How to Be Popular

The following essay appears in MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, a new book from n+1 and Faber & Faber, edited by Chad Harbach. In stores February 25, 2014.

I am not ashamed to say that I have an abiding interest in popularity. Not my own so much — though I’m as eager to be liked as anyone — but popularity as a process and a phenomenon. Why are certain people, ideas, or stories popular at any given moment? Are there ways to make ideas or works of art that are currently unfashionable, fashionable?

Given this fixation, it is probably no accident that I came to work as a literary agent, in what is essentially the R&D wing of the publishing industry. My path, though it makes sense when viewed with hindsight, was not direct . For me, there was no advanced degree in publishing, no internships at esteemed small presses or literary agencies.

After college I beat a quick path back to academia. My English Ph.D. program proved to be a pleasant reversal of the undergraduate experience. I was paid — enough to live modestly but comfortably in Baltimore — to read books. I chose this program with the hope of becoming an expert on popularity: the popularity of books, mostly novels, though genre hardly mattered. I had the somewhat half-baked idea that I might uncover the secret of why certain books and certain formal concerns are in vogue at a particular moment, from anxieties about signification and point of view in early twentieth-century modernist fiction to vampires in early twenty-first-century popular novels.

I was relieved to learn that my ambition could be slotted into a fancy ism: New Historicism. At the time, New Historicism was the Fight Club of the humanities: no one would admit to being a member. This didn’t present much of a problem for me, though, because my program happened to house one of the founders (antifounders?) of the secret academic guild. I assumed I would spend a few years studying and writing about the concerns of my chosen corner of the library — early twentieth-century serial novels or contemporary American fiction; I wasn’t sure yet . I’d emerge on the green side of thirty, with a tenure-track job somewhere along the Northeast Corridor, and I would teach the next generation about popular books and what made them popular.

As it turned out, the turn of the century was an excellent moment to be a less than remarkable graduate student — provided you were willing to drop out . The academic job market in the humanities had vanished, like wine at the reception after a visiting professor’s presentation. Meanwhile the ascendance of the internet brought a surfeit of new companies, companies seemingly named after robots, companies that would hire almost anyone, including graduate students. I received a job offer from a company called Luminant . The signing bonus was the size of my graduate school stipend. My then boyfriend lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was an easy decision to pack up my novels, renounce my library privileges, and move to New York.

Luminant was the love child of the legendary advertising agency Young & Rubicam, where I worked the summer before grad school as a copywriter, and some McKinsey consultants from Texas. Job descriptions were vague and ever shifting. There was a lot of jargon. There were flowcharts and endless meetings about “The Methodology.” One of our big accounts was Enron. By the time Luminant was poised to become yet another casualty of the dot-com bubble, it had been immortalized in a notorious New Yorker piece titled “My Fake Job.” But while the rumors of layoffs and worthless stock options swirled around me, I wasn’t too concerned. I had been making the most of my hours, Aeron chair nestled close to my pod station, secretly working a second job.

I hadn’t given up on popularity. In fact I was taking a more direct approach, moonlighting as a freelance trend spotter. (The technical term, embarrassingly enough, was “coolhunter.”) I worked for a company profiled by Malcolm Gladwell in yet another New Yorker piece (“The Coolhunt”), which was later included in The Tipping Point, his first bestseller. Coolhunting was an exciting new gig for a certain type of young woman fresh from her hip liberal arts college or her cutting-edge grad program. I figured I still had “it,” that special female hubris for telling people what they should be wearing, or what their living room walls should be wearing, or what their Vietnamese chicken salad should be wearing.

In my year or so as a coolhunter I reliably filed reports on the habits and affectations and cultural trends that were just beginning to bubble up on the streets of Williamsburg: double-layered slash-ripped T-shirts; ironic graffiti; the color gray. I gave myself license to report on things that I thought should be trends. (Tretorns: Bring them back! Bubble wrap: Ideal interior design textile!) I attached the sleeve of a cardigan to its hem with a long strand of thick wool yarn and took a photo of my boyfriend wearing it . Trends, as Gladwell pointed out, were started by a certain type of person. Coolhunters were pretty much by definition this type of person: if you knew enough to recognize trends at their very onset, you could also initiate them. I can’t take all the credit, but I did notice that Tretorns were back on the streets within a few short seasons. Didn’t you?

But hunting the cool, like the cool itself, has an expiration date. I was nearing mine when my boyfriend sent word that a literary agent in the New York–based book division of ICM, the Hollywood talent agency, was hiring. His college friend was an assistant there — she would tell me what I needed to know. I used the last of my internet cash to buy a slim Katayone Adeli pantsuit from Bergdorf Goodman (fifth floor, but still) and headed to HR. I took a typing test . I met with the agent, a pretty young woman with a broad smile and an even broader laugh. She sent me home with two manuscripts and told me to write reader’s reports for each. Perhaps it would be a short trip from New Historicism to the next cool thing in American publishing? I reported for work the following week.

Over the next three years I would work for ICM and then another agent, who was in the process of merging her eponymous firm with a large boutique agency. Both of my bosses were quite discerning, both were well respected among editors for their taste, and both represented authors who wrote what I would quickly learn to call “literary fiction.” Literary fiction is a commercial designation, not an academic one. I’d never heard any of my professors use this term, not even in the intimate seminars that were held on the parlor floor of the old English department house, where my fellow grad students and I gathered for our initiation into the jargon of what was still known as lit-crit .

Before joining the publishing world, I’d divided the novels on my shelf that weren’t beach reads into three broad and overlapping categories: “classics” (Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Woolf); “modern classics” (James Baldwin, Mary McCarthy, Nabokov); and novels assigned by my professors because they explicitly dealt with the concerns of the course at hand. Given that it was the 1990s, these concerns invariably had to do with cultural identity (Maxine Hong Kingston, Chinua Achebe, Audre Lorde).

The defining characteristic of this last category — by far the best- represented on my bookshelves — was the drama of the struggle to find a comfortable and authentic home between the world of the past, usually defined as the world of the protagonist’s parents’ culture, and the freedom of self-fashioning permitted by the world of the present . The parents’ culture, whether European, African, Caribbean, Asian, or American, was rife with limited, limiting, and often patriarchal assumptions about what it meant to be an adult in good standing. But the culture of parents (and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins) was also a place of custom and comfort, often dramatized in tantalizing scenes involving familiar foods prepared by matriarchs. In these novels the modern city, and the modern workplace, were places of both intoxicating freedom and painful alienation.

Cultural identity was everywhere, and while post-1960s writers seemed the most explicit in their focus, my professors often took an expansive view. Books assigned in courses about cultural identity might include pillars of high modernism like Mrs. Dalloway; midcentury American fiction such as Invisible Man; stories of postcolonial despair (everything by Jean Rhys); novels by or about immigrants (Anzia Yezierska, Willa Cather, Sui Sin Far, Pietro di Donato, Bharati Mukherjee). Of course, many cultural identity novels also belonged to the category of “modern classics.” Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, then the most widely assigned novel on American campuses, is entrenched in the contemporary canon. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, named the best novel of the past twenty-five years by The New York Times, was assigned in more than one of my courses.

As an agent’s assistant, much of the fiction I read for work — mostly in the evening and on weekends — was written by graduates of MFA programs, and many of these short stories and novels, with their heightened attention to the details of cultural identity, would have been at home on my syllabi: the story of a recent college graduate trying to reconcile her differences with immigrant parents who run a corner restaurant; a sprawling saga set in an extended family in the legacy of Jim Crow; a postmodern pastiche featuring a middle-aged refugee who escaped genocide in his home country only to struggle amid America’s network of faceless institutions. Of course, there were plenty of white male protagonists in these manuscripts — but even many of those made pilgrimages to their ancestral homelands, where they searched for clues to their identity. There were also a lot of well-wrought passages about barns.

The query letters that accompanied these manuscripts were standard-issue. A carefully honed paragraph about the novel, more or less in the style you find on book jackets, followed by a paragraph that noted the writer’s MFA program, an established author or two with whom she had studied, and a list of awards won and journals published in. I had the sense that we had taken the same literature classes. Given that we were of the same generation, even microgeneration, we probably had. We were all protagonists searching for our authentic selves and our true homes. Regardless of my thoughts about any particular manuscript (they ranged in style from quiet and restrained to blazing Technicolor mash-up; most were competent and many were remarkably assured), it seemed clear that there was still an audience for stories about cultural identity. Many of these MFA novels were sold to publishers, some for well into the six figures.

I began to wonder if our professors, and our professors’ professors, had created something like an endlessly renewable audience. Or did the hunger for these novels of identity have less to do with humanities departments and more to do with the culture at large?

It was hard to say for sure, but it was also hard to believe that universities were not at least partly responsible. Many recent graduates cycle back into MFA and Ph.D. programs, and many of them teach undergraduates who, in turn, become the next generation of readers. It made sense that these novels would sell to editors who, if not graduates of MFA programs or Ph.D. programs themselves, were at least graduates of American universities. And these novels would, in turn, be read and reviewed by other college graduates with similar concerns.

Then there was fiction that didn’t come from MFA-land but shared its themes. The Kite Runner, as I was quick to point out when it came in on submission in those frazzled post–September 11 days, featured quite a lot of wrestling with identity. I thought I was particularly clever to notice that the story also bore the markings of a classic gothic novel (people are not who they seem to be, friends turn out to be brothers, et cetera . . . my reader’s report, no doubt, was insufferable). In the draft I read, the local bully, the son of a Pashtun father and a German mother, was hinted to have a certain affection for Hitler. The protagonist fails to prevent his kite-running friend from being raped by the bully. The friend becomes an adult and is killed by the Taliban. The bully grows up to be a Taliban official who then rapes the son of the friend. The protagonist returns to discover his old friend was actually his half brother and then adopts his son. I may not have completely shed my graduate-student sensibility at this point, but I was turning the pages. Rapidly. The audience for this novel would also be college-educated and identity-savvy, like that of the MFA novels, but it would be different, and bigger: book clubs. This novel was going to be popular in book clubs. I was not alone in my thinking. The manuscript was snapped up by another agency, purchased by a division of Penguin, and has sold 7 million copies in the United States alone.

After my apprenticeship had run its course and it was decided that I would be granted my own office and eventually my own assistant, I continued to wonder about popular books. This was, after all, my job. I found myself representing, on balance, more journalists, long-form essayists, and academics than novelists, and so I broadened my inquiry to nonfiction. Why is it nearly impossible to open a newspaper or popular magazine these days without seeing a review or an excerpt of a book on the neuroscience of gender, attraction, or success? What is so attractive about so-called “lens histories” of salt, trout, or whale oil? Why are we so keen to read books that “explain us to ourselves,” as one editor helpfully put it over lunch? And just who gets to write these books? I also wondered: What about a topic? Could I help make a topic or an argument popular? I rubbed my hands together in my mind.

In 2005 I kept reading the headlines, persistent but muted, about Americans’ negative savings rate. I remember walking through Madison Square Park, outside my office, worried for us all. How would we afford children? How would we afford to send them to college? How would we afford to be old? I went back to my desk and did an exploratory Google search. Had anyone written a good long-form piece on debt? Who owned this subject? After an hour or so of research, I put my quest on the back burner, pulled away by a contract or a manuscript already out on submission, or the publicity efforts for an impending book launch. One afternoon, not many weeks later, I received a query letter from a young filmmaker. He had a proposal for a story-driven book on debt: credit card debt, mortgage debt, the national debt . He had directed a documentary on the subject that would premiere at South by Southwest . The film and the proposed book, as described in the query letter, proceeded from a strong point of view. He’d entered the fast-food franchise business while still an undergraduate at Wharton and had personal experience with debt . I couldn’t find any writing credits, but if his proposal was as well executed as his query letter it probably wouldn’t matter. His “platform” — the industry term used to describe a writer’s combination of expertise and media reach — would be the documentary and his finance background.

I asked to read the proposal, which was everything I’d hoped for. In addition to its strong point of view, it contained a great cast of characters including a famous radio show host, a Vegas real estate agent, debt buyers, collection agents, and a Harvard law professor and bankruptcy expert named Elizabeth Warren. More amazingly, he was a talented reporter. The debt buyers and collection agents said vivid and outrageous things on the record. Elizabeth Warren offered a colorful and scathing inside account of a meeting she’d had with Citigroup.

I called the editors I thought would be most interested, sent out the proposal, and set up meetings with almost a dozen publishers. In nearly every meeting, someone from the publishing house shared his or her own story of secret credit card debt, mortgage confusion, or bankruptcy. It was like an old-fashioned revival circuit . One editor testified that he’d repoed cars in the Deep South. Publishers from the most esteemed literary house to the most commercial participated in what became a robust auction. The manuscript was delivered ahead of deadline and the editorial turnaround was quick. As publication day approached, the publicity department reached out to their media contacts and I to mine with enthusiasm.

Publishing may be an industry, but it is also a cultural ecosystem; it both reflects and shapes the interests of readers. Agents take the pulse of publishing houses, which in turn monitor the appetites of various constituencies: readers of thrillers and suspense, readers of business and think books, fiction readers (who are, mostly, college-educated women), young adults. Agents and publishing houses, via their publicity and marketing departments, also monitor the interests of radio and TV producers and print and web reviewers, critics, and bloggers. No non-Oprah person could be said to move the needle of culture, but a few choice decisions by an agent and editor, coupled with a few lucky breaks in the media, and suddenly we’re all reading about dopamine receptors, serotonin, and HeLa cells. Often this process is driven by what the industry thinks the public wants — namely, more of what it already has. But agents and publishers also take risks to promote books they love, and a book that promised to unmask the systemic evils of our economy and anticipate a reckoning seemed like a good risk and an honorable one.

In the case of this book, which was praised for the clarity and strength of its argument, and for its storytelling verve, the praise was not enough to cut though the fizz and champagne that characterized the late stages of an asset bubble. No one wanted to hear bad news — or at least they didn’t want to use their second mortgages to pay twenty-four dollars for it in hardcover. Had it been published a year and a half later, as the major banks were asking for bailouts and Iceland and Ireland were having a serious rethink about finance capitalism, the book would have been on the must-read list of every media outlet and drive-by radio listener in the country. Sometimes the books we desperately want to be popular aren’t . The needle of culture and popular opinion isn’t ready to move. It doesn’t want to move. It is invested in not moving.

Summer 2009. An editor at Harper’s put me in touch with a writer he had edited. This writer, an academic well known in certain circles, with whom I had been very keen to work, had been approached by an independent literary press to do a very short book — an extended essay, really — on the same subject: debt . Like most people in publishing, independent presses work hard to publish, and publish well, the books on their list . They play a key role in the intellectual and cultural development of writers, especially for projects that may have a specialized or niche audience. That goes almost double for independent booksellers who champion the books they stock, hand-selling them to readers. Independent publishers and booksellers are, in different ways than agents, also in the R&D wing of the publishing world. We wouldn’t have many of our most cherished writers without their undying passion. They can, in ways that complement the efforts of the agent, help make a certain type of writer popular.

And yet many of the writers I represent cannot afford to spend a year or three working on a book for almost no advance. This author was no exception. He famously does not have tenure, although he has won distinction for his scholarship and is widely considered one of the best and brightest in his field. Outside the field he is known for his activism. By the time this independent press approached him, every major publisher had already signed up its “financial crisis book.” Most of these books were acquired within a month or two of Lehman Brothers’ fall, and most were being written by well-known journalists at major newspapers — the people who had covered the crisis. Most were on a crash schedule. A few of these books went on to do very well. Many did not . This surprised exactly nobody in publishing.

In 2009 publishers found themselves in real trouble, in part because of the weakened economy and in part because of the near collapse of the two big chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble. We were told it would be a miracle if either survived the downturn. The costs to publishers of shifting their business strategy in an increasingly digital environment would be great . Expensive existing structures, such as warehouses and a national sales force, would take time to unwind and, I suppose, “right-size.” Consolidations at several of the major houses forced entire imprints and divisions to shutter. Jobs were lost . The editors who remained were much less eager to take chances. A short book on debt by an untenured anthropologist whose job stationed him a continent away would have seemed iffy at best in late 2008. By summer 2009 it was considered fringe. Very fringe.

We did the deal with the small literary publisher, and the book ballooned to over 100,000 words. The publisher was okay with this. It was a great book, which ranged over millennia and told a story of money and debt that had gone largely ignored. More radically, it raised the possibility of debt forgiveness. By the time it was published in summer 2011, Congress had decided to debate something called a debt ceiling. In the months that followed hardcover publication, the financial world, and then the rest of the world, started to take note of the ways debt was clogging the superhighways of commerce and growth. Various forms of debt had clouded the future of the euro. Talk of debt jubilees started to circulate through the Occupy movement, of which the author, now back in the States on sabbatical, was a planner and participant . Many forces were converging, and they were converging to make this author popular.

The book won awards, and the author was asked to talk to every sort of group imaginable: major European political institutions and think tanks, finance types, students, even libertarians. The book was a heavy hardcover and priced accordingly. It sold a lot of copies, including many at the independent bookstores that championed it . Reprints and special export editions were ordered. Foreign rights were sold. I scrambled to sell the proposal for the author’s next book. Though he still didn’t have tenure, he could breathe a bit easier financially for the first time.

Many of the ideas in the book and from the author’s activism have seeped into the popular imagination. We now all belong to something called the 99 percent . We no longer assume we’ll all someday be rich. Neoliberal policies and the financialization of the economy are no longer left unquestioned. The New Republic was observed being slightly bullish on anarchism. An old-fashioned debt jubilee made the front page of The New York Times website. Ideas, it turns out, can be made popular. And books remain one of the best vehicles for doing so.

I still don’t have a unified theory of popularity, though there are leading indicators. Once you cast aside timing, which, of course, no one can control, the most important factor is people. There are people with bullhorns and there are ecosystems of people with bullhorns. There are institutions and networks, formal and otherwise, in which we all live and dream, tell stories and finger our worry beads. The ecosystems in which books are developed, written, published, publicized, and enjoyed are no different .

And when you write your brilliant, book-club-friendly novel about cultural identity / finance / ??????, call me.

If you like this article, please subscribe or leave a tax-deductible tip below to support n+1.

Related Articles