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business

Illustration by John Ritter

What Is the Business of Literature?

Most other accounts of the contemporary business of literature are autobiographical, hagiographic, or histories of literature, avoiding the business and economics of it all. So why study a business that is sui generis, that isn’t even really a business—that, like America, is exceptional? 

The Hunters

July 10, 2010

[caption id="attachment_6152" align="aligncenter" width="525" caption="A controlled burn of oil from the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill sends towers of fire hundreds of feet into the air over the Gulf of Mexico June 9. (Credit: US Coast Guard/Petty Officer First Class John Masson)"][/caption]

I’m not writing to offer an apologia, but I have to say, life in the oilfield was wonderful. How much of that wonder was due to my youth—as well as the specific joy of youthfulness in the 1980s—and how much of the wonder was due to the nature of the work—the joy of the hunt—I cannot be sure. I think it must have been mostly the joy of the hunt, for there were old guys (there were almost never any women) who pursued the oil and gas with just as much fervor as the younger geologists.

We never called it crude, or black gold, or Texas tea. There were no clever nicknames, there was only the pure thing itself—oil if in the liquid state, or gas, if gaseous—that, and our pure and steady fever, our burning. If we ever referred to it as anything other than oil or gas, we called it pay. Four feet of pay, twenty feet of pay, thirty feet of pay. Sixty feet of pay was a lot, enough to change your life.

I worked for a small independent oil and gas company, which was owned by a wealthy individual who drilled his wells with the aid of a group of a dozen or so investors, rich people who believed in him and in us, but who were also entirely willing to stop believing if we one day ceased to be successful.

Speaking only for myself, I didn’t ever worry about that. I never mapped a prospect, never drilled a well that I didn’t believe was going to find pay. Success rates were somewhere in the neighborhood of baseball batting averages—between ten and thirty percent—but the baseball metaphor does not carry much further than that, other than perhaps the ability to salvage a game—or a career—with one certain swing, a key strike at the most critical time.