Review of Making Literature Now by Amy Hungerford

Review of Making Literature Now by Amy Hungerford

R. M. Berry

Berry, who with ebr editor Joseph Tabbi initiated the Fictions Present thread (circa 2006), finds few intersections of that project with Hungerford’s celebrated Making Literature Now, not least because Hungerford shows little interest in the question of how her titular concept, when applied to commercial and cultural productions, indie and alt endeavors, “manages to mean what those trying to make literature are trying to make.” 


Amy Hungerford’s Making Literature Now tells an ambitious and informative story about the production of fictional narratives in the U.S. over the last two decades. Combining journalism and historiography with sociological analysis and cultural commentary, it weaves together accounts of several publication projects that have achieved various measures of success, attempting in the process to describe some innovations in composition, format, marketing, distribution, and reading they have sought to introduce. The back-story is familiar. Costs associated with book production, along with competition from film, TV, and gaming, have contributed to making literary fiction into a risky commodity, one that does not consistently generate the revenue needed to sustain its production, or not at the levels or in the formats possible only half a century ago. The additions to this story that Hungerford introduces are, first, an account of the resourcefulness, entrepreneurial vision, and technological savvy of a number of recent fiction-makers and, second, an appreciation for how a widespread desire for social connection provides a new basis of value for these makers’ works, as well as an inexpensive labor resource. In a particularly illustrative episode, Hungerford recounts how the 2006 bankruptcy of the distributor Publisher’s Group West spurred Richard Nash of Soft Skull Press to experiment with new ways to relate fiction to the internet. He initially established a website called Red Lemonade where the net’s interactive possibilities enabled him to sell, not only books, but an expanded array of writing-related “experiences and services,” transforming his patrons’ audience-relation to print into their participation in a “reading and writing community” (74). However, when Red Lemonade failed to generate a profit, Nash turned to what Hungerford calls “another literary vision” (79), a website called Small Demons in which the cultural capital of well-known novels could be lucratively transferred to the drinks, vintage clothing, antique weapons, and other distinctive objects referenced in their pages. Even more ingenious, Nash figured out how to exploit the “coterie cachet” associated with insider knowledge to motivate his site visitors to do the work of compiling and curating these objects, selling “style” (81) and “cool” (85) to any reader willing to donate her labor and expertise.

However, if the concept of literature remains tied to works of a particular significance and value, regardless how debatably or unstably one conceives this significance and value, it is probably misleading to say that Making Literature Now is about making literature. Partly, this is because it says nothing about making poetry or essays, but more fundamentally, it is because Hungerford shows little interest in the question of how the concept, when applied to her heterogeneous productions, manages to mean what those trying to make literature are trying to make. Instead, it would probably be more accurate to say that Making Literature Now is about a more encompassing relational structure in which works aspiring to be literature have a crucial status and role. Hungerford conceives this larger structure in various forms, speaking of “literary worlds” (3), “the broad web of writers” (8), “networks” (27), “a whole world of circulating labor structures” (39), “the institutional scene in which literary value is produced” (43), “the net of large-scale capital” (73), “the social world of aesthetic discourse” (134), or at its most general, just “the social” (28). In these overlapping relational meshes, the individual works of her publication projects fulfill the roles of authentication, activation, representation, connection, trace, and justification, among others. However, they do not answer her question, “[W]hat difference does art-making make to a world full of strangers and to the smaller worlds its makers inhabit?” (39). In other words, the significance and value of making literature now is not for Hungerford identical with the significance or value of the literature made. On the contrary, the economic fact of overproduction seems to make such an equation impossible, driving down both the exchange value and cultural capital of new works and creating a gap that Hungerford’s account tries to fill. Along with the laudable aim of introducing readers to a sample of these new works, Hungerford’s story sets out to explain how situating their production within a more encompassing structure of social relations can itself fill this axiological gap, especially for the countless uncelebrated, poorly remunerated, and mostly invisible workers without whose belief in the significance and value of literature few of these works would see the light of day.

Hungerford initially pits her story of making against a version told by the makers themselves. She assembles this makers’ version from materials associated with the magazine McSweeney’s and its press imprint, materials that range from its published information about printing costs, paper stock, and editorial practices to the book There Are Many of Us, released by the press in 2010, about the making of Spike Jonze’s short film “I’m Here.” Calling this story “a fantasy version of artistic production” (27), Hungerford attributes its implied message to “the anticommercial DIY ethic of punk in the 1970s and 1980s” (21) and says that its aim is to emphasize “the democratic underpinnings” (25) of its makers’ work. By deflecting attention from the productive matrix of professional contacts and cultural insiders, this fantasy “suggests that if we want to know about the people who make art, we ultimately need simply to look inside ourselves” (26). By contrast, Hungerford’s story emphasizes “the social world of this art” (27), seeking to answer the question, “How does the work happen in the traffic between people, their formation into a group, a coterie, an office, a class, an institution, a public, a counter-public, a school, a neighborhood, a network?” (27). In the case of McSweeney’s, an impetus to this formation is the effort of its founder, the novelist Dave Eggers, to create an aura, not only of “anticommercial” artistic authenticity, but also of interpersonal authenticity. Hungerford discovers this aura in the publication’s offices (35), where an active social scene merges with the scene of production, providing workers who lack Eggers’s celebrity with a valuable sense of group affiliation and personal connection, and she argues that, especially when combined with the press’s literacy and educational projects, this “social context” is one “in which to read and be read is not just to buy books or to sell books but, in a more literals sense, to act with generosity, to give and feel the love” (43). Interpreting Eggers’s autobiographical fiction, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, as a version of this making story, Hungerford concludes that, in Eggers’s case, social values and aesthetic values seem almost indistinguishable, involving McSweeney’s, consciously or not, “in the business of human connection” (47). Hungerford devotes an entire chapter to one offshoot of this business, the narrative fiction A Silent History, which tells the story of an epidemic of children born without the capacity for written or spoken language. Hungerford’s story of its making begins with a web and software designer, Russell Quinn, who at a cafe in Zurich in 2010 found himself drawn to McSweeney’s aura of interpersonal authenticity (“It seemed true and full of feeling” [34]) and so sent an email to Eli Horowitz, the magazine’s publisher, proposing a design for a subscriber app. The eventual result of this connection was that, after two years working inside McSweeney’s production network, Horowitz, Quinn, and another McSweeney’s insider, Chris Ying, began their own publishing and design company, creating with the writers Kevin Moffett and Matthew Derby A Silent History, a work Hungerford describes as “the first novel entirely integrated into an app” (93). Some of Hungerford’s interests in this project seem only tangentially related to her question about what difference art-making makes. She details the app’s resources for literary historians, the fictional role of government institutions in collecting its narrative materials, and the substitution of its algorithm for a narrator to control the reader’s access to information. However, she eventually focuses on its “Field Reports,” sections of text that can be accessed by readers only from particular real-world locations and that are themselves produced—under editorial guidelines from Horowitz—by readers in those locations. What Hungerford believes these Field Reports reveal is how, “in its very bones, in its foundational data structures,” the work’s production is “an effect not of [Horowitz’s] editorial control but of social acts and facts outside the novel which produce the aesthetic investments that define the network the novel in turn produces” (113). By “aesthetic investments,” Hungerford appears to mean, most concretely, the work of the many writers who contribute to A Silent History without payment. Although I won’t pretend that Hungerford’s account of this productive effect strikes me as clear, she does make clear “the ideology of art” she means to oppose: it is “that creativity is socially connective, in and of itself and apart from structures such as the school or the market; that its connectivity serves an aesthetic democracy” (116). In other words, in Hungerford’s account, the productivity of social acts and facts is meant to dispel a putative democracy that, were readers and writers really connected to it, would make them accountable for their aesthetic investments to art.

Hungerford’s last two chapters focus on Jonathan Safran Foer and David Foster Wallace, two figures whose extraordinary celebrity and financial success differentiate them from her earlier, less well-known examples of literary making. What Hungerford seems to want from Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated is a demonstration that, contrary to Foer’s professed belief in art’s love-evoking potential, “the world we live in proves stubbornly social and material in a way that routinely overshadows the aesthetic and its bliss,” making even the Holocaust “a subject fully regulated by the social rules of art” (139). By “the social rules of art,” Hungerford seems to have in mind such generalizations as that “writers need a subject either already important or so offbeat, esoteric, ordinary, or minor that we come to be surprised by its eventual importance” or that “the subject or narrative (or better, both) need a sentimental charge” (134). She maintains that it was only by conforming with these requirements that Foer’s work managed to transform historical trauma into “positive consequences in the social world of aesthetic discourse” (134). What seems odd about Hungerford’s insistence on “the social rules of art” is that in her final chapter she makes an issue of her freedom from them. There she poses what she calls the “heretical” question of whether the fiction of David Foster Wallace is worth reading (142) and subsequently declares that she will not read any more of it (149). She identifies two possible justifications for her decision. The first is that “the logic of Wallace’s relationships with women in his life practice might in fact have a structure similar to the logic of the writer-reader relationship…in Wallace’s work,” such that “something rotten” in the former could infect the latter (142). And she introduces the second in a rhetorical question: “But does David Foster Wallace really have anything to say about women, or gender, or sex, or misogyny that’s worth attending to?” (149) Either of these might, of course, justify not reading an author’s work, but, surprisingly, Hungerford makes little attempt to show, based on the fiction of Wallace she has read, that there is, in fact, “something rotten” in it, that what it says is not, in fact, “worth attending to.” Instead, her defense seems directed at a different challenge. That challenge comes from “the cues that flow without cease from editors, biographers, reviewers, and fans” (156) and from “the expectation of what is ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ in the academy” (159)—that is, from what she has called “the social world of aesthetic discourse” (134) and “the institutional scene in which literary value is produced” (43). And it raises a question for her: “Is it ever acceptable, as a professional matter [for a critic], to refuse the culture’s rising call to attend to a literary work?” (156) In other words, in accounting for her greater investment of time in some works than others, must a critic conform to the aesthetic requirements of her social context?

The answer to this question sounds so banal that one might be forgiven for thinking it went without saying. If a critic considers her culture’s rising call misguided, if she finds a literary work unworthy of attention, then it’s not only acceptable for her to refuse; refusal is her professional obligation. One wonders how such a question can even arise, how a critic’s decision to stop reading work she finds “rotten” could need a further justification. And one answer is that it arises whenever aesthetic democracy is displaced by aesthetic hegemony. That is, if the democratic requirement that every individual determine on the basis of his or her reading whether a work has the significance and value of literature, if this constitutive requirement of aesthetics is displaced by a social consensus, by a set of requirements that confer significance and value on works that conform, then posing the question of why a work with cultural capital is worth reading does not just make the critic a heretic. It makes her an anarchist. I share Hungerford’s perception, characteristic of recent post45 criticism, that much contemporary fiction seems unaware of the socially specific features of its own practice, features which are often typical of a class or ethnicity or race or gender, but which can also cut across these differences, enabled by the institutions of aesthetic education, the professional networks of publishing and reviewing, and “a whole world of circulating labor structures” (39). However, I disagree with Hungerford about the significance of this perception. My belief is that, not just writers and publishers, but also critics and readers, relinquish their role as social interpreters and become agents of social alienation whenever they treat these socially specific features of practice as the determining conditions of literature’s production. In this social context, refusing either the culture’s rising call or its deepening neglect can dispel aesthetic hegemony and re-engage critical practice with the sources of its power. As Gertrude Stein notoriously insisted, the now in which art is made is also the time in which what is made is made. Nothing knowable prior to now, no social rules or structures, can determine whether it is, in fact, literature that is now being made: “Naturally one does not know how it happened until it is well over beginning happening.” My investments may be as misguided as my culture’s rising call or the requirements of my institutional scene. I could be the last to know. But if what’s happening is literature, then posing the question of its significance and value, of what difference making it makes, is acknowledging my investment, my accountability for its making, and knowing as much, even if unprofitable, never happens at any time before now.