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Irving The Undeserving

December 23, 1990

In my field of science fiction, there have been many recent grumblings about the effects of the "marketplace"--how vast publishing empires and corporate thinking are draining all of the originality and vitality out of the field and discouraging the production of quality literature. From my perspective, then, the only novelty in Clifford Irving's "The Worm in the Book World" (Nov. 4) is that he extends the indictment to all forms of fiction.

Like the arguments of my colleagues, however, the concerns that Irving expresses are completely contradicted by the facts, which are these:

Fact No. 1: Today it is easier for a new fiction writer to get published than ever before. Even the major companies will occasionally publish something new and innovative, and there are hundreds of smaller companies across the nation that welcome the fine works of unknown writers. If all else fails, modern technology allows an enterprising writer, with a modest investment, to set up her own company to publish her writings; several books now on the market explain this simple process.

Fact No. 2: Today we are living in a true Golden Age of Literature. More fiction is being written and read than ever before. Jeans manufacturers long ago had to expand the back pockets to accommodate paperback books. In the 1950s, few people ever entered a bookstore; now, a visit to the bookstore is a regular part of a shopping trip to the mall. Almost every house has at least one bookshelf full of books. Novels are advertised on television, and writers attract an audience on talk shows. More so than any previous generation, people today are aware of, and read, literary works.

And the reason for this explosion of interest in the written word is exactly the situation that Irving deplores: namely, that modern publishing has become a true business. This means that competent executives have developed effective methods to find out what people want to read and to provide them with what they want to read.

Of course, the inevitable response is that these publishers are simply pandering to people's worst tastes, to the lowest common denominator, that all of these new writings are puerile, worthless trash.

First of all, this is an outright lie: In modern science fiction, while there are more than enough examples of trash--"Star Trek" novels and scores of iterative series--there are also many excellent new writers who are publishing challenging and sophisticated literature.

Second, there is a basic issue being ignored in these complaints: For better or worse, we live in a democracy, and in theory at least, people are supposed to be allowed to make their own decisions. If people want to read Danielle Steel and Harlequin romances, they should be free to do so. Irving's assumption--that publishing companies should deliberately publish well-written but unpopular works in order to force the public to read what they should be reading--is blatantly paternalistic and violates all of the principles which this society was founded upon.

Which brings me to Fact No. 3: Laments about the modern marketplace of literature are nothing more than the wounded cries of a disenfranchised elite which finds that it can no longer get its way. Irving himself is a beautiful example; after all, how did he break into the writing business? Was it because some idealistic editor stumbled upon his manuscript and recognized he was a writer of genius? No; it was probably because he had the connections to get a job at a publishing company so he could hobnob with all of the editors. Now, having himself benefited from the Old Boy Network, Irving makes a few phone calls on behalf of his wife and is distressed to find that his old buddies just can't pull strings like they used to.

I have no sympathy for Maureen Earl and her inability to get her novel into print, because I suspect that she and Irving have limited their search to major, mass-market publishers. If her novel is as good as Irving claims, all they need to do is lower their sights a bit, locate and contact a few lesser publishers, and I am sure they will find an editor and a company which will enthusiastically publish and promote her work to the best of their ability.

I also have absolutely no nostalgia for the alleged Golden Age of Maxwell Perkins and his ilk, for I know that at the same time Perkins was playing wet nurse to his cadre of irresponsible drunks, there were many imaginative and talented science-fiction writers living in virtual poverty because no major magazine or publisher would even consider publishing science fiction. Representatives of other, previously excluded traditions--ethnic minorities, feminists, gays and the like--will join me in rejecting any call for a return to the Good Old Days of chummy elitism and snobbish discrimination.

Democracy and capitalism are not ideal, and there are scores of problems in the modern publishing industry, as any fool would concede; but for all its flaws, today's system does offer numerous outlets for writers who are willing to look beyond Random House, and remarkable diversity for readers who are willing to look beyond B. Dalton.

In short, there is still room for talented writers like Maureen Earl--there is still room for talented writers of all kinds. But there is no longer an automatic room at the top for those writers who are rich enough or clever enough to worm their way into publishing companies and have lunch at the Yale Club.

And that is why Clifford Irving is so upset.

GARY WESTFAHL

CLAREMONT

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