Joyce Carol Oates is a fixture in American letters — she’s won the National Book Award, two O. Henry Awards, the National Humanities Medal, the Jerusalem Prize, and she’s been nominated for the Pulitzer five times. She taught at Princeton for 36 years, and is, of course, an outspoken Trump critic. A Google search for “Joyce Carol Oates” and “feminist” yields more than half a million results.
And even she thinks the publishing industry has become intolerably politically correct. On Twitter, she recently observed, the “category of straight white males is the only category remaining for villains & awful people in fiction & film & popular culture.” Oates isn’t alone in observing the problem — in June, ubiquitous author James Patterson, whose potboilers have sold more than 400 million copies, said white male writers now face “another form of racism” in the woke publishing industry, before he was bullied into backtracking on his comments.
Of course, if you’ve set foot in a large bookstore recently, what Patterson is saying has obvious merit. On a recent trip to Barnes & Noble, a friend actually took photos and counted up the books on the six new fiction shelves displayed up front. Male authors made up less than 25 percent of the nearly 200 books displayed in the front of the store, and obviously, the percentage of men who were white and/or heterosexual was notably smaller than that.
Oates and Patterson are only now saying what many men with literary ambitions have long known. Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Alex Perez recently gave a scorched-earth interview to the Hobart Literary Journal where he discussed how male-centric literature was being deliberately shut out of publishing. During the interview, he had some choice words for the woke and disproportionately female gatekeepers of the industry:
These women, perhaps the least diverse collection of people on the planet, decide who is worthy or unworthy of literary representation. Their worldview trickles down to the small journals, too, which are mostly run by woke young women or bored middle-aged housewives. This explains why everything reads and sounds the same, from major publishing houses to vanity zines with a readership of fifteen. The progressive/woke orthodoxy is the ideology that controls the entire publishing apparatus.
Almost to prove his point, most of the editors of the Hobart Literary Journal resigned in protest over the decision to publish Perez’s interview. As for Perez, he’s mostly given up on his literary ambitions to write cultural and political commentary for publications that don’t neatly hew to center-left orthodoxies, such as Tablet.
The people running publishing have fully confused their profession with their secular religion. Perez isn’t just right that “everything reads and sounds the same,” but the greater crime is that when literature is culturally and politically homogenized, greatness becomes an outlier. The next Cormac McCarthy could be languishing because they were too busy greenlighting “Anti-Racist Baby.”
If men, along with other important and politically marginalized voices, want to tell stories –there’s going to have to be a revolution in publishing.
Say You Want a Revolution
The good news is a revolution in publishing is already underway. The advance of social media is enabling authors the opportunity to launch effective promotional campaigns on a shoestring, and ebooks and the highly successful print-on-demand options made available by Amazon for self-publishing mean that authors no longer need a big New York publisher to make their books widely available. When you combine these technological advances with the fact that publishers are underserving audiences that make up more than half the population, it’s hard not to see the big publishing houses and literary agents sliding further into irrelevance.
At the same time, there’s a growing pocket of the internet nurturing original literature that has no regard for universal liberalism or its sensitivities — to say nothing of the sales potential marketing to an underserved audience that makes up more than half the population. New faces are striking it out on their own, while even credentialed writers with a sense of self-respect can’t bear the strain of silence any longer. For a few years now, longtime literary superstar Walter Kirn has been thoughtfully questioning the dull and reflexive orthodoxies of his peers.
But while it’s nice to see accomplished authors questioning the industry, any successful revolution in literature will ultimately have to start with readers. I have had a fond and intimate relationship with fiction for most of my life. My mom read Tolkien at bedtime before I had even learned to read. I grew up neglecting school with my nose in a paperback in class, eagerly devouring Heinlein, Lewis, Niven, Brust, Zelazny, Salvatore, and so many others. In the military, I racked up an extensive collection of Warhammer 40k Black Library books and started delving into nonfiction.
Afterward, I had something of a dry spell. I no longer had a job with lots of downtime. I got married, and I had kids. But over time, my extracurricular online activity brought me into the company of many dissident authors, writing stories that the current literary industry refused to touch.
Once I started paying attention to what was going on in the publishing industry, what I saw was alternately absurd and alarming. A mutual friend pointed me to the Twitter feed of a literary agent named Rebecca Podos whose sincere and routine attempts to politicize literature are indistinguishable from right-wing parody, e.g. “A reminder to my colleagues in Jewish kidlit that the movement of Palestinian people is still brutally policed and restricted on their own land, while we are invited to travel freely (and for free) to and from a land to which we have limited practical ties. That is a problem.”
Her entire feed was about the promotion of meritless progressive garbage. Amateurish self-reverential works are always worshipped at the altar of the outgroup. Not a single story she promoted was one of ordinary people, with no trace of adventure or masculinity to be found. Just a bunch of derivative word salads involving things such as “Queer Jewish BIPOC Romance,” and every book she successfully pitched was no doubt eating a publisher for lunch. At times she would even pull out the sales figures of certain books she had published and championed and bemoan how their monthly sales were in single digits.
Literary agents control which drafts make it to the desks of publishers, and this was the beginning of my quest to understand what is wrong with the publishing industry.
A Castle of Sand
That was when I realized the full extent of literary gatekeeping that was going on. People like Podos were deciding who got the patronage and who didn’t. If there were reasons why a compelling book such as “Let Them Look West” by Marty Phillips remained in obscurity instead of being prominently displayed at the front of Barnes & Noble, none of them involved an honest discussion of that book’s merits. If the publishing industry once seemed like a powerful cultural citadel, I realized it was now as fragile as a sandcastle.
This was also when I noticed how many of my followers on my then slightly successful Twitter account were self-published authors. In particular, I discovered Richard Nichols and his book “Lost Causes.” Here was a man who was not an author by trade but one with a successful career in business behind him. He threw his passion into writing a book because he had something to say. His story had 36 reviews on Amazon, all of them highly positive. But he had been initially accepted and then given the boot by two English publishing houses because his novel was too masculine — and worse, it was an entertaining and exceptionally well-done thriller that subtly and effectively denounced corrosive liberalism in the military and intelligence services.
Another friend of mine, a lawyer by trade who posts under the pseudonym “Conan Esq,” had written a fantasy novel. I bought it out of support and it had been languishing on my shelf. I realized that I had been accumulating many books that I just hadn’t been reading.
I had long been a loyal supporter of dissident publishing houses such as Antelope Hill, Rogue Scholar, Pilum Press, and more. The first Passage Prize, a literary competition for dissidents with various categories, had also successfully had its first run. After researching the cogs that make up the publishing industry, I realized we had built most of the parallel infrastructure, albeit in a nascent form. But we didn’t have any critics; nobody was reading these books who had a platform to advocate for them!
So that’s what I decided to use my modest platform to do. I decided I would begin to read again. I decided that all the Conan Esquires and Richard Nichols of the world deserved a fair shake, that someone could have the platform and credibility to read books written by those the Rebecca Podos of the world had shut out. I started a Substack for the project and met extraordinarily creative and skilled authors.
I have come to fully appreciate the importance of stories. We let our guard down when we are entertained by an artful storyteller. We let their minds and ideas fill our cup in a way political theory and rational argument never could. My sense of morality and political ideology was heavily influenced by the stories I consumed. As Terry Pratchett has observed, “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.” The fact that stories have this power is the same reason why politicians masquerading as patrons of the arts have made a concerted effort to ruin movies and television, as well as stuff books full of derivative woke garbage.
Thus far, I have been extremely pleased with the results. Every story I have read has shared a piece of the author with me. They all have something to say. Some cope with their trials and tribulations, some show how they think a better world might look, and others show us what was better about the times that came before us and the traditions we’ve thrown away. These insights are valuable, especially if they can be told entertainingly.
Fiction is an overlooked but essential part of our culture, comprised of often more powerful stories due to the limitations of reality being absent. And if publishers and literary agents won’t give these people their fair shake, readers that care about nurturing the next generations of great authors have a sacred duty. We’re going to have to go out of our way to find and promote the brilliant works the publishing industry doesn’t want us to read, and make sure that politicized books and stories they are trying to foist on us will be judged accordingly.