Making Literature Now
Amy Hungerford



Writing from the Rabbit Hole

In the back of the cruddy basement space of McSweeney’s offices at 849 Valencia Street in San Francisco, one could find, at the end of 2010, cardboard boxes spilling stacks of postcards. These were the business reply cards sent back by readers to begin their subscriptions to the press’s literary quarterly; they were stashed among the drafts, proofs, and correspondence of the press’s disorganized archive. Many were embellished with notes and doodles, and the earliest came wrapped in letters specifying the subscriber’s choice of bonus gifts on offer—T-shirts, drawings, special inscriptions—for those who were kind enough to buy the magazine. Those reply cards exuded personality, as if they were directed not to a press’s marketing operation but to a particular someone who elicited affirmation, banter, friendship. Of course this was the tone set by the press’s founder, Dave Eggers, in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and Eggers had established that tone at the press from the start. In the early years, it would be hard to call McSweeney’s sales activities a marketing operation—it was just Eggers and a friend or two trying to sell enough subscriptions to keep going.

One story that could be told about what it takes to make literature now—and, more locally, about what those postcards mean—would center on a figure like Eggers. This book takes a different approach and, moreover, holds lightly to its choices about what to hold up out of the welter of contemporary writing and publishing in the effort to understand how literature is made now. In paired chapters, the book enters various portals to a story about the networks through which contemporary literature is made. The first two chapters focus directly on McSweeney’s and some writers they have published; the second two take up a handful of small-scale virtual media literary enterprises; the last two chapters consider writers who are successful in the large-scale literary trade press. These pairs have their own shapes and arguments, but also communicate materially with one another through points of intersection touching back to the McSweeney’s network. We might use an analogy from gaming, with an assist from Lewis Carroll, to describe how these chapters work together: each account of making serves as a rabbit hole into a broader network of makers, objects, and acts.

In alternate reality gaming, the “rabbit hole” is an invitation to enter the alternate world of the game. It might be a note chalked on a sidewalk, a sign on a certain telephone pole, a post or a web site or a tweet. Players follow a game’s rabbit holes into the alternate reality created by the game’s designers and, ultimately, by its players. Each rabbit hole sparks an action that pulls the player physically and mentally into a network of people, places, acts, things, consequences. Such games unfold differently depending upon which rabbit hole a player has chosen to follow, and thus what we refer to as “the game” is more like a network of linking and overlapping sets of plays. Like the reality to which they provide an alternative, such games blend the intentions of designers with the unpredictable choices of individual players and the contingencies of the material world through which they thread. The game and its outcomes are described by some complex equation encompassing all of these. Indeed, the alternate reality is not experienced as the same by each player, and fundamental differences grow from a player’s choice of rabbit hole.

The postcards in the McSweeney’s basement are themselves a rabbit hole. They pull us toward a larger social network, a network that requires not one person but dozens, hundreds. Some work centrally at the press, more have passed through it as interns. Hundreds have published in the quarterly—533 different writers appeared in the first 31 issues, to take one benchmark—and thousands of others read their work, mapping the social geography of McSweeney’s distribution around the world. And then there are the overlapping networks of writers, readers, and publishers that we might offhandedly call “contemporary American publishing,” and that share space in the culture with McSweeney’s. Those who publish in McSweeney’s may also publish elsewhere; those who work for the press come from and go on to other jobs. For every McSweeney’s book shares a shelf at the bookstore—or a page on the web, or a table in a home or classroom—with other books and objects, and each has a story to explain its presence there. Their surfaces touch, their icons scroll, they accumulate marginalia, fingerprints, or dust, and the browsing hand continually chooses. What do their material connections tell us about our shared culture? And what follows from the browser’s choices?

Across the room from the piled boxes in the 849 Valencia Street basement, just above a grouping of ancient couches, a mural brightened the mess when I visited there in 2010. About five feet square, in reds, browns, and yellows and high proletarian style, the mural showed workers bending in the fields, harvesting books that twined up on stalks from the furrows. In the sky above them a shining, smiling figure presided, dressed in Chairman Mao’s jacket. One might at first mistake that man for Dave Eggers, as I did when I first laid eyes on it. But no: this is Eli Horowitz.

Who? My point, exactly. This book tells the stories of how unknown participants, workers who are largely invisible to the public—including readers, writers, editors, book distributors, and scholars—collaborate (sometimes unwittingly) to create literary worlds, including the world glimpsed in those stacks of subscription cards and affectionately satirized in the basement mural. To consider the penumbra of actors surrounding a figure such as Eggers is to question the very weight such public figures carry in literary culture, a weight that is often taken for granted by those who write about that culture. Understanding Eggers doesn’t allow us necessarily to understand why and how readers and writers connect, in material ways, with the press he founded. Precision matters: sometimes it is not an Eggers but a Horowitz who builds the road from writer to reader. This is a book, then, about literary work in its multifarious forms, about the institutions and relationships that organize and shape that work. And by work I don’t only mean works—novels or stories—but also work in the ordinary sense: the daily labor of those who read, write, review, teach, make, distribute, design, and sell books and other forms of writing that become classed under that baggy term, literature. They do so, or try to do so, for a living.

One branch of contemporary sociology has laid down a challenge that this book takes up by thinking about contemporary literature’s social worlds. It has been argued, over the last 15 years or so, that the field of sociology mistakenly assumes—as do most of us in common parlance—that something called “the social” always exists. The French sociologist Bruno Latour argued instead that social connections only deserve the name when they are acted upon, that the social only exists at all when its networks are activated, and what’s more, that social actors come in both human and nonhuman forms. Our connections to other people only constitute social organization when we, or nonhuman actors like books, apps, or delivery truck routes, act to change or shape the arrangements in which we live—be they material, cultural, environmental, geographic, psychic, intellectual.

Latour’s claim is provocative for the scholar contemplating a research project: it makes the standard and the object of sociological study seem virtually unreachable by the ordinary means of scholarly inquiry, especially if the subject of study is some aspect of the past. The grain of research that flows logically from this understanding of the social is incredibly fine and of a qualitative sort that defies statistical aggregation, let alone the slow habits of close reading; a grain that can never be fully represented even by the most obsessive archival practices. The method calls to mind versions of study that are daunting and tedious and threaten to devolve into what one colleague called “a heap of facts”: being there to see the conversations that make things happen in whatever field of endeavor we want to understand; raking the archives not for recollection or record but for the actual trace of a social act as it unfolded, and not just one social act but an infinite series of them; cramming them, by force of method, into the book one writes. And indeed, Latour’s early work on the culture of the lab, in Science in Action, reads a bit this way. Latour urges us to consider every conversation the researcher has with people involved in the social world she is studying as itself a moment of activation, and modification, of the social network. Latour embraces this expansiveness, and this intervention, in his polemics on the subject. Playfully calling his method “Actor-Network Theory,” or ANT, he indicates the scale at which one would need to focus in order to make good on the method.1 The horizon of research suggested by Latour is something this book honors less in scope than in spirit—in its choices about what is worth seeing in literary culture.

The twelfth issue of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, published in 2003, prepared readers for its table of contents with a dedication that honors those who do not make a living from their literary interests. “As always,” the dedication proclaims, “for the amateur reader.” It is not hard to imagine what an amateur reader is—someone who does not read for a living. Insofar as McSweeney’s is dedicated to the amateur reader, it is also dedicated to the amateur writer, or rather, it occupies a niche in literary culture where many writers unable to make a living from their work publish in hopes of eventually doing so. This was especially true for the issue that bears the dedication, as we will see. The early issues of McSweeney’s call for cash donations that will be rewarded variously by T-shirts, “kind, handwritten notes,” and other swag. Those issues also bear the note, “This journal has been proofread, but not by paid professionals.” No. 3 notes that the journal was “proofread, by a professional, but he was not paid.” Each of the first three issues explains the cost of the magazine’s production, and no. 3 goes into detail about how $2,330, raised at a McSweeney’s fundraising event in Chinatown and stuffed into Eggers’s small black backpack, was left in a cab on the way home, never to be recovered. The credits in no. 12 include “store leaders” in Brooklyn and San Francisco, and the educational director for 826 Valencia, an afterschool tutoring and writing program for educationally underserved children, suggesting the ways that, in this early issue, these enterprises remained connected with one another and anchored in the quarterly, which also lists hosts of other helpers by name in its small, copyright-page print. (In contrast, when I spoke with him in 2010 Eggers emphasized a separation between the activities of the 826 Valencia enterprises and the literary work of the press.) McSweeney’s appears at once, then, as a location of literary celebrity and professional success—in the person of Eggers and a handful of the quarterly’s and the press’s regular writers—and as the site for the black-hole opposite: for the unknown and the unread, for subsistence writers and volunteer, part-time literati.2

The symbiotic relationship between these two poles of cultural recognition can be glimpsed, on the one hand, in the sustained feelings of affection that subsistence writers and literary volunteers bear toward the quarterly that, for a time, embraced their work. On the other hand, subsistence writers and volunteers provide for the quarterly two things it values: authenticity (art made for art’s sake rather than for commercial purposes) and novelty. The love of novelty is something that the quarterly shares with both mass culture and elite literary culture (though in the elite realm one calls valued new writing experimental or avant-garde). The promotion of authenticity through amateurism similarly plays both ways in American culture, appealing to both the high and the low. Authenticity is popular as an ethos or style in American mass culture—we might think of midcentury writers such as J. D. Salinger or Saul Bellow who celebrate human authenticity as a cure for “phoniness,” or of later-century multicultural versions of authenticity that ground a valued identity in the recovery of a particular heritage or culture that is somehow, usually genealogically, one’s “own.” At the same time, authenticity has often been invoked as countercultural, especially where art is concerned. Certainly early work by writers of color and women writers that claimed to advance authentically different voices forged a countercultural path in a white- and male-dominated public sphere starting in the 19th century; we might also think, closer to our time, of the punk DIY movement of the 1980s and 1990s, with its sense of authenticity rooted in handcrafts and resistance to mainstream institutions, a movement which is sometimes noted as an inspiration for McSweeney’s. Or more abstractly, we might consider the modernist commitment to art’s putative autonomy from mass culture, and the way many still long for a conception of art that is defined by its freedom from commercial considerations.

Some elite institutions and coteries within the world of literary culture thus venerate the innovation and authenticity represented by the idea of the unknown writer even as they depend for survival upon the success of a small number of well-known writers, success that has material effects that can go beyond the successful writer himself (as when the fame of Dave Eggers helps an unknown writer, subsisting on the occasional writing or teaching gig after graduate school, to get her unusual flash fiction published and read. That story is at the heart of Chapter 2). In human terms, celebrity writers and editors need the subsistence writer, for that writer’s work provides the proof that the literary enterprise is truly dedicated to art rather than market. The subsistence writer’s novelty and authenticity—as a figure, or by virtue of her fresh and unmarketable artistic products—can supply the avant-garde or countercultural credentials of a literary enterprise.

Small quarterlies and presses famously functioned as promoters of avant-garde writing in the early 20th century, and the early-century examples such as Poetry magazine, The Little Review, Blast, T. S. Eliot’s Criterion, or the Hogarth Press have for more than two decades been the subject of scholars’ sustained interest.3 In the first place these small magazines and publishers have been studied because of the eventual celebrity of writers they debuted—which is to say, they have been studied not because their writers were obscure but because a few of their writers didn’t remain so. The modernist little magazines, as scholars have pointed out, existed to marry the disinterestedness of “art” with the interest required to make a living out of writing.4 Magazines like The Little Review and their editors became gatekeepers and consecrators, allowing, as Loren Glass notes, the fiction of writers who would come to be known as “modernists” (and thus elite, and promoted) to appear for the first time in print.

Little magazines with their well-connected editors helped to launch many careers, but what of all the careers that died in their pages? To put the question another way: Do we see these magazines as gatekeepers of an elite tradition because they bridged the gap between the disinterested “art novel” and the need to make money from one’s work—thus making careers as such possible, in the first place, for some writers—or because in the process of occupying this particular niche of the publishing landscape, the little magazines published some of the writers who, for reasons having less to do with the niche and more to do with that larger landscape, went on to become famous?

More recent work taking up the specific case of Poetry magazine and its networks in the 1920s, using larger-scale data and computer modeling, reveals the broad web of writers that such magazines organized in relation to each other and seeks to answer in some detail questions similar to the ones I’ve just asked. The data-generated view, unlike the hindsight model, allows us to see how the few well-known figures in the web are overwhelmed by the constellation of minor or onetime players. Looking at subsistence writers ethnographically as they move today through such literary networks allows us to recover literary history uninformed by hindsight and in a finer-grained way than the data-modeling approach can achieve, even when data modeling is combined with archival research.5 One of the outcomes of such an approach is that we can begin to see what it means—humanistically, culturally, sociologically speaking—for the activity of creative writing and the technologies of publishing to permeate ranks of workers who cannot make a living from literature. That is a story worth telling at a time when it has become routine to lament the end of dedicated reading and the attendant loss of a shared literary culture that historically relied on the fact that at least some literary enterprises were economically sustainable at a large scale.

At many literary journals, submissions vastly exceed subscription rates. Some literary journals (Ploughshares is a current example) give special treatment to submissions coming from their subscribers, and there is much advice available to aspiring writers on the web about the importance of actually reading the journals to which one submits.6 If the lopsided demand for creative writing courses over literature courses in universities and the weakness of trade literature sales have anything to tell us, it is that there are plenty of aspiring writers who seem not to read, or whose reading is culturally invisible. What if literary culture is thriving but is simply not shared, or shared only within tiny social networks, or shared between so few people spread so far apart socially or geographically that its tangible presence as a shared culture is impossible to sense? What if literary culture is a culture of making rather than a culture of reading? What if such reading is, first and last, a private act—untraceable, undocumented, and unspoken—and not the foundation of a public culture at whatever scale?7 These questions become possible to answer only if we seek to understand how book sales, celebrity writers, and the declining numbers of students majoring in English are connected to the invisible workers—the busy and the beleaguered—who are making literature now.

McSweeney’s began in 1998 with a commitment to forms that were hard to publish: humor, letters, jokes, very short or very long stories, stories that mixed high-end literary allusion with putatively low-end genre-fiction. But this did not particularly mean that the quarterly was dedicated only to authors whose work was hard to publish, though the degree to which the one is conflated with the other in the contemporary literary market is worth considering. Eggers’s early editorial requirement that anything the quarterly published be previously rejected by some mainstream venue did not exclusively translate into the publication of unknown writers. Early contributors included, famously, David Foster Wallace (in issues 1, 3), Sherman Alexie (in issue 10, after the New Yorker had singled him out in their celebration of young writers—the “20 under 40” fiction issue), the band They Might Be Giants (6), Michael Chabon (7, 10), Michael Crichton (10), Philip Glass (6), A. M. Homes (7 and 9, also after the writer was featured by the New Yorker’s Future of American Fiction issue in 1999), Neil Gaiman (10), George Saunders (4), and Zadie Smith (6), to name a few. But issue 12, from 2003, with more fanfare than that accorded to these individual appearances of well-known writers, was dedicated to a group of “Twelve new stories from twelve new writers,” writers announced as “unpublished, unknown, or unbelievable.”

I have been suggesting that one of the main functions of successful literary quarterlies is to generate cultural and actual capital that can be distributed from the famous haves to the worthy yet unknown have-nots. If that is true, then the effort in issue 12 of McSweeney’s raises a question that was also likely on the minds of those twelve featured writers when they received the good news of their stories’ acceptance: What is a debut in McSweeney’s worth? How could its impact be measured or understood when, at a distance of a mere decade and a half, we don’t know “who” they would “go on to become” (to invoke the hindsight locution of literary history). And what would an assessment of writers’ careers after their debuts in McSweeney’s no. 12 tell us about what kind of institution McSweeney’s had by 2003 become, if indeed it could count as an institution? And further, the rubric of issue 12 raises a question about the rhetorical production of such a group: What is new about the new writers, if formal innovation and newness to the market, or to a readership, are not the same?

The table of contents in issue 12 is set up to be especially auspicious. The cover, calling out “Look,” directs attention to the “Twelve new stories from twelve new writers.” None of these new writers is named here, and so the table of contents is their named debut in the quarterly, a placement that had, in the five years since its founding, become a sought-after venue for young writers. The one writer whose name does appear on the cover of issue 12 is Roddy Doyle, and the hand-drawn letters of his name are slightly larger and more distinctly readable than the other words of the cover. In one way he counted as a new writer: this was Doyle’s first contribution to McSweeney’s. He would go on (to indulge hindsight) to appear in 7 of the next 19 issues; his total contribution to the quarterly, through issue 31, is second only to Lawrence Weschler’s (8 contributions), besting even the well-known and frequent contributor Rick Moody (with 6 contributions in the first 31 issues).8

The question of profession implied by the issue’s dedication (to the “amateur reader”) helps us understand how McSweeney’s fits into the contemporary literary landscape, and thus suggests that it can be considered representative of a significant group of small publishing ventures made possible by a radical expansion of access to the technologies of publication after the advent of Aldus Pagemaker in the mid-1980s (which became Adobe PageMaker in the mid-1990s). For as the first issues of the quarterly proclaimed, “This journal was typeset with a small group of fonts that you already have on your computer, using software you already own.” The message was that anyone could publish a literary journal; Eggers’s message was the same a decade later in a gorgeous, expensive book called The Art of McSweeney’s, which documents the history and design highlights of the journal since its founding (the book was published in the summer of 2010 by Chronicle Books). Despite the glossy form of the anniversary book, Eggers makes the inspirational message of the quarterly’s story explicit, in large font: “Impossible, You Say? Nothing is impossible when you work for the circus.” The words face a facsimile reproduction of the crumpled four-page email printout in which Eggers first pitches the idea of the quarterly to his friends. Eggers’s letter to the readers of The Art of McSweeney’s, which follows the archival email, reminds us that we everywhere hear tell that the end of the book is near. “McSweeney’s,” Eggers explains, “is a small company dedicated to these physical books that purportedly have no future. This book is dedicated to readers who love books as physical objects, and also to showing young publishers-to-be how much fun can be had while making books, and how available the means of production is to them . . . in hopes new and probably—happily—small publishing houses will continue to appear and even thrive, albeit in their admittedly and perpetually modest ways.”

The book-object here, unlike the first issues of McSweeney’s, doesn’t include a costing-out explanation of itself, doesn’t exude a shoestring feel; it is sumptuous, oversized, expensive to make and to buy. In this sense, The Art of McSweeney’s perfectly binds together two faces of contemporary literary publishing: celebrity, charisma, and professional polish on one side; subsistence, self-sacrifice, and amateur art on the other. “It should be noted,” Eggers concludes, “that no one at McSweeney’s has any formal training in book design or production. Pretty much everyone in our small company was first a volunteer or intern, and everyone considers themselves a perpetual student of the craft. We came together and remain together only out of a mutual love of words, of the neverending process of reinventing language to best help us understand the world and ourselves, and are committed to the neverending process of reinventing bookmaking to best guarantee those words live and last.” The insistence on amateur status is physically bound with the ample evidence of professional production values, just as in issue 12 the professional writer Roddy Doyle covers for the unpublished and unbelievable.

Who are the writers of issue 12, and what has happened to them in the last decade? At one stage in the research for this book I contacted several of them, since with only one exception none had achieved any kind of visibility in the literary scene as I could construct it by other means of research. One had published a volume of short stories, had a contract to write a novel, and then had a baby. She was practical, resigned about the impossibility of continuing as a writer. Writing had taken years and had produced no income to live on; time was expensive to come by; novels take a long time to write. Hers was not going to be written anytime soon. Another of the issue 12 writers had continued to make books with an artist friend and was trying to sell these to independent bookstores, with little success. Bookstores to whom he presented these wares were put off by the difficulty of paying for them and stocking them. I reached him on the phone during his lunch break from his office job in New York; after forty-five minutes he was anxious about getting back to work before his hour was up. I had the impression there was a boss back there glaring at the time-clock. A third writer had gone on to do some freelancing, including writing an article about McSweeney’s for a Toronto newspaper that announced the quarterly’s importance to the literary world, an article that scholars (myself included) have sometimes cited as evidence of McSweeney’s rise. This writer, when I spoke to him, was in graduate school; he is now a member of the Philosophy Department at UC San Diego and has published a book about the global refugee crisis. The fourth writer I spoke to was full of fond memories of his interactions with McSweeney’s, and had gone to San Francisco to meet Eli Horowitz and visit the press’s offices shortly after the publication of his story. He didn’t consider himself someone trying to become a writer. He taught courses in mindfulness and nonviolence at a small school in Utah, and in conversation over the phone he exuded an eclectically spiritual worldview that encompassed the effort to write, his teaching, the social connections he’d made in San Francisco, the loving community that McSweeney’s represented.9 The only writers among the twelve to have become visible to broader audiences were Salvador Plascencia, who wrote a well-regarded novel, The People of Paper (2005), also published by McSweeney’s, and Ben Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is the son of the best-selling author Barbara Ehrenreich, and after McSweeney’s no. 12 he published fiction in the New Yorker, published a novel with Counterpoint Press (a press whose story appears in Chapter 3) and another with City Lights, and became a journalist and freelance writer. I did not speak with Ehrenreich, since the basic contours of his career were available from public sources; it seems reasonable to suspect that the McSweeney’s debut was augmented by a range of other contacts in the publishing world that helped him make his way.

The stories of these sometime literary workers suggest the texture of the human landscape encompassed by contemporary literary culture. While none of these writers would seem to matter to the course of literary history as it unfolds in real time, yet their work, and the work of others like them, provides a necessary fabric on which we might embroider in brighter thread the story of a figure such as Eggers. Without these workers, in other words, such a figure would have to be stitched into another fabric altogether. Franco Moretti, the early advocate of big-data literary study, has argued that traditional close reading is blind to the fabric: the practice skims along the formally complex surface of literary culture by examining the works within a tiny canon, when to read closely the actual literary production of a single year of the 19th century would take many lifetimes. The same is true of the contemporary literary production, in spades. The number of new novels published in the United States alone each year has risen from less than 10,000 in 1990 (a level that had been roughly sustained since the 1940s) to upward of 55,000 in 2010.10

The celebrity system provides us with a surface of reading that seems manageable and defensible. My interviews with the four writers from issue 12 suggest the alternative to such an approach, and also the downsides of the alternative. Such stories may become simply a mass of detail, adding up in this case to little more than an anecdotal survey of what happens to young, white, educated people who can’t make a living from writing and end up making a living doing something else. And such stories lack the intrinsic attraction of accounts that focus on the charismatic, the successful, and the well known. Insofar as the failed or only briefly visible writers vastly outnumber the successful ones, and insofar as it doesn’t take much in the way of disaster to stop most of us from writing our novel, their stories may lack both interest and individuality; the banality of failure doesn’t make for good reading.

Only three of the issue 12 twelve published again in the quarterly; those three published twice each, and in what must be a strange clerical accident, two of those three are listed in the Art of McSweeney’s index as having contributed only once; in both cases, their appearance among the twelve in issue 12 is not recorded. One is tempted to interpret this as either the recycling of newness—new again!—or the erasure of the consecrating trail; more likely, it is just an accounting accident. The issue 12 twelve are not alone in their singularity: the vast majority of writers listed in the index appear only once. Only 92 out of the total of 533 contributors have contributed twice or more (534 adding in the neglected “Warlick, Ashley” whose 20-minute story appeared in issue 12). Of those 92, only twelve have contributed five to eight times.11 The majority of the one- or two-time contributors are not famous, or not famous yet, and so we see that issue 12’s callout could have been used on pretty much any issue of the quarterly: most of the writers in McSweeney’s are in a general way “unknown” to a broadly shared literary culture, and this fact raises the question of what announcing the group of new writers in issue 12 counted for. Indeed, one of them, Rachel Sherman, noted that she was not unpublished back in 2003, having placed a story already in another literary magazine. We can say that she was unknown, at least to the editors at McSweeney’s—which is also to say, unknown even to a group of people far more interested in new short fiction than practically any other sort of readership one might imagine.

It is still true that readers’ love of great writers of the past—Shakespeare, Dickens, Joyce, Woolf—sustains much of the popular interest that clings to essays and books about literature. Witness, for instance, the breathless reviews that seem to greet each new book by Harold Bloom—perhaps the only popular “colossus” (as Cynthia Ozick calls him) of a critic—in which he rhapsodizes in high style on the big-name geniuses of the canon.12 Reviews of newly published work remain interesting to those invested simply in keeping up with cultural events, finding new favorites, or making choices about what to read or to buy for others. Scholarly conversations—which is to say, published articles in academic journals and university press books—continue to coalesce around a small group of figures, and recent analysis of scholarly work on the field of modernism, to take one example, shows that this has been true even during decades when expanding the canon was the aim of many scholars.13

Scholars thinking about the second half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st are, it seems, busy trying to accomplish a similarly narrow selection to serve that later period. Building a canon of more recent work allows us to talk about books we have read in common—always a pleasure—and helps scholars to publish, and thus to move along in their careers. Literary culture may be alive but not shared among those who cannot make a living from their participation in it; it must be shared in order to make that living, and literary scholars, making their way, promote the sharing required in order to have an object of study called late-20th- and early-21st-century literary culture. The last two chapters of this book, about how and why Jonathan Safran Foer’s first novel was received as a literary sensation, and about the rise and persistence of interest in David Foster Wallace and his work, question the ongoing activity of making “literature” in the canonical sense. In the latter example, I make the case for selectively refusing to participate in that activity; the question there is how one might make an explicit argument about not reading a body of work. Explicit refusal asks us to be mindful about our choice of investments—of time, of attention, of money and teaching and writing—in the face of the routine obliteration of contemporary writing as it recedes into the recent past. How these investments are shaped by gender, in particular, is an abiding interest of this book.

If scholarly descriptions of the early part of the 20th century produce a field of few winners, as Andrew Goldstone has put it, it is also the case that, as the index of McSweeney’s first 33 issues shows in small, literary production at the end of the 20th century is also a field of few winners. I have mentioned the downside to telling the stories of the crowd of writers who no longer write, or of writers who are culturally invisible. What is the upside? Why swim against the canonical tide? The now traditional answer to that question is often framed as a point of social justice: fight the canon because the canon excludes whole categories of persons and experiences. Admittedly, resisting the process of canonization in this book has no social justice payoff of that sort. My focus on McSweeney’s produces a story about a cultural network of white, middle-class writers, most of whom are men, most born in the 1970s and 1980s—hardly a group underrepresented in mainstream American culture or a group thrown back on their heels by demographic disadvantage.

In documenting and thinking with the probably ephemeral writers, readers, books, and literary institutions of the present and the recent past that these chapters take up, I aim instead to resist the relentless creative destruction of some ideas that deserve thought. These are ideas about literature that are not just pondered or written about but bodied forth into individuals’ efforts to make literature and make a living, efforts that in the cutthroat world of international capitalism must come and go as quickly as streaming headlines. One could have chosen many of the small-scale networks of contemporary writing thriving today and would have been able to make good in some way on that aim. The massively impressive historical work by Lawrence Jackson, for instance, in The Indignant Generation accomplishes something similar for a network of African American literary making from the 1940s through the 1960s, setting the standard for what an archival—as distinct from an ethnographic—version of recovery and preservation might look like. Literary and cultural ideas can be wiped into the invisible region of the recent past when any literary enterprise fails to gain customers, when commercial rent goes up, when a conglomerate cuts costs, when a grant is not bestowed, when a job is lost, when love or friendship or illness or birth or prejudice disrupts the social circumstances upon which a project depends. And so this work conserves a recent past that doesn’t qualify as history and yet has already been dismissed from our urgent present: yesterday’s news that is more recycling bin than archive, waiting only for a trip to the curb. This is what Franco Moretti calls, more viscerally, the “slaughter house” of literary history. In Making Literature Now, we visit the abattoir while life still kicks in it.


1. Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).

2. Bernard Lahire has written extensively on the “double life” of writers, and his work informs my sense of the writer’s labor. See esp. “The Double Life of Writers,” trans. Bernard Lahire and Gwendolyn Wells, New Literary History 41:2 (2010). This is the first piece of Lahire’s La condition littéraire: La double vie des écrivains (2006) to be translated and published in English.

3. The signs of that interest would significantly include the Modernist Journals Project, a joint venture of Brown University (which founded the project in 1995) and the University of Tulsa (joining Brown in 2003), which began to digitize and make available entire runs of small periodicals that promoted what came to be known as Modernism. A raft of books and articles on the little magazines have come out in the same period, including the compendious Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, the third volume of which was published in 2013, and chapters in such influential collections as Bad Modernisms. Scholarly monographs would include Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, Modernism in the Magazines: An Introduction (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010); Rachel Schreiber, Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine: The Modern Figures of the Masses (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2011); Dean Irvine, Editing Modernity: Women and Little-Magazine Cultures in Canada, 1916–1956 (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2008); Ken Norris, The Little Magazine in Canada 1925–80: Its Role in the Development of Modernism and Post-Modernism in Canadian Poetry (Toronto: ECW Press, 1984); Mark Morrisson, The Public Face of Modernism: Little Magazines, Audiences, and Reception, 1905–1920 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000); Adam McKible, The Space and Place of Modernism: The Russian Revolution, Little Magazines, and New York (New York: Routledge, 2002); Jayne E. Marek, Women Editing Modernism: “Little” Magazines and Literary History (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1995); David Earle, Re-covering Modernism: Pulps, Paperbacks, and the Prejudice of Form (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2009); and Little Magazines and Modernism: New Approaches, ed. Suzanne W. Churchill and Adam McKible (Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2008). Recently, Hoyt Long and Richard So have begun to combine the archival turn that is responsible for much of this work with the techniques of data mapping to establish a broader view of the social networks that fueled these magazines; for a sample of their data-mapping work, see their short piece, “Network Science and Literary History,” Leonardo: International Journal of Contemporary Visual Artists 46:3 (2013): 274.

4. See, for example, Mark McGurl’s account of the rise of the art novel in relation to popular forms of the genre in The Novel Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); and Loren Glass, Authors Inc.: Literary Celebrity in the Modern United States, 1880–1980 (New York: NYU Press, 2004).

5. Richard So and Hoyt Long used this technique to study the minor religious poet Thomas Clark and his relationship to the networks of modernism in Poetry magazine. Paper presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, Chicago, January 2014.

6. Submissions from Ploughshares subscribers, for example, are accepted in a distinct category and a $3 electronic submission fee is waived (Ploughshares at Emerson College: Submission Manager. Web. Accessed 5 January 2015). Carve literary magazine’s blog puts “Not reading literary magazines” in the number one spot in a list of aspiring authors’ top ten mistakes in submitting their work (Eva Langston, “Mistakes Writers Make When Submitting Work to Literary Magazines,” Carve, 28 August 2014. Web. Accessed 5 January 2015; this essay is widely linked, judging by its multiple appearances under different sites in Google search). Carve also gives “priority consideration” to submissions from Premium Edition subscribers to the online magazine and, like Ploughshares, waives a $3 online submission fee. Pleiades, “a journal of new writing” published out of the University of Central Missouri English Department, charges a reading fee of $25 for each submission to their annual Lena-Miles Wever Todd Poetry Book Prize competition, and the fee includes a one-year subscription to the journal (Pleiades: A Journal of New Writing: Submit. Web. Accessed 5 January 2015). The journal Narrative takes a persuasive approach: “Our desire is to connect readers and writers, and we strongly encourage anyone interested in submitting work to read the magazine before submitting. You may read the magazine for free. If you enjoy reading it and wish to submit, we hope you will feel that the reading fee, which is lower than most literary magazine subscription fees, is more than justified by the quality of the work the magazine offers” (Narrative: Submission Guidelines. Web. Accessed 5 January 2015). The Atlantic takes a similar approach: “The Atlantic magazine is always interested in great nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. A general familiarity with what we have published in the past is the best guide to our needs and preferences” (Frequently Asked Questions, Web. Accessed 5 January 2015). McSweeney’s falls in the same category, though with a different flavor: “We publish fiction and nonfiction. There are no rules. The best way to get a sense of what we’re interested in publishing is to read the Quarterly. You can pick up a subscription or back issues here” [with link to store] . . . Please keep [your cover letter] brief, though we do like to hear from people who like the magazine. We’re not concerned about writing degrees or past publications, so don’t be daunted if you don’t have an MFA or much in the way of previously published work” (Guidelines for Quarterly Submissions, Web. Accessed 5 January 2015).

7. The history of reading as the foundation of publics is well told by the many distinguished scholars who have taken up this topic in the last two decades; of particular influence have been Benedict Anderson, Cathy Davidson, Michael Warner, Pascale Casanova, Janice Radway, Leah Price, and Stefan Collini.

8. Contributor information from “Index of Contributors to McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern (Issues 1–31),” inside back cover of The Art of McSweeney’s (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010).

9. The writers I refer to are, in order, Rachel Sherman, Wythe Marschall, Andy Lamey, and Shann Ray. My thanks to each of them for speaking with me about their lives and careers.

10. Matthew Wilkens, “Contemporary Fiction by the Numbers,” Post45 Contemporaries, Web. Accessed 29 June 2015.

11. Most Frequent Contributors to McSweeney’s, Issues 1–31

Contributors with five or more pieces Pieces appearing in nos. 1–12 / Total pieces Bearman, Joshuah 3/5 Bradford, Arthur 4/6 Budnitz, Judy 3/6 Doyle, Roddy b 1/7 (first was in no. 12) Hudson, Gabe a 4/5 Johnson, Denis 3/6 Lennon, J. Robert a 5/5 Maliszewski, Paul a 5/5 Moody, Rick a 6/6 Oates, Joyce Carol b 1/5 (first was in no. 11) Vowell, Sarah a 5/5 (in each of the first five issues) Weschler, Lawrence a 6/8

Six mainly early contributors (a); four crossovers; two later contributors (b). Dave Eggers, it should be noted, is not listed among the contributors. Numbers in the index do not appear to include contributions to the letters section of the journal.

12. See Cynthia Ozick, review of Harold Bloom, The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, New York Times Book Review, 18 May 2015. Web. Accessed 27 May 2015.

13. Andrew Goldstone’s analysis of the frequency of authors’ names in the titles of articles in the journal Modernism/modernity was presented in a conference paper in 2014. This big-data approach shows that there are many players but just a few winners: a few canonical authors appear frequently, alongside dozens of other writers who each appear only once. Andrew Goldstone, “Seeing through Numbers,” paper presented at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association, Chicago, 11 January 2014.