June 28, 2010
Recently, in the fine media tradition of griping about how sick everybody is of talking about something—and thereby talking about it more—I read a tweet that quipped, “Can we stop talking about the New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 already?”
The answer is no.
No, Virginia, we cannot stop talking about—or making—lists.You see, we are addicted to them.The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” being something of the smartypants equivalent of People Magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” contest, the book industry has been ablaze with debate ever since it aired.Among the best responses was Steve Almond’s on The Rumpus.Then, even more promisingly, I—along with roughly 50 other publishing professionals (agents, publishers, bloggers)—received an email from Steve Gillis and Dan Wickett at Dzanc Books, asking that we contribute to the creation of an “alternative” list: one that would be sensitive to the existence of independent presses and their writers, who had not surprisingly been utterly ignored by the New Yorker’s list.
This seemed a great idea to me at the time, and it still does.I was delighted to participate—to be asked—since god knows the New Yorker won’t be calling to solicit my opinion anytime soon.Dzanc has been a leading advocate for indie publishing, and it seemed fitting that they would spearhead a list of this nature.Still, I had a couple of concerns about the methodology . . .
My biggest concern was this: each publisher was asked to nominate two writers it had published, and two writers it had not published.I should specify here that this was a more fair and more generous methodology than that used by the New Yorker, where inclusion in its magazine was a prerequisite for all other voting.I mean, the New Yorker list—while I don’t think anyone is disputing the fact that it’s packed with a crazy amount of talent–should really have been called “The New Yorker’s Favorite of the Writers We’ve Published.”At least the Dzanc list asked more publishers, and required that publishers also put forth two writers they had not published . . .
But personally, I thought we should not have been able to nominate our own writers, period.Because immediately, I began to wonder what publishers were on the list of those invited to nominate, right?I mean, presumably every writer has a hell of a lot better chance of making a list like this if his or her own publisher has been invited for inclusion!So who was invited?Particularly for micro publishers with very small lists, some writers would be virtually guaranteed a nomination.And if you are a writer who has published two or three books with extremely small presses, you might be guaranteed two or three such nominations.Writers whose books had come out from larger indies—or whose presses were not invited—were automatically facing a disadvantage.And because the New Yorker list was all centered on writers who had been published in one particular magazine, the bias might be more transparent . . . the list of Dzanc nominators was not a “secret” per se, but was not included on the survey, so it was harder to guess at and promised to make it uncertain—once a final list was generated—who had made it onto the list despite their publishers not being the ones to nominate them, vs. who may have made it onto the list in a more biased-by-invitation fashion.
Well, enough about that.Still.It was an indie list, one that promised to hold a lot of talent on it and more reflect many of our experiences as readers, writers and publishers.I voted . . . and almost like campaigning and casting my vote for Obama and then finding out he’d actually won—and that I could celebrate instead of retreating into a state of cynical bitterness like after the Kerry defeat—I felt I was doing something worthwhile.I happily wrote down two of my authors’ names, and then two other writers I admire.I was particularly delighted that Dzanc did not require the writers to be under the age of 40.Being 42, that age limit no longer interests me as it might have when I was 32. (Though I should note that, when I spoke to a some other people who had also nominated for Dzanc, it seemed quite a few had kept to the “under 40” adage that Dzanc had not actually requested.This perplexed me.As though Dzanc was being held to the New Yorker’s standards, like it or not . . .)
Fast forward a few days.And lo and behold, another message from Dzanc appeared in my inbox.This one gave a list of the writers who had made it past the first round of nominations, and asked that nominators select five of those writers and participate in a second voting round.I admit that the list, while containing some things I had very much expected (such as the inclusion of the super-talented Laura van den Berg, one of Dzanc’s own writers, on the short list of those who had received so many votes that no more were necessary and they were already included on the final list), also contained a few significant surprises.
These surprises went in two directions: writers not included and—by the very nature of that surprise—writers included “in their place.”
For example, like many indie writers, I have spent an extreme amount of time feeling by turns in awe of and envious of the immense acclaim and buzz certain indie writers—Stephen Elliott, Joshua Mohr, Emily St. John Mandel and Steve Almond all pop to mind—have managed to get in an industry where total obscurity is more the rule than the exception.These particular writers pop so readily to mind not just because the level of fame they’ve achieved is much higher than the average indie writer, but because their talent also exceeds most people writing today, period.
Not one among these four made the second round of voting.A couple, it seems, may not have even garnered any votes at all in the process . . .
This was extremely perplexing to me.Were there people you could ask in the indie community to cast a vote like this who would not mention any of these writers?!Apparently there were.Even more significantly, three of the four are under the age of 40, which made their lack of inclusion seem all the more . . . weird.
But!The list was still cool!I was still happy!Look, Jonathan Evison and Allison Amend were both on the ballot!Christian DeBordo! Matt Bell! I love these guys! Piss off, New Yorker!Go, Dzanc!
Another surprise came when, very quickly, another Dzanc email arrived.In this one, Dzanc indicated that they had received complaints about their finalists list, and that a number of people (I’m not sure how many) who had participated in round one of voting had decided to refrain from round two.
It occurred to me that those who were unhappy may have been precisely the ones who would help make the list more diverse and representative, and that by dropping out of the process, they were probably hurting more than helping . . . but of course this is the usual way of things when egos are involved, and when biases are unavoidable. I voted, still happy to hear my voice counted.
Some five days later, a final list was reached and a press release sent out.Two of the five people I’d voted for in round two (none of those mentioned above) were included on the final list.
Plenty of other people whose work I really respect, but for whom I’d not voted due to my limited number of votes, were included too.I was really happy to see them there.
There is absolutely nobody on the list who sucks.Nobody who does not deserve greater recognition.Nobody who is not a “writer to watch.”
Albeit, I admit I would say this of the New Yorker list too . . .
Immediately, I shared the Dzanc list on my Facebook page, as many other writers were doing also (including Kevin Sampsell—a writer who himself would have been list-worthy), and comments began to fly around.
Said the very fine writer Rob Roberge on my wall, “Geez, how many lists can I not be included on.This is getting depressing.”
The lovely Allison Amend, who may just be my biggest fan and who recently offered attendees at a joint reading we did a “money back guarantee” out of her own pocket if they didn’t like my collection Slut Lullabies, proceeded to pimp me on someone else’s wall and lament my own lack of inclusion on the list.
Some other writers to watch who didn’t make Dzanc’s list: my buddy Patrick Somerville, whose Little Brown novel The Cradle was such a mainstream sensation that his impending indie collection (coming this fall from Featherproof Books) says all you need to know about what an amazing guy he is, and how the work is what matters to him.And TNB’s own Ben Loory, whose New Yorker story recently snagged him a big book deal, and who maybe will make the actual New Yorker list someday in the future.
Publishers Weekly covered Dzanc’s list (GalleyCat and other blogs did too) and this kind of mainstream coverage makes me glad.Fifteen years ago, when I got into this business, big publishing media did not even bother to pretend to care what we indies were up to.The nature of indie publishing—and the media’s reception to it—has changed immensely since then.As Steve Gillis said in the press statement, “We are . . . a community.We are the torchbearers.”I believe that too, and believe that even big media is coming to realize the truth therein. Independents are still publishing writers based on nothing but our (admittedly subjective–as all such things are subjective) ideas of excellence, and I don’t think anyone would even try to claim that this is the only–or even the biggest–concern in corporate publishing anymore. We are a community indeed: often a little impoverished and half-crazed with overwork, but a community still held together by an idealism about–and love for–the written word. And for the record, Steve Gillis has done more for a small handful of publishers’ ability to keep bearing the torch (Other Voices Books, the imprint I co-founded, is one of these) than just about anyone in the entire industry, so he should know torch-bearing and community when he sees it.
So, with all these great vibes afoot, why did I still feel kind of bummed out?
Is it because I’m not on the list?Do I need to go back and re-read that Steve Almond piece until I commit it to memory?Envy is a strange beast, and we in the arts world are particularly prone to it, perhaps, because there is so damn little room at the “top.”Unlike those in most professions, where you can make a decent living as an attorney, a nurse, an options trader, a high school teacher, without having to be “famous” or make it onto any “best of” lists, those of us in the arts seem to live and die by this sort of recognition—your books must be chosen above so many other books to get one coveted review slot; your manuscript must be chosen above so many others to get one coveted award.We dare to try something more rare and elusive—something that exists to some extent outside of the necessary economy—and the risk of failure, even for those of us who have carved out some small niche or identity, is terrifyingly high.
This is all true.And yet, it seems there is also something bigger at hand.
The thing is: being a writer can kinda feel like never leaving high school.We all form “cliques” for our own survival, and the cliques exist in a kind of hierarchy model.The New Yorker clique could be said to be on the top of the clique pyramid.Those kids have the designer clothes and the cool cars.We indie kids have our own cachet too.We’re the ones up on the newest music, with our ears to the ground and our thrift store black clothes.We may be a little more prone to depression than those in the New Yorker clique, and our drugs are cheaper, but our parties are still fun.The thing is, like the New Yorker clique, we have our “cliques within a clique” too.Some of us were invited to contribute to the Dzanc list—I was one of the lucky ones invited.And some of us were not.Some of us have so many friends and fans in that inner circle that we made the Dzanc list before the second round of voting even began.And some of us did not even make the long list.
What does this mean?Well, for starters, life is not (thank god) high school. One exclusion does not define the next for years of your life. For example, Stephen Elliott spent an entire year sleeping on the couches of people who would have voted for him—he runs an entire online culture community over at The Rumpus.Last summer, it was impossible to get on Twitter without somebody singing the praises of Emily St. John Mandel.Josh Mohr’s first book from Two Dollar Radio got so damn much acclaim that I’m wondering if reviewing his new book, Termite Parade, is redundant, and if somebody else needs that space more.And so on. The fact that they did not make Dzanc’s final list does not negate this. Happily, the world—even the lit world—is a big place.If you don’t make it into one cool crowd, chances are, another might have your back.
And so, it seems Dzanc was onto something all along.Says Dan Wickett, “We were not at all under the assumption that our list was going to be a perfect list. For one, there is no such thing–there are way too many incredible writers working today to limit ourselves to 20 writers. We also assumed in advance–and agree with those of you that pointed out that we’ve confirmed this assumption–that our own list was going to be prejudicial as well, just with different sets of prejudicial parameters.”
Yes! A different set of prejudicial perimeters. Like: not having to have been published in the New Yorker, which few writers can ever attain! Like: not having to have a powerful literary agent, or a big ass advance, or a full-page New York Times review. Thank goodness for this different set of prejudicial perimeters! Dzanc set out to posit an alternate list to the New Yorker’s, and that is what they did.In the process, they made some people very happy, and pissed some other people off.Because that is what lists do.But what they really achieved was an empirical illustration that the New Yorker list is not “the” list, it is merely “a” list.The Dzanc list is “another” list.Perhaps there will be a few more, until we finally do get tired of talking about this, and turn our minds to some new gossip, some new form of judgment.
But if even one or two people—not normally aware of or privy to indie culture—end up reading Blake Butler or Lydia Millet as a result of Dzanc’s list, that will surely have made it all worth it, and cause for celebration for all torchbearers in our community.