How corporations wrested creative control from writers and editors—to produce less interesting books.
Big Fiction is sharply written and sharply argued, part of a wave of cutting-edge works of literary history put out by Columbia University Press. Wisely, Sinykin “defers judgment about whether conglomeration was good or bad,” instead charting its consequences.
At this point, the question of whether conglomeration was good or bad seems largely beside the point. Artists adapt. Artists have always been subject to the whims of the wealthy. Yet the same economic forces that led to conglomeration are undeniably immiserating artists today. More authors than ever before have access to an audience and the means of literary production; fewer authors than in decades past are able to support themselves through writing alone. Publishing houses continue to consolidate—and one of the biggest, Simon & Schuster, was just sold to a private equity firm, part of an industry infamous for gutting local newspapers. Meanwhile, entry-level employees at those publishing houses are paid so abominably that many have recently quit en masse.
Where do writers, editors, and for that matter critics go from here? How do we make art under these conditions? One’s answer to such questions is inextricable from one’s politics more broadly, from one’s view of what we owe each other, whether the rich deserve their spoils, and the extent to which workers should determine the course of their lives. W.W. Norton’s collective ownership provides one glimmer of a possible artistic future. So too does the recent strike of HarperCollins workers for fair wages, the rise of artists’ and freelancers’ unions, the flowering of writers’ collectives during the pandemic. If, as Sinykin argues, the ascent of conglomerate publishing relocated power “out of the hands of the author and the editor and into a great many hands,” as the ranks of publicists, marketers, and agents swelled, perhaps the possibility of solidarity remains, of strength in the growing numbers of collaborative workers.