Told  /  Book Review

Page Against the Machine

Dan Sinykin’s history of corporate fiction.

What, exactly, does conglomerate-era fiction look like as a whole? Sinykin’s answer unfolds gradually over six elegant chapters that survey the major sectors of publishing: mass market, trade, nonprofits, and independents. The organization is canny—we proceed semi-chronologically, starting with the pre-conglomeration invention of the mass-market paperback, but also loosely upward on the ladder of prestige, from genre fiction to middlebrow realism to increasingly niche varieties of literary fiction. The general tendencies across these sectors, again loosely following a path from low to high, are formula, compromise, and reflexivity. Sinykin reads the fantasy novels of the ’70s as a symptom of the conglomerates’ efforts to maximize the bottom line. Imprints like Del Rey hit on a repeatable formula, with “recurring characters and worlds,” that was “cheap to commission, easy to package as series, and predictable to sell.” Writers of prestige fiction the late ’80s and early ’90s, increasingly edged off the genre-dominated bestseller lists, developed compromise formations between literary and genre fiction: Toni Morrison’s ghost stories, McCarthy’s Westerns, Joan Didion’s thrillers. And writers like Percival Everett and Karen Tei Yamashita wrote brutal, self-reflexive satires of ’90s-style multiculturalism—the very cultural climate that helped their nonprofit publishers secure funding.

Conglomerate-era authors write to challenge and delight, but also to manage expectations, win new audiences, and assert their value. “Aesthetics double as strategy,” Sinykin writes near the beginning of Big Fiction. This is true for any art at any time, as is Sinykin’s methodological claim about “distributed authorship.” But conglomeration applies a particular set of pressures that have led authors to develop a distinct set of strategies for survival. If highly formulaic mass-market fiction and literary genre fiction represent different degrees of capitulation to conglomeration’s imperatives, reflexivity seems to promise an escape, however temporary or illusory. One reflexive mode that has flourished under conglomeration is autofiction. In Sinykin’s reading, pseudo-autobiographical fiction gives writers the chance to play out a fantasy of wresting authorial control back from the conglomerate. While authors like Renata Adler found a set of tools for cultivating a feminist “ethics of refusal”—with a novel like Speedboat going so far as to refuse the very “organization of experience, the assignment of pattern to phenomena”—authors like Philip Roth often used this mode to project ideal-ego versions of themselves, genius artists who construct their works alone in their private mind palaces.