12 Winters Blog

Writing Too Good to Publish

Posted in April 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on April 21, 2019

The following paper — “Writing Too Good to Publish: A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland” — was presented at the North American Review Writing Conference, April 19-21, 2019, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, as part of the panel “Published Worlds.” Other papers presented were “Something About a Frying Pan and a Fire: Why I Gave up a Tenured Position and Launched a Publishing Imprint” by Kathy Flann, and “To Publish or Not to Publish” by Sayeed Ahmad.


I want to begin by updating the title of this talk. To the main title “Writing Too Good to Publish,” I’m adding “A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland.” I see my presentation as a semi-formal prologue to a paper I’m presenting in July at the MLA International Symposium in Lisbon. That paper is on the loss of the literary voice and its ramifications for society. Today my main objective is to generate some thought and discussion, and I’m building my talk around observations by my literary idol William H. Gass, who quipped in a 1971 interview, regarding his eventual novel The Tunnel, that if he achieved his goal “perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it,” adding, “I live on that hope.” Gass was suggesting, nearly fifty years ago, that in the publishing world there was emerging a negative correlation between the quality of a book and its likelihood for publication.

Gass imposingSo at the root of my talk is the question: Has Gass’s darkly humorous prediction come true? That is, in 2019 can one produce such a well-written book that no publisher will touch it—or at least no major publisher? Since I’ve gone to the trouble of proposing this topic for the writing conference and putting together some thoughts regarding it, you can no doubt surmise that my answer to the question is yes.

First, I acknowledge that my working thesis is bathed in subjectivity. What, for example, constitutes a “good book”? What did Gass mean by the term in 1971, and is his meaning relevant today? For that matter, what is a “major” publisher?

This last question is perhaps the simplest to answer, so I’ll begin there. When I refer to major publishers, I’m thinking of what Publisher’s Weekly calls the “Big Five” (Milliot), commercial publishers who have the wherewithal to publish an author in a massive press run, and promote the work in a way that will get it reviewed by the top reviewers, put it in the running for prestigious prizes, prominently placed in bookstores, and purchased by libraries far and wide. Publisher’s Weekly identifies the Big Five as Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Hachette Book Group, and Macmillan (at least as of 2017). Just outside the Big Five is Scholastic. A quick perusal of book spines in Barnes & Noble (the only nationwide bookseller remaining) would suggest there are a lot more commercial publishers than a mere handful, but it’s misleading because these big publishers have been buying up smaller presses for decades, so what appear to be dozens of New York-based publishers are in fact entities which fall under the auspices of a few parent companies.

Cormac McCarthyFor these parent companies, profit is the number-one driving force; in fact, nearly the only force. The situation is efficiently summarized in Daniel Robert King’s Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution (2016). McCarthy’s first publisher was Random House, but “[b]y 1962 Random House was on the path to becoming a big business” (21). King goes on, “In the context of the American publishing industry as a whole, it was the purchase of Random House by RCA in 1965 that marked the real beginning” of book publishers being purchased by corporations whose main financial interest wasn’t publishing books (22). During McCarthy’s time at Random House, presidents came and went, and with each successor there may have been more attention paid to profit and less to literary quality. Perhaps the low point was reached in 1980 with the installment of Alberto Vitale, a former banker who André Schiffrin describes as a “business man with a thuggish disposition and a thoroughly anti-intellectual attitude—the pose of a rough-and-ready street fighter who gets things done and isn’t afraid to do what it takes to make as much money as possible” (qtd. in King 22-23). Chief among Vitale’s changes to the Random House modus operandi, writes Schiffrin, was “that each book should make a profit on its own and that one title should no longer be allowed to subsidize another” (23). This pressure for each book to make a profit has led to a high turnover rate among editors at corporate publishing houses, and agents have replaced editors as “the fixed points in authors’ lives,” according to Schiffrin (23).

By extension, then, agents have had to become more preoccupied with profit potential than the weighty quality of the work. Being a literary agent is not charity work, after all, so what good does it do to take on a project unless one is reasonably certain it can catch the eye of a market-minded editor?

Up until the corporate takeover of the publishing world, which began in the 1960s, editors at places like Random House would find talented writers and nurture their careers until sales could catch up. As King notes, “Random House took on and retained McCarthy as one of their authors despite unpromising sales over the first twenty years of his career” (23). In fact, it was due to the persistence of McCarthy’s editor Albert Erskine that McCarthy’s earliest titles even stayed in print. Had it not been for Erskine’s clout and consistent badgering, Random House might have let McCarthy’s titles go out of print (32-33). Ultimately, McCarthy’s novels were moved to Knopf, which by then, in the early 1990s, had been fully acquired by Random House as an imprint for its “loss leaders”—“low-selling books which add prestige to a company’s name . . . despite their underwhelming sales” (103-104).

Knopf was William Gass’s publisher as well, beginning with the hardcover reprint of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in 1971. The outrageously experimental novella was originally published as a special supplement by the literary journal TriQuarterly in 1968. Nineteen seventy-one was of course the year Gass made his comment about writing such a good book no one would publish it. Knopf did publish it, in 1995, and it won a few accolades, including the American Book Award in 1996, but it must have been commercially challenging, especially given Gass’s ambitions for the book’s design. For example, the hardcover edition includes several full-color illustrations. HarperCollins produced a paperback edition in 1996, and just three years later Gass appealed to the small press Dalkey Archive to produce another paperback edition to keep The Tunnel in print. (In 1989, Dalkey began reprinting Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife in paperback.)

Gass worked on The Tunnel for 26 years, and various parts of it were published in more than a dozen literary journals (and in two instances, limited and signed editions by boutique presses). Meanwhile, the publishing industry went through its transformations, along with the reading public. Gass labored on The Tunnel for nearly three decades (along with numerous other projects) in spite of the fact he didn’t expect the novel to receive a hero’s welcome once it was published. He said in 1981, for example, “Readers don’t want difficult works—not just mine—anybody’s. The reward for the time, effort, agony of getting into some of these things is always problematic. It isn’t simply that I have a small audience. Most of the writers I admire don’t really have much of an audience” (Castro 71). Nearly a decade before, Gass compared writing serious fiction to writing poetry, as far as reception was concerned:

I think fiction is going the way of poetry. It’s getting increasingly technical, increasingly more aimed at a small audience, and so forth. And this is what happened to poetry—over a long period of time. And now fiction, which I suppose was once the leading popular art form, certainly isn’t any more. And serious fiction does not even hope for it. (Mullinax 14)

Indeed, by the time The Tunnel finally emerged in book form, Gass claimed that he “expected to be ignored. . . . There were some [critics] who were quite enthusiastic, but by and large it was the usual: just shrugs and nobody paid much attention” (Abowitz 145).

So as the publishing industry transformed from the 1960s onward, with a greater and greater emphasis on profit over literary merit, what sorts of writers were being picked up by the Big Five? According to Gass, in 1976, “[a] lot of modern writers . . . are writing for the fast mind that speeds over the text like those noisy bastards in motor boats. . . . They stand to literature as fast food to food” (LeClair 25). The Internet Age was still an embryo when Gass made this observation. Since then, how much faster have our minds become, how much more inclined toward simplistic texts that can be skimmed at a lightning pace—if read at all?

Obviously, the historical and cultural forces which have led us here are too complicated to explore in such a brief talk, but it may be worth noting that the corporate takeover of the publishing industry and reading’s decline in popularity have been concurrent with the rise and fall of literary postmodernism. Anis Shivani has suggested that by the end of the twentieth century too many fiction writers were engaged in a “pale” imitation of postmodern pioneers like Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover (Shivani et al. 226). He said, “We’re suffering in different ways from the huge wave of appropriation, mixing, and flattening that carried all of us along with it” (227). Shivani further argues that the postmodern effort to “reconcile high and low” culture proved to be a failed experiment. Young writers’ “reverence for junk is too great; they haven’t known anything else but video culture, and they can’t think past it, let alone ironize time and space, restructure it in new narrative” as early postmodernists, like Kurt Vonnegut, were able to do (227). I have only begun to consider possible correlations between the current state of affairs in writing and publishing, and the rise and fall of postmodernism—but I wanted to at least underscore the fact they are historical bedfellows.

I feel I have a unique vantage point regarding the literary landscape. I’m a writer of the sort of stuff spurned by the Big Five. My short fiction and novel excerpts have appeared in nearly 70 journals (including Glimmer Train and Southern Humanities Review) and have earned a few distinctions, but agents and larger publishers remain enthusiastically disinterested. I’ve been teaching high school English in the heartland for 36 years, and I’ve witnessed, in brutal proximity, teenagers’ shrinking interest in reading—reading anything, leave be challenging literature. Indeed, more and more they find the idea of being a reader amusingly quaint and wholly incomprehensible. As a small-press publisher, I’ve discovered that the world is filled with amazing writers and poets who have awe-inspiring manuscripts, but there are practically no readers to be had anywhere. Literally every title I’ve released since founding Twelve Winters Press in 2012 has taken a loss (in spite of almost no labor costs). As a librarian in my hometown library, I experience the phenomenon of avid readers checking out anything written by James Patterson (or his minions), Danielle Steel, Nora Roberts (or her alter ego J. D. Robb), Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, Dan Brown, etc.—but having no interest in sampling fare which may be a wrung or two juicier on the literary food-chain.

Finally, as a lecturer in an online MFA program, I’ve had to reassess what my long-term goals should be. When I first started teaching for Lindenwood University in 2016, I assumed my graduate students would want to be James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, or at the very least Ernest Hemingway—but I quickly discovered that for most their aspirations were quite different. They want to be J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, Stephenie Meyer, Stephen King, Dan Brown, Janet Evanovich, and, yes, James Patterson. I do what I can to open their eyes to other possibilities, but who am I to say their aims are too low? Who am I to doom them to near-certain obscurity by browbeating them in the general direction of Finnegans Wake? Instead, if they so choose, I hope to make them the best version of James Patterson they can be: perhaps to write like James Patterson on his very best day (or the very best day of whichever writer in his stable is writing his book).

Where, then, does that leave us—we dwindling few who love to read and write challenging texts? Gass had to come to terms with this question himself—although he was able to ride the inertial momentum of mid-century publishing to at least maintain his place on Knopf’s list. In my dreariest moods I look to the preface he wrote for the paperback edition of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and I’ll leave you with the Master’s words:

The contemporary American writer is in no way a part of the social and political scene. He is therefore not muzzled, for no one fears his bite; nor is he called upon to compose. Whatever work he does must proceed from a reckless inner need. The world does not beckon, nor does it greatly reward. This is not a boast or a complaint. It is a fact. Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art. The condition I describe is not extraordinary. Certain scientists, philosophers, historians, and many mathematicians do the same, advancing their causes as they can. One must be satisfied with that. (xviii-xix)


Works Cited

Abowitz, Richard. “Still Digging: A William Gass Interview.” Ammon, pp. 142-148.

Ammon, Theodore G., editor. Conversations with William H. Gass. UP of Mississippi, 2003.

Castro, Jan Garden. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 71-80.

Gass, William H. Preface. In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, by Gass. 1968. Godine, 1981, pp. xiii-xlvi.

King, Daniel Robert. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. The U of Tennessee P, 2016.

LeClair, Thomas. “William Gass: The Art of Fiction LXV.” Ammon, pp. 17-38.

Milliot, Jim. “Ranking America’s Largest Publishers.” Publisher’s Weekly, 24 Feb. 2017, https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/72889-ranking-america-s-largest-publishers.html. Accessed 14 April 2019.

Mullinax, Gary. “An Interview with William Gass.” Ammon, pp. 13-16.

Shivani, Anis, et al. “Symposium: Is Postmodernism in decline? Why or why not? How do you assess its legacy?” Boulevard, vol. 26, nos. 1-2, 2010, pp. 226-246.


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  1. […] (April 21) I presented my paper “Writing Too Good to Publish: A Disheartening Dispatch from the Heartland” at the North American Review Writing Conference in Cedar Falls, […]

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