Selling Out

On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal BY Rachel Greenwald Smith. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press. 208 pages. $16.
Cover of On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal

Perhaps it is the contemporary tension around the concept of selling out that has made so many recent works of fiction deal with the question of their own economic conditions of possibility, their marketing, and their commodification explicitly within their pages. One of the clearest examples of this is Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure. The protagonist of Erasure is an experimental novelist, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, who is dismayed by the outsize success of a novel entitled We’s Lives in da Ghetto. Monk sees this book as cynical attempt to give the white public a story of Black experience that conforms to their worst stereotypes. Its commercial success only confirms what a literary agent tells Monk: that he could sell more books if he could “settle down to write the true, gritty real stories of Black life.”

Enraged, Monk decides to write a parody of a “gritty” Black story, a parody so over-the-top that it will throw into relief how shortsighted the publishing industry is when it comes to its expectations of Black fiction. The result is My Pafology, the novel Monk thinks his agent wants, complete with racial stereotypes, bad dialect, and a plot with plagiarized elements from a dizzying number of canonical works of African American fiction. Evidenced by its reproduction in full in the middle of Erasure, My Pafology is truly terrible and offensive.

The novel is given a $600,000 advance.

Monk pushes back even harder against the industry, retitling the novel Fuck in the belief that no one will be able to market it.

The novel is given a prestigious literary prize.

Erasure confirms everything proponents of compromise aesthetics say about contemporary art. Art is inevitably complicit. But Erasure does offer a critique of complicity by giving us the sad version of that story, a story in which writers increasingly find no room to take dissenting positions. In which one can speak to the reality of a political injustice like racism only through the language of the market, and in which the language of the market, in turn, produces further racial stereotypes.

The inevitability of selling out, in this story, does not grant freedom from the orthodoxy of critique. It is, instead, a mechanism of erasure.

Or try this one: Ben Lerner’s 10:04 begins with a conversation between the narrator, also named Ben, and his agent, who informs him that he will receive a “‘strong six-figure’ advance” for the novel that the reader already knows will become 10:04. The story that follows is a familiar tale of the negative consequences of large financial investments in creative endeavors. Ben is emotionally unmoored by the large advance, and he finds himself unable to write the book he was contracted to write.

The crux of the problem appears in a scene in which Ben goes to a fertility clinic to donate sperm to a friend. On the way, he has an imaginary conversation with his not-yet-conceived future child about her origins. She asks about the high cost of the IUI procedure that created her, and then about all of the other costs involved in her birth, her basic life maintenance, her child care and educational needs. And then the imagined future child asks the question that seems to get to the heart not only of 10:04, but of Lerner’s entire career. After tallying the total cost of her life up to age twenty-two and arriving at a mind-boggling figure, she asks, “Is that why you’ve exchanged a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market for the fantasy of coeval readership?”

This question is significant because it is true that Lerner’s work once traded in a modernist valorization of difficulty as a mode of resistance to the market. Before writing fiction, Lerner published three books of poetry, all of them, in my opinion, brilliant. None of them were what you’d call accessible. And all of them directly addressed the political perils of easily digestible and marketable public language and communication.

The future child’s question therefore crystallizes what we know from the very start of the novel: that we are reading the novel that was composed under the mandate of a ‘strong six­-figure’ advance, that the work of art we are encountering is, at root, something written for money, a compromise between the desire to challenge readerly expectations and the desire to reach a broad contemporary audience, a coeval reader­ship. This is the compromise that lies behind most, if not all, contemporary works of literary fiction; it is just rarely thrown at a novel’s readers with such insistent force. And yet, unlike most works of literary fiction, 10:04 is interested in how its complicity with the market affects its final form.

The initial plan for the novel, we are told, is that it will expand upon a story that Ben wrote for the New Yorker. And the story—the actual story published by Lerner in the magazine—appears in the novel, but only as evidence of the story that the narrator is supposed to adapt into the book. It is unintegrated into the rest of the narrative, awkwardly set into the text in a way that testifies to its unadaptability.

Other previously published pieces by Lerner—including a Harper’s Magazine essay and a long poem—appear in the novel as well. It is as if this material were cobbled together into a manuscript as much to fulfill a contract as to produce a work of art. The result is that in the end, the novel is not exactly what one might call a “successful” novel, nor is it “a novel that dissolves into a poem,” as the narrator imagines in a flight of modernist fancy. It is evidence of a manuscript composed of bits and pieces, diligently delivered to a press that the reader knows has invested such sums of money in it that its publication cannot be taken to be evidence of its quality, but rather evidence of a financial inevitability.

The scholar Jennifer Ashton reads 10:04 as achieving a critique of capitalism by demonstrating what happens to art objects that become commodities. The visible effects of the demands of the publishing industry on the novel are, she writes, “evidence of a kind of damage, of outside forces affecting the work.” But, she argues, once this damage becomes part of a work of art, it becomes “something we can look at together,” and therefore something we can see critically.

I am drawn in by this argument because I agree that 10:04 has moments of truly compelling political critique, but I also think it’s noteworthy that the novel, damaged as it was, garnered such hyperbolic critical acclaim, landing a spot on most major literary publications’ best-of-the-year lists and providing the catalyst for Lerner’s MacArthur Fellowship in 2015. There was something ironic about this, as the critical success of the book is only further confirmation of 10:04’s premise: that novels written for money obey the logic of economic investment and return. The press invested money in the novel, and the novel returned on that investment in the form specific to literary fiction: not in dollars, but in prestige.

The reception of 10:04, the novel’s ability to discuss openly the ‘strong six­-figure’ advance that was its condition of possibility, to describe the damages that advance wrought upon it, and yet to still sell effectively in spite of—or perhaps even because of—that revelation, might mean something much darker. It might mean that, as literary scholar Theodore Martin argues, the novel’s self-awareness merely exposes “the distance between the ambivalence it can’t escape and the revolutionary politics it sincerely wants but most definitely does not have.”

Excerpted from “Selling Out” from On Compromise: Art, Politics, and the Fate of an American Ideal. Copyright © 2021 by Rachel Greenwald Smith. Used with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.