Culture Wars, Literature, Top Stories

A Glimpse Into the Ideological Monoculture of Literary New York

In the Spring of 2016, I fell into a conversation with my brother about how automation and artificial intelligence were making many forms of human labor obsolete. It wasn’t just an economic problem, I observed: Without meaningful work to do, a lot of us would fall victim to boredom and vice.

My brother, an oncologist, countered that people would simply have to work harder to cultivate the diminishing number of jobs that machines couldn’t do. When he cited his own occupation as an example, I pointed out that in 20 years, AI-enabled computers might be able to make better medical decisions than he could. (In some areas of medicine, this is already happening.) He disagreed. But out of our discussion came my idea for a soon-to-published novel, set in 2036, about Henri, a wealthy doctor at risk of having his job taken by a robot.

As Quillette writer Gabriel Scorgie noted recently, it’s become difficult for beginning writers to get book contracts. But I dove in, nonetheless. At the time, I was living in Albuquerque, NM, working for a solar energy company where my job prospects didn’t seem particularly bright. A day after taking inspiration from a 2015 episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown about Budapest, I tendered my resignation and bought a one-way ticket for Hungary, figuring that this would be a good place to be an author.

I wrote my novel, eventually titled The Absolved, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, which I followed from overseas. And so politics naturally seeped into the plot. In the book, a fringe populist candidate campaigns on a Luddite agenda, inciting voters to rise up against “the Divine Rights of Machines.” Many of the same issues that troubled supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders—including a lack of meaningful employment, and wage stagnation—still plague Americans in 2036. But now, they’ve gone beyond demagoguing foreigners and immigrants, and are going after machines.

A major theme in my book is that any political or economic system that doesn’t work for the majority of the people cannot be sustained—no matter the moral or theoretical justifications that might otherwise be brought to bear on its behalf. The book’s protagonist (and anti-hero) is a relic from a social and economic order in marked decline—a privileged, middle-aged white male physician (remember, it’s 2036). While Henri may be a fine doctor, he’s a deeply flawed human being in his personal life, and has little compassion for others who’ve been marginalized by the march of technology.

Considering himself one of “destiny’s elect,” Henri complains to his wife after she’s enrolled their son in Sunday School: “It was a long time ago in this country that we tore God from his pedestal, and replaced him not with Satan and his sword, but with a robot capable of teaching itself new skills, completing tasks perfectly and seamlessly, without ever getting tired or complaining.”

As my financial situation in Budapest grew strained, it became clear that I needed to re-enter the workforce. So I returned stateside, this time opting for New York City because, like so many other aspiring creative types, I thought that being at the center of the universe would help me get my work published. By a twist of good fortune, I secured a well-paying position that left me with evenings free to finish my novel. And like every other earnest, ambitious young writer, I tried to immerse myself in New York’s literary scene. I attended readings, parties and book launches—whatever I could do to make inroads. True, I’d heard warnings about the political correctness that pervades this world. But that didn’t trouble me: It’s not as if my own politics are particularly right-wing.

This story ends with a win. My book is being published—even if, like most other writers, I would have liked a fatter contract with wider distribution. But despite that, there is something about my experience among New York’s literati that’s left a bad taste in my mouth. For all the predictable speechifying about “diversity” that I heard at cocktail parties and literary events, I became struck by just how politically monolithic this scene really is. It’s not just that writers and editors have to be PC when it comes to their books and their public pronouncements: There also seems to be a crushing uniformity in regard to their privately held viewpoints.

Just weeks after arriving in the city, I attended a dinner party full of writers and industry folk.  The subject of conversation turned to America—and, in particular, how uniquely racist and evil it is. The term “fascist” was bandied about casually—even in regard to centrist Democrats such as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. One attendee described how much more tolerant Canada is, citing the example of a Toronto swimming pool accommodating religiously observant Muslim residents by sex-segregating swimmers at certain times. Everyone at the table agreed that this was a wonderful thing. The conversation then moved on to the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—a dystopian science fiction tale that my dinner mates unanimously agreed represented a plausible future for American women. Indeed, some indicated that we already were living this nightmare thanks to Donald Trump.

My efforts to play contrarian did not meet with success—especially when I suggested that encouraging the segregation of Muslim women might be seen in a very different light if the policy had been championed by, say, Mike Pence or Donald Trump. When I cut to the chase and asked why no one at the table seemed to feel aggrieved for women suffering under Islamic oppression, voices were raised and, well, I may or may not have been asked to leave. There were other experiences like this, and I learned to hold my tongue.

This was socially irritating. But, naïvely, I imagined that this ideological monolith wouldn’t affect my book—since my male, white, cis protagonist is a markedly unsympathetic character, and I’m not “appropriating” anyone’s voice. But this prediction proved incorrect.

After reading a passage from my novel at a local literary salon, I was approached by an acquisition’s editor from a prominent independent press. He thought the excerpt showed promise and asked me to email him the full draft manuscript. Not a week passed before he invited me for drinks. Over whiskeys, he said he found the work “original and compelling.” (Writers have a good memory for compliments.) An offer was forthcoming, he said. He just needed to get his boss to sign off on it — “a formality,” apparently. But the offer never came. Instead, the editor forwarded me the email his boss had provided: “We’re not taking on unknown white guys this year.”

An agent (who, to his credit, read my manuscript off the slush pile) scolded me for “bigotry” because the imagined world of 2036 has witnessed a successful Muslim insurrection in France. Another accused me of “misogyny” because the self-absorbed Henri has become less attracted to his aging wife. A third told me that The Absolved was a “terrific read,” but that she couldn’t represent the book because of its “distinctively male voice.” She went on to explain that the fiction-buying audience is mostly female (which I will concede is accurate) and that the book wouldn’t “resonate” with this demographic. Whether or not that is true, it furthered the sense that my book wasn’t being cold-shouldered so much for what it was, as who the author was.

What accounts for this identity-obsessed approach to publishing? Again, Scorgie’s analysis is instructive. Before New York entered its new finance-oriented gilded age, the publishing industry ranked high as a career path among upwardly mobile intellectuals. Working in the industry carried cultural cachet, as tech does today. Some of the best and brightest of past generations made their life’s work in New York offices piled high with manuscripts. But as the city evolved and the industry grew more cash-strapped, the type of intellectual who once found gainful employment in publishing left for other fields. From what I can observe, the candidates whom the industry now attracts are young elite university graduates who are not looking for money or even occupational stability. In many cases, they are former (or future) activists whose primary interest is the promotion of a progressive political agenda, and who are eager to leverage their staff positions at publishers to further that agenda.

According to a newly released analysis of U.S. survey data, only 8% of Americans hold views that mark them as “progressive activists”—versus 92% who may be classified as traditional liberals, moderates, conservatives or “politically disengaged.” Yet the high-end literary world, as I have experienced it in New York, would seem to be almost entirely dominated by, or beholden to, that 8% slice of public opinion—especially when it comes to any issue touching upon immigration, capitalism, multiculturalism or feminism. And it is hard to see how this complete lack of ideological diversity can produce anything except an echo chamber for editors own viewpoints and tastes.

In The Absolved, my protagonist, Henri, states: “Sometimes, when I’m made to suffer through someone parroting the drivel that has become the zeitgeist, I wonder if I should disappear into the desert, silence surely being preferable not only to stupidity but unanimity, as well.”

I’m not going to take Henri’s advice, as I still think the search for truth is a path worth taking. But if you’re wondering why so many of the literary books that are now being published cater to just one narrow sliver of the market, I think my experience over the last two years qualifies as instructive.

Matthew Binder is the author of The Absolved, set for publication by Black Spot Books on December 4, 2018.