Sordid, Unprofitable, Unrewarding: On ‘New Grub Street’ and Cynical Literature

This essay by Sam Allingham originally appeared on The Millions on 4/7/15.

In today’s publishing world, it pays to be a doomsayer. We have an inexhaustible appetite for reports of literature’s demise. Go ahead, dust off that article on how the novel is dead for the thousandth time — only make sure you add that the whole industry is dying with it. Are you a publisher, the sort of person who purports to sell books? Give interviews with leading periodicals in which you admit that publishing is “at a crossroads,” and that we have lost the necessary magic to accomplish the nearly 600-year-old trick of turning printed matter into gold. Bring on the articles by journalists that remind us how journalism as we know it is passing away! Algorithms write our articles, videos replace text as the primary medium of communication, and soon all media will consist of an endless feed of indistinguishable information, which our children will scroll through lazily while they suck a ground-up mixture of kale and insects through a straw.

There’s something flattering about all this hand-wringing. It provides us with a sense of self-importance, to imagine we live in unprecedented times. One nice part about the apocalypse is the way it soothes one’s existential crisis. People who write, publish, and criticize literature have never been a particularly self-confident bunch, and the current climate — in which more than 300,000 books are published in America every year, not counting self-published titles — can encourage feelings of irrelevancy. Why write yet another review of yet another novel, when you can proclaim the absolute end of literature? Better to be a prophet than a drudge. Even authors can take comfort in the idea of a post-literary age, where the fact that all the great novels have already been written relieves us of the responsibility of writing our own.


Read the full essay on The Millions.