top of page

Everything wrong with publishing: Jackson Howard of FSG

Friday 12/16/22

Below is a letter I wrote last year to Jackson Howard--an editor at FSG whose name had come up on here the other day with something a friend said--and his response to that letter. My letter describes what is undeniably an exciting, innovative project from someone who is clearly a unique author and artist, with a track record that no one else possesses with abilities no one else has. Someone whose work has appeared everywhere, and who produces like no one else can. The letter is a kind of dream letter, in theory, for an editor/publisher to read, because it is impossible to get a letter like this from any other author, because there is clearly no author like this one. Nor has there been, nor will there ever be. I think those things are obvious from my letter.

Just as I think it's equally obvious what is happening when one sees Jackson Howard's response. It's a compact response, but in its way, it says as much about these people and their system as anything I've ever received.

A first problem is that someone like Jackson Howard wants someone who is basic, bad at writing, and typical, and that by dint of being so impressive, this other author--me--is a problem to Jackson Howard. These people--and here's one--want a form of designer dog that sits in their laps. They don't want greatness. They never want greatness. They hate, fear, and envy it, but more than anything they are threatened by it.

But there's a larger problem, and it's one that Jackson Howard identified with me immediately. He could not provide any valid reason whatsoever--artistically, commercially, or entertainment-wise--why he said what he said, because the real reason is what I am going to say here, and he couldn't have said--admitted to--the real reason. But I think anyone who sees my letter and sees his response to what sounds like a fascinating book from the person who does and can do what no one else can, will understand this reason on their own, but I'm going to spell it out anyway because journal is about being thorough, and these posts are about making a case.

I am not Jackson Howard's type of person. I don't look the way Jackson Howard would want me to look. I am not, in his mind, oriented the way Jackson Howard would want me to be oriented in order to do a book or books of mine. Jackson Howard is a bigot. This is blatant discrimination. He thought that here was some athletic-looking straight white guy, who achieves, who does what others can't, who was not likely to be seen at the parties that Jackson Howard goes to.

He essentially says that he is not interested because--think about that--of how impressive it all is. He saw me as the type of person who doesn't fit in his sinecure. This is someone who does a book deal because of someone else saying, "Oh, do you know so and so? They have the cutest little manuscript! You two should totally get together!"

That person will be like Jackson Howard. With his attitudes and need and love of the clan. Their kind of people. They will check boxes. A bigot like Jackson Howard needs the boxes checked. If that person is to be a straight white male--which is way, way, way down the preferred list--they either need to be old and have been around forever, or they need to be nebbish, weak, and all of them must be bad at writing and write in the same pretentious, meaningless way. Everyone needs to be that across the checklist board. This itself is a box to check. The writing needs to suck, bore, and match other writer that sucks and bores.

But none of that matters if you are not their kind of person and in that circle. You need to come from money. Have gone to their schools. And then they are interested, but only for those reasons. Those are the only reasons that books of fiction happen at FSG. There is not a single other reason. And a version of that idea prevails throughout publishing, at every level. It goes down to the guy who runs a press out of his one bedroom apartment where the whole of the enterprise is his laptop and filing cabinet.

Are you his friend? Are you like him? Do you have people in common who are bad writers like you are a bad writer? Do you fail to achieve? Are you as limited as limited as can be in what you can do as a writer? Are you resolutely not great? Are you boring? Okay. Then you can do that book for free with that person in the apartment.

But the same idea plays out at FSG, just with slightly different specs. There is a little money, but people in publishing really don't care about making money. They care about maintaining their system and social castes. They are almost all independently wealthy. So then it becomes about the preservation of the clan. Which is not hard to do, because no one has any ability. There's no baseline of ability that is necessary. That baseline doesn't exist. But preservation of the clan and the principle attitudes of the people of that clan is everything to them.

They have nothing else. They are nothing else.

When one checks the boxes or is the talentless old white person--someone like TC Boyle is a good example--they are judged differently. But when one looks like a hockey player and is infinitely smarter than Jackson Howard and infinitely more talented than the writers that Jackson Howard does work with, then you see something like his response below, which says it all. Quite efficiently, I might add.

Keep in mind, too, that FSF publishes the likes of this from old friend Lydia Davis. That's her thing. That's what she does. You tell me--and her books are volumes full of work like this--how this is not terrible? Tell me. What do people enjoy saying now? I'll wait. Sure. I'll do that.

Tell me. Tell me how that's not terrible. Tell me how it's brilliant. Tell me how that is genius. If the god of reality said to you, "Tell me the truth, do you think those four Lydia Davis stories were brilliant, and better than anything Fleming ever wrote, or else your kids die," do you think you or anyone in the world would then say, "Well, I honestly believe it, so that's what I'm sticking with, I've saved the kids!"

Or would they say, "Hell no, I'm sorry, yes, obviously it's fucking terrible, don't hurt my babies!"

We all know the answer.

And it's not like Jackson Howard wouldn't think it's terrible either, as pathetic, weak, dishonorable, simple, unintelligent, and warped as his mind is by being a bigot who only looks at sexual orientation, skin color, gender, boxes checked, who someone knows, how blue their blood is, and if they are the same kind of bad, boring writer.

But you better not even look like I do for a Jackson Howard, because that also represents something he fears and thinks is bad, as if I'm the jock who bullied him in high school, only smarter than anyone he can imagine.

Whereas, I am as kind a person as there is. They also hate that.

Jackson Howard is typical. He is not the exception. Everything is measured against how much like them they determine you to be. That takes many forms, but the most important one is an internal form of fakeness and nothingness. I should say emptiness. A lack of anything real. That is the ultimate box to be checked for them.

But even worse than anything external that this person determines I represent is when they recognize that here is the dominant talent. Here is the person unlike any of us. Here is the person that exposes all of us for the frauds we are with who he is.

Either pretend you don't hear him knocking at the door, or show him to the door as quickly as possible. That's what they are thinking. Discriminate against him.

This is what a bigot does, and Jackson Howard is a bigot.

My friend mentioned above had also said, "Imagine if Jackson Howard saw 'Net Drive.' He would hate that you can do that. But if someone else in his little social circle did a bad version of that story? He couldn't sign them up fast enough. You totally expose these people, and he wasn't going to facilitate that."

The work has nothing to do with anything, save when it is great. That threatens them, too. But this is kind of an impressive letter from an author, no? Probably stands out, right? And that number is now over 400.

Dear Jackson, How are you? I had something for you, which I think is pretty exciting, if you might be so good to take a look. My fiction runs in Harper's, the VQR, Commentary Glimmer Train, and the rest of my work has appeared pretty much everywhere at this point. I've published thousands of works, written many more. Things seem to be building. I do a lot of radio, op-eds, in addition to all of my fiction and arts and culture and sports pieces. With something coming out every week, people tend to like that and latch on to it, and then buy my books. I've simply just not had a lot of financial backing, a publicity push, to date, which always nettles me when I learn that a new op-ed in The Wall Street Journal or some such leads to 300 book sales, and I think, "damn, if only the word was out there more." But I wanted to share a book project with you, if I could, which I think is unique, inventive, and hits a number or markets at once. The market of literary people who express encomiums over new modes of form, and people also with pinched attention spans. Beginning back in June 2018, I commenced a period of fecundity--which itself had periods of change within it--that was new for me. From then until now, I wrote over 300 short stories, along with everything else--the music book, the film book, a novel, all of the magazine and newspaper pieces, the blog on my site that itself was written as a series of books for eventual publication with a press--ala Pepys' diaries or Thoreau's journals--that now numbers eleven books in length. Regarding those stories: They cover what would seem to be an impossible amount of ground. Around 120 of the stories feature women or girls as the main character and/or narrator. Beginning with a story called "Jute"--one of the ten or so most crucial works in my life, in terms of bringing me into a new world of what I could do--which floored everyone who read it, I began to do something, to make a book, that was unlike anything there had previously been. The codification of a new kind of fiction, in which the works would be very short, but they would not be short-shorts, microfiction, or any of that. They'd be arc-based stories, novelistic stories, with a beginning, middle, end but in so few words. I don't know what term should be. I just know it's new, I have seen the reaction from people who think I've defied a kind of writerly physics. As I wrote longer stories, I'd devote time every week to doing these other works. I was writing a book, and my methodology was to keep going, to keep creating, and eventually I'd be at a point where I had more material for that book than I could use, from which I could select what I wanted, with endless options, near about. But I was always writing the book--I wasn't writing to collate or assemble later. The book was my creation. I could not have written these works three years ago. Regarding "Jute," someone said, "All of the shite that passes for flash fiction toady--a term I don't like to begin with--falls well short of the less-than-a-thousand word pieces of yours I've read. Did like some of Robert Owen Butler's flash collection but none of it is better than 'Jute.'" I don't care about or for Butler's work, so that means nothing to me, but the point is I don't think anyone can write work like this, on several fronts. The stories range from 500 to 1200 words. There is much to discuss here. The innovation, the form, the constructions, and also the impact, the wisdom, the truths, the accessibility, connectivity. People can point to the formal innovation-aspect of the artistry, which is radical, progressive. In terms of the "art house" stuff, if you will. But it's also popularly accessible, and what is singled out more than anything I'd say is what one reader/writer termed the "humanness." Which is ultimately what I do, for all of the range of what I do, more than anything else. I don't like short-shorts or microfiction because the gambit depends on the vignette. The scene. The scene is then meant to convey meaning via metaphor, and almost all of that is half-baked to me. I want story. Lives inside of 600 words. The book is called Longer on the Inside: Very Short Fictions of Infinitely Human Lives. The idea is almost like the Tardis in Doctor Who--that you this entity that has different proportions inside than out. Which is also how human life is. I have enough of these works for three full books, but obviously really all I care about right now is one proper, essential, excellent book. I have scores of material from which to choose, though, and I've put together a sort of Longer on the Inside sampler, which came together recently when I was doing my application for an NEA Grant. I've attached that. I think you might like it. There is also an introduction for the book, because I want to be precise--but in an ingratiating way--in letting readers in on what they will be seeing and how this breaks from anything else they've already seen. This is a recent radio interview about my new novel, which also gets into this Longer on the Inside venture:

I appreciate the time. Jackson Howard <> Thanks, Colin, it's all very impressive, but I'm afraid it's not for me. Best of luck.

It's not for you precisely because it is so impressive, and because you've determined that I am not like you, I don't check the boxes that need to be checked. And it's worth noting for people who might not know how to read between the lines of these things that what "Best of luck" thus rendered means is, "Go away for good. It wasn't this book that was the issue, just like it's not another book that I might deem a fit. The problem is you and what you represent to me. Go away and never come back."

He didn't even look at the book, by the way.


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page