How Publishing Is Rigged You thought it was a meritocracy??


People I’ve never laid eyes on

Lorrie MooreLorrie Moore is a fiction writer who seems to publish a new short story in The New Yorker every few months. (That's the way it seems to me anyway; if anyone knows who published more, or more often, please message me on Twitter. I trust someone out there has the proper statistics.) As part of their 2011 end-of-year wrap up, The New Yorker asked Moore to write about her favorite books of 2011, and this is what she had to say:

This past year I read the novels, stories, and memoirs of friends, colleagues, students, and acquaintances with much admiration. These books were all absorbing and important works of literature—which goes without saying, or perhaps with saying, depending on the title. Of the books I read this year by people I’ve never laid eyes on, the most peculiar and brilliant may have been “The Tiger’s Wife,” by Téa Obreht.

There are several amazing things about this opening paragraph. But let's focus on the first of them. Isn't it astonishing that every single one of the books written by a friend of Lorrie Moore is an "important work of literature?" Lorrie Moore is saying that if you knew her, and you're a writer, you write important literature. All it took for the great Lorrie more to deem your work "important" was to have been a student of hers, or a friend, or a colleague, or an acquaintance. Books written by people she's "never laid eyes on" fall into a different, more suspicious, category.

Read that except again.

"All of my friends write historically important works of literature" is what Lorrie Moore has essentially said here. It's a given in the literary world that if you know someone else in the Lit Biz, they'll publicly "love" your work. And you're expected to "love" theirs. This goes beyond Facebook support, beyond a tweet or two, and beyond words of praise, shared with the author. This is giving your friends' book a glowing review. This is mentioning your friend in an interview, using your status to further your friends' status. This problem of believing that "your friends all write historically important literature" tightens the circle around the literary elite, into which friends are welcome and the rest are outsiders.

The other amazing thing is that Lorrie Moore happens—oh she just happens, does she?—to select a work that has been often named by the Lit Biz world as one of the finest of the year. No surprises here; The New Yorker even featured the author, Téa Obreht, as one of their "20 under 40" authors to watch. Lorrie Moore was reading from the playbook and acting out the same routine that we've come to expect from those in the Lit Biz world:

  • "Love" the work of her friends
  • Promote the safe work that has been pre-approved by the Lit Biz world