No Second Guessin’
Updated: Jul 16, 2021
A conversation with Keith Gessen, founder of n+1.
By Kunal Jasty
Keith Gessen is a novelist, journalist, critic, and founding editor of the spirited and divisive literary journal n+1. Between reporting stints in Ukraine and Russia, he’s taken a hard look at this year’s bitter pricing war between Amazon and Hachette, one of the “Big Five” venerable, and perhaps outdated, publishing houses in the United States. He’s optimistic about the future of writing, though, and says that “it’s probably better to be an author now than at any previous time in history.” Gessen met with Kunal Jasty, SEAS ’16, to discuss the state of writing in the digital age.
The Blue and White: You just wrote an article in Vanity Fair about the publishing war between Amazon and Hachette. Can you explain what’s going on?
Keith Gessen: Well, over the course of 20 years Amazon has become the biggest bookstore in America and the world. It’s actually very hard to figure out when exactly they passed Barnes & Noble because nobody can break out those numbers. When they first came along they were welcomed by the publishing industry as a counterweight to Barnes & Noble and Borders. Then as they overtook Barnes & Noble, and Borders went out of business, they’ve begun making greater demands on the publishers. And one of the biggest publishers, Hachette, has in the latest round of negotiations refused Amazon’s terms, and Amazon pulled some of Hachette’s books off their website.
B&W: In the beginning, Amazon was supposed to save the publishing industry. What happened?
KG: Yes, and I still remember when it started. Their catalogue was just much bigger. You could go to a Barnes & Noble and there were a lot of books, but they didn’t have old books or books that were out of print. Amazon collected all the books that existed, and it was amazing. It remains amazing. But now they’re squeezing their suppliers.
For me the really interesting thing about reporting this story was talking to all these interesting people who are doing technology startups related to reading, which was a very strange experience because these are basically technology people or entrepreneurial people. For example I met the founder of Scribd, which is a document sharing service that only recently got into subscription for books. And then there’s Goodreads, and another subscription service called Oyster, and then of course there’s Amazon, which is the giant version of this. These are all kind of people who aren’t from publishing. They’re all readers, and they’re not dummies, but they’re interested in books as something you can sell, or as a kind of market opportunity. So there’s a kind of collision between technology and technology thinking, and then more traditional publishing thinking. It’s interesting and has at times become very contentious.
B&W: I can understand why the publishers are angry, but I would have imagined the authors would have welcomed the demise of these publishing gatekeepers.
KG: In what sense are they gatekeepers?
B&W: Well I guess there are writers who would feel that the books that get published are not necessarily the best books that are written. It can be more of an arbitrary, luck based process. I don’t know if you’d agree with that?
KG: I guess I don’t agree with that. If you look at literary history there are definitely numerous examples. There’s a great book by David Markson, a kind of experimental writer who died a few years ago, and it’s just basically a series of anecdotes about the terrible lives of writers and the number of times they were rejected. A Confederacy of Dunces, famously, was rejected 45 times. Ulysses was rejected, so you do have lots of these stories. But eventually those books were published. And if you meet people who work in publishing, that’s what they do all day. They literally spend all day reading manuscripts that people send in. And yeah, I think there are books that fall through the cracks, but you do have this large machine that is trying to find books and publish them.
You also have these smaller publishers. I do n+1, and although we’re not really a publisher with people sending us manuscripts, we’re in that world of small publishers where people are also looking for stuff. So the stuff that isn’t published by Random House might find a smaller publisher. And some people would rather just publish themselves, or they literally will not find someone to publish them, and they do it themselves, and that’s fine.
The scary thing would be if you didn’t have publishers at all. If you’re self-publishing then you’re your own publicist, you’re your own marketer… and that’s not writing. You’re kind of better off letting other people do that.
B&W: There’s a great quote in the article from your agent, Andrew Wylie, who told you that if Amazon succeeds “you will not be able to afford to write a book… No one, unless they have inherited $50 million, will be able to afford to write a serious work of history, of poetry, of biography, a novel—anything. The stakes are Western culture.” Do people in the industry really think the situation is that dire?
KG: That’s the kind of extreme statement of the case, and the Wylie Agency’s business model is working with the estates of high-end writers—Nobel prize winners—and those estates generate income. Most writers in America are also teaching, especially fiction writers, the kind of people who get nominated for the National Book Award, people who are doing “literary” writing. Ninety-five percent of them are also college professors. So it’s not actually the case that there are all these people whose only source of income is their literary novels that they publish every five years. But it is the case that they have some income from that, and I think in a world where Amazon has squeezed the publishers, the amount of money that’s available for the authors decreases.
It’s tricky because Amazon will say, “Well, publishers are being stupid. They’re being overly conservative … they don’t understand.” Maybe the best distinction one agent explained to me was that publishers are really in the business of doing blockbusters. That’s where they really make a lot of money. When you have a blockbuster book that’s going to sell a couple million copies, you’re going to want to sell it for as much as you can. Amazon is in the volume business, so they would rather sell as many copies as possible at whatever price point, whether that’s $6.99 or $3.99 or $2.99. Ultimately the authors are stuck in between these two, and neither of them is very attractive. For the moment, authors are better off with the publishers.
B&W: I was struck by this quote in your chapter of MFA vs NYC from George Saunders, who told you that he only knew two non-teaching writers in his generation, writers who could make a living from writing alone. Going back to what you said about how 95% of writers in this country have to teach, has writing alone ever been a way to make a livelihood?
KG: Historically, it’s probably better to be an author now than at any previous time in history, partly because of Amazon, but also because of Barnes & Noble. You simply have a lot of people buying a lot of books. So in that sense, you have a better chance to make a living from it than at any previous time. What has happened in the last twenty to thirty years is that you’ve had this explosion of MFA programs. And what those writing programs do is that they’re an employment service for writers. If you have an MFA program you need people to teach at it, and a lot of those MFA programs make good money for the university. So now you have a lot more writers teaching. If you go back fifty years you have a lot of writers in the English departments, but they weren’t teaching creative writing necessarily. They’d be teaching a course on contemporary literature or on 19th century literature. So writers have been in the university for a long time, but now there’s just more of them.
B&W: You have a story in MFA vs NYC about when you decided to start teaching creative writing in an undergraduate program. You write, “It seems to violate some law of capitalism that someone should pay so much to attend a college and then be told that her work is no good.” I’m wondering about whether writing instructors are honest about that, or if they’re perpetuating a cycle?
KG: Yeah, but on the other hand, is it better to study economics? I guess that essay is about my ambivalence about the project of teaching writing. Sometimes it can be a real waste of time, and other times it’s no worse than anything else you might be doing. In the end I thought it was interesting, and I had a good time. But education is so expensive, and it’s not clear that there are jobs for people coming out of school. So I think people teaching should be thinking about that. And they do: when you talk to other teachers they are very aware of how much it costs and how tough it is for young people … a lot of them are burdened by debt, and that’s really terrible, but I wouldn’t say it’s the fault of a creative writing program.
B&W: No no, it’s obviously by choice, but…
KG: It’s part of this large system. Some of these creative writing programs are certainly cash cows for the university. A creative writing program is pretty low impact for the university. They don’t have to add a laboratory. They don’t have to subscribe to a lot of expensive medical journals. It’s pretty easy to create a creative writing program at your university and get people to pay $30,000 a year.
B&W: There’s also this argument throughout the whole book about the split between MFA programs and the NYC publishing world.
KG: I think the insight of the book, which is my co-editor Chad Harbach’s, is that in terms of the writing world, there’s always been New York City and then there’s always been the rest of the country. The romantic image if you read stuff from the ’40s and ’50s is these writers who would travel the country and have experiences, and once a year they would come by, visit their publisher, and drop off a manuscript. Now you still have New York City, and I think if you transported someone from publishing in 1930 to contemporary publishing they would recognize it. But the real change is these hundreds of creative writing programs that did not exist. The first creative writing program was Iowa in the 1930s. So these things literally did not exist. Now they do, and there are so many writers working in them.
Chad’s insight was that the MFA programs are creating a separate universe. They have different ideas about what’s good, they have different books that they really revere, and they have a separate cannon. They are better at keeping those books alive, in a way. I remember when I was in college there was a class on 20th century American literature, and each year the professor would take you up to the present. So you’d be reading Fitzgerald and Nabokov, and then there’d be a new Philip Roth or John Updike book. And you were like, “This is how the cannon is created. Some books get on the syllabus at a university.” What is curious about MFA programs is that the same sort of process takes place. So some book that isn’t hugely popular in New York publishing is revered in these MFA programs. You could also imagine a writer that has a life that is mostly confined to the MFA world because there are a lot of readers there, and those people are very serious. If you published a book and every MFA student in America bought it, it would be a successful book … maybe [laughs]. So the existence of this separate universe is something new.
B&W: As a student coming from Columbia, I have to ask… what would you say to the young fiction writer at Columbia right now?
KG: Like an undergraduate?
B&W: Or a graduate student—someone who is in their early 20s just trying to figure out how to make it with writing.
KG: Even if Amazon wins and the publishers have to close down, n+1 is still going to exist. Archipelago Books is going to exist, New Directions is going to exist. Writing has never been the sort of thing where you were going to make a very good living. It’s still not. A young person who wants to become a writer needs to be aware of that. That’s why I’ve been writing these essays about money. They should be conscious that they’re not going to make a lot of money, and they’re going to live that way for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years. And if they’re willing to do that, then it’s not that hard.
B&W: So what are you working on right now?
KG: I’m writing a novel. It’s taking a long time, and I keep getting pulled into this other reporting stuff, which is lots of fun but takes a lot of time.
B&W: It sounds like fiction writing is your primary interest then?
KG: Deep down inside, I’m a fiction writer. I’ve felt this way for a long time, and yet if I look at what I’ve actually spent my time doing, I’ve certainly spent a lot of time doing journalism, so I may be deceiving myself [laughs].
B&W: Is there anything else you’d want to say to a student at Columbia, thinking back to your own college experience?
KG: Hmm, what did I not know? You know we did a whole book of advice for college students at n+1, it’s called What We Should Have Known. We published it in 2007, and we slid it under the doors of students in the dorms at Columbia.
B&W: What was your piece of advice?
KG: I’m trying to remember … in terms of journalism and writing, I think there was a period a few years ago when everybody was like, “there are no jobs in journalism, and it’s all falling apart.” Amazingly, just in the past couple of years, there are a lot of jobs in journalism. Some traditional media companies that are expanding their digital presence are hiring, and then there are these new places that didn’t exist that are hiring. So in a way there are a ton of jobs, and it’s not so bad. At the same time you do feel like it’s hard to keep one’s compass… it’s hard to orient yourself. One of the boring things, but one of the reliable things, about the traditional media was that you knew what their politics were. If you were a writer who had leftist politics you wrote for The Nation, if you were a centrist you wrote for The New Republic, and if you were a right-wing loon you wrote for the National Review. I do think it’s harder as a young person to keep one’s moral compass when everything is in such flux. So I would spend some time if I were a young person thinking about that.
B&W: So who are the people you would recommend that we read, or who are the people you’re currently reading … journalists, or novelists, or poets even?
KG: I’m reading a writer named Sergei Dovlatov, a Russian writer who emigrated to New York in 1979. He had a critique of Russian logocentrism, the Russian exaltation of its writers. He thought this was a problem. He spent his army service as a guard at a prison camp, and he wrote these letters home with descriptions about what was happening in the camp, but he was also thinking about how he wants to become a writer. And he’s like, “Well, I might not be a great writer, but why is it that an engineer can be a regular engineer, whereas if you’re a writer you have to be Tolstoy. That’s not fair!”
B&W: Why is that? Why do writers feel that way?
KG: Well perhaps all engineers feel that way too [laughs]. But actually I think that’s great advice. You have a particular kind of experience of the world, and people might find that interesting and useful and enlightening, even if you’re not Tolstoy. That was one of the best pieces of advice that I’ve received from an older writer. I remember there was this writer who I was coming up with at the same time, and he was so brilliant. He was doing such amazing things, and I kept talking about this other writer to my older friend, and he said “forget that guy. You got to write your stuff.” And I found that very helpful.
B&W: Thanks so much, it was a pleasure.
KG: Thank you.