Who Controls Literature?

THIRD IN A SERIES ON THE JUNOT DIAZ CONTROVERSY

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WHAT MAKES the Junot Diaz controversy interesting is the way it illustrates an establishment literary scene that today has become thoroughly politicized.

YET WHO STANDS BEHIND this scene– and behind the controversy? Who controls literature and the presentation of literature, and political changes within literature?

When you examine U.S. intellectual journals you find many of them take strong anti-capitalist stances yet are financed by wealthy capitalists. A puppet show where the behind-the-scenes puppeteer controls all sides of an issue.

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Is this the case with the Boston Review?

The two biggest donors at $100,000 each are:

1.) Derek Schrier and Cecily Cameron.

Schrier is a former managing member of Farallon Capital. Currently he manages an investment portfolio valued at $600 million. Cameron was Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Old Navy. They keep a low profile, but made the news in 2010 for selling a home in Pacific Heights, California for $5.9 million.

2.) The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

This is a foundation worth $9 billion-with-a-b, managed by Walter B. Hewlett– the tax-sheltered fortune of the Hewlett-Packard business empire.

(NOTE that for Boston Review editors Joshua Cohen and Deborah Chasman there are good billionaires and bad ones. Until recently Elon Musk was a “good” capitalist in progressive circles, but for some reason has fallen out of favor.)
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SIMILAR SITUATIONS exist for most of the trendy literary publications on both coasts. Here’s a recent photo of the editors and backers of Los Angeles Review of Books. Several of the individuals in the photo are big money investors. What do those in the photo represent? Wealth. For such people, self-image is vitally important.

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LET’S NOT FORGET the big book publishers themselves, the so-called “Big Five” media conglomerates with attached publicity arms and media outlets, and the sycophantic literary journals lavishly promoting Big 5 books (The Millions; Electric Lit; et.al.)– all of them with progressive postures and all of them based in and around the imperial city of New York.

QUESTIONS OF TOKENISM

One of Junot Diaz’s accusers, Alisa Valdes, wrote a blog post about him, portraying Diaz as– among other things– “a social striver who pretended to be about the ‘hood, for the street cred he’d need to become a Latino lapdog for the New Yorker.” This raises questions of tokenism– a term also used by the VIDA website in their petition against him.

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(Still from the 1957 movie “Twelve Angry Men.”)

IF the standard affluent white liberal still sees minorities as tragic victims, then have Junot Diaz’s narratives– and his recent New Yorker essay about his past– fed into that sense of virtuous power? It’s a question which has to be asked.
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The world sees only the players on the stage– and not those who control the production. It’s like the 1961 movie “The Hustler” in which Minnesota Fats, top pool player, is seen as a dynamic, powerful character– until the end, when we see he has no real power at all; is controlled by the gambler who backs him. In the same way, writers and readers alike want to see only the authors whose face is on the book jacket– they seek no knowledge of how that book is made, and the many compromises made along the way.

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THE TRUTH is that all writers are tokens, in the sense that few have any real power within the world of letters. This is a point I made in the first part of this series covering this topic. In the recent National Book Foundation awards, most of the writers nominated and awarded were women and/or persons of color. It’s the face the book world (which sustains NBF) chooses to put on its product at the moment. From the standpoint of those behind the scenes, it means little– as long as they remain the ones pulling the strings. As Junot Diaz is finding out, the power of a successful writer is tentative, qualified, and can be taken away at any time.

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EVENTUALLY: “Ownership: Are There Solutions?”

-Karl Wenclas

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