March 26, 2012

The future of novel-writing, as seen in the past


Get ready for a sort of rarity: The big publishing machine in New York doing what it usually does — a mega-rollout featuring the usual power-broker suspects — except this time for a work of literary fiction, and one that’s not by Jonathan Franzen, to boot.

Yep, it seems Mark Leyner is publishing his first novel in 15 years, and it’s going to be big, big, big. We can tell because a big profile in the New York Times Magazine pretty much says so. It details the difficult years he’s spent since his last book (making millions in Hollywood writing movies and TV shows), lists the influential literary stars who admire him (Sam Lypsyte, bestselling author and Time Magazine book review editor Lev Grossman) the badge-of-honor-critics who didn’t get him (the Times‘ own Michiko Kakutani) and the fact that he’s working with editor Michael Pietsch of Little Brown, hailed as “a fabled figure in publishing” because he also edited David Foster Wallace and Chad Harbach).

Okay, well, render unto Caesar and all that sort of thing … What makes the piece worth a glance is its reminder of a May 17th, 1996 Charlie Rose Show in which Wallace, Leyner, and Franzen (with a bodacious haircut) were asked to discuss the future of fiction.

While the Leyner roll-out reminds us that some things never change, the Rose interview reminds us that some things do. Even back then, the discussion of literature on American TV had become a rarity — this one ran on the second half of a Friday night show, the program’s least-watched time slot. Now, at least, this kind of passionate literary discussion has an alternative media, where it can happen more regularly, and in greater depth, with a variety of discussants that isn’t limited to the anointed … not to mention with a steadily increasing audience that seems bound slowly but surely to outdo the numbers of the mainstream.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.