Art and the Dinner Party
On the culture we reach for, and the culture we want
Do you want to matter to the culture today? This was the question Andrew Wylie, the power agent who counts Sally Rooney and Karl Ove Knausgaard as clients—as well as the estates of Philip Roth, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino—mulled recently. In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, the 76-year-old compared the popularity of a book to cultivating a dinner party: “You want everyone to come? The room is going to be packed. Or do you want to just have fewer but better people?”
“But publishers do want everyone to come, right?” David Marchese, the Times journalist, asked.
“Yeah. They’re greedy. The best-seller list is an example of success and achieving the broadest possible readership. But who’s reading you? A bunch of people with three heads and no schooling. You want to spend the day with these people? Not me, thank you.”
Wylie, in the interview, didn’t offer any defense of cultural elitism, but merely stated he cares about his tastes. “I’m not a person who would ever go to Disney World. There are a lot of people who do. I don’t necessarily think that they’re ridiculous. I just don’t share that taste.”
It was the sort of interview designed to give offense in the broader literary community, which is both less relevant to mass culture than it was three or four decades ago but far more willing to aggressively defend the tenants of poptimism. On this particular question, I understand all the sides. I very much want books, literary fiction in particular, to matter, and I think Wylie’s client list violates, to a degree, his professed sensibilities. He does not, for example, represent the estate of Gilbert Sorrentino, the critically-acclaimed but poor-selling novelist who wrote beautiful, difficult books and died in 2006. Roth once wrote a number-one best-seller; his contemporary Wallace Markfield never did, and I doubt Wylie has any interest in trying to bring the obscure Jewish writer to a larger audience. Wylie was probably not aching to sell a novel like Joshua Cohen’s The Netanyanhus, which won a Pulitzer Prize last year but appeared with an independent publisher and never approached any best-seller lists.
Is Wylie wrong, though? What should an artist strive for? The precarity of the writer’s life in the twenty-first century makes some of the old debates around selling out irrelevant. It is virtually impossible to make a living, chiefly, through selling books to publishers, and side hustles like reviewing books for newspapers or securing tenure at a college are fast disappearing. Many writers, at one time, came from the working class, and a sizable number, mirroring the American population, never finished college. Today, it’s a certain privileged sect—upper middle class or higher—that pursues the writing vocation, hustling for the right graduate programs, the right grants, and the vanishing number of elite tastemakers. Many books today that are extremely popular aren’t good; this is a banal argument that is still bound to anger enough people if dumped in the maelstrom of social media. Given our society’s addiction to screens, it still heartens me when I see a person lost in a beach read or a formulaic genre work. All of it beats the smartphone’s hypnosis.
It would be better for the public if novels of higher quality were sold as mass market paperbacks again. We should live in a world where Sheila Heti or Samuel Delaney or Ottessa Moshfegh could be found in a CVS. Exposure to great writing trumps never getting exposed at all. As a writer, I’ve been pulled in all directions—or felt such a pull, to both cultivate the discerning reader and to break out into the wider culture. The last novel I published was one such attempt, and did not succeed on the scale I hoped. But I wanted the best of all worlds; I was not willing to sacrifice the quality of my sentences, and never did. At the same time, I felt the marketing failed me, and readers expecting a conventional murder mystery came in quite disappointed, because the mystery itself was never much the point for me.
This Substack is the dinner party. I like everyone who’s showed up. I hope more people show up—I do want a very large audience, and I want to make more money—and I’m not going to fret over whether this dinner party gets a bit more raucous. Let everyone in. I never wanted to labor on the fringe, and that is undoubtedly the marker of someone who has an ego, who must prove himself. I don’t want to be Taylor Swift. But I’d like bigger book advances and better sales.
This, from Wylie, felt right to me:
I’ll ask in a different way: Has the status of serious writers changed in the country? I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.
What’s the right way? What are your goals?
To matter in the culture? No. Absolutely not. Who gives a [expletive]? You want to matter in this culture? Not me.
So what should a writer’s goals be? Just on the quality of the work. The kind of ineffable beauty of something extremely well expressed.
I’m not going to press the case, right now at least, on whether the mass culture of 2023 is more degraded than the mass culture of 1993 or 1973, though my instinct is to say yes—that a non-internet-addled world was better than what’s come since. If that makes me a luddite, so be it. Wylie’s own career may not match his professed worldview, but that doesn’t make any of his arguments less relevant. A writer’s aim must be for quality, for art, for what at times defies language and achieves transcendence. The imagination is the human being’s most precious gift. This is a trite observation; it’s also completely true. Do your work, and do it well. If popularity results, wonderful. If you’re hoping your novel will ricochet around BookTok, all well and good. If you’re writing, specifically, for that ricochet, your art is going to be worse. It is fine to render judgement on this writing. It is fine to be a critic. It is fine to have standards. If we are unable to say what has failed, exaltation loses all meaning.
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