This chapter argues that scholars of the contemporary, in acts of research and ethnography, must step outside established archives and their institutions to find cultural material as yet unclaimed by some enduring enterprise or narrative. Inspired by contemporary sociology and focusing on the example of McSweeney's, the chapter shows how extensive and how various the network of writers, readers, and editors must be to sustain a single small literary quarterly. The introduction thus sets up the book's central questions: What do we learn about how literature is made now when we take these networks into account? What forms of cultural capital are available to writers aspiring to create new literature today? How can that capital—prestige, fame, longevity, seriousness, avant-garde credibility—be conferred on new writing?
This chapter examines the concrete effects of literary connectivity: How does the feeling of connection produced by literary objects produce social acts, and how do those acts in turn affect the making of literature? As a case study, the chapter examines the connection between McSweeney's Quarterly Concern and a nomadic English web designer, Russell Quinn. The aesthetic experience of connection—of receiving the quarterly by subscription every few months—prompted a collaboration between Quinn and a McSweeney's editor named Eli Horowitz, leading to the very first subscription app for mobile devices, McSweeney's Small Chair app. The chapter argues that the ubiquitous feeling tone of connection produced by contemporary social media can occupy older paper forms and suggests how a particular modern life—in Quinn's case, a life in which a computer stood in for a lost father—drives literature's traditional humane purposes back to our most interactive media.
This chapter examines how competing institutions—a press, a writing program, and social structures we might just call life—shape the careers and work of writers. Dave Eggers's early writing imagines the institution of the school as a metaphor for the interchange between writer and reader, only to show how the writing workshop fails to properly connect the two. McSweeney's becomes Eggers's alternative to the school. The chapter then follows the writer Deb Olin Unferth as McSweeney's becomes an institution through which she builds her career. It shows how forces in Unferth's education, the publishing industry, and McSweeney's itself come to bear inside the process of literary production—in the writing itself as well as in the work of publication. Through interviews, the chapter grapples with what isn't written and isn't published, with the effects of gender in publishing, and with the multiple institutions through which a writer moves.
This chapter shows how business concerns affect the contemporary evolution of a literary form. It begins by tracking the diverging fortunes of McSweeney's and another small publisher of literary fiction, Soft Skull after the 2007 bankruptcy of the book distributor, Publishing Group West. The story reveals otherwise invisible actors—in this case, Eli Horowitz at McSweeney's and Richard Nash at Soft Skull—adapting their literary work in response to material needs: to make a living, to save a business, to make good on promises to writers. The chapter shows how the novel as a genre evolves along with such responses to financial strain, as circumstances force literary workers to reimagine—and monetize—the ways we read, write, and think about novels.
This chapter investigates what we can learn about literary culture from an innovative novel: The Silent History, the first novel built into an app running on GPS-enabled mobile devices. The chapter argues that the virtual form of this novel has remarkable effects on the imaginative structures of the story, the reading practices we might use to enjoy it, and what we can know about reading and the social networks a novel creates. But these innovations, despite their promise, depend upon the existence of unusual literary workers, people who possess both advanced technical skills and a commitment to literature. Widespread formal innovation of the kind found in The Silent History, and better methods for the historical study of literature, are thus revealed to depend upon makers' access to specific kinds of training (in programming and in literacy) and on their willingness to enter the difficult literary labor market.
What are the conditions under which the debut novelist can elicit the love of a literary business that relies on established names for big sales? How does the novelist capitalize on novelty? This chapter examines how literary fame is made today by studying how the right kind of attention—and love—can be recruited by a first-time novelist. Using tools of literary sociology and aesthetic analysis, the chapter takes up the case of Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel, Everything Is Illuminated. Tracing how it was framed in the literary press and university newsletters, and analyzing the novel's narrative structure, reveals how Foer's success was made and how Foer's work was driven internally by the author's fascination with what it means to love an aesthetic object. The chapter concludes by showing how this kind of fascination is fed and watered by the very institutions that help to launch literary careers.
This chapter asks how we choose what to read in the crowded world of contemporary literature. What kinds of arguments can we make about what not to read in the face of massive over-production? Arguing that there is a fundamental link between David Foster Wallace's art and the misogyny made apparent in a new biography of Wallace, this chapter uses his case to consider whether such a link should affect our decisions about whether to read his work. It analyzes the machinery of literary fame that serves Wallace's reputation, including the contributions of Dave Eggers. Highlighting the choices that remain available to the writers, readers, and teachers of literature who are the targets of such efforts to secure the legacies of certain writers, the chapter concludes by considering a contrasting case: the contemporary fortunes of a classic novel, George Eliot's Middlemarch.
The afterword documents the fate (to date) of the ephemeral archives and enterprises that are discussed in the book, highlighting the fluid nature of real-time literary history and the methodological challenges for those who wish to study it.