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Published: Thu Sep 10 2015
Eva Lundsager, A Pause (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Life in the Literary Underworld

Most poets and fiction writers live in an underworld. It’s not hell, though for some it may be a kind of hell. There is a there there. Small independent presses, the majority of university presses, web designers, and some publicists live there. The writers write and publish in journals, primarily small and online journals. There are no agents, because agents want to make money and that means they must live in the upperworld.

Which is not quite heaven. Which is New York.

Despite turning out a lot of good work, those in the underworld seldom move up to the upperworld. The main reason for this is that agents will not read work written in the underworld, and consequently writers in the underworld have no agents to introduce their work to upperworld publishers. Maybe an already celebrated upperworld author will suggest an underworld writer to an agent or publisher, but that happens rarely. It never happens if the underworld writer was formerly an upperworld writer.

The underworld writer receives what we must call “miniature” money. So does the underworld publisher. It would be different in the upperworld, but not as different as one might expect. Yes, some very fine authors earn quite a lot of money—because either they wrote an incredible first book or they made enough money that the publisher was willing to finance a second. In olden times (the 30s, 40s, 50s) publishers would give a writer time to grow. That’s no longer true, and once a writer is dropped, his career is over, even though he may now be writing the best books in the country (i.e., writers improve over time). However, in the Digital Age, money, like so much else, has become miniaturized. Dollars shrink to dimes, then to pennies as small publishers find their books are not reviewed in newspapers. This is complicated by the fact that many, many newspapers have gone under. Under the underworld.

So why do the underworld writers keep writing? Because the quality of books from the upperworld is in decline. Please note it is in decline, not completely destroyed. Many fine books, and writers such as J. M. Coetzee and Orhan Pamuck, Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith, ZZ Packer and Ben Marcus, hang out there. There are others. But from the beginning—remember Judith Krantz? Harold Robbins? Margaret Mitchell?—and now, by and large, book publishing in the upperworld equals pop culture. Once upon a time, Benedetto Croce, Edmund Wilson, Northrop Frye, R. P. Blackmur, Lionel Trilling, and Robert Penn Warren upheld the aims and standards of good literature. Today’s literary critics are not less ambitious for literature but their influence is weaker. Sales are more important than critical opinion.

Even once distinguished publishing houses want books that sell; without them, they would go under, and they have long pedigrees and feel that closing would sadden their predecessors. And I suppose distinguished publishing houses always wanted books that would sell, but it seems clear that they no longer are sure that Book A is pop culture and Book B is worthwhile. Might as well throw them up in the air and see which lands title up.

What’s wrong with publishing books on the basis of how they land?

Nothing, except that the bad or mediocre books overwhelm the good ones. And except that there are not enough serious readers to buy the good ones.

What, then, is a serious writer to do?

The serious writer relocates to the literary underworld. In the underworld, there are writers whose values include meaning, beauty, mastery, and what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “hilaritas”—the good-natured delight that great artists take in their work, their sense of triumphant joy. That is a big part of the underworld. And the upperworld doesn’t even know about it. The upperworld has exiled itself to itself.

Kelly Cherry is the author of numerous books of fiction, poetry, memoir, essay, and criticism. Her most recent poetry collection is Quartet for J. Robert Oppenheimer. She also recently published Twelve Women in a Country Called America: Stories (Press 53); A Kelly Cherry Reader (Stephen F. Austin State University Press); A Kind of Dream: Stories (University of Wisconsin Press); and a poetry chapbook titled Physics for Poets (Unicorn Press). She has received, among other honors, three PEN/Syndicated Fiction Awards, the Hanes Prize, and the Dictionary of Literary Biography Award for Short Fiction. (updated 2017)

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