Page Against the Machine

Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature BY DAN SINYKIN. NEW YORK: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS. 328 PAGES. $30.

The cover of Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed the Publishing Industry and American Literature

WHAT IS AN AUTHOR? A conduit for the divine or a poor schlub combining and recombining stale units of meaning? Both answers share the assumption that a literary work is the product of one consciousness. This assumption is a kind of spell: even a book’s acknowledgments, where the many other hands that went into its making come into view, or its publisher’s colophon, which advertises the institutional infrastructure behind the text, cannot totally ward it off.

Dan Sinykin’s Big Fiction sets out to break the spell of authorial autonomy. It considers an impressively broad swath of literature: more or less all American fiction published over the past six decades. Since 1960, the US publishing industry has concentrated around several increasingly large and unwieldy corporate conglomerates. Around mid-century, the genteel men of letters who ran the major houses were either retiring and trying to minimize tax liability for their estates or running up against hard limits to their businesses’ growth. They were selling, and the conglomerates were buying. These new parent companies treated publishing houses not as guardians of culture but as assets. They would deliver shareholder value, or they would be liquidated.

The conglomerates instituted an impersonal regime of rationalization. Sinykin quotes findings from a 1982 study: “In the conglomerate-owned trade house, an editor feels like a cog in a large system which begins with agent prescreening, market evaluations, financial considerations, sub-rights negotiations, media tie-ins, and other such matters.” But the conglomerates also attracted brash new personalities to publishing. There is Morton Janklow, the archetypal literary agent, who cut deals over “power breakfasts” at the Regency; Jane Friedman, the publicist who sent Julia Child on tour to do live cooking demos at department stores; Sessalee Hensley, the Barnes & Noble book buyer who had the power to make or break new novels in the 2000s, and who was known mononymously as “Sessalee,” like Cher or Beyoncé. These characters and many more are the protagonists of Big Fiction. Sinykin renders his subjects with a journalist’s eye for scene. We encounter them squaring off in the boardroom, cajoling cranky authors into posing for publicity photos—or in the case of the small-press impresarios that form the subject of an especially rich later chapter, printing books one by one in the garage while listening to sports radio at blistering volume.

Sinykin argues that these corporate actors ushered in what he calls the “conglomerate era”—a period that began in the ’60s and continues today—when the publishing industry’s increased exposure to the market warped fiction into new shapes. The most radical proposal Big Fiction makes is that we should understand this process of reshaping as a kind of authorship, namely “conglomerate authorship,” a phrase that can be glossed as both “what it means to be an author in the conglomerate era” and “authorship by a conglomerate.” Take, for instance, the career of Cormac McCarthy. He wrote his first novels when conglomeration was just starting to spread across the literary field. Faced with low sales numbers and little support from his publisher, McCarthy “positioned himself as an artist through his rejection of commercialism.” But by the late ’80s, commercial energies were nonetheless swirling around him. When his longtime editor retired, McCarthy felt compelled to seek out representation from high-powered literary agent Amanda “Binky” Urban, who moved him from Random House to Knopf, where the new editor in chief Sonny Mehta was eager to bring literary fiction to mass audiences.

The result was the heavily marketed 1992 mega-bestseller All the Pretty Horses. This was not a work of recondite late-modernist sprawl like McCarthy’s earlier novels, but something more immediately approachable: a Western. For Sinykin, All the Pretty Horses exemplifies the emerging category of “literary genre fiction”—a compromise between high and low, between literary creativity and the market exigencies that conglomeration brought to bear more aggressively on the publishing world. Publishers’ missions had shifted from finding and developing talent—sticking with authors through slow-selling outings—to the bottom-line calculus of breaking even on every title. This new imperative, along with the growing role of mass-media publicity and retail superchains, posed a threat to the kind of challenging literary fiction that McCarthy wrote early in his career. Editors like Mehta saw the potential of a newly popularized literary fiction, one that absorbed elements of genre fiction, to thrive under these hostile conditions. Agents like Urban were ready to convince these editors that their authors were up for the job. In this way, industry actors like Urban and Mehta are at least as responsible for literary genre fiction as McCarthy and his writing peers.

Sam Messer, This is a Thingamabob, 2022, oil, acrylic, spray paint on canvas, 48 × 60”. Courtesy of the artist.
Sam Messer, This is a Thingamabob, 2022, oil, acrylic, spray paint on canvas, 48 × 60”. Courtesy of the artist.

This isn’t to say that Mehta ghostwrote parts of All the Pretty Horses between boozy business lunches, or even necessarily that he and his colleagues directly hounded McCarthy for more commercial material. Sinykin’s concept of conglomerate authorship is subtler and more agile; it operates on several scales at once. At the grandest scale, there is fiction as a system: “Success,” he explains, “depended on recognition by something like a system, so much so that fiction itself, when published by conglomerates, came to display, seen as a whole, a systematic intelligence, a systematic authorship.” This systemic agency makes itself felt more concretely in institutional efforts to create new formats, new marketing strategies, and new accounting imperatives. All of these determine the possible shapes fiction can take and the audiences it is likely to reach. Take, for example, the paperback original, a format that allowed publishers to increase print runs for literary fiction authors who were languishing in the hardcover market. (The cover of Big Fiction is a stylistic nod to Vintage Contemporaries, one of the best-known paperback imprints, which ran both new titles and reprints.) The system even tunnels its way into the author’s psyche. Sinykin invokes the sociological concept of “anticipatory socialization,” in which people adopt the norms of groups to which they do not yet belong. Authors preemptively shape their work in response to the demands of the conglomerates—often as interpreted by agents and other intermediaries.

What, exactly, does conglomerate-era fiction look like as a whole? Sinykin’s answer unfolds gradually over six elegant chapters that survey the major sectors of publishing: mass market, trade, nonprofits, and independents. The organization is canny—we proceed semi-chronologically, starting with the pre-conglomeration invention of the mass-market paperback, but also loosely upward on the ladder of prestige, from genre fiction to middlebrow realism to increasingly niche varieties of literary fiction. The general tendencies across these sectors, again loosely following a path from low to high, are formula, compromise, and reflexivity. Sinykin reads the fantasy novels of the ’70s as a symptom of the conglomerates’ efforts to maximize the bottom line. Imprints like Del Rey hit on a repeatable formula, with “recurring characters and worlds,” that was “cheap to commission, easy to package as series, and predictable to sell.” Writers of prestige fiction the late ’80s and early ’90s, increasingly edged off the genre-dominated bestseller lists, developed compromise formations between literary and genre fiction: Toni Morrison’s ghost stories, McCarthy’s Westerns, Joan Didion’s thrillers. And writers like Percival Everett and Karen Tei Yamashita wrote brutal, self-reflexive satires of ’90s-style multiculturalism—the very cultural climate that helped their nonprofit publishers secure funding.

Conglomerate-era authors write to challenge and delight, but also to manage expectations, win new audiences, and assert their value. “Aesthetics double as strategy,” Sinykin writes near the beginning of Big Fiction. This is true for any art at any time, as is Sinykin’s methodological claim about “distributed authorship.” But conglomeration applies a particular set of pressures that have led authors to develop a distinct set of strategies for survival. If highly formulaic mass-market fiction and literary genre fiction represent different degrees of capitulation to conglomeration’s imperatives, reflexivity seems to promise an escape, however temporary or illusory. One reflexive mode that has flourished under conglomeration is autofiction. In Sinykin’s reading, pseudo-autobiographical fiction gives writers the chance to play out a fantasy of wresting authorial control back from the conglomerate. While authors like Renata Adler found a set of tools for cultivating a feminist “ethics of refusal”—with a novel like Speedboat going so far as to refuse the very “organization of experience, the assignment of pattern to phenomena”—authors like Philip Roth often used this mode to project ideal-ego versions of themselves, genius artists who construct their works alone in their private mind palaces.

But sometimes reflexivity is unintentional. Sinykin argues that allegory is “one mode of conglomerate authorship. . . . Conglomeration led to the production of fiction that allegorized conglomeration itself.” On its face, this might seem like a claim that allegory is a willed act on the author’s part, a secret meaning authors encode, and the ultimate meaning at that—conglomerate-era fiction as fiction about conglomeration. The real claim, though, is subtler: because a novel “internalizes the conflicted logic in play at every scale above it, set in motion by agents, editors, executives, and publicists,” it cannot help but allegorize its conditions of production. Pick your theoretical model: there is an institutional unconscious underpinning conglomerate-era fiction, or fiction is a closed system (in the sense developed by systems theorists), in which it receives signals from the world outside but has to translate these signals into its own internal code. Either way, the point remains: allegory is a powerful hinge between the corporate world of publishing and the content of a literary work.

The most daring moment in Big Fiction is an allegorical reading of Morrison’s Beloved in light of the author’s work as an editor at Random House. In the novel’s preface, Morrison describes the sense of freedom she felt when she quit her job. This feeling fed into the story: “I think now it was the shock of liberation that drew my thoughts to what ‘free’ could mean.” Sinykin pursues this connection:

Morrison wrested [Beloved] from the publishing industry, from conglomeration, and the result is uniquely marked by the struggle. Morrison’s origin story for the novel is that she felt free when she quit the industry and she inscribed that as an allegory at the novel’s beating heart. It is a work of horror when horror was the genre du jour.

There is a lot going on in these clipped sentences. “Marked by the struggle”: conglomeration left its mark on Beloved not thematically but indexically, by virtue of Morrison’s efforts to write in and against hostile conditions for Black women authors. But Morrison also deliberately “inscribed” an allegory for this struggle into the novel: Sethe makes the ink that white children, under the instruction of the villainous schoolteacher, use to write dehumanizing pseudoscientific observations about her. And yet Beloved also bears something like the mark of concession to, or compromise with, the forces of conglomeration: it makes canny use of horror, “the genre du jour.” Indexical damage and outright representation, resistance and accession—all of these are modes of allegory, ways in which the “conflicted logic in play at every scale above” makes itself felt in the novel. Sinykin’s reading, like Beloved itself, expresses this complexity with admirable compression.

But this interpretation also requires the reader to meet Sinykin significantly further out than, say, his reading of Everett’s Erasure, which is explicitly about the publishing industry, or even his reading of the voluminous oeuvre of romance author Danielle Steel, whose work is not generally taught in literature courses and as a result is blissfully unfreighted by received interpretations. The rewards for taking this leap, even provisionally as an experiment, are worth it. At times Big Fiction makes out the relationship between the author and the conglomerate to be an exclusively adversarial one. On this account, transcendently good fiction like Beloved—and like that by any number of the other conglomerate authors, from McCarthy and Roth to Marilynne Robinson, Joy Williams, Tommy Orange, and Mark Leyner—is “wrested . . . from the publishing industry, from conglomeration.” The faint outline of the lone author, set against the market, begins to creep back into view. The author versus the market: Is this really what the conglomerate era boils down to?

At its speculative best, Sinykin’s reading of Beloved paints a more complex dialectical picture. Would Beloved have endured as it has without its ghost-story substrate, the element Sinykin identifies as its most market-responsive feature? It is impossible to answer that question. Beloved would simply not be Beloved if it weren’t a ghost story. Sedimented layers of intentional and unintentional allegory—which is to say, places where the work reflects on its conditions of production—make up the formal backbone of much conglomerate-era fiction. It is not a stretch to say that there would be no Beloved if there were no conglomeration—this is the kind of thought Big Fiction makes possible. It teaches us to see contemporary fiction as a field riven by contradiction: conglomeration is poisonous and generative, conservative and democratizing, a force of both austerity and abundance. And while it presents obstacles for nearly all writers, many—especially our best—have found unexpected sources of energy within it. May they keep siphoning off all they can get away with.

Mitch Therieau is a writer living in California.