House of Commons, House of Lords

The first of a few consecutive pieces on fiction and fiction writing. If I knew how many there’ll be, I’d tell you.

In August 2017, I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, as a “contributor.” That meant that I contributed full tuition so that the important people, the real writers, got to be there for free. It was an enormously hierarchical event, the 270 or so of us clustered into herds of Faculty and Fellows and Waitstaff, the young and beautiful and serious who waited tables during the week in exchange for their tuition waiver, just as they taught freshman comp and introduction to poetry at the colleges that hosted their MFA programs. The tribes almost never intersected except within the bounds of prescribed roles. Workshop leader and participants. Lecturer and audience. Waiter and diner. We all knew our places, and didn’t struggle against them.

Along with the workshops and readings and afternoon craft talks, the middle of the conference featured visitors from the industry, agents and editors who’d made the drive up from New York or Boston for a genial few days among their friends in the woods. Like summer camp or a Catskills resort, to which the privileged return like migratory birds each season.

In exchange for catching up with old friends and sharing industry gossip, they too had a role—to meet, individually or in small groups, with the desperate, with the outsiders seeking knowledge, seeking the password, the secret key to the club. And the two people I met with performed that role in as dull and desultory a fashion as one might expect, the House of Lords communicating distantly with the House of Commons.

The first was an agent with thirty years’ experience, who calmly informed us during her talk that she no longer knew how to do her job. “It used to be that you could manufacture a bestseller, that you could put a hundred thousand dollars into promotion and guarantee a big book. Now, books with big marketing budgets go nowhere, and books no one expected somehow go viral.” She did let us know that seventy percent of all new fiction sells fewer than two thousand copies, and that her business model didn’t include those books. “If I sell a book that makes two thousand dollars, I’m going to make three hundred. I can’t spend my time on that.” She closed by urging the masses to support the project of literature. “Buy books,” she said.

When I later met with her individually, I attempted to describe my project, as she smiled blandly at my desperation. I was merely an anonymous, fifteen-minute middle car in the freight train of hope that blocked her path that afternoon. “You’re asking men to think about their emotions,” she said. “They don’t want to do that.” Okay, then, thanks.

The other, whom I met with for an abbreviated hour in a group of five, was a fiction editor with Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. She had no interest in our projects, asked no questions, just came in and sat and waited for us to lead things. She stressed the importance of being able to encapsulate a novel in just a few words. “Everyone involved in a book is trying to sell it to the next person in line. The agent is selling it to the editor, the editor is selling it to the editorial board, and editorial is selling it to the marketing team. The form we use, once we’ve got a book and we’re sending it to the marketing department, has a field we fill out for the book’s description. It’s 130 characters.” We were enrapt, as outsiders are—that’s why we read gossip magazines, too, for any glimpse of how the celebrities live. “Can you give us an example?” I asked.

She could not. She had not even done the most basic preparation of attempting to bring details from the books that supposedly enlivened her. She flailed for a moment, and then said, “I’m working on a project right now, I’m really excited about it. It’s the first post-apocalyptic office novel.” That description—the first post-apocalyptic office novel—certainly met the goal of abbreviation, clocking in at a mere thirty-nine characters. But it communicated absolutely nothing at all. Well, not nothing. There was “novel,” meaning a book length work of fiction. And there was “first,” which meant that no one had ever attempted to jam those two pieces together before.

Last weekend, I went to our local bookseller’s annual customer appreciation weekend. As I was browsing—and what an apt word, looking down on the lush bounty and considering which blade of grass might be tastiest, most tender. Anyway, as I was browsing, I spent a few minutes at the “New and Notable” table, upon which I spotted a nearly plain, pink paperback, its graphic design laid out as though it were a manila envelope: the title and author on a paper sticky-label, surrounding text applied as though with faded office ink stamps.

That book is Severance, by Ling Ma. The first post-apocalyptic office novel, acquired originally by Farrar, Strauss and Giroux. And I’m reading it now. I’ll have plenty to say in the next few days, far more than 130 characters.

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