The Millions Interview

The System Is Rigged: The Millions Interviews Leland Cheuk

By posted at 6:00 am on January 13, 2017 9

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I first met Leland Cheuk when he read for Dead Rabbits — a reading series I co-host in New York City. Thoughtful, charismatic, and passionate about his work and the work of others, he immediately struck me as someone thinking on multiple planes about art and its role within the world. His writing operates in the same way; The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong is at once heartwarming and wrenching, examining heritage, immigrant life, and injustice in America with bite and comedic verve.

After publishing his first two books, The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong (CCLaP Publishing, 2015) and Letters from Dinosaurs (Thought Catalog Books, 2016), he’s now moving into publishing. I talked with Leland over the course of a few days via email, discussing his new endeavor, 7.13 Books, the state of modern publishing, and issues of inclusivity, diversity, and more.

The Millions: So, tell me about the mission of 7.13 Books. As we both know, there’s a wealth of small presses in the world now. What separates 7.13 from them? What unites it with them?

Leland Cheuk: Yes, there are a ton of great small presses out there. In terms of what 7.13 is about, the authors are going to play a big role in determining what the press represents as a brand. The books will be bold, impeccably written. They’ll look great. And there will be no good literary reason why the books aren’t mainstream and award-winning. Their existence as small press titles will be an indictment on the tired traditional publishing model offered by the Big Five publishers, who in reality have been out of the business of publishing literature for years, maybe decades. Three-hundred thousand books each year are published from the Big Five and maybe a few hundred are what any reader would consider literature. An argument can be made that the big houses are really in the business of publishing cookbooks, celebrity memoirs, and adult coloring pads.

For authors publishing with 7.13, they’ll be getting no bullshit. I won’t make promises I can’t keep. I’ll set clear expectations about what the press can and can’t do. The books get lots of editorial attention from me, and I give the author tons of control and input over every aspect of the book, from the cover design to the marketing and publicity.

TM: I’m interested in knowing about the final straw in relation to 7.13 Books. What pushed you towards developing the press?

LC: Like most writers who’ve been at it for 10, 15, 20 years, I felt I had done almost everything possible to get a book published. I’d done the work, gone to top residencies, signed with agents, and had close calls at big houses. But nothing happened. And nothing happened because the numbers are so daunting. Tens of thousands of qualified writers for a couple hundred deals. Every year, it seems like everyone is talking about the same two dozen or so titles as the big literary hits. The system is as rigged as the global economy.

My books only exist because of the kindness of a few people willing to lose time and money on my title. The publication offers for both my books came on July 13. A bone marrow transplant successfully engrafted and saved my life on July 13. That’s why the press is named 7.13. Once I made those connections about my life as an author and the acts of radical kindness (from my anonymous stem cell donor to the small press publishers who took a chance on me) that made that life possible, I decided I had to do something to give back.

We all need to do something to keep the business of literature alive. You host a reading series. Some people do podcasts. I read for a literary journal (Newfound) as well. Go to readings. Buy books. Support writers. Not every author understands that. You rarely hear about big-time authors doing stuff like this. Teaching is not enough. Hanging out in your literary echo chamber of fawning critics, editors, agents, and other successful authors is not enough. Tens of thousands of writers are doing great work and they’re getting zero. They need a hand up.

TM: It can be hard, though — what you’re saying. Running a reading series, or editing a small-time journal, whatever you do. How do you keep doing it? And for what? Also, to that end — Kevin Nguyen had a great piece about #booktwitter and the sort of performative white “wokeness” that comes with, say, simply reading a book by a writer of color. There’s a lot to be doing that isn’t just reading, is all. Just reading isn’t enough.

LC: It really isn’t enough! We need to be pushing books on friends, family, and strangers in the same way that we talk about TV shows. We shouldn’t even be keeping books in our private libraries. We should be giving them to others. Your Kindle should encourage you to send the book you just read to 10 other people if you liked it.

Conversely, #booktwitter should be able to say when a book sucks. I know writing books is hard, but when nearly every book is a “OMG, so good!” and every review says “this is a must-read, tour-de-force,” we’ve just become part of this big, corporate book PR machine. I’m of the mind that authors should be banned from doing book reviews, and that the National Book Critics Circle should be an organization of professional book reviewers only. I know newspapers are slashing book reviews altogether, but we need independent-minded folks questioning the literary art form at all times. This “All Books Matter” mentality that Kevin Nguyen wrote about is contributing to a certain amount of stagnation of literature. Imagine if Alan Sepinwall was also a famed TV showrunner or if A.O. Scott was a renowned filmmaker. How would we trust that their reviews weren’t just propping up a friend of a friend? Then aesthetically, all upcoming screenwriters and filmmakers would be rushing to emulate their aesthetic. That’s where we are in the book industry today, where readers just get wave upon wave of what came before.

TM: On another note, your story of fighting myelodysplastic syndrome is harrowing and inspiring, as is your piece in Salon about the process of beating it while trying to get published. How has your story informed your foray into publishing? How does it continue to inform your writing?

LC: I hope I’m beating it. I seem to be okay, knock on wood. I think the experience just made me realize how self-absorbed I was before. More than ever, especially since the recent election, we need to take action and give. I think about the nurses who were collecting my stool samples and feeding me ice chips during chemo. I think about my wife, who stopped her life to become my caretaker. There are all these people lifting you up everyday. It’s the same for your writing and my writing. Think of all those people at your book launch. You and the Dead Rabbits Reading Series were there for me when my novel came out.

I’m writing some nonfiction around this idea. I don’t know where it’s going, but I hope there’s a book in there somewhere.

TM: Yes, for sure. I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am without dozens of people who have done both the biggest and smallest of things. How are you approaching writing about such a (I can’t imagine) powerful, life-altering event, especially as someone so used to writing fiction?

LC: It’s hard. I guess the simple answer is I try to write about myself like I’m a character in a novel. But the deeper, truer answer is that I just imagine that my audience is my loved ones and the book is the message I would leave them if my health takes a turn for the worse.

TM: That’s a beautiful, sorrowful sentiment. Now, the publishing world, as we both know, is often frustratingly stagnant and, at the same time, ever-changing. It responds to pertinent issues at the same time as it perpetuates certain wrongs. Just when I see one thing that’s worth celebrating, I see another that’s worth calling out. What are your thoughts on the publishing world at large? How has publishing your own work altered or confirmed any views you’ve had on the whole wide mess of it, from the Big Five to the indies?

LC: Oh lord. How long do you have? [Laughs.]

covercovercoverI’ve never been so bored with mainstream literary publishing. There’s an aesthetic sameness to most of the list titles. Naturalism is king. Identity is queen. And the family is the castle. And the castle is, for some reason, often located on the Upper West Side, Upstate New York, Montauk, or the Hamptons. I don’t see risk-taking. I see lots of opportunism. Great work still gets published. This year, I loved Paul Beatty’s hilarious and irreverent The Sellout, Colson Whitehead’s grimly imaginative The Underground Railroad, Kaitlyn Greenidge’s quietly incendiary We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Yaa Gyasi’s expansive, yet concise Homegoing, and Alexander Weinstein’s Black Mirror-esque Children of the New World. But honestly, I read a lot of the fiction that critics and book publicity people fawn over and just shrug.

There’s a lot of meh-ness in the indie world too. But there’s no excuse for Big Five publishing companies dropping huge advances on meh books.

TM: What do you think accounts for both big/indie meh-ness, to use your term? I know we each have our own ideas about what constitutes a good book.

LC: Yeah, I shouldn’t put it in terms of good versus bad or meh versus un-meh. It’s more the lack of boundary-pushing on the form. I’m not a huge consumer of experimental fiction, but when I buy a book or when I’m reading submissions for 7.13, I want to be reading something I haven’t read before. And the older you get, the more you’ve read, so the bar for originality and newness gets higher and higher. I freely admit that I have snobbish tendencies.

The general mediocrity at the big houses comes from what plagues the economy as a whole. It’s this short-term, winner-takes-all economic model that doesn’t allow for more books to be successful. Right now, they’re giving huge advances at the top and making those books successful to carry the business. For that author, it’s wonderful and terrific and we all root for and envy his or her success. For hundreds of other authors, they’re screwed because no one in the house, from editorial on down to sales and marketing, cares about their books. It’s just like Hollywood. Everyone sees Age of Ultron, The Force Awakens, and Superman v. Batman. But are those films for everyone? Not really. They’re being crammed down our throats for the sake of the bottom line. The publishing industry is a billion-dollar industry. If they can’t put out a few hundred successful literary books a year out of 300,000, what good are they?

On the indie side, there are just so many presses and so many books. Of course, there’s going to be meh-ness. There are a lot of indie authors publishing pretty good first books that would’ve gone to big houses 15 years ago when they were more interested in growing an author’s career. Now it’s just churn and burn, up and out, and you get one chance to blow.

TM: The indie world especially has made large strides towards inclusivity. I think of presses like Emily Books and Dorothy and countless others, or some of my favorite journals, like Apogee or Luther Hughes’s new journal, Shade (among like so, so many more) — what is 7.13 Books doing to be an inclusive press? And, further, I’m interested to know your thoughts about the responsibility of presses and journals and readers on this matter.

LC: We’ll only be publishing a couple of books a year, but over time, I hope we’ll have good balance in terms of gender, ethnicity, and aesthetics. When I first opened for submissions, I noticed that the writers submitting were rather…blanco. So I put some feelers out on Twitter and the subs got more diverse. An eclectic list on all levels is the second thing I’m thinking about when I go through the slush. But finding writing that I really like is still the first.

Everyone loves to talk about inequity for women and POCs, but an inequity no one wants to talk about is that 80 percent of mainstream literary fiction deals are sold to women. Eighty-four percent of editors are women. It’s extremely difficult to sell a male perspective right now. Recently, an agent said he brought that up on Twitter and was trolled to death. The authors I grew up enjoying like Bret Easton Ellis, Kurt Vonnegut, or Thomas Pynchon, would probably be relegated to small presses today.

It’s a complex issue. Yes, men historically are more frequently reviewed and win more of the big awards. But if you’re a male author trying to break into literary fiction, you’re shooting for one of maybe two dozen deals each year. I’m going to try for a 50/50 gender-balanced list, which, frankly, is radical by today’s standards.

TM: That is a deeply unpopular opinion. Don’t you think that the publishing world needed that shift, to a majority of female editors, among other things? At least to counteract what was once (and still often is, come awards season) a white-male dominated industry? But yes — the complexity of that issue can be difficult to discuss honestly. You don’t fight for fairness with inequity. But, I mean, what’s interesting to me — I’ve been co-running this reading series for almost three years and as we’ve grown older our submission queue and our lineups have by nature become more diverse. Like, we’re in New York City. It’s come to the point where if I see a reading with an all-white bill, it’s like — it’s not that you’re not looking hard enough, it’s just that you’re not looking at all. To me, the issue of “solving the diversity problem” or whatever it’s labeled as can’t be entirely a numbers game. Maybe it has to be, I don’t know. But also, I think about ensuring the inclusivity of spaces — appreciation, generosity, feeling, listening.

LC: Thorny issue, for sure. The numbers don’t lie, though. And there are reasons for them. More women read. But 80/20? Unlikely. I agree with you on not making it a numbers game. It’s helpful to know the numbers, but for me, it comes back to the issue of that aesthetic sameness. For 7.13, I’m hoping every book will be different from what’s out there already. A writer can get to that difference any number of ways. It could be sexual orientation, gender, ethnicity, and/or form and use of language. Frankly, I get excited as a publisher when it’s all of the above.

I recently read a submission that I just wanted right away. It was written by Farooq Ahmed (remember that name, because he’s going to be huge if he can find a NYC agent and editor with guts). The novel was named Kansastan, and it was set in a dystopic America where Kansas is a Muslim state. The main character was a crippled boy living in the minaret of a mosque and tending to goats. And the Christian Missourians are coming for them. It was absolutely enthralling, written in this Old Testament voice that echoed early Cormac McCarthy with all these allusions to Islamic lore and the Quran. The author hadn’t done an agent search yet, so I let the manuscript go. But that’s the type of book I want to do at 7.13 and that’s the way I want to approach the diversity issue — from all possible angles.

TM: That sounds wonderfully epic. It’s frustrating you had to add that caveat, the whole if he can find an agent and editor thing. That process is just, well, as someone going through it — it has its moments where you feel like you’ve made it and then those moments where you feel so low, so far down.

LC: I know plenty of well-published, acclaimed authors without agents. Both my books were published without one. An agent is a nice-to-have. You can’t make a living wage from your writing without one, but there are, like, 100 American writers total making a living wage from their books alone, and one of them is James Patterson. I tell writers not to sweat the agent search and do their thing. Send out queries like you’re going to the gym.

Structurally, something in the traditional editor-agent-author troika needs to change. The transactional model is just not working. Not enough agents are making decent money and authors aren’t making any money at all. I can see a future where the big houses acquire dozens of small presses at a time to bypass the agent thing completely, leaving agents to add value by providing publicity services and career management.

TM: You’re fairly active on social media. Which is cool. How has social media altered the book world since you started writing? I want the good and bad. And the in-between.

LC: I think social media is great. It’s a way for writers to connect. I’ve often said that writing is not a vocation or avocation, it’s an identification. And social media gives writers a chance to identify themselves so that they can be found by other literature lovers. And social media requires excellent, concise writing.

I do think it’s absolutely ridiculous the way Roxane Gay and other authors (usually female) with big platforms get trolled. I also think it’s absolutely absurd the way aspiring or emerging writers flood famous authors with likes when they tweet that they’ve fed their cat or had a good meal. Mr. or Ms. Famous Author isn’t going to blurb your book because you hearted his/her book tour photo.

Social media tools don’t help users manage their dignity well. Perhaps a Dignity Warning should be the next thing on Mark Zuckerberg’s to-do list.

LM: [Lauhgs.] Yeah. And though the hive mind quality of Twitter is not news, it’s one of those places where there’s this beautiful sense of community, of sharing, juxtaposed with this self-consciousness about what it means to belong, or what it takes to simply belong. I mean, Leland, the amount of times I’ve drafted and re-drafted a basic tweet. It can feel like the curated self at times.

LC: But that’s part of writing, isn’t it? We should always be curating our words for an audience. I’m very much pro-social media. Sometimes it’s tiring and tiresome. Sometimes it’s hard to filter what’s real and true. But I feel like the work to be part of a living literary community is ultimately worth it.

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9 Responses to “The System Is Rigged: The Millions Interviews Leland Cheuk”

  1. wow
    at 11:35 am on January 13, 2017

    So… 80% of literary fiction book deals are for women authors… and 85% of the publishing industry is women… and now we have to have small presses just to fight the discrimination and publish men…

    What a time to be alive.

  2. Michael A. Ferro
    at 12:13 pm on January 13, 2017

    Leland is an incredibly kind and helpful source of “rogue” knowledge on these issues, having done things the hard way. His story is also one of true grit and it has undoubtedly honed his refined focus. I eagerly await the successes that will arise out of 7.13 Books.

    Thank you for this thoughtful interview!

  3. steven augustine
    at 3:46 pm on January 13, 2017

    “Every year, it seems like everyone is talking about the same two dozen or so titles as the big literary hits. The system is as rigged as the global economy.”

    …says LC and immediately thereafter mentions, mostly, the same authors we always see mentioned… (follow each link to Amazon and note that several of these authors’ books also appear together, in various sequences, in the “Frequently Bought Together” section).

    “There’s an aesthetic sameness to most of the list titles. Naturalism is king. Identity is queen. ”

    … says the Identity Lit author, LC (who immediately thereafter lauds several Identity Lit books)…

    I mean, maybe the problem isn’t *just* in mainstream literary publishing? Maybe it’s the balkanized culture in general…? And the picayune radii of the segregated comfort zones…? And “Identity” trumping “Quality” about 80% of the time…? (I mean, pushing books on “friends, family, and strangers in the same way that we talk about TV shows” won’t fix anything if the books are just “okay”… or worse… speaking of which…).

    “There’s a lot of meh-ness in the indie world too. But there’s no excuse for Big Five publishing companies dropping huge advances on meh books.”

    Says LC, after lauding a toe-curlingly meh book by Paul Beatty…

    Here, read a few reviews by people who aren’t part of the log-rolling industry:
    http://mookseandgripes.com/reviews/2016/09/07/paul-beatty-the-sellout/comment-page-2/#comment-204587

  4. Nah
    at 10:50 pm on January 13, 2017

    I feel like maybe this article should come with a warning label, since so much of what was said by Leland seems to be conjuncture on his part. Half baked assumptions clearly influenced by the fact that no one at the big five realized what a genius he is. He doesn’t seem to understand what an agent does, or the logistics for marketing at a big 5 publisher. Good luck in the business though.

    The comment about women editors is stupid, and the assumption that women editors will unfairly bias is offensive. Do I need to tell you that men still get published? Stories about women are popular, yes, because like he says most *readers* are women. If this threatens you, that’s your problem.

  5. wow
    at 11:03 am on January 16, 2017

    @Nah

    “The comment about women editors is stupid, and the assumption that women editors will unfairly bias is offensive. Do I need to tell you that men still get published? ”

    I’m sure you hold this exact opinion about, say, women engineers! Cognitive… dissonance… overwhelming…

  6. Elliott
    at 2:21 pm on January 18, 2017

    There are some points I can agree with here, but women editors = cool and more books published by women and more book deals for women = also cool. At least in the US, salary and economic opportunity still tilts towards males, so I’m actually kinda glad the book world is not replicating this.

    Even if that means my CIS male self doesn’t sign some six or seven figure book deal with a big publishing house.

  7. Sean H
    at 5:25 pm on January 25, 2017

    An interesting interview and the guy has some potential as a contrarian voice, but yes, Augustine makes a good point in the comments above about hypocrisy. I was surprised that someone who said they enjoyed Pynchon, Cormac and Vonnegut was also a backer of the trite, PC-police-approved, predictable choices from the present day (Gay, Whitehead, Gyasi, Beatty). Dude, you’re a minority, you don’t have to worry you’ll be excommunicated or blacklisted by the neo-McCarthyists of the left who want you hung if you don’t attend at least five Black Lives Matter rallies a year or sit in on an AWP panel about the lyrics of Kendrick Lamar. I know these people can be terrifying in their you’re-a-bigot-if-you-didn’t-orgasm-yourself-watching-the-women’s-march-while-wearing-a-pink-hat screedery, but go whole hog, don’t be so acquiescent and conciliatory.

  8. steven augustine
    at 12:58 pm on January 26, 2017

    @Sean H

    “Dude, you’re a minority, you don’t have to worry you’ll be excommunicated or blacklisted by the neo-McCarthyists of the left…”

    Actually, T.A.M.P.N. (Tribunal for Authenticity in Minority Proscription and Narrative… a multi-racial, omni-gendered NGO) comes down on us TOCs (targets of color) *much harder* for speaking off-script, displaying original affinities or giggling during the sermons. Another privilege, that you didn’t even know you had, that you’re taking for granted, Sean. I remember the time I made the grave mistake of muttering something critical about a Slam Poet who started Slamming, spontaneously, in a queue to have something gift-wrapped at FAO Schwarz….

  9. Moe Murph
    at 7:42 pm on January 26, 2017

    Colson Whitehead a “trite choice?” Lost me there.

    Back out for more “Walks In The Woods.”

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