Posted by Roger Boylan on Saturday, January 2, 2010
I'm doing a review of Gilbert Sorrentino's final book, The Abyss of Human Illusion, for the New York Times. While researching it, I came across a couple of peppery interviews with Sorrentino, who died in '06 at the Nabokovian age of 77; like VN, he upheld a high literary standard, while despising affectation; and like VN he was a man of strong opinions and unique style. He refused to seek the well-trodden roads of bestsellerdom and artistic compromise. Life, he said,was ridiculous; you only had to qualify its ridiculousness as tragic or comic. He did both, hilariously, with pity.
"Joyce, Pound, and Williams," he said in an interview with The Write Stuff, "commanded the smallest of audiences and were shunned by what we now think of as 'major' publishing houses. Publishers have always been craven when the odds are not in their favor, it's just enhanced nowadays because there is so much money to be made if the publisher can hit the shit machine. What is most surprising to me is the number of--what can I call them?-- 'absent' books published. These are books that have no literary merit, no spirit of aesthetic adventure, no rough but interesting formal design, and--this is most important--no chance of commercial success! That's what is so amazing to me--not the number of Judith Krantz-like novels published, nor the Calvin Trillin-Garrison Keillor warm and wise and witty and wonderful malarkey, but the novels that just lie there: life and love in a small town in Northern California, sexual awakening in a Baptist family in Pennsylvania--daughter flees to Greenwich Village, meets bum who makes her pregnant, discovers feminism--and on and on. Were I running these houses, I'd can all these editors in a minute. If they can't make millions, would be my thinking, I'll be God damned if they're going to put out excrement that will only break even, i.e., if we want to break even, I'd say, let's publish BOOKS. But, of course, the chances are that the people who own these houses would not know a book if it buggered them."