Over at The Millions this morning, Bill Morris gives some examples of the “iron fact” that “[i]n book publishing . . . timing is everything.” Joe Posnanski’s biography of the late Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, for one, was drowned in revelations about child rape by Jerry Sandusky, Paterno’s onetime assistant. The Bonfire of the Vanities, for another, got a lucky boost from the “Bloody Monday stock market crash in the fall of 1987,” which made Tom Wolfe’s novel seem like an “almost magical bottling of the ’80s zeitgeist.”
But Morris’s “iron fact” is badly rusted by his own self-contradictory evidence. Depending on how you tilt your head, the Islamist terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, either doomed a book to failure (Alex Shakar’s The Savage Girl, published within days of the attacks, included light-hearted references to terrorism) or insured its success (Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, published a little over two weeks before the attacks, suddenly seemed “prescient to just about everyone”). Why was one a failure and the other a success, if “timing” influenced the fortunes of both, is left unexplained. For that matter, Morris might have considered an even more tiresome refutation. Anne Patchett’s novel Bel Canto, which romanticizes terrorists, was published in June 2001, and instead of being discredited by events, went on to secure the PEN/Faulkner and Orange literary prizes.
Whatever interest his essay may have is undercut by Morris’s opening sentence, in which the “literary life” is equated, sans irony, sans qualification, with “book publishing.” Here is the sentence in full: “There are few iron facts in the crapshoot of the literary life, but here’s one: In book publishing — no less than in music, war, and sex — timing is everything.” Offhand I can’t think of a better case study of the bacterial infection that has confined literary criticism to a convalescent ward. The confusion of literature with publishing reclassifies literary critics into adjuncts of the book promotion department.
Small wonder Morris is so fascinated with the sub-literary question of “timing.” As John Barth says somewhere, being up-to-date is the least important qualification for a great artist. Moby-Dick, first published on this date in 1851, was so “timely” that it had to wait seven decades, till Raymond M. Weaver’s biography of Melville and Carl Van Doren’s study of The American Novel (both published in 1921), to find more than a handful of readers. Morris’s inclination to equate literary success with publishing success, in fact, is what the bacterium looks like under the microscope.
You might think that a literary critic would feel some obligation to resist book promotion and nose out the good books that are being under-promoted. Criticism might even regain its health if it took a Moneyball approach to contemporary literature. Like batting average among baseball oldtimers who can’t seem to shake themselves out of their game’s folk psychology, timeliness is the measure of how a book is overvalued in literary culture. Fifty years ago this week two different novels about the timely question of the “nuclear threat,” Allen Drury’s A Shade of Difference and Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, hovered near the top of the New York Times bestseller list. Who remembers them today? A solicitude for “timing” shifts the question to the book’s subject. “What is it about?” becomes the decisive thing to ask about it. An important subject makes an important (and a timely) book, regardless what is being predicated about it.
In literature, however, almost exactly the reverse is true. The marriage plot, as Jeffrey Eugenides had fun reminding everyone last year, is the repetitive subject of a great many novels. Nothing very timely in that (or at least not in the way Morris conceives of time). “Aboutness,” as I like to call the question of the subject, circles around and around what is central to a novel: how it handles its subject. To coin a literary slogan: treatment is everything.
How might a Billy Beane among critics turn around the moribund franchise of “literary” fiction? “If we look closely at our reactions to most great novels,” Wayne Booth wrote in The Rhetoric of Fiction (also published fifty years ago this fall), “we discover that we feel a strong concern for the characters as people; we care about their good and bad fortune.” This caring has little or nothing to do with timing: we don’t love or hate based on the luck of external events.
The source of our feeling lies elsewhere: “[W]e cannot avoid judging the characters we know as morally admirable or contemptible,” Booth goes on. Moral judgment is as basic to reading a novel as a foundation inspection is to the purchase of a new home. It is, however, undervalued in literary culture today. Perhaps the main reason American fiction is in decline is that its moral component is neglected — both by writers and critics. It is never discussed in the creative writing workshops, which consequently limits their effectiveness as “feeders” of contemporary fiction. It is ignored in book promotion for business reasons. (No one ever bought a book, the publicists seem to believe, because its characters were admirable or contemptible.)
In the neglect of its moral component, we may get “timely” fiction or “literary” fiction, but not fiction that invites its readers to a judgment. Success is measured in splashy coverage from critics with little genuine interest in literature, and the real value of fiction is disdained — along with its readers.