Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like
I don’t know why I’m so aggravated by this, but the daughter of one of the Koch brothers — human avatars for the word plutocrat — has founded a publishing outlet that will focus on literary fiction. She’ll have an enormous budget to work with (high six figures, it’s said) and will publish about twelve books a year.
On the face of it, this should be a good thing. Even a great thing. But it does reek of a vanity project, I’m afraid, in that a wealthy person has decided that she wants to bestow upon the world every year twelve scrumptious titles that we all simply must put on our to-read lists because simply everyone will be reading them because, why, she’s Elizabeth Koch and she has impeccable literary taste.
At least that’s the caricature version.
I’m probably being unfair casting the enterprise in that light, since I have no reason to think that a publisher who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse and whose first project from the new house is a collection of stories by the more-than-bona fide Padgett Powell is anything but earnest and erudite. There’s a strong chance that the hearty budget will give this outfit the flexibility to put out truly innovative and otherwise unpublishable books that deserve a readership. Traditional houses are infamously pussified these days. More Hunger Games, please. We’re hungry. More shades of grey, because fifty ain’t enough.
A lone voice in the darkness crying, “Try some of this excellent stuff, won’t you?” can only be a good thing, right?
And yet I have a sneaking suspicion that all is not what it seems. I wonder what the selection process will be like, who will have the best access to Elizabeth’s ear, how the twelve books will be culled from the agented pool of submissions, which agents will stand the best chance of landing a deal, what kind of overall message will be conveyed by the published works, and, most of all, what kind of difference will the house make in that largely decadent industry?
In other eras, rich folk commissioned works of art. Popes hired Michelangelo. Emperors booked Mozart and Haydn. It was called patronage, and I have a feeling it’s still going on today and that Catapult is something of a patronage scheme dressed up as a business enterprise. Hell, if Oracle and Microsoft can hire Bruce Springsteen to come and sing at their employee picnics (yes, I’m making this up, but you know what I mean), then why shouldn’t the well-heeled print their favorite writers’ books to sell at Barnes & Noble and Amazon? Maybe it’s even a throwback to the golden age of book publishing, when small, privately held houses, put out great books with little concern for profit margin.
Elizabeth Koch claims to be apolitical. And I’m not at all saying that her father and uncle will have anything to do with her editorial decisions. Only that she comes from a certain world, and that world has absolutely nothing in common with the world of 99.9% of readers. It’s hard to believe this project can succeed, but it’s not that hard to imagine Koch carrying on anyway, at a loss, if only to make her mark on American letters and to have a seat at the table where a select group of moneyed hoity-toities get to decide what we read.