Saturday, May 02, 2009

Open Letter to The New York Times

My letter to the editor of the New York Times Book Review appears in this Sunday's edition (May 3, 2009). They've elided my text in places (most tellingly in the opening achtung), tweaked it in others. Still, I think they're dignified to print it at all.

Here's the letter (with links added). Text omitted by the Gray Lady is restored in brackets. Bold text signifies Gray Lady additions or changes.
[ Earth to New York: ]

Michael Meyer’s essay [piece] “About That [Book] Advance…” (Sunday, April 12, 2009) discusses fiction publishing in terms that hardly ever apply in reality, or terms more relevant to the publishing of non-fiction. While advance payment is the rule for memoirs or informational books, only the minutest fraction of published fiction writers command up-front cash for work still unfinished.

The wildly lucky Audrey Niffenegger and her ilk notwithstanding, most fiction writers—even those with one or more novels to their credit—must labor, often for years, sans payment. What’s more, in our increasingly doctrinaire publishing climate, even the finest among them labor sans all guarantees of eventual publication or income; one could argue—and demonstrate persuasively—that the greater number of literature’s real practitioners (those who have not let cynicism and status anxiety eat away their gifts) work under such conditions. Laboring slowly, unhonored and unpaid and bound toward an immaterial prize far more meaningful than “success” as New York parlance would have it, these writers have destiny for incentive—and perhaps the exemplars of bygone literary gods for inspiration. Unsung, they sing, and reap rewards that more than mitigate the annoyances of obscurity. Quietly, faithfully, their late-paid, ill-paid or altogether unpaid works go into the world untrumpeted, unreviewed, and unbought, to give the lie to the fallacy denounced [decried ] by Annie Dillard a quarter-century ago: “that the novelists of whom we have heard are the novelists we have.”

[In the likes of Whitman, Dickinson, Proust—and more recently Cormac McCarthy and the late Andre Dubus—our unsung have their forebears. It shall be said we did not know them at first. Meanwhile, they worked. ]

Rather than discuss contemporary literature or even contemporary publishing, Mr. Meyer’s article does little more than survey the New York Cult of Success. The art of language and story lives elsewhere, sustained by the unwavering economics of the spirit.

M. Allen Cunningham

Portland, OR

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