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Monday, January 6, 2014

Elaborate Moping About the Future of Books

Posted by on Mon, Jan 6, 2014 at 2:44 PM

This article in the New York Times by Colin Robinson, the co-publisher of OR Books, got a lot of play on the books Twittersphere over the weekend. Here's a representative sampling:

On the desolate beach that is the lot of the contemporary book reader, the footprints of one companion can still be found. They belong to the writer, who needs the reader not just to pay her or his wages but also to give meaning to their words. As John Cheever put it: “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone.”

The troubling thought occurs, however, that this last remaining cohabitant may also be about to depart the island. With falling advances, writing is evermore dominated by people who don’t need it to earn a living: Tenured academics and celebrities spring to mind. For these groups, burnishing a résumé or marketing a brand is often as important as satisfying the reader.

The article seems to be based on a few cherry-picked facts and figures, and then the rest of it is just extrapolation to suit the author's gloomy mood: Books are dying because everyone's obsessed with gadgets! Author advances are down! Amazon is being Amazon! Too many amateurs are writing!

But it would be easy to write the exact opposite essay. E-book adoption rates aren't happening at astronomical levels anymore. Bookstore sales are increasing. And many would argue that the above excerpt, about writers not being able to make a living solely off of writing books, could be a good thing, too. Don't we want writers who live and have experiences that they can bring to their books? Shouldn't the number of career novelists in America be fairly small? And what good does wringing your hands in a public forum do, besides revive the fatalistic, books-are-dying stench that circulated around the publishing industry for the whole first decade of this millennium?


Comments (3) RSS

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What's your reasoning behind believing the number of career novelists should be small?
Posted by FranFW on January 6, 2014 at 3:07 PM · Report this
If you're okay with the idea that all or most novelists should have to have two jobs, you'd better be okay with the idea of all your favourite novelists writing fewer books. A lot fewer.

Bring in gender roles and the fact that women still do the bulk of housework and childcare -- and that male novelists receive tend to receive far more promotion and reviews --and it starts looking more like three jobs for some people. You've just prescibed fiction as a pastime only for the rich and primarily for men.

I'm a full time novelist. I tried to get a day job when I last came out of contract and *couldn't*. Because, you know, recession. Eventually I had to conclude that writing's about all anyone will pay me for. And it is a job. It's hard work. I do have friends who have other careers, I don't know how they do it. any time I have had two jobs I've been completely exhausted. And it's laughable that you think it insulates you from "real life". Struggling to keep a roof over your head feels pretty real to me. Do you think the same is true of journalists? They don't live and have experiences except being journalists! I mean sure, they find stuff out, and research and then write about what they discover, and also live in the world, but they're just journalists, not, like, doing some other job, in which you have experiences. Web design, say. I hear that's very experiency.

I don't actually think the future is that bleak. Things picked up for me eventually. People are reading and writing more than ever before so of course the book's not dying. Amazon is pretty shitty but ebooks are basically a great thing, and many bricks-and-mortar chains are not palaces of virtue either. It's got to be possible for pro writers to stay afloat. I think the key is not to do something other than writing, but write in other media as well. And in any case, writers are not the only people for whom times are hard: there was more money about in the boom and now it's gone --well, that's life for a lot of people. So I'm closer to your view in most respects than that of the original article. But such blitheness about demanding so much more work from writers just to survive -- such casual dismissal of the work we actually do --pisses me off.
Posted by Green Lizard on January 6, 2014 at 4:10 PM · Report this
I think this article is a lot of wangsting about an era that has been gone for 15 years and for some reason, people are just now noticing.

It will be uncomfortable until we figure out the new normal. That's all. Novelists will figure out ways to get fairly paid or they will do what midlisters have done for years -- work for the man and squeeze in writing when they can.

I'm tired of this bullshit doom and gloom.
Posted by MameSnidely on January 6, 2014 at 5:39 PM · Report this

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