Reading Literary Success: On Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction and Alexander Manshel’s Writing Backwards / Omid Bagherli

Within the field of contemporary US novel studies, there is now a substantial body of work contributing to the “sociology of literary production.”1 Perhaps the most interesting feature of such literary criticism is how it identifies the numerous institutional pressures which quietly impose themselves on today’s authors. Whether it’s a coercive nudge from an editor, a vague expectation internalized from a teachable text in the college classroom, or an observation about other book promos or prize announcements— such pressures are now seemingly relentless for any writer who wishes for some form of commercial or institutional success.

Recent studies have demonstrated how various institutions produce their own specific pressures for authors. In The Program Era (2009), Mark McGurl illustrates how particular “autopoetic processes” for creative writing were established within a blooming postwar system of MFA programs.2 Margaret Doherty similarly identifies a “compromise aesthetic” within the heart of 1980s US minimalism, as the NEA increasingly favored this genre.3 Elena Machado Sáez, meanwhile, has called attention to the “market aesthetics” within contemporary historical fiction (with a special focus on Caribbean writers in the diaspora), whereby “fiction understands its materiality as a commodity… circulating in a global market.”4 It seems that the pressure to make one’s work appealing to the marketplace has only increased over time— so much so that Lee Konstantinou has suggested that the “internalization of marketing into literary form” is actually contemporary autofiction’s “distinctive feature.”5

For nonwhite writers in US publishing, the acute pressure to reproduce styles and characters that have known market success comprises the “representation trap.”6 Yet to some extent this feeling of entrapment via overbearing expectation is also a general phenomenon. For the author is now more than ever determined by their position within an ecosystem of corporate, educational, and entertainment interests, each of which holds certain expectations about the form and style of any forthcoming novel (depending on its author, genre, publisher etc.). This nonspecific systemic pressure has, in turn, often led to a heightened self-reflexivity within contemporary literary novels: the author would like you to know that they know what game they’re supposed to be playing, even when they’re rising above it. Such self-reflexivity attests to what McGurl calls “the fundamental non-naïveté of modern literary authorship.”7

Two recent studies from Columbia University Press’s “Literature Now” series make substantive contributions to this dynamic area of studies in contemporary US fiction. Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature (2023) and Alexander Manshel’s Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon (2023) both approach the contemporary US novel with an eye to how its popular forms and genres have shifted in recent decades due to the consolidation of highly specific tastes among distinct public and private groups. Sinykin focuses on “conglomerate authorship” in an era of publishing that is dominated by corporate houses. Manshel, meanwhile, studies the contemporary rise of literary historical fiction, the canonization of which has been facilitated through changes in the US college classroom and the US prestige economy.

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Dan Sinykin. Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature. Columbia University Press, 2023.

Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction investigates the maturation of conglomeration within US publishing, from 1960 to 1990, as well as its continued and aggressive consolidation up to the present day. Sinykin contends that most literary criticism does not think about this business enough. Conglomeration—the merging of separate and diverse commercial enterprises into a large business group, so that Penguin Random House is controlled by Bertelsmann and HarperCollins is a subsidiary of News Corp etc.—abolished the old school practices of publishing through the gradual administration of a rationalist, business logic. That is, commercial publishers became less invested in elevating novels based on their perceived literary value (and written by authors in their editors’ social circles) and more focused— through both informal and systematizedmarket calculations based on the sales of comparable texts— on securing authors and genres that would more predictably grow their bottom line. Publishers also implemented savvy pitching, publicity, marketing, and sales tactics. It’s true that this process broke up the informal, chummy practices of the white men’s club of the previous era, but the transformation was not especially progressive.8

In The Program Era, McGurl argues that the “true originality” of postwar US literary modernism can be located “at the level of its patron institutions, whose presence is everywhere visible in the texts as a kind of watermark.”9 Rather than searching for a patron’s watermark, Sinykin’s Big Fiction encourages the reader to appreciate the significance of the “publisher’s mark” on the book-object, entering us into “the world of the colophon.”10 In Sinykin’s study the colophon is the mark of reification: this motif stands in (and partially conceals) the history of the people and market forces that brought the contemporary novel into the reader’s hands. Big Fiction’s gambit is that once readers “enter the world of the colophon” we will view the literary world much like Neo freshly unplugged from the Matrix; we will see the market rationalization and formulization that has encoded the system of contemporary publishing in action. “If this book has a villain, it is the romantic author,” Sinykin states.11 By entering the colophon’s world, this romantic figure is liquidated and replaced by the more elusive process of “conglomerate authorship,” the name for a system that doesn’t simply produce a wide range of novels, but largely determines what books we read and, moreover, subtly influences what we write or regard as literature.

Chapters 1 and 2 of Big Fiction chart the rise of the mass-market paperback in publishing, while Chapters 3 and 4 track how the trade novel has developed within the large publishing houses. If these first four sections cover the arc of conglomeratized publishing houses (with profiles of its senior staff, clients, and authors), then the final two numbered chapters contribute towards our understanding of the larger conglomerate system: Chapter 5 follows the rise of non-profit publishing (and its concentration in Minneapolis in the 1980s) in response to the increased commercialization and consolidation of major publishing, while Chapter 6 provides an account of the last large independent publisher, WW Norton. WW Norton—positioned as an “accident of history” in the face “of the logics of shareholder value” on the one hand, and “the nonprofit complex” on the other12—plays the role of “hous[ing] the misfits.”13 While technically outside conglomeration proper, the non-profits and independents of Chapters 5 and 6 are still determined by their position within the larger field of conglomerate authorship.

Most literary critics are not trained in the ways of the colophon, so Big Fiction alerts the discipline to a series of oversights this negligence has produced. First:

We [critics] avoid authors who sell the most books. Too often, we let the authors we choose—or who have been quietly chosen for us, through the work of publishers, reviewers, booksellers, and prize committees—stand in for literature itself in the arguments we make.14

As a corrective, Sinykin provides persuasive readings of many bestselling popular and genre authors, including Danielle Steel, Judith Krantz, Piers Anthony, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton. Sinykin’s analysis focuses on the way many of these authors— alongside their literary counterparts like EL Doctorow, Renata Adler, or David Foster Wallace— allegorize, in their novels, their own status as writers within a more commercially-driven publishing industry. Whether its Steel’s The Promise (1978) or King’s Misery (1987), such allegories typically express the author’s sense of constrained agency within a corporate culture industry, the absurd practices dictated by creeping bureaucratic management, or the weight of fame within ever-intensifying publicity cycles. For Crichton (as for some members of the old guard within the publishing houses), the increase in management, administration, marketing, and publicity stokes a misogynistic outcry against the (perceived) feminization of the business.15 Through these means, Sinykin provides a persuasive theory of contemporary fiction’s intense meta-quality that is distinctive from earlier periods—it is more focused on artistic compromise in the name of commerce, bureaucracy, marketing, and audience expectation.

However, attending to the dynamics of today’s “conglomerate authorship” means not only moving from literary writer to non-literary writer, but also shifting our focus away from writers altogether. Throughout, Sinykin profiles numerous publishing industry figures. André Shiffrin is a recurring figure of the book “whose career paralleled the conglomerate era” (often by railing against it).16 Sonny Mehta, literary editor and publishing executive for Knopf, “crystallized the logic of the system” from the 1990s onwards.17 By the early 2000s, Sessalee Hensley, the literary fiction bookbuyer for Barnes & Noble, “embodied the middlebrow, or the middlebrow embodied Sessalee.”18 TThese VIPs are at once personifications and players of the publishing field—they are expressive of a system while also causing its shifts. They are perhaps most illustrative of how contemporary novels are collaboratively composed and received, and how “conglomerate authorship” is a different kind of death for the Author (because historically specific to our neoliberal era) than other pronouncements elaborated in literary scholarship.

Big Fiction’s ambitious project and keen analysis will make it a classic in criticism of contemporary US fiction. Its movement across research methodologies (including literary analysis, computational research, institutional and market histories, interviews with key players) yields a persuasive and self-consistent account of contemporary US literature that is staggering in its breadth. Yet Big Fiction’s over-arching schema still allows Sinykin to make detailed and sometimes extraordinarily bold claims, including that literary authors like Cormac McCarthy or Joan Didion “adopted genre techniques” because of conglomeration,19 that “nonprofits took responsibility for literature of embodiment,”20 or that “historical fiction and minimalism were one another’s obverse.”21 Sinykin also convincingly follows through on the “ludicrous claim” that Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) “is also about publishing.”22 In this vein, Big Fiction also provides insight into how publishing houses—whether conglomerate, non-profit, or independent—variously responded to the appearance of multiculturalism (one of the few cultural forces, in this study, that appears exogamous to the publishing industry) as both a literary question and a commercial opportunity. This affected what kind of minoritized writers were published and what kind of fiction they wrote.

The grand effect of this grand study is to halt any theorization of contemporary fiction that doesn’t first consider the publishing landscape at that point in time. After all, the critic cannot encounter an emerging aesthetic trend or pattern in contemporary fiction that has not first been processed through the market calculations of the publisher (and the literary agent and bookseller). If it’s published by a non-profit or independent, then it will likely align with the social or literary vision of that organization— and they still have bills to pay. Sinykin illustrates that this has been the case since the 1980s. The contemporary literary critic must therefore remind themselves that the contemporary novel is always a commodity and must plot emerging aesthetic trends and categories (whether textual or paratextual) in relation to a dynamic market logic, where competition and comping are paramount. Such criticism would not endorse “conglomerate authorship” or insist that literary expression is now annulled or prescribed, but it would maintain that conglomeration is the system from which the good and the bad, the new and the formulaic, the bestseller, the prizewinner, the midlist, the guilty pleasure, and the forgotten, emerge at all. Awareness of the system has, in a surprising number of cases, infected the novel’s style and concerns.

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Alexander Manshel. Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon. Columbia University Press, 2023.

Alexander Manshel’s Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon takes place within the conglomeration era. Manshel offers a similarly institutionally-oriented approach to contemporary US fiction. However, Writing Backwards is concerned with a more precise phenomenon within publishing: it draws our attention to the explosion of literary historical fiction. “Novels set in the past,” Manshel notes early on, “compris[e] nearly three-quarters of all shortlisted novels between 2000 and 2019, and reach[es] a whopping 80 percent in the first decade of the twenty-first century alone.”23 Following James English’s research (and satisfyingly paralleling some of Sinykin’s periodizing claims), this turn starts around 1980.24 Writing Backwards tracks this literary “tectonic shift” alongside another— the racial and ethnic diversification of the US literary canon.25

Writing Backwards’ many insights stem from the observation that these two major transformations in US literary fiction are, in fact, the same: “Over the past five decades, minoritized novelists have been canonized almost exclusively for the writing of historical fiction.”26 But this doesn’t mean that once literary historical fiction becomes a vehicle for success for minoritized writers, that white authors don’t follow suit. Writing Backwards chronicles this mass congregation of writers around the historical. It also assesses the different narrative structures and sites of historical interest taken up from within this congregation. It focuses less, a la Sinykin, on the commercial interests that drive this trend and more on the way that other institutions—like the college classroom or NEA’s decision process for granting author fellowships—encouraged the historical turn in the contemporary literary novel, making this genre the stepping-stone to canonical recognition.

Chapter 1 studies the use of reverse chronology in two novels, Time’s Arrow (1991) by Martin Amis, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991) by Julia Alvarez. Manshel skillfully uses this narrative structure as a metaphor for contemporary literature’s turn toward historical fiction. The pairing also succinctly displays how white and minoritized authors have journeyed into the past for different purposes. For Amis, the flight into history is a retreat from the “encroaching entertainments of contemporary life” toward the beacon of “authority, prestige and cultural capital that history affords.”27 One could thus read this turn as a displaced response to the constraints spelled out in Big Fiction. When Alvarez writes backwards, Manshel argues, her protagonist recovers who they are, and this recovered identity is cast in ethnic terms. This analysis reveals a cultural equation that develops throughout the study: that the recovery of the past by minoritized authors is predominantly used as an educational vehicle; it teaches readers racial and ethnic histories in the US. Chapter 2 assesses the “evolving aesthetics of World War II historical fiction.”28 The World War II novel changes from postmodern irony of the 1960s and 1970s, to a tone more “reflective, deeply serious, and utterly sincere” in the 1990s29 before today becoming “an amalgamation of the two.”30 Chapter 3 is dedicated to Colson Whitehead, who Manshel (like Sinykin) holds as the exemplary contemporary US novelist. Manshel provides a comprehensive overview of Whitehead’s oeuvre, assessing the author’s evolving attitude towards the status of history in US culture. Chapter 4 is dedicated to the multi-generational novel. With useful consideration of two antecedents, the chapter examines Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016), Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko (2017), and Margaret Wilkerson Sexton’s A Kind of Freedom (2017). Chapter 5 outlines the “recent historical novel” by authors like Ben Lerner and Ruth Ozeki. Manshel argues that this predominantly white (Ozeki excepted) novel comes into being once “the prestige of, and demand for, historical fiction has grown so pronounced that the twenty-four-hour news cycle has been conscripted as a literary institution in its own right.”31

Writing Backwards excels in two areas. First, it pinpoints debates in intellectual and institutional histories that inform contemporary historical fiction. Chapter 1’s discussion of the National Endowment for the Arts’s (NEA) change in policy in the early 1980s is especially inspired; it shows how the association’s turn to anonymized author submissions, coupled with an avowed mission to promote racial and ethnic diversity in US literature, favored historical fiction. The NEA now wanted more diverse authors, but they also required anonymous submissions— how to get around this conundrum? Through a novel’s “all-too-telling historical setting,” NEA’s reviewers could often make an educated guess on the racial or ethnic identity of the anonymous author. And so, the genre lent itself to the multicultural mission/aims of the NEA.32

Admittedly, the question of how much influence the NEA had on US literature’s general turn to the past is ambiguously answered in Writing Backwards. It’s unclear if the NEA’s practices were typical of a wider set of institutional changes (i.e., just one of several examples, as is implied throughout the study) or the driving factor. While we may be tempted to say it was probably a bit of both, understanding the extent of this institutional effect is important. If English argues that the historical turn first occurs in the prestige economies of the UK before the US (through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (1981) and the Booker Prize)33 and if Sinykin demonstrates that certain figures of conglomeration, like Sonny Mehta, cut their teeth in London before coming to the New York publishing scene, then our understanding of the mechanisms for the US historical turn might need to be understood on an international scale, in relation to other publishing and prestige economies.34 Manshel understandably limits the scope of his study to US institutions, but the external factors just outlined present moments where Writing Backwards’ scope restrains access to the full picture of its subject.

In any case, the discussion of the NEA is the first in a pattern in Writing Backwards where Manshel, like Sinykin, resists attributing literary trends to sweeping historical factors such as postmodernity and instead situates aesthetic turns among the concerns of more localized groups. Writing Backwards similarly identifies how the “canon wars” of the 1980s and 1990s US academy (alongside the rise of New Historicism) left a deep impression on historical fictionalists like Whitehead and Viet Than Nguyen during their college years (thematically subtending their novels, The Intuitionist (1999) and The Sympathizer (2015)). More significantly, Manshel persuasively demonstrates how historical fiction served as the “ideal” novel genre to meet the demands of the opposing sides of this academic dispute— a debate that was split between studying a (white, conservative) view of American history and a demand to seriously include minoritized authors (which would in general further skew curricula towards the contemporary era).35 When humanities curricula must address a range of requirements, it’s helpful for the instructor to be able to assign contemporary multiethnic works that also tell longer American histories.

This leads to the book’s second area of excellence. Writing Backwards outlines the ideological limits of literature’s dependence on historicity for canonical recognition. For example, Manshel shows how Colson’s The Underground Railroad (2016) ticks the boxes of the familiar meta-slave narrative while also reflexively challenging the commonplace notion that re-enacting historical trauma really addresses that violence. What is under suspicion in this chapter and the next are those “specious narratives of progress.”36 Historical tales tend to bend toward the present, and it’s tempting to assume that learning history—via empathy with characters— means that we automatically improve on historical failures and injustices. Indeed, the self-congratulatory status of learning is what Manshel (drawing on Machado Sáez and Namwali Serpell) takes to task in Gyasi’s Homegoing, where “learning history represents an end in itself.”37 It’s moments like these where Manshel best illustrates the constraints produced by the contemporary canon’s oversaturation with historical works. He asks: “does all this historicism come at the cost of engaging meaningfully with the present?”38 He later answers: “Understanding the past is a necessary but ultimately insufficient condition for effecting change in the present.”39

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If Big Fiction tells the story of how conglomeration publishing saw its readers more unabashedly as consumers (as well as the intricate responses and resistances to this changing tide), then Writing Backwards delivers the lesson that core sectors of the US literary readership have also— via a network of adaptive institutional imperatives— been cast as students in need of historical instruction. While Sinykin and Manshel place accent on different components, these excellent, systematic studies complement each other well in defining the contours of the contemporary US novel. Indeed, they have a lot in common. In their examinations, both lay claim to extending the insights and methods of McGurl’s The Program Era, both decouple contemporary literature from postmodernism (and posit today’s literary self-reflexivity in distinctly unpostmodernist terms), both take seriously the demands, constraints, and subversive strategies of minoritized writers, and both— like their peers McGurl and Richard Jean So— contend with Beloved as that exception in the US contemporary canon that made future rules. To borrow the iconography from Columbia University Press’s colophon, they are crowning achievements. One could do worse than reading Big Fiction or Writing Backwards for a broad overview of the current US novel, but you’d do better by reading them together.

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Endnotes

  1. James English, “Now, Not Now: Counting Time in Contemporary Fiction Studies,” Modern Language Quarterly 77, no. 3 (2016): 403.
  2. Mark McGurl, The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011): 34.
  3. Margaret Doherty, “State-Funded Fiction: Minimalism, National Memory, and the Return to Realism in the Post-Postmodern Age,” American Literary History 27, no. 1 (2014): 89.
  4. Elena Machado Sáez, Market Aesthetics: The Purchase of the Past in Caribbean Diasporic Fiction (Charlottesville: University of Virgina Press, 2015): 1.
  5. Lee Konstantinou, “Autofiction and Autoreification,” The Habit of Tlön, February 6, 2021, https://www.leekonstantinou.com/2021/02/06/autofiction-and-autoreification/.
  6. See Ismail Muhammad, “Can Black Literature Escape the Representation Trap?” The New York Times, October 13, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/10/13/magazine/black-literature-representation-trap.html.
  7. McGurl, 34.
  8. Crucial to Sinykin’s study, as well as Manshel’s, is Richard Jean So’s Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction (2020). Also published by Columbia University Press, Redlining examines the “profound lack of change in [book publishing’s] racial representation of authors” from 1950 to 2000 (30).
  9. McGurl, 4.
  10. Dan Sinykin, Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023): 3.
  11. Sinykin, 25.
  12. Sinykin, 169.
  13. Sinykin, 183.
  14. Sinykin, 26.
  15. For a clear account of the feminization of publishing, see: Sarah Brouillette, “Wattpad’s Fictions of Care,” post45.org, July 13, 2022, https://post45.org/2022/07/wattpads-fictions-of-care/.
  16. Sinykin, 22.
  17. Sinykin, 125.
  18. Sinykin, 68.
  19. Sinykin, 150.
  20. Sinykin, 151.
  21. Sinykin, 45.
  22. Sinykin, 111.
  23. Alexander Manshel, Writing Backwards: Historical Fiction and the Reshaping of the American Canon (New York: Columbia University Press, 2023): 4.
  24. See English, “Now, Not Now,” 410-411.
  25. Manshel, 58.
  26. Manshel, 5.
  27. Manshel, 63.
  28. Manshel, 84.
  29. Manshel, 88.
  30. Manshel, 120.
  31. Manshel, 206.
  32. Manshel, 74.
  33. See: English, 414-416.
  34. According to Sinykin, Mehta was the “mentor” of Knopf editor Jordan Pavlin. Pavlin would acquire works from three novelists treated in detail in Writing Backwards: Yaa Gyasi, Tommy Orange, and Julie Otsuka (222 BF).

    As an aside, Manshel’s discussion also made me wonder to what extent the forming of a postcolonial canon— with celebrated works of historical fiction like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1958) and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat (1967) (both published in the Heinemann African Writers Series)— anticipated or precipitated the historical turn in US literary fiction.

  35. Manshel, 130.
  36. Manshel, 154.
  37. Manshel, 190.
  38. Manshel, 194.
  39. Manshel, 243.
Omid Bagherli
Omid Bagheri is a PhD Candidate in English Literature at Tufts University. He studies contemporary literature, focusing on the aesthetics of historical recovery in literary non-fiction.