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The New Literary Lottery

But just before Lansens became a casualty of publishing’s new economics, her luck turned violently, again. Hotchkiss, in New York, got a call from Whoopi Goldberg’s production company. She wanted to buy the movie rights and Whoopi herself wanted to play the lead. For Lansens, the deal meant another six-figure sum, not to mention an unimaginable windfall of publicity for the book, now in paperback.

Once again, and just as unimaginably, she was a poster child for the Hollywoodification of the book business—but this time, literally. Now anointed a significant literary voice, Lansens, who spent some time just processing all the drama, is now one fifth of her way through a second book. “This was my first book,” she says, still astonished. “If it were my tenth book, I wouldn’t have expected this.”

The new pressures are very clear to many young writers. A few years ago, Arthur Bradford, now 33, moved from Austin, Texas, where he was working as a school gym teacher. He quickly made his mark, earning an O. Henry Award for a short story in his collection, Dogwalker, and invitations to barbecues at Dave Eggers’s house. Already, however, Bradford’s worrying about following that artistic success with a commercial one. “If your first book or two is not widely read, it can ruin your chances of publishing anything else,” Bradford says. “You don’t want a small debut. You need to hit them over the head right away.” For some, the new equivalent of a writer’s apprenticeship seems more like a hazing ritual. Novelist Mary Morris is something of a Mother Superior to Brooklyn’s exploding writers’ scene. The author of thirteen highly readable midlist books, Morris presides over an exclusive writers’ group, which meets weekly in her Park Slope brownstone. Among the Slope’s legions of Next Jonathan Lethems, admission alone is something of a literary debut, a major step toward a first contract. Lately, however, Morris is finding it tougher to offer the sunny encouragement that young writers need to survive.

“There’s really more of a bottom-line mentality now,” Morris says wearily. “When I started out, publishers could still commit to a writer. Now they’re publishing a book. All any publisher has to do is push a button and get all the numbers from the big book chains. And those numbers,” she adds darkly, “will track you forever.”

Nelly Reifler is a typical young writer living in Brooklyn. Now 35, she spent the first fourteen years of her “professional” life working the register at a store that sold wind-up toys on Columbus Avenue, or walking dogs for Paul Auster—anything that allowed her time to write. She published ambitious short fiction in underground journals like Pressed Wafer and the better-known Bomb. Then Reifler signed on with Leigh Feldman, the agent who sold Arthur Golden’s best-selling Memoirs of a Geisha and Cold Mountain. Feldman sold Reifler’s first collection of stories—See Through—to Simon & Schuster, albeit for a sum that would barely be large enough to buy a new replacement for her 1987 Toyota Camry. While the irrepressible Reifler considers a sum like that heroic compared with her previous paychecks, she acknowledges that the concept of living a midlist writer’s life like Morris’s—nice brownstone, regular contracts—is looking ever more difficult to attain.

“It helps to have low expectations.” Reifler says with a shrug. “It’s a crazy way to live. It’s just a gamble. You’re just betting on a way of life.”

But while writers like Mary Morris consider the blockbuster mentality something of a sickness in the book business, others insist it’s a measure of health. “Some of the worst cynics tend to be people who maybe are never going to get published for a reason,” says Nicole Aragi, the superagent-of-the-moment who brokered Jonathan Safran Foer’s handsome payday. Aragi embodies the blockbuster mentality better than most. She claims not to bother with midlist clients and takes on at most one or two new authors a year, and then only the superhot (she also represents Junot Díaz). Winning Aragi’s approval in itself is a benediction of sorts.

“I’ve heard some very nasty accusations from people, then you look at their work and think, Well, there’s a reason fifteen rejections are sitting in your box,” Aragi says. “I’m very cruel about that, though, so I’m not going to start sounding like an old bitch. There have always been bean-counters in the industry, because it’s a business. We need them to behave in a businesslike way.”

Though Bill Thomas of Doubleday disagrees that this shift in publishing has created better fiction writers, he suggests it has coincided with a really good crop of emerging American novelists. “I think American fiction is in a very good place right now,” says Thomas, who edited Jonathan Lethem’s commercial breakthrough, Motherless Brooklyn, before ascending to his current post. “If you look at Jonathan Safran Foer, no one said, ‘Well, this is a difficult postmodern novel by an unknown writer, we’re not going to get involved.’ Everyone bid on it. That feeling of excitement when you start turning pages of a manuscript and you want to share this with the world, that still drives the business.”