemic picked up, she noticed a few interesting changes in the literary publication's personals . These have long had a reputation as a mating ground for educated, sometimes wealthy, playful-with-words types.
Mentions of COVID, Zoom, and other pandemic-related topics spiked last year, as might be expected. (One from last July began with "In the time of Corona ...") Some ad-buyers said they were lonely during lockdowns. Others were looking for pen pals, since face-to-face meetings were difficult.
Ong, who started at the NYRB as an intern about three years ago, also said more young people began buying print ads as the pandemic worsened.
"When I started, I noticed a lot of ads run by 40 to 80 year olds, but now I'm seeing some ads from 20 to 30 year olds, which is quite different," she said.
Insider reached out to the email address attached to the Fauci/Birx ad. The ad-buyer introduced himself via email as Dr. Gabriel Ethan Feldman , who in 2011 was awarded $14.7 million as a federal whistleblower.
Feldman said via email that he'd mostly given up on internet dating, turning instead to print ads. The NYRB ad brought in a few replies. He'd gotten one date from it. They both wore masks. Nothing came of it.
"I thought it was a clever take as I am actually a real-life public health physician," he said via email.
After a few back-and-forth emails, Feldman added, "You can use my name, I don't mind. Everyone knows I can't find someone in NYC despite being a multimillionaire, nice Jewish doctor, federal whistleblower."
Another of Ong's favorites was published last summer: " Vamp Me Via Zoom or FaceTime. Set my soul afire. Instagram my eager ego. Hashtag my desire. Though our lips may never meet. Tweet me, baby, tout de suite!"
The NYRB usually increases its classified-ad rates each year but the company decided not to raise them last year during the pandemic, Ong said. The uptick in personal ad sales last summer outpaced growth in other ad categories at the NYRB, she said.
Rates for print ads ranged from $4.40 to $5.85 per word, depending on the number of issues the listing ran in. Emails counted as two words, phone numbers as one.
By this spring, the Zoom references had started being phased out, replaced instead by vaccine references.
In March, the publication printed the most recent of Ong's favorites: " Pair of Unrepentant Queers (one pansexual Asian punk femme & one curly-haired nonbinary flâneur) found love in these pages. Seeking COVID-negative company to complete the hat trick; be enlightening, generous, flexible, spirited."
The final of Ong's favorite ads from the last year wasn't pandemic related. It was more in the spirit of the playful ads that have been running since 1968, when the NYRB published its first personal ad .
It read: " Ancient Bay Area live oak, still acorning, seeks fertile soil for sweet kindness. All species welcome."
That one was written by Daniel Raskin, 77, a retired preschool teacher, widower, and grandfather living in San Francisco. He wrote it for the magazine's personals contest, which it won. He said via email that he'd run a few other personal ads in the magazine in past. They had led to coffee dates. But he only got two replies this time.
"It was too quirky to expect responses," he said.
Watch: 5 times Trump praised Dr. Fauci prior to retweeting that he should be fired
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A recent issue of the New York Review of Books served up critiques of early Joan Didion, Brazilian literary master Machado de Assis and Italy’s celebrated 17th-century baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi.
Ravenous readers could also feast on less erudite content — intriguing personal ads appearing on the magazine’s back pages and website.
The classifieds have unpredictably become a wildly popular spot for brainiacs to meet and mate during the pandemic. Traditionally the preserve of older subscribers, it’s now become a hookup hub for Gen X elites.
Asked why she placed a recent ad in the Review, one card-carrying member of the intelligentsia told The Post: “My intent was basically to get laid.”
The 44-year-old, who spoke to The Post on the condition of anonymity, turned to the old-fashioned method after being frustrated by dating apps.
“My intent was basically to get laid.”
“The ad was of a cynical nature after spending a day on Tinder that left me disillusioned and despondent,” said the “SAF,” or single Asian female. Her biggest gripe about the app was the suitors’ inarticulate attempts at communication.
“Some initiated the conversation with ‘Hey, whassup?’” she recalled. “And it’s just dumb when they write vague, generic details on their profile like their favorite sports team.”
In his ad, single dad Peter Freilinger, 46, wrote about the importance he placed on his kid, his dog, cocktails, moral philosophy and love of the outdoors. He signed off with a jocular “Everything else is negotiable.”
The New York Times once claimed the Review is “arguably the country’s most successful intellectual journal.” Anyone who writes a particularly entertaining, cultivated advert (priced between $4.40 and $5.85 per word ) is likely to win admiration from a sophisticated, like-minded audience.
Advertising associate Sharmaine Ong, who is employed by the Review to oversee the personals, told The Post that clients put in a lot of effort “to shine in the pages and on the site.”
Profile pictures are not allowed, so the charm offensive is done with only a pen. Clients “are choosing words in a way that reflects their personality,” said Ong.
Ahead of Valentine’s Day, the Review’s advertising director, Lara Frohlich Andersen, described the ads as “comforting and heartwarming.”
The first one appeared back in July 1968 under the header “Wife Wanted.” The “accomplished artist” who crafted the appeal specified a candidate who was “intelligent, beautiful, 18 to 25, broad-minded, sensitive [and] affectionate.”
While today’s ads tend to be less prescriptive, Andersen said, “It is rather reassuring to me that the simple things — a few words in print in a trusted publication — can still bring people together.”
In her foxy ad, the SAF wrote she was “looking for a Flirty Parry” with a “willingness to solve life’s paradoxes.” She added, “Wry wit and a love of Negronis are important.”
The Washington, DC-based restaurant owner, an avid reader of the Review, tried its “old-school” personals in a “momentary act of daredevilry.” She received a handful of replies, but has yet to engage with the men. At least two earned black marks by failing to Google “SAF” and asking her what the letters meant.
By contrast, Freilinger, of Scarborough, Maine, was relatively pleased with the 11 responses to his recent series of 36-word ads. They added up to a reasonable return on his $240 investment.
The straight single dad hoped the ads might connect him with like-minded individuals of either gender. “There isn’t really the opportunity to meet people living nearby that share my interests, read the New York Review of Books or want to go to the opera,” he told The Post.
One of the replies has led to the ethics blogger and self-proclaimed “pragmatist in the old-fashioned tradition of William James” to develop an e-mail friendship with a fellow subscriber to the Review.
A minor obstacle to them strolling off together into the sunset is his correspondent’s home city. She lives on the opposite side of the world.
Ever the realist, Freilinger shrugged.
“It’s not like I’m on the prowl,” he said. “For me, it’s more about conversation.”
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New York Review Books publishes NYRB Classics , NYRB Kids , New York Review Comics , and NYRB Poets . Download our latest catalogs here.
New York Review Books
The New York Times has called The New York Review of Books “the country’s most successful intellectual journal.” According to the Times , “The secret of its success is this: its editors’ ability to get remarkable writers and thinkers, many of them specialists in their fields, to write lucidly for lay readers on an enormous range of complex, scholarly and newly emerging subjects, issues and ideas.” New York Review Books brings together some of the finest writing in science, philosophy, history, politics, the arts, and literature from the Review’s contributors along with new fiction and nonfiction from literary and artistic mavericks such as Amit Chaudhuri, Jonathan Buckley, and Celia Paul. Included are volumes by such distinguished writers as Freeman Dyson, Martin Filler, Fritz Stern, Daniel Mendelsohn, Joan Didion, Darryl Pinckney, Renata Adler, and Tim Parks, as well as original works from luminaries such as Isabella Tree, Brian Dillon, and Benedetta Craveri .
The NYRB Classics series is dedicated to publishing an eclectic mix of fiction and nonfiction from different eras and times and of various sorts. The series includes nineteenth century novels and experimental novels, reportage and belles lettres , tell-all memoirs and learned studies, established classics and cult favorites, literature high, low, unsuspected, and unheard of. NYRB Classics are, to a large degree, discoveries, the kind of books that people typically run into outside of the classroom and then remember for life.
Literature in translation constitutes a major part of the NYRB Classics series, simply because so much great literature has been left untranslated into English, or translated poorly, or deserves to be translated again, much as any outstanding book asks to be read again.
The series started in 1999 with the publication of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica and now has over 500 titles in print. NYRB Classics includes new translations of canonical figures such as Euripides, Aeschylus, Dante, Balzac, Nietzsche, and Chekhov, as well fresh translations of Stefan Zweig, Robert Walser, Alberto Moravia, Curzio Malaparte, and Jean Giono ; fiction by modern and contemporary masters such as Vasily Grossman, Magda Szabó, Walter Kempowski, Tove Jansson, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, William Gaddis, Uwe Johnson, Leonora Carrington, and John Williams; tales of crime and punishment by Kenneth Fearing, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Jean-Patrick Manchette; masterpieces of narrative history and literary criticism, poetry, travel writing, biography, cookbooks, and memoirs from such writers as Eve Babitz, Iris Origo, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Charles Simic; and unclassifiable classics on the order of J. R. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip , Lyall Watson's Heaven's Breath , and Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy .
Published in handsome uniform trade paperback editions, almost all NYRB Classics feature an introduction by an outstanding writer, scholar, or critic of our day. Taken as a whole, NYRB Classics may be considered a series of books of unrivaled variety and quality for discerning and adventurous readers.
Download Reading Group Guides for NYRB Classics.
What the press has said about NYRB Classics…
“ The New York Review Books Classics series is possibly the richest source in the entire world of great books you never heard of.”— Michael Cunningham, The New York Times Book Review
“ The series…. specializes in one-offs rather than oeuvres , in pleasures rather than obligations. The classics of NYRB Classics are not classics in the sense that they are canonical; they are classics in the sense that they have no reason for being revived other than that they are somehow still alive, and so constitute a canon all their own.”— Tom Junod, Esquire
“ …I would like to have the feeling that I am discovering lost treasures, even though these treasures have been necessarily dug up by someone else…. And that, more than anything is what the NYRB series offers…”— Wendy Lesser, The Guardian
“ NYRB Classics— one of the very few happy innovations in contemporary publishing. —Benjamin Schwarz , The Atlantic
“ …amazingly fine in its choice of titles and in the design of the books.” —Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“ Be grateful for second chances and head to the shore with any one of these slim paperbacks.”— Town and Country
“ Congratulations to NYRB Classics … they have been putting out an extraordinarily good list lately, and I have been torn as to which one to choose.” —Nicholas Lezard, Guardian
“ We all owe the people at NYRB Classics a great debt of thanks.” —John Garvey, Commonweal
“ Sometimes the second time’s the charm in publishing… New York Review Books [is] finding unlikely success in the overcrowded book industry by turning out reprints of decades-old titles. Some are even getting noticed by Hollywood.” — The Wall Street Journal
“ The real contribution that New York Review Books makes [is] it helps you to see that the world is more different than you thought. By teaching you what the American novel has been, they teach you what it can be and in turn what the American people have been and can be… When you are in the hands of a reprint series as good as this one, what’s old is made new again.” —D.T. Max, Los Angeles Times
“ … picks up on…readerly passion with an eclectic lineup of backlist titles, all prefaced by authors who (for the moment) are better known than the writers they’re introducing… Looking for reading suggestions? Here’s a good place to start.” —Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer
“ I’ve looked through the NYRB Classics catalogue with close attention and increasing wonder. Whoever picks the titles for this spectacularly eclectic series of stylish-looking reprints of insufficiently remembered books of the past (many but by no means all of which are novels) deserves some sort of prize for good taste… Has there ever been so quirkily adventurous a paperback reissue line? Not in my memory.” —Terry Teachout, commentarymagazine.com
“ Overall the collection is faultless. Once you have discovered the series it’s as if you’ve just gained an incredibly well-read friend who consistently lends you obscure yet highly enjoyable books…. Collecting them can become compulsive.” — Vogue
“ For the past four decades, The New York Review of Books has tirelessly championed liberal causes. It comes, therefore, as a welcome surprise that the magazine’s new book-publishing imprint—New York Review Books Classics—is performing a nonpartisan service, excellently.” — The National Review
“ The New York Review of Books Classics Series is one of the most exciting recent developments in publishing…. Simply reading through the list from beginning to end would provide a rare education.” — The Boston Phoenix
“ New York Review Books… has found a thriving niche by reissuing forgotten classics.”—Nick Owchar, Los Angeles Times
New York Review Books started a children’s book publishing program in 2003 in an attempt to reward readers who have long wished for the return of their favorite titles and to introduce those books to a new generation of readers. NYRB Kids publishes picture books for preschoolers through to chapter books and novels for older children. Praised for their elegant design and sturdy bindings, these books set a new standard for the definition of a “classic.” Among the titles you will find Wee Gillis , a Caldecott Honor Book by the creators of The Story of Ferdinand ; Esther Averill’s time-honored Jenny and the Cat Club series; several titles by the award-winning team of Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire, including their Book of Norse Myths and Book of Animals ; Otfried Preussler’s chapter books The Little Witch and The Little Water-Sprite ; Meet Monster by Ellen Blance and Ann Cook with illustrations by the great Quentin Blake; and Maira Kalman's books about Max the Dog.
Not to be missed are Leon Garfield’s Shakespeare Stories , a perfect introduction to the bard for young readers; three titles from the great Roger Duvoisin, Donkey-donkey , The Frog in the Well , and The House of Four Seasons ; Madhur Jaffrey’s Seasons of Splendour: Tales, Myths and Legends of India with illustrations by Michael Foreman; and The Provensen Book of Fairy Tales .
In 2015 we added line of paperback editions designed to be especially attractive to young readers, with both brand-new volumes and titles from our hardcover list. Portable and affordable, these are books with enough depth, humor, and pure artistry to rival any so-called “adult” literature. In the series you’ll discover great works of many sorts: tales of daring and adventure like Jan Terlouw’s Winter in Wartime and Sheila Burnford’s Bel Ria: Dog of War ; yarns of magic and whimsy like Daniel Pinkwater’s Lizard Music ; and stories of bravery and resistance like Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War and Anita Desai’s The Village By the Sea .
Praise for The New York Review Children’s Collection and NYRB Kids…
New York Review Comics
NYRC publishes comics of all sorts, from intimate memoirs to absurdist gags, lyrical graphic novels to dizzying experiments, united in their affirmation of the strange and wonderful things that only comics can do. Some are in paperback, some in hardcover, and trim sizes vary. The series launched in 2016 with Mark Beyer’s Agony , a darkly humorous depiction of urban despair originally published in 1987, now with an introduction by super-fan Colson Whitehead. It was followed by the beautiful historical saga Peplum , by the acclaimed French cartoonist Blutch, in a new translation by Edward Gauvin; and Almost Completely Baxter , a judicious collection of new and selected work by the beloved, inimitably hilarious artist Glen Baxter. It continued with Soft City , a majestically surreal tour of an office dystopia by Norwegian pop artist Pushwagner, drawn and then lost in the early 1970s, with a new introduction by Chris Ware; Belgian artist Dominique Goblet’s searing experimental memoir Pretending Is Lying , translated from the French by Sophie Yanow—Goblet’s first book to appear in English; and What Am I Doing Here? , a long out-of-print collection by postwar America’s forgotten master of the existential gag, Abner Dean. There are now nearly two dozen books in the series. A few recent highlights include Marion Fayolle's gorgeous allegorical memoir, The Tenderness of Stones; a collection of eccentric romance comics by a mid-twentieth-century oddball, Return to Romance: The Strange Love Stories of Ogden Whitney ; and Yoshiharu Tsuge's contemplative, dismally humorous manga, The Man Without Talent .
The NYRB Poets series continues the eclectic, adventurous spirit of NYRB Classics with a focus on the most vital, various, and universal form of literature: poetry. Featuring the work of poets from around the world, classical and modern, ancient and contemporary, in elegant, pocket-size editions, the series demonstrates the countless different shapes that poetry can assume, from simplest song to lyrical essay to visual image to scientific treatise, among much else. Poetry explores the boundaries of feeling, knowledge, and expression like no other art. NYRB Poets offers an unparalleled opportunity for readers to explore poetry’s limitless possibilities, through collections by outstanding poets such as Pierre Reverdy, Alexander Vvedensky, Sakutarō Hagiwara, Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Willis, Najwan Darwish, Guillaume Apollinaire, Raúl Zurita, Silvina Ocampo, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, and Denise Riley.
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How Has Big Publishing Changed American Fiction?
A new book argues that corporate publishing has transformed what it means to be an author.
By Kevin Lozano
In 1989, Gerald Howard had been a book editor for about ten years, and his future filled him with dread. His primary fear, he wrote in a widely read essay for The American Scholar , was “a faster, huger, rougher, dumber publishing world.” He had entered the industry during a time of profound change. In the course of a few decades, American publishing had transformed from a parochial cultural industry, mostly centered on the East Coast, into an international, corporate affair. Starting in the nineteen-sixties, outfits like Random House and Penguin were seen as ripe targets for acquisition by multinational conglomerates like RCA and Pearson, which wanted to diversify their revenue streams, whether through oil, textbooks, calculators, or literary fiction. These parent companies changed the business of books, inciting an arms race that encouraged publishers to grow larger and larger, consolidating and concentrating the industry into a few giant players. Howard’s career had overlapped with this period of flux, and he saw before him a brutal, profit- and growth-obsessed landscape, inimical to his work. Corporate publishers like Penguin moved and grooved “to the tune of big-time finance,” he wrote. This dance was no “fox-trot; it’s a bruising slam dance,” he observed. “From down here on the shop floor, the results often look ludicrous and disastrous.”
Last year, shortly before the antitrust trial that successfully blocked a planned merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, Howard, who had recently retired, wrote for Publishers Weekly looking back on how the industry had changed in the course of his career. The slam dance had continued, its pace only more harried. The corporate houses had grown exponentially since the eighties, and swallowed up their competitors. Trade publishing was dominated by an even smaller group of companies that exerted an immense influence on the reading habits of Americans. When Penguin merged with Random House, in 2013, Howard took to calling the resulting behemoth Cosmodemonic Publishing. The scale of the company, the thousands of employees and hundreds of imprints, were, he says, “simply too large and abstract for a mere editor to get his head around.”
Howard still had hope for publishing; his “worst fears,” that the Cosmodemonic realm would engender a “race to the commercial bottom and a relentless quest for profits above quality,” hadn’t come to pass. Books were still good, the work still worthwhile, despite the stiff headwinds. But he admitted to a nagging unease: “At a certain point in my tenure at Penguin Random House I just gave up trying to understand a lot of the emails that arrived from corporate and would just hit delete, asking myself quizzically, ‘And the contribution this makes to the actual publication of actual books is . . . ?’ ”
That discomforting riddle—what these business machinations contribute to the actual publication of actual books—is the central question of Dan Sinykin’s “ Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature .” Sinykin argues that the corporate ethos that dominates the modern publishing house has exerted such an overwhelming influence on the way books are written and published that it has inaugurated a new epoch: “the Conglomerate era.” As he sees it, the consolidation of the industry that began in the nineteen-sixties and seventies transformed American fiction and “changed what it means to be an author.” The stakes of Sinykin’s inquiry are to explain “how we should read” fiction published in the U.S. during the past half century or so, a period during which every book, no matter its preoccupations or themes, could be said to reflect a greater entity: the corporation.
Sinykin’s study begins in the postwar years, when publishing was a smaller and more cloistered world. The companies were mostly family-owned and -run, bookstores and book critics were influential but far fewer in number, and costs were less daunting. The editor Jason Epstein recalls, at the time, an author could sell “six or seven thousand copies” and “make the average book profitable.” When Epstein joined Random House, in 1958, it was owned by its founders, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, a pair of cultured patricians who were famous for publishing James Joyce’s “ Ulysses ,” in 1934. The company was housed in a Gilded Age mansion that served as a second home for its writers. W. H. Auden felt comfortable enough to show up in house slippers to hand in his latest work.
Soon after Epstein started at Random House, Cerf and Klopfer decided to take the company public. The change had a tangible impact on the way the business was run. Epstein writes in his memoir “ Book Business ,” that Cerf, newly accountable to shareholders, “would chew the corner of his white linen handkerchief in anguish whenever the stock fell.” When Random House was privately owned, it could withstand a “slow season,” because publishers knew that selling books required patience. But the need to balance concerns of taste with sound financial decision-making made it harder to play the long game: enter the profit-and-loss statement, the five-year budget, and, eventually, the need to frame every book as a potential best-seller.
This same story was unfolding across the industry. In 1960, New American Library, one of the country’s largest and most successful mass-market-paperback publishers, was acquired by the newspaper company Times Mirror and then forced to reckon with a McKinsey-led reorganization. Another mass-market publisher, Pocket Books, went public that same year and merged with the trade publisher Simon & Schuster in 1966. A year after its I.P.O., Random House acquired one of its rivals, Knopf, and then the whole enterprise was gobbled up by the electronics conglomerate RCA, in 1965. Across town, Doubleday began a spending spree in the late sixties to keep up, launching a broadcast subsidiary and acquiring a number of radio and TV stations throughout the country. (In a little more than a decade’s time, Doubleday would buy a majority stake in the New York Mets.)
As publishers scaled up their expansionary aspirations, new powers emerged: forces like literary agents and chain bookstores, intricate marketing campaigns and high-stakes auctions, helped to forge a different way of doing business, a process of diversifying and rationalizing that led to a larger, more stratified, and more economically conscious sphere, dominated by daunting hierarchies of power and money.
Today’s publishing house is closer to a hedge fund than a tastemaker. Every book that it acquires is a bet on profitability. The financialization of the acquisition process functions like an index of risk, creating a “system in which homogeneity . . . is encouraged” to minimize bad bets. This system affects all houses, no matter their size. Every season, Big Five publishers are incentivized to pursue best-sellers, authors whose works can scale into a franchise or a movie. Meanwhile, independent publishers and nonprofits such as W. W. Norton and Graywolf Press seek to carve out their own niche in this ecosystem by focussing on books with small but ardent audiences (poetry, the literature of marginalized voices). Sinykin sidesteps the question of whether this system has made books worse. He wants to demonstrate something trickier: how the process of authoring a book has become subsumed by a larger and larger network of interests, changing what it meant to be an author. Critics and scholars, Sinykin contends, are uncomfortable displacing the author when studying literature. His book is an earnest attempt to focus attention on the non-authorial figures involved in a book’s creation. Instead of individual writers, he wants us to think in terms of a “feedback loop.”
If there is a villain in “Big Fiction,” it is the “romantic” conception of authorship—the idea that writing a book is as simple as an author sitting down and marshalling their creative forces. This sense of the author, Sinykin thinks, is “a mirage veiling the systematic intelligences that are responsible for more of what we read than most of us are ready to acknowledge.” By “systematic intelligences,” he means the coördinated efforts of the dozens of people who touch a book before it makes its way into the hands of a reader.
Before conglomeration, Sinykin asserts, writing a book “was a completely different experience.” Once, a would-be novelist’s chances of being published depended on “how easily you could get your book in the right editor’s hands.” As the number of those involved in publication expanded, authors had to meet new criteria. “Could marketers see a market? What would the chain bookbuyers think? Could publicists picture your face on TV, your voice on the radio? Could agents sniff subsidiary rights? Would foreign rights sell at the Frankfurt Book Fair? Might your story be remediated? Would it work in audio? On the big screen?”
Sinykin calls authors who successfully navigated the maze of agents, marketers, and booksellers “industrial writers.” This group includes chart-topping genre writers, such as Danielle Steel, Michael Crichton, and Stephen King , and also literary novelists who managed to work within the new system. Among Sinykin’s most succinct and persuasive case studies involves the career of Cormac McCarthy . In 1965, McCarthy’s first novel, an allusive Southern gothic called “ The Orchard Keeper ,” was published by a legendary editor at Random House named Albert Erskine. Erskine, who had been a steward for the company’s most distinguished writers, including William Faulkner and Ralph Ellison , found a manuscript by McCarthy in the slush pile and committed himself to fostering his career. Though McCarthy’s early books rarely sold, he was able to survive outside the market with the help of fellowships and grants secured through Erskine’s influence.
When Erskine retired, in 1987, McCarthy needed a new patron. He reached out to Lynn Nesbit, an agent who represented Robert Caro , among others. Nesbit passed McCarthy on to her protégée, Amanda (Binky) Urban. By chance, Urban was an admirer of McCarthy’s work. She made it her mission to insure that his next book would be a hit. She called up Sonny Mehta, who had recently been installed as the editor-in-chief of Knopf. Mehta sent McCarthy to an ambitious editor named Gary Fisketjon. As Fisketjon went to work on McCarthy’s prose, Mehta and his most trusted publicist, Jane Friedman, the woman credited with inventing the author tour, set about “aggressively marketing” McCarthy’s reinvention. They enlisted the photographer Marion Ettlinger to shoot a dashing author portrait and the designer Chip Kidd to create an enticing cover for his next book. That book was 1992’s “ All the Pretty Horses ,” which sold a hundred and ninety thousand copies in its first six months and was adapted into a Hollywood movie in 2000, starring Matt Damon. By 2007, when Oprah’s Book Club and the Pulitzer Prize anointed “ The Road ,” McCarthy was no longer perceived as a writer of difficult, obscure fiction but an approachable mainstream celebrity author.
Many of Sinykin’s claims about how fiction has changed in the past fifty years—that novelists are under pressure to bring in consistent profit, that literary writers have incorporated genre tropes into their work—are broadly true. But his account of how individual authors have responded to conglomeration requires us to take on faith many of his claims. We never see a manuscript page or editorial interventions that might illustrate these writers’ explicit acquiescence to the market interests of their stakeholders.
In an extended section on Toni Morrison’s “ Beloved ,” Sinykin argues that the novel’s success was partly due to its incorporation of horror elements in a time when horror authors like Stephen King were the industry’s most consistent commodities. In “Beloved,” Sinykin writes, Morrison “made good on the trend, deploying a ghost, a haunted house, terrifying violence, and trauma in her high modernist neo-slave narrative.” But there is no evidence that Morrison was consciously modelling her novel on horror fiction in response to the genre’s success, or that her editor, or her publisher’s marketing department, was urging her in this direction.
Sinykin’s reading of “Beloved” is part of a larger argument that “conglomeration led to the production of fiction that allegorized conglomeration itself.” “Beloved” is not just a horror novel, he argues; it is a novel about “publishing.” As evidence, he offers a preamble on Morrison’s career as an editor and the challenges that she faced at Random House. One of the publishing house’s only Black editors, she battled indifference from a white staff and grew to resent the demands placed on her as a trade editor. In 1983, she quit her job to write full time.
In a foreword she wrote to “Beloved” some years after the novel became her most successful, she returned to the frustrations of her editorial job, acknowledging that the book had been made possible when she was freed from her nine-to-five:
I had no agenda and couldn’t hear the telephone if it rang. I heard my heart, though, stomping away in my chest like a colt. . . . Then it slapped me: I was happy, free in a way I had never been, ever. It was the oddest sensation. Not ecstasy, not satisfaction, not a surfeit of pleasure or accomplishment . . . Enter Beloved .
Sinykin takes this as a testament that the book’s meditation on the fragility of freedom after slavery was inspired by the freedom that Morrison felt after leaving her editorial job.
“Big Fiction” is explicitly indebted to Mark McGurl’s “ The Program Era ,” a historical study of the structural and creative effects of creative-writing programs on postwar American fiction. McGurl provides his own reading of “Beloved” that argues the plantation in the novel is a metaphor for the education system.
The clumsiness of these readings points to the limitations of works like “Big Fiction” and “The Program Era.” These are daring attempts to map the larger structures that shape how books are written and published, but their attention to the big picture can obscure how novels operate on a visceral, textual level. Still, Sinykin’s study is valuable because it speaks to the same fear that Gerald Howard voiced in 1989: that the balance of culture and commerce at the heart of publishing is increasingly weighted toward profit.
Sinykin won’t render a direct verdict on whether conglomeration has been bad for literature. But the processes he describes have been bad for writers, whose livelihoods are subject to the vicissitudes of a boom-and-bust economy. And they have been bad for publishing employees, from the warehouse to the cubicle, who are at the mercy of layoffs and constant reorganizations forced upon publishers by their parent companies. Nine months after the Justice Department won its case to block the merger between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, a private-equity firm won the bidding sweepstakes to take over Simon & Schuster. The future of corporate publishing seems as uncertain and chaotic as ever.
In a postmortem of the P.R.H. trial , a reporter for New York pointed out that there has long been a fear that the company was “too bureaucratic, too unwieldy,” a place that stifled creativity. Resources were put behind books that were “safe bets,” homogeneity was rewarded, and risks were rarely taken. Though contemporary corporate publishing is superficially more diverse, less reliant on an exclusionary social sphere, than publishing of the postwar years was, the industry still struggles to foster a heterogeneous literary culture. According to a 2020 study by the academic Richard Jean So , between 1950 and 2018, ninety-five per cent of the English-language fiction books major publishers put out were written by white authors. A 2019 survey showed eighty-five per cent of the people who acquire and edit books in the U.S. are also white.
When it comes to individual writers, the effect of corporatization on fiction is apparent less in the quality of any single novel than across an author’s career. Cormac McCarthy benefitted from a close working relationship with a devoted editor that afforded him the opportunity to write without fear of having to earn back his advance. By the time he became a celebrity and best-selling author, he had established a distinctive style and had amassed a body of work, two key factors in his ability to secure a durable readership. As Sinykin points out, a career like McCarthy’s would not be possible today. Most young writers never receive the attention and care needed for their talent to come to maturity; if their first novel fails, as most débuts do, they are written off as a bad investment before they have a chance to publish another.
In casting a spotlight on the many players—editors, publishers, agents, booksellers—whose coördinated labor is required to create a book, Sinykin makes a compelling case that books are not produced by a single author but through a collective effort. But does that mean that the corporation itself should be thought of as an “author,” as Sinykin suggests? At times, he seems to overstate the “systematic intelligence,” the machinelike efficiency, of the publishing houses under whose imprints books appear. As a parade of industry executives testified in the course of the P.R.H. antitrust trial last year, a certain amount of randomness defines everything about literary success. No one ultimately knows which books will make money, let alone make it onto the classics shelf. The editor Daniel Menaker once compared the acquisition process to a bad night at a casino, saying, “You put your money down and most of the time you lose.” In this respect, at least, nothing about the math of publishing has changed in the conglomerate era. ♦
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Do we need to save fiction from conglomerate publishing?
In ‘big fiction,’ dan sinykin writes with narrative flair about the age of consolidation in the books business.
Literature is, variously: a refuge from reality, an encounter with an era, an expression of a singular sensibility and a sheer delight. But it is also a business, as Dan Sinykin, an English professor at Emory University, explains in his new monograph, “ Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature .”
Many academics are clinical prose stylists, but Sinykin writes with verve and narrative flair as he documents the consolidation of the major publishing houses — and, along the way, overturns the myth of “the romantic author,” that lone genius unfettered by social circumstances or material constraints. Far from working in isolation, he argues, writers inhabit a “hidden world” of “subsidiary rights specialists, art directors, marketing managers, sales staff, wholesalers, chain book buyers, philanthropists, government bureaucrats.” In “Big Fiction,” these shadowy figures, so central yet so uncelebrated, slink out of the wings and onto the stage. The result is a fascinating and informative account of the convulsions roiling the American publishing industry for the past half-century — and a devastating reckoning with the ways in which conglomeration has altered American fiction.
Still, sentimental and naive as I am, I cannot quite shake the conviction that literature is more than an emanation of economic circumstance. For all its fragility and susceptibility to material degradation, it continues to strike me as a member of that endangered and embattled species: art.
“Big Fiction” is nonetheless a useful reminder to remain alert to how the sausage is made — and how the conditions of its production influence its flavor. Sinykin’s story begins in the 1940s and ’50s, when U.S. publishers “were relatively small and privately held, usually by the founders or their heirs.” Houses such as Harper, Macmillan, Knopf, Random House, Simon & Schuster and Viking flourished in an amenable postwar climate, characterized by an ample supply of eager readers. “During World War II, the military shipped millions of books to soldiers, creating a vast body of readers, many of whom came home and went to college on the GI Bill,” Sinykin writes. “Universities expanded and kept expanding to keep up with enrollments as they opened their doors to more than white men, churning out more readers.” A booming economy furnished newly minted bibliophiles with plenty of disposable income — and, thanks in large part to an influx of mass-market paperbacks, “cheap and portable books” were available for purchase in drugstores and train stations. The affordable editions put out by the likes of Pocket Books spanned the gamut from genre fiction to high literary classics. By the end of 1949, a mass-market publisher called New American Library had sold an astonishing 800,000 copies of William Faulkner’s lyrical sortie “ The Wild Palms .”
But with the 1960s came the dawn of what Sinykin calls “the conglomerate era.” Because “antitrust law inhibited mergers and acquisitions within an industry,” corporations hoping to grow had to acquire companies in other fields. The shock to the literary landscape was swift and total. A newspaper company acquired New American Library in 1960 — and after that, the deluge. The electronics company RCA came for Random House in 1965; Time Inc. gobbled up Little, Brown in 1968; Macmillan went to a Canadian communications company in 1973. By 1977, the economy was in shambles, and “inflation hiked the price of books even as consumers had less money to buy them.”
Under the notoriously laissez-faire Reagan administration, corporate bloodthirst accelerated. As “barriers to consolidation and vertical integration” collapsed, the contemporary literary ecosystem solidified. Random House, already an empire of imprints, was swallowed up by German conglomerate Bertelsmann in 1998; Rupert Murdoch had become owner of Harper & Row in 1987 (an additional acquisition in 1989 led to the creation of HarperCollins). In 1991, the president of Simon & Schuster admitted, ominously, “We are not a publisher, we are now a creator of copyrights for their exploitation in any medium or distribution system.” Editors were no longer sovereign in the realm of literary production: Everyone was now beholden to the bottom line. The sole major trade house that survived the onslaught was W.W. Norton, which remains bravely independent to this day.
Conglomerates, in turn, gave rise to a competing but deeply intertwined world of nonprofit publishers, defined in conscious opposition to the corporate mainstream. “Despite the cant of liberation,” Sinykin writes with skepticism, “markets still mattered to nonprofits,” and they were still compelled to appease capricious donors. They published previously marginalized voices in part because “ethnic literature was becoming increasingly marketable, as well as increasingly desirable for government bureaucracies and the donor class to support.”
But even if their motives were sometimes impure, nonprofits like Graywolf Press and Coffee House Press ended up with more interesting, experimental and diverse rosters of writers than their corporate competitors. Today, they are home to some of the most ambitious writing in circulation. If the “villain” of “Big Fiction” is the fetishization of the individual author, then small, independent presses like Dalkey Archive Press, Sublunary Editions, Archipelago Books, Transit Books , New York Review Books, New Directions and so many more may provide imperfect but admirable alternatives: communities dedicated to jointly resisting the crass imperatives of the market.
“Big Fiction” purports to “defer judgment about whether conglomeration was good or bad in an effort to explain what it has meant for U.S. fiction,” but, happily, Sinykin sneaks in some of the censure that conglomerations so richly deserve. The usual suspects — among them, decreasing competition and encroaching homogeneity as the number of publishers shrinks — are largely (and somewhat curiously) absent. Instead, Sinykin focuses on the cynical “new management techniques” instituted by corporate publishers. He demonstrates that, in the conglomerate era, authors like Stephen King and Danielle Steel are pressured to become advertisements for themselves, even as much of the work of authorship (the research, the fact-checking) is farmed out to a small army of aides, assistants and publicists, leaving writers with less control over their output; editors, once charged with improving the quality of writing, have been overwhelmed with “managerial” tasks involving fundraising and promotion.
Perhaps worst of all, conglomeration has “stratified reading,” yielding an unprecedentedly sharp divide between popular and literary fiction. As mass-market paperback imprints were gutted and resources were directed toward brand-name authors in the 1980s, “bestsellers and prizewinners, previously integrated,” became “segregated.”
“I don’t believe the novels written in the last forty years are worse than those written in the forty years previous,” Sinykin claims, but sometimes the infelicities of the industry implicate its offerings. Much of the writing that tops bestseller lists can be churned out so quickly because it contains “formulaic plots” — though some mass-market fiction, like King’s meta-commentaries on the commercialization of publishing, ingeniously resists its own commodification, as Sinykin shows in a series of nimble readings.
So was publishing — and the fiction it produced — better before the onset of the conglomerate era? Yes and no, is Sinykin’s sensible answer. Mass-market paperbacks were a democratic innovation that rendered high literature accessible to everyone, and publishing operated at a more human scale before corporate leviathans took charge. But a system in which “what mattered most was who you knew” suffered from all the predictable shortcomings: It was nepotistic, insular and extraordinarily hostile to women and people of color. “ WHEN did you learn to read and write?” Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House, wrote in an astoundingly tasteless letter to a female acquaintance. Sinykin may be critical of corporate consolidation, but he isn’t nostalgic for the boys’ clubs of yesteryear.
Ultimately, however, I wonder if conglomeration explains quite as much about contemporary writing and reading as Sinykin sometimes seems to think. Books are material and economic objects, but they are also aesthetic ones.
Take the case of autofiction, a fashionable subgenre in which authors blend autobiography and invention, yielding works that are somewhere between novels and memoirs. Sinykin suggests that authors have turned to this mode because “it amplifies the romantic myth of the author, her celebrity, which raises her value as a walking, talking advertisement at the same time that she is, in fact, progressively shedding control over her image and her work.” This is a clever argument and probably contains a grain of truth. But what Sinykin does not consider is that the authors he cites, among them Renata Adler and Elizabeth Hardwick, may have opted for autofiction in part because it better suited a moment in which truth felt porous, or simply because it made for good writing. Indeed, in an essay from which he quotes, Hardwick herself offered an explicitly artistic justification, writing that “it is difficult for fiction to compete with the aesthetic satisfactions of the actual.”
Or consider Sinykin’s brief and endearing foray into autobiography, in which he recalls discovering Thomas Pynchon’s “ Gravity’s Rainbow ” at the local Barnes & Noble when he was in high school. He writes that he loved the book because of its “challenging prose” and “lush language” — but then he deflects, proffering the obligatory mockery of his “pretension to uniqueness.”
Why not give the challenging, lush prose its due? Market forces are powerful, but they are not irresistible. Sometimes lush prose wins out, even when it is not particularly profitable, solely because it is luscious. Some of the players in the literature business “fight more for art, some more for money, but always, by necessity, a bit of both,” Sinykin writes. “Big Fiction” is a compelling chronicle of how they came to fight almost exclusively for money. Our job as readers and writers is to ensure that, in the future, they fight harder for art.
Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.
How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature
By Dan Sinykin
Columbia University Press. 313 pp. $30
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9 New Books We Recommend This Week
Suggested reading from critics and editors at The New York Times.
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Every week in this space, we quote from our reviews of the books we recommend — but we rarely quote from the books themselves, largely because the reviews we link to do such a good job of that on their own, and with context to boot. But what the heck. This week our recommended books include a poetry collection, Robyn Schiff’s “Information Desk,” that offers a reminiscence of her post-college job at the Metropolitan Museum of Art while skipping merrily through sparkling ideas about art and nature and youth and life. Good quotes abound, as in this wry observation on the artistic temperament: “When someone tells me he’s inspired/I usually take/it to mean someone else/does his dishes.”
We also recommend a memoir about food and literature by The Times’s book critic Dwight Garner, whose way with a sentence will be familiar to regular readers of our books coverage. That skill is manifest throughout his memoir as well. Here he is, for instance, on the appeal that the chef Jacques Pépin’s cooking videos exerted during the early days of Covid lockdown: “With people out of work, and others fearful of joining them, and still others shell-shocked and instinctively practicing thrift, Pépin’s recipes spoke to a moment. I found many of his videos to be, on certain insomniac nights, strangely and almost unbearably moving. His age, his battered good looks, his accent, the slight sibilance in his voice, his culinary erudition worn lightly, his finely honed knife skills, and the ’70s-era funk of his wood-paneled kitchen: It was a mesmerizing package. I especially liked to watch him cook eggs.”
There’s more to read this week, of course, including a novel that pays homage to Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House” along with fiction from Teju Cole, Marie NDiaye, Jessica Knoll and others. In nonfiction, we recommend a collection of journalism out of Russia and a history of the vexing, fascinating attempt to study the mysteries of sleep. Happy reading.
A HAUNTING ON THE HILL Elizabeth Hand
Apparitions, black hares and time warps festoon this fitting — and frightening — homage to Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” in which Hand mines the source material for structure and storytelling beats rather than relying on superficial similarities.
“Above all, it’s scary. Hand’s facility with language and atmosphere and use of short, propulsive chapters work their own dark magic.”
From Emily C. Hughes’s review
Mulholland | $27
BRIGHT YOUNG WOMEN Jessica Knoll
Knoll’s assured novel begins near the end of the serial killer Ted Bundy’s gruesome spree: at a Florida sorority house where he attacked four sisters in 1978. Knoll pooh-poohs Bundy’s ballyhooed intelligence, celebrating instead the promise and perspicacity of his penultimate victims.
“Packed with moments when you feel the size of the deck stacked against any woman, young or old, who dares to be ‘bright.’ There’s always something in the dark that curses the glittering and the hopeful.”
From Patton Oswalt’s review
Marysue Rucci | $27.99
THE HALT DURING THE CHASE Rosemary Tonks
First published in 1972, and newly reissued, this is a bubbly, empathetic and ultimately lovely novel of a belated coming-of-age in 1960s London. The heroine’s haunted relationship with her mother, and the ways that relationship reprises itself in her romantic life, give her story substance.
“From the first page of this clever, fishy little novel, our narrator, Sophie, is the kind of woman whose laughter is a weapon. She could scare off an assailant with one well-timed whack of her tongue.”
From Mary Marge Locker’s review
New Directions | Paperback, $17.95
TREMOR Teju Cole
Cole’s new novel collects the reflections of a Nigerian American professor who uses art to explore traumatic, sometimes violent histories. Paintings, photographs, antiques of dubious provenance: All prompt questions of identity, perspective and power, and invite readers to scrutinize themselves.
“The most sundry and vagrant of Cole’s works to date. … The reader is at first seduced by Cole’s mastery of anecdote before being immersed in rich, sometimes discomfiting ideas.”
From Brian Dillon’s review
Random House | $28
VENGEANCE IS MINE Marie NDiaye
NDiaye’s latest psychological thriller, translated by Jordan Stump, follows a lawyer named Maître Susane who is reunited with a man she knew when they were both teenagers. But his presence brings fear rather than comfort: Something happened in his bedroom 30 years ago, and Maître Susane can’t recall what.
“As in NDiaye’s other novels, the story lives not in the incident but its aftermath.”
From Lovia Gyarkye’s review
Knopf | $28
THE UPSTAIRS DELICATESSEN: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading Dwight Garner
Ranging from his boyhood in Florida and West Virginia to his adult life as an editor and reviewer, this intimate and joyful memoir by a Times book critic valorizes an unpretentious and hungry way of reading, eating and living with gusto.
“What’s refreshing here is that Garner never problematizes his eating and reading habits; they were and remain the engine of his vitality.”
From Jennifer Reese’s review
Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $27
I LOVE RUSSIA: Reporting From a Lost Country Elena Kostyuchenko
Originally published in an independent Russian newspaper, and translated here by Bela Shayevich and Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse, this collection of articles by a journalist who has since relocated to the West casts sympathetic light on the struggles of her country’s far-flung citizens.
“Kaleidoscopic. … Traces the recent evolution of Russian society, highlighting its persistent inequality and injustice, and suggesting why so many Russians stay silent as their leader prosecutes a ruinous war.”
From Valerie Hopkins’s review
Penguin Press | $30
MAPPING THE DARKNESS: The Visionary Scientists Who Unlocked the Mysteries of Sleep Kenneth Miller
The field of sleep science has had a turbulent history: often treated with skepticism, frequently underfunded and filled with restless characters. Miller, a journalist, presents his story with brio and a certain wonder.
“Commanding, bright and deft. ... Cuts and flows through the last century of impossibly complex stop-start progress in the measuring and quantifying of sleep — why we do it, and how. None of it is simple and all of it is captivating.”
From Samantha Harvey’s review
Hachette | $32.50
INFORMATION DESK: An Epic Robyn Schiff
Schiff took a routine job in the Metropolitan Museum of Art soon after college; these poems revisit that time in short, staggered lines that are perceptive and often comic.
“While ‘Information Desk’ is about many things, at its core is the idea that one work of art begets another. ... Artists of every kind both reinvent themselves and add to what Schiff calls the ‘gorgeous and harrowing hoard’ of ‘magic and mundane objects’ that make up the art world.”
From David Kirby’s review
Penguin Poets | Paperback, $20
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The New York Review of Books 4+
Conçue pour ipad.
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- Inclut des achats intégrés
• Direct subscribers now login using your existing nybooks.com credentials. • Ability to change font size. • Enhanced layout and readability. • Easier article bookmarking.
Notes et avis
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MAZ App Development
Sorry, 1 star - but, it’s deserved. MAZ is responsible for The Nation Magazine’s app as well as NYReview and signing into both of these apps is like entering a rats nest. If you’re trying to retrieve a password that was initiated using another source - say a desktop, rather than a phone - forget it. I emailed MAZ for solutions to my problem and was emailed back a form letter for a completely different problem. Seriously, the people responsible for choosing their app developers ought to look elsewhere.
Excellent publication, miserable app, and long term failure to improve it.
I find it almost impossible to make effective use of this app. This is a revision of a previous negative review. If anything whatever changes have been made over the past year have only rendered it even worse. In the past, I could at least access archived issues with relative ease, but now having just today (Dec. 7, 2019) returned to the app after a long absence, I’m finding it impossible to find any archived material. I have been using apps for many years, specifically apps connected with various publications and while there is some variation in quality, I have never experienced anything like the problems I have with this one. It’s clear from other recent comments that I am not alone in having serious problems with the NYRB app. Unfortunately, the on going problems with your app suggest either incompetence on the part of whoever is responsible for its operation or near total contempt for digital subscribers.
Bugs and Befuddlement (Edited)
The previous version was highly unstable—it just crashes after a few seconds of reading an issue. So it was unusable. Now this version comes out and it looks great. Except I can’t login (and yes, my credentials are correct). Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait another 6 months or year for it to be fixed. *** The login issues seem to have been fixed. For some reason I had to create a new login, so now I have a login for the app AND the website. This isn’t convenient but it isn’t the end of the world. I wish the devs would have explained this... Now, about the good things. Unlike some other users, I’m personally thrilled about the new functionality. Adding adaptive screen size support is a huge aesthetic upgrade (no more letter boxing on iPhone X devices), and support for things like being able to switch between a text and PDF view is great. I also like how they’ve incorporated some of the NYer Today app’s features like a story stream for new features. It makes it a much more engaging experience. Brilliant job!
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