Ever wondered how those Jewish book fairs held during Jewish Book Month are organized? How writers are chosen? Which books are hyped and which are not?
The NY Times explains the ins and outs of one of the most important promotions in all of publishing:
Over three evenings last month, several dozen writers gathered … for a bizarre rite of passage: the Jewish book tour casting call. In a combination of “The Gong Show” and speed-dating, they each had two minutes to pitch their books to the Jewish Book Network, 100 cultural programmers from Jewish community centers, or J.C.C.’s, synagogues and libraries nationwide. An M.C. ruthlessly held up a sign when one minute was up and cheerily announced “on deck” to prepare the next speaker.…
Sad as this spectacle seems, it is so important publishers and authors pay their own way to get those two minutes to pitch. Needless to say, it is not the writing that wins out. It's all about the pitch and the allure each author creates.
Does the Jewish Book Council help Jewish authors get published? Yes, it certainly does. But somehow I can't get away from the feeling that if Bernard Malamud or Chaim Grade were pitching their early works as unknowns, the JBC's constituent book fairs would pass them by.
If you want to see how unimportant good literature is to today's Jewish community, check out its major publications. How many regularly publish short fiction? None do. (There is a big announcement coming soon, though, that will change this equation a bit. But this is a case of a lone editor who truly cares.)
Most major authors in all genres start out writing short fiction. From Stephen King to I.B. Singer, it was short fiction published in newspapers or popular magazines that got them noticed and got them work.
Our magazines and newspapers stopped regularly publishing fiction long ago, as did most of their mainstream counterparts. This forces writers to write for literary journals, many of which cater to academic rather than artistic or popular tastes.
This situation has been made even worse by publishers, whose ownership has changed in the last decade from people who saw themselves as the supporters of good literature to conglomerates who see themselves strictly as profit and loss statements. These new publishing executives have hardened the genre markets, regularly passing on exceptional literature they cannot easily market as Chick Lit or Suspense.
These publishers regularly complain about flat sales, while they continue to follow the same policies that led to them.
These publishing giants have eliminated the mid-list, the titles that break even or make a few bucks that were published largely because of artistic merit. The idea used to be that publishers groomed writers and helped them develop. The idea now is you come in perfect and whole, fitting into a specific genre, following the most current "right" formula. Anything less or different than that and you're out.
Agents now regularly reject manuscripts from even published authors, scribbling "needs work," on the cover and, if the author is especially lucky, a few extra words on what it is exactly that needs to be "fixed."
What this means is that we and our larger society lack, to use a baseball analogy, farm teams. This means our newer major league players largely come out of academia, where the salary and downtime allow for writing, and much of the resulting fiction lacks a true creative edge and popular appeal as a result.
And this is not simply an elitist bleat. John Sanford (whose real name is John Camp), author of the large-selling Prey series, told a friend of mine that, if he were starting out today, he would not be published. The gates are simply too well guarded and the expectations too high.
What does this mean for you? I think it means your children will care less about reading because there is less really good reading to care about, Jewish or otherwise.
(Before you point to Englander, Safran Foer, and Chabon to prove me wrong, remember each of these authors got their start before the big consolidations in the publishing industry.)
I once sat at a vort, an engagement party, for a friend, the son of a well-known intellectual. My friend had grown up frum, attended only Chabad schools, and was about to receive smicha. Following the Chabad custom, my friend was to recite a ma'amar, a Chasidic discourse, by heart. He sat there in his black hat and dark suit and tried, his hevruta by his side, prompting him often – very often. And even that help was not enough to get him through.
His father spoke after the ma'amar. He thanked the head of Chabad in the area, the head of the cheder his son had graduated from, and the heads of the yeshivot he had attended for making his son illiterate in three languages.
The secular Jewish community fails just like this. We have the trappings of culture, our versions of black hats and dark suits, a Yiddish word or two used in conversation, but little actual culture. We moan about continuity and fret about decreasing numbers but do nothing that promotes anything but the most banal.
Who stays? Happy Jews, Jews without questions, Jews by route. Who goes? Pretty much everyone else, and they are the majority.
Would you work for years to turn out a special work – fiction or nonfiction – if you knew your two minute presentation would be upstaged by an author whose only claim to being Jewish is birth and perhaps the name of one character in his work? Or that you would be ignored by Jewish book fair promoters who are more drawn to the look of the author than the work the author produces? Of course not. You'd turn out trash and spend your time getting your clothes, hair and presentation down, or you'd find something else to do with your life.
We cannot sustain a secular or a cross-denominational Jewish culture based on two minute gong show appearances. There must be a better way.