The following is an excerpt from MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. Edited by Chad Harbach (Faber and Faber/n+1: 320 pp., $16 paper).
Part I of this essay was originally published on nplusonemag.com in 2009; Part II was written after the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.
I – 2008
Go into the magazine section of any bookstore and you’ll find professional writers’ “trade” journals, imploring your attention with unassailable advice. The headlines blazon: Top Ten Tips to Writing Success, Be a Good Writer in One Month, How to Sell Your Novel. I don’t know how many such magazines exist, but it’s more than you’d think. In any issue of a typical writers’ journal you’ll find exhaustive listings of contests, awards, grant opportunities, and residency opportunities. You’ll find a feature on a veteran novelist, or a young one in the first blush of success (“This Could be You . . .”). And you’ll find tips.
Contest listings have an obvious value. But tips? Tips are not information: they’re suggestions, approaches, repackaged common sense. Tips make no guarantees, and they have no conceivable end. And so these magazines are crammed with tips. They love tips. They swamp their readership with tips. The joy, or the misery, of tips is their endless repetition.
How to Arm Your Characters, How to Improve Your Storytelling, How to Mine Your Novel for Gold, How to Land an Agent, Kafka Toiled in Obscurity & Died Penniless: If Only He Had a Website . . . The jargon is indistinguishable from the self-help lingo of any genre. Car fanzines on the adjacent racks promise secret knowledge and privileged instruction. Lifestyle magazines promise psychological building blocks, step by step, toward a healthier, happier, or even impervious psychology. Nearby style magazines give tips on better and better sex. The headlines blur together in a cavalcade of tips—for excellent writing, extraordinary sex, exquisite cars.
Yet sex and car tips differ from writing tips in a crucial respect. Acquiring sexual expertise does not require you to be connected to any particular industry. Retooling your car doesn’t depend on bagging a powerful agent. But fiction is ruled by New York publishing houses—and increasingly influenced by association with major MFA programs. People who live in Statesboro, Georgia, rather than New York, and people who lack any higher education whatsoever, may still want to publish books. You could argue that writers’ magazines provide a substitute education for thousands of dreamers without access to writing classes or MFA programs. What you see on the magazine racks, however, is a glut of hard-sell techniques. What you see says publishing is all about Winner and Losers. Though tips may mention literary values, the excess reinforces the impression: only the shrewd survive. You’re talented. You know it. Losers play fair, however, and lose. Losers listen to the wrong advice. Winners take everything.
The landscape described above should be familiar to anyone with a passing acquaintance with reality TV and its conventions. On Survivor the castaways make deals behind one another’s backs. Neither athletic ability nor sportsmanship necessarily carries the day. Humiliation is part of every episode, and the humiliated deserve their failure. While the finest singers on American Idol may briefly stand out from the pack, public votes decide the winner. A host of reality shows hurry to endorse the principle that winning and losing have less to do with excellence than with captivating spectacle.
It may come as no surprise, then, that a publishing industry facing its own financial terrors should have spawned the idea of staying relevant by copycatting this form of entertainment. Like the amateur contests it was modeled on, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award brought the same stew of spectacle, humiliation, and “reality” into the normally private acts of judgment and reactions of a professional world—in this case, the world of book publishing.
The reality TV universe isn’t chaos; it isn’t godless. But its gods are pagan. The “reality” is that—like life—the shows are unfair. Public votes sometimes matter and sometimes don’t, but they do or don’t in a structured way, as if the shows followed a logic handed down from Mt. Olympus. Remember “The Apprentice,” wherein the contestants battled to win a job from Donald Trump? His godliness salted the psychological wounds of failure.
In the Amazon Breakthrough contest, there are three resident deities. The first is Amazon.com. Amazon’s already weighty influence over unpublished authors’ dreams tripled in 2005 when the company acquired Booksurge, which publishes vanity books. For hundreds of dollars (or thousands, depending upon the Booksurge package) desperate authors could see their books bound and galleyed and (in the loosest sense of the word) promoted on an Amazon page.
Add in two New York–based deities to complete the trinity: Penguin, the venerable publisher that pioneered the production of cheap, pocket-sized paperbacks, and the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), whose own set of annual awards are widely respected. Penguin offered a $25,000 publishing contract to the winner of the contest; NBCC reviewers were called upon to evaluate the semifinalists’ manuscripts.**
[Note: When this essay first appeared on nplusonemag.com, n+1 received a letter from Jane Ciabattari, then president of the NBCC. Ciabattari noted that no official partnership existed between her organization and the ABNA: “It is true that a former president of the organization, John Freeman, was involved in the contest (as a judge), as is at least one present board member. Other NBCC members may have signed on to help with the culling process. But these are private, remunerated affiliations.” I accepted this clarification, but also noted that, at the time of the contest’s inception, John Freeman was NBCC president. He promoted the contest enthusiastically, and his name and NBCC affiliation appeared on ABNA promotional materials. The NBCC also assisted in soliciting reviewers for the contest. Though the NBCC was not an official partner, Freeman’s highly visible role, and Amazon’s frequent use of the NBCC name, gave contestants reason to believe that it was.]
Having always promoted itself as a company that empowers readers, the Amazon contest appealed to (or manipulated?) a very internet-savvy reading community. A short history: in late 2007 Amazon issued a call for online manuscripts, and from October 1 to November 5 accepted the first 5,000 entries they received. Volunteers from Amazon’s interactive community of “Top Reviewers” (self-styled lit-lovers who have written thousands of customer reviews) weeded those 5,000 entries down to 836.
Then the so-called professionals got involved. NBCC critics received truckloads of full manuscripts and browsed them. The critics penned anonymous capsule reviews, following a format provided by Publishers Weekly. Amazon created a special web page featuring a five-thousand-word excerpt from each novel, available for download and customer review. The “contestants” were stacked in alphabetical order by their titles, without cover illustrations—like test products without wrappers or packaging. Eventually Amazon added the capsule reviews, thus creating a web page where anyone who wanted to could read mostly negative and occasionally scathing reviews of nearly a thousand unpublished books.
Meanwhile the real drama (and pathos) unfolded on the contest’s vigorous discussion boards. The contestants commiserated and conspired. They traded professional secrets and personal stories (including many, many testimonials reflecting upon their childhood beginnings as would-be novelists). There were periodic rants (particularly after the posting of the reviews, which the authors referred to as “Publishers Weekly reviews”). There were spells in which the writers simply waited for news. “Amazon must love making us suffer,” one participant wrote.
Penguin Books editors sifted the manuscripts that had garnered the best reviews. The endgame began on March 3, when public voting began. The grand-prize winner among the ten finalists would be selected by vote—public vote, a la American Idol. From five thousand manuscripts to ten. From ten to one “breakthrough” into the real world of publishing. The other nine finalists would receive compensatory awards: vacation packages for four runners-up, home entertainment centers for the other five.
Full disclosure: I am a member of the NBCC. I penned several of the much-contested Publishers Weekly reviews, for a $40 a manuscript honorarium. Am I a “professional” reviewer? I am a poet and a human being—and I review books, too. But for the purposes of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (the discussion boards insisted) I was the bloodless professional, the executioner. Over a period of six weeks, some twenty manuscripts arrived at my apartment. The deliveries thumped at the doorstep like children on Halloween, wanting treats. I dispatched them with 250-word critiques—tricks.
I tried to justify the contest and my participation in it. After all, I thought, the public voting at the end might encourage reading in a fun way. Though the contest may not encourage high literary culture, how can anyone be so snobbish as to argue that people shouldn’t be the arbiters of their own tastes? However hokey the spectacle, the competition could unearth a notable manuscript, or so I argued to myself. But none of it quite worked; I still felt queasy about participating. It was probably out of guilt that I began to check the message boards.
Before long, I was hooked, visiting the boards every few days, keeping tracks of distinct characters and general turns in the flavor of the dialogue. Initially the posts were characterized by ebullience and a feeling of community. I was taken aback by how often the contestants gushed with gratitude and used the first-person plural, joining their praises in a chorus of thanks. “We want to thank Amazon for doing this.” “This is our chance—our shot.”
They expressed familial kinship: “I don’t believe I have much chance at the final rounds. Still, I’ll never forget all the friends and support I’ve made here.” But as in any reality contest, it’s the solo pursuit of fortune that drives an ostensible bonding experience. From the very first rounds, contestants laid out plans to plug their novels on their Facebook pages. They questioned other contestants’ positive customer reviews. (Later, they would question the professional capsule reviews.) They strategized ahead to the round of public votes, venting suspicions that other, less honorable contestants would garner a majority of votes by appealing to relatives and local writing groups, while simultaneously positioning themselves as friendly and supportive (perhaps so that, if they made the final ten, the 4,990 eliminated contestants would vote for them).
They were playing to win. I searched the message boards week after week for a facetious reference to the second- and third-place prizes, hoping someone saw humor in the notion that their writing ability could win them a Caribbean cruise or a TV. Week after week, the search proved fruitless.
Allow me, in the spirit of literary confessionals (published or otherwise), to make another personal disclosure: a decade ago I spent a summer interning for an agency known as A Rising Sun Literary Group. Defunct since the late 1990s, the agency charged a $350 fee for evaluating unpublished manuscripts, promising that “a staff of professional writers” would provide critiques. The “professional writers” were college juniors and seniors like myself. At the time I suspected A Rising Sun Literary Group was a scam, but I discovered only recently that it was merely one part of a larger scam, orchestrated by a notorious con artist named Dorothy Deering.
A former science fiction writer turned professional spinner of manipulative fantasies, Deering managed a number of so-called literary agencies in the 1990s. Her agencies—plural, because A Rising Sun operated under a variety of names—charged exorbitant fees and wooed clients with the false belief that their manuscripts were on the verge of being sold to major houses or Hollywood. But the various Deering agencies never sold a book. The FBI finally put Dorothy Deering out of business for shady practices and mail fraud. A former FBI agent wrote a book about her: Ten Percent of Nothing: The Case of a Literary Agent from Hell was published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2004.
Until the company’s exposure, the daily mailings stacked high. Rising Sun advertised itself as a “sensitive” company; the pose attracted authors of “sensitive” paper-thin confessionals.
One Rising Sun author impressed me in a memorable way by literally forgetting she was writing a fiction. The manuscript was generic romance story. Character X is in love with Character Y. X is a shy virgin. Y is a bad boy with a reputation. Characters X and Y fall in love. They break up and Character X falls into a state of depression. Character X stays in a state of depression. Her depression worsens. She stops eating. She is diagnosed as anorexic. She swallows an overdose. The doctors save her, but she is convinced she wants to die. For a few pages of her death throes, the author of this third-person novel slips up and turns to a confessional first-person mode. Three pages later the third-person narration returns unannounced. For those three pages, the writer had been too overwhelmed and helpless to distinguish between the facts of her own life story and a work of fiction.
I pondered that sad and bizarre memory as I waded through the many confessional Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award entries. There were no hidden masterpieces in my batch of manuscripts. In no less than five of the twenty novels I slogged through, the lead character was a college English major who dead-ended upon graduation and supported him- or herself by working lowly service jobs. Imagining these economically strapped college grads turned carhops, dishwashers, and bartenders, and trying within the limitations of their resources or their talent to create a literary culture for themselves, sapped the fun out of publicly panning their books in 250-word squibs.
The posting of the reviews unleashed a storm of activity on the message boards. By and large, the contestants were pissed off. Some adopted a philosophical attitude, but the majority (aside from the favorably reviewed gloaters) vented and inundated the boards with hysteria and conspiracy theories, claiming that the paid reviewers had mangled the plots of their novels, that the customer reviews were actually very reliable, that they had personally consulted “book doctors” who had in turn assured them the reviews were ludicrous.
Then and only then did the message boards raise the topic of exploitation, usually in ways that addressed contestants’ bruised feelings rather than the big picture. The starstruck babble receded long enough for the would-be novelists to reconsider whether the contest might be inherently cruel or unjust: “Egos have been shattered and hearts have been broken here, and I don’t think that’s what Amazon intended.” On February 9, 2008, a contestant began a discussion thread titled “Did They Actually Read Yours?” in which the suspicion and hostility escalated. A mantra caught on: “I call it speculative-extrapolation. They saw some actual words, had a pre-formed opinion and went with that. . . . I had to read the thing 5 times before I realized how little of it was actually factual.” “I felt similarly about my PW review (which was truly dreadful). It seems as though the reviewer read the synopsis and skimmed the beginning of the book and then jumped to a great deal of mistaken conclusions.” “I agree that odds are most of the entries are probably unpublishable at this point and that many deserve tough criticism. But . . . I have taken issue with my PW reviewer to the extent he or she simply misrepresented my work.”
A great novel—particularly an experimental one—would have a hard time succeeding in any reality book contest, much less the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award. To impress first the Amazon Top Reviewers, and then the overworked professional reviewers (who had to read ten to twenty books in six weeks), it was probably best to have written a quick, readable novel that was accessible in a state of distraction. To this extent, the concerns expressed on the message boards—that the standards were ambiguous, the contest was hurried, and the reviewers hadn’t read the submissions carefully enough—were legitimate. Even if the bulk of the manuscripts didn’t warrant lengthy consideration.
Eventually, the postings began to exhibit healthy doses of cynical wit: “I’m ready to sell out. Yes, I’ll do commercials in Japan, whatever it takes. Already I have all but donned a pink skirt and boob tube in my efforts to get passing traffic to my novel. If they want me to write, I can do that as well.” And outright hostility: “I have to say this thing with reviews and the visibility of the entries is a farce.” The catty sniping—and the emotional high-wire acts—indirectly posed reasonable questions: Were there instructions to the reviewers, what kind of books was Penguin interested in, and why was Penguin interested in doing this?
The ten finalists were allowed to make a “plea” for themselves. Their manuscript excerpts were posted alongside photos and autobiographical statements—beauty-pageant-style effusions of passions and dreams, stories about pets, et cetera, worthy of a runway walk finale. The three top vote-getters were flown to New York, where the winner was announced. Congratulations to Bill Loehfelm, author of Fresh Kills—a mystery thriller I have never read and probably never will.
The 2008 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will be followed by a 2009 contest and so on, possibly forevermore. The American Idol–style format of the contest will come to seem inevitable, as opposed to optional.
The contest was intended for writers at the bottom of the literary food chain and cynically directed at the section of the public most susceptible to the culture of hype. Remember the (extremely American) ethos of the reality-show world: reality contests reproduce “reality” by intentionally making the contests less than fair. The final round in which the public demonstrates its critical acumen (which the contest has done nothing to sharpen) amounts to a sarcastic egalitarian sham. American Idol is watched by millions of viewers. The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award will never attract millions of readers, nor justify the fun and games by popularizing literacy, nor resolve the issue of savvy contestants racking up dubious votes.
Near the very end, a discussion-board thread queried the bumped authors: “Why Are You Still Here?” The answers were unusually reconciled. They planned to purchase the winning book. They were here to support the community. They were still participating out of loyalty and curiosity. They knew they could write a better novel. They appreciated the contest for providing insight into the publishing industry, however arbitrary the judging process appeared to be. They were still here for this noble reason, or that personal motive, or the opportunity to fight another day. Or this unforgettable response: “Cause I like it here. I belong in a way I’ve never belonged in my real life.”
I won’t be visiting the ABNA website this year because I can’t think of the contest without reflecting upon that comment. Whoever wrote this intuitively understood that reality shows depend upon feelings of worthlessness. A public that felt empowered would demand more from its contests; a disenfranchised public will easily slip into the role of the buffoon, and even arrogantly demand the privilege of playing the buffoon. Reality-show success is all about childish self-promotion. To mature, or to begin to speak maturely, will usually get you voted off.
II – 2013
The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award is still going strong. The reality-show format and gimmicks remain intact, though the entertainment centers and vacation packages were eliminated in the contest’s second year. Beginning in 2010, two winners were chosen for publication, one in the General Fiction category and the other in Young Adult Fiction. The advances were lowered from $25,000 to $15,000. (Why not publish two books—or promote two breakthroughs—for the price of one?)
In December 2012, Amazon announced that their partnership with Penguin had been severed; contest winners would now be published by Amazon Publishing, in Kindle and print editions. If there was anything surprising about this change, it was that it took so long: in recent years, Amazon had established several editorial imprints, as part of its ongoing effort to vertically integrate the publishing business. It’s almost hard to believe that Amazon and Penguin survived five years of partnership, despite the ever-escalating tensions between Amazon and the Big Six (now Five, with the recent creation of behemoth Penguin Random House) publishers.
The updated, Amazon-only contest will begin with a splash, awarding prizes in five categories instead of two: General Fiction, Young Adult Fiction, Mystery/Thriller, Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Horror, and Romance. Each category champion will receive a $15,000 publishing contract from Amazon; the grand-prize winner’s advance will balloon to $50,000. “The Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award has helped thousands of authors realize their dream of writing a novel,” announced an Amazon spokesman, setting the dream-bar low. “We’re excited to evolve the contest this year to recognize talented aspiring authors in even more genres, with bigger advances, more winners, and quickly bring the winning novels to readers around the world.”
After the first part of this essay appeared online, I received a caboodle of responses from Amazon Breakthrough contestants. They were irate that I’d quoted their message-board chatter for the purposes of my piece, and so I won’t quote their emails here, but the general tenor was spiteful. The invective they’d hurled at Amazon during the latter stages of the contest they now hurled at me.
I also received comments that challenged me more intelligently. These writers argued that while there was a good deal that was silly or even dismaying about the contest, I had underestimated, or failed to appreciate, how the self-publishing phenomenon spearheaded by Amazon represented a revolution. Self-publishing, they argued, was leveling the playing field, taking absolute authority away from the New York publishing houses. And the most sophisticated made very good arguments that this revolution would not be without the aesthetic merits of a radical, challenging break with the past.
Six years and eight winners later, the jury is still out on how radical this break really is. Bill Loehfelm, whose thriller Fresh Kills won the inaugural contest, has since produced three more thrillers, Bloodroot, The Devil She Knows, and The Devil in Her Way, published by Berkley Trade, Picador, and Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of FSG. The next year’s winner, Bill Warrington’s Last Chance, by James King, was a novel about a family trying to work through their troubles that was more along the lines of conventional literary fiction, though written somewhat loosely. Each winner was dutifully published by one of the Penguin imprints (Berkley Prime Crime for Fresh Kills; Viking for Bill Warrington; Riverhead for Patricia McArdle’s Farishta, about a woman who helps refugees in Afghanistan; Dutton for Gregory Hill’s East of Denver). None appear to have sold many copies. Each received reasonably positive reviews from the trade publications. None did well enough to paper over an awkward marriage of sensibilities, and one suspects Penguin was not sad to see the partnership dissolve.
Penguin Books and its whiff of the classic hierarchies of old-school publishing are out. But the contest, and Amazon Publishing, and all its accompanying ideological mystifications, soldier on, tapping into the common sentiments of an ocean of unpublished and—more importantly—unconnected authors. They repeat the word “community” like a mantra, because relative to writers with New York agents, New York careers, or even just New York addresses, as well as to writers and students insulated (however temporarily) within the walls of academia, they lack it. They hunger for the insulations of “community”—a word that connotes a sense of belonging, dignity, respect. They easily confuse what they pine after for personal gratification, but what the unconnected truly long for is a sense of belonging to a common culture—a culture both fluid enough to absorb their individual eccentricity, and stable enough to provide standards by which to validate judgments. A literary world exists, and most people—most writers, even—exist outside of it. The Breakthrough contest, and the rise of the culture of self-publishing in general, makes them feel like they’re on the inside, however long the odds of success.
Call me a utopian, but I believe every entrant to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award would chuck the contest, the reality-show format, and all the tips on how to hype your book for a sense of cultural belonging. The Amazon “community” suggests a world in which everyone can publish a book, within a public space that may lead you belatedly to a special destiny. Of course, this community isn’t unionized, socialist, or cooperatively owned: far-reaching powers of inclusivity (a community anyone can join) often seem synonymous with far-reaching powers of exclusivity (be with Amazon or be alone). For the time being, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel seems less a promotion for the entrants than for the corporate sponsor, and the winner each year, no matter who wins the contest, is Amazon.com. This hints at a publishing revolution, though like many revolutions before it, it doesn’t look to be the one the revolutionaries truly needed, or sometimes thought they were fighting for.
This essay is excerpted from the new book MFA VS NYC, edited by Chad Harbach and published by Faber & Faber. Learn more about the book and order it here. Read Scratch’s interview with Harbach about the process of editing the book on our blog. “Reality Publishing,” copyright © 2014 by Darryl Lorenzo Wellington. Republished here by permission of the author.