THE EDITOR’S DESK: Live From Book Expo America

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I spent the weekend in New York at Book Expo America and throwing a big fat party with McSweeney’s and SMITHMAG. The party was amazing, over 500 people, inspired performances.

But I want to say something about Book Expo.

Literature is not dying. People are worried about publishing houses and book advances. Their concerns are echoed in the New York Times. Big publishers are thankful for vampire novels but sad because there was no Harry Potter this year.

But here’s the thing, I don’t care about those books. I don’t care about the publishing industry that’s concerned with cookbooks and celebrity memoirs. And I don’t believe the people who say they’re publishing celebrity memoirs so they can publish great literature. And I don’t believe in the model that relies on monster hits. One day Stephen King is going to hire someone like Alvaro Villanueva, and that’ll be the end of that free ride; he’ll just keep it all for himself.

McSweeney’s seems to be doing fine, along with Graywolf and Two Dollar Radio. People buy books from these publishers written by authors they’ve never heard of. Just because. When was the last time someone bought a Random House book because it was published by Random House?

When all of that collapses, the small presses will still exist. There are too many people writing good books. If you write a good book, it’s easy to get published; it’s just hard to get paid. But everybody has a job when they write their first novel. And if they don’t, they should. And when you start writing for money, you’ve already turned a certain corner, and it can be hard to come back from there, though many people do come back. Many people remember why they wrote that first book, and how good that was, and they forget about the rest of it.

Someone said this weekend that when you are young, it’s about looks and access, and when you are old, it’s about money because you don’t have looks and access anymore. And that struck me as partially true, but that it didn’t have to be that way since after all you make your own choices. Someone asked me what I wanted this weekend, and I tried to tell her that we were into different things. “Tell me what you want,” she kept saying and finally I told her and she slapped me hard across the face. “I will fuck you up,” she said. She was drunk, otherwise I might have gone home with her. But you have to be careful with people who don’t know what they’re doing.

What I was saying was nothing seems different for writers of literary books. We’ve been thrown in with someone else’s arguments. This is not about us. This is about money, and there’s nothing wrong with money, but you should do something else to get it. Or you can write for TV. Or you can live very, very cheaply and promise yourself never to be jealous of your neighbors.

Sometimes I want to get old. I’m eager to put on a bathrobe and play bridge all day and live in a compound with all of my friends. Sometimes I’ll say to a woman, “I want to get old with you, right now.” And what I mean is I want to lie in bed with her and read a magazine, wake up and have breakfast. I want to skip all the other stuff and get post-passion. But that’s not how it works, it turns out. You have to be young first, all the way until the end.

So you see, literature, that beautiful self-destructive art is alive and well. And when novelists worry about the state of publishing, what they’re really worrying about is themselves, and the changing, collapsing world around them. It makes me think of Kerouac rushing off in a four-year manic bender, benzadrine dripping from his pores like soy sauce. And then years of alcoholic misery and decline. But he never lost his looks. And that book he wrote, from the notes he gathered on a single sheet of paper, was perfect. So where’s the harm?


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founder of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. More from this author →