Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Facing Facts?

Facing Facts in Oregon writes in about a Poets and Writers article concerning the numbers game: writers vs. marketplace. It's an interesting take on things, to say the least. Its basic premise: lots of writers, not enough markets for their work. Do check it out. Comments section available below. Thanks FFiO.

The creative writers in this country—those who have earned an MFA and those who haven't—produce untold millions of poems, stories, novels, and essays. But for whom are they writing? Where is the readership to support this prodigious output? Certainly, bookstores and libraries prove that there are still readers out there. Yet Reading at Risk sounds the alarm that the practice of literary reading in America is in serious decline.

26 comments:

Old Scribe said...

Tom uses the correct language when he says "serious decline." It's really sad. I'm reading Gerald Clarke's biography on Truman Capote right now, and I was shocked to learn that Capote's fame was sparked by a handful of short stories he published in women's fashion magazines, which oddly was a good place to find literary fiction back then. Clarke states that people would often discuss short stories with their friends and family, exchanging their views on the latest work published by new writers and old favorites. Today what do people do? Sit around to see who gets voted off the island. Good Gawd. Proof of the decline of civilization, if you ask me.

But as a writer in the 21st century, you should already know what you're up against. Not that many people read literary fiction anymore. I suppose it's too time consuming for them--or too difficult to understand. I went and had my teeth cleaned the other day and when I told the girl scrubbing and scraping that I was a writer, she responded by telling me that she didn't like reading because she didn't enjoy activities that made her think. Well, there you go.

Yes, I want an audience; I want people to read my fiction. But regardless of what happens I'll never quit writing. Why? Because I enjoy it too much. Plain & Simple.

Not-so-old Scribe said...

Yes, there's more literary fiction out there than anyone wants to read. But most of it is just not that good. People are more worried about their writing being admired than enjoyed. Even the award-winners can make your eyes glaze over. The same goes for most of the fiction produced in my so-called top MFA program. The notion that no one reads literary fiction anymore is about half true and about half an excuse for the people trying to write it. My feeling is, don't stress about writing literary fiction. Stress about writing excellent fiction.

Anonymous said...

I absolutely agree with Not-So-Old-Scribe. If people stop concentrating so much on the sellability of their writing, maybe more good writing will actually be produced. Time and energy and thought invested in worrying about whether or not there's a market for a book seems like a real waste of personal resources, to me. Of course I'd like to have a lot of people read and appreciate my writing one day, but the only thing I actually have control of within that scenario is producing something that people would appreciate (and of which I could be proud) so first it's probably important for me to worry about quality. And by "first" I mean, always.

Anonymous said...

Two more things to consider:

There are a lot more media outlets that creative writing has to compete with (internet, satellite/digital tv, cd/mp3 players, etc.).

The number of books and collections published has grown ENORMOUSLY since Capote's time. The number of readers has not grown in any way in proportion to the number of books published every year, so the audience per book has diminished greatly.

Anonymous said...

I agree with not-so-old and third commenter--there may be more product than market, but a lot of that product is mediocre. Sure, a small fraction may be ignored masterpieces (after all, so many great novels and stories are ones that were rejected by ten or more publishers), but a lot of it is just good but not great.
The sad thing is, each generation is only going to produce a handful of stand-out writers (though it may take decades to figure out who these are). People who accuse MFA programs of producing mediocrity seem to forget this. Of course MFA programs produce a lot of mediocre writers. So did 1920s Paris. So has every other age of writing. This is a terrifying thought for those of us who are working away at creative writing, and sometimes it makes me want to curl up into a ball and cry.
This is all a roundabout way of saying sure, it's tough. But even if you have a two-book deal with Knopf, it's still tough if what you're trying to do is produce fiction that will last (for research I won't skimmed through every New Yorker published in 1955; one story by Salinger, one story by Cheever, a couple stories by Mary McCarthy, and the rest (as best I remember) by a bunch of people nobody cares about anymore). So the best thing to do is just write and not worry so much about the market. That book you finally publish after years and years of toil with some no-name press might end up being one of the handful people read in fifty years. And if not, at least you were doing something you cared about.
Also, on one thing in the essay--I agree that since this is the system we hope will publish it, we should support it. One of my former teachers always went on about how we should subscribe to various "little magazines" if nothing else as a show of support for publications that opearate typically at a loss and often have to prove their worth for funding from universities or arts councils. Most subscriptions are cheap, and you get a nice little package of fiction and poetry every few months. (BTW, this isn't a shameless plug--I'm not affiliated with any publication, but I subscribe to several little magazines, and they're more than worth it--both the stories in them I love and the stories I hate teach me something).

Old Scribe said...

I agree with the poster about supporting the little literary journals. With their budgets, they'll be the first to go if things take a final fatal turn. Plus, these magazines are where every major writer I'm acquainted with started publishing. We have to keep them alive.

Every month I purchase at least one literary journal, more if I can. I'm also going to start a subscription soon. If everyone concerned did the same thing, we would all be in a better position.

Dan said...

Not-so-young scribe (above) is absolutely right. I just want a good story. Your prose should be the means to that end, not the end itself.

Modern "literary fiction" seems the literary equivalent of eating your brussel sprouts. Someone in authority tells you it's good for you, so you read it.

People who bemoan the fall of literary fiction perhaps should step back and take a more objective look at the genre. What defines it as a genre? Very little, I think. It's often a genre w/ misplaced priorities: prose over plot. A focus on style and an attainment of some standard of respectability. It's also a genre defined largely by what it's not: not romance, fantasy, sci fi, mystery, thriller, chick lit, etc.

I'm not applying to MFA programs to write better "literary fiction," just better fiction.

Dan said...

And that would be Not-so-OLD scribe who I agreed with, not his lesser known evil twin, Not-so-Young. ;) (Yeah, perhaps I should proofread BEFORE posting next time...)

Old Scribe said...

I don't believe it's fair to place blame with the writers when addressing the shrinking number of people who demand high-quality fiction.

What are you saying exactly? If overnight, MFA programs started creating an abudance of high-caliber writers who produce top-notch fiction, would the problem of a shrinking readership simply disappear? Of course not. Yes, there would be a positive spike, but it would still remain a problem, a problem related to not enough READERS who enjoy fiction.

I really don't understand the argument related to creating fiction to be "admired" versus that which is "enjoyed." Most of the time, I enjoy reading stories I admire (and vice-versa), so it's just a comment that states the obvious. And of course, all of us put forth 100% effort into our manuscripts, correct? Every attempt is an honest one, right? I think (and I hope) all of us attempt to pen "excellent fiction" when we sit down to the chore. I do.

Anxious Latecomer said...

OK, this is messy, with Old, Not So Old, and Not So Young Scribes :) Be that as it may, I think that, as one of the Scribes said right before my comment, there are two independent problems: 1) the decline of readership; 2) the kind of writing that's being produced these days. If the latter were to change to everybody's satisfaction (an unrealistic assumption, I know), the former -- i.e. the decline of readership -- would NOT automatically dissapear.

Sure, the two phenomena may influence each other, but the decline of readership cannot be attributed to the kind of writing that's being produced these days. For whatever it's worth, I teach at a public but moderately well-known university, and the quality of my students is depressing. Stats: the top ten percent get into top-notch grad schools, whereas the bottom ten percent can barely read. Few of them -- by "them" I mean all my students -- read literature. And it's not because THEY are flooded by "experimental" fiction!

With regard to the quality of MFA programs, someone above nailed it when he or she said, "Of course MFA programs produce a lot of mediocre writers. So did 1920s Paris." End of story :)

Old Scribe said...

I think it's fair if we discuss a problem (i.e. a shrinking readership), we offer solutions.

Since I've started researching MFA programs, I've noticed more than a few have "Writers in the Schools" programs, allowing MFA students to go into public schools and practice teaching reading & writing. This is good. Young people--preferably elementary school students--need to develop an appreciation for literature, and an ability to write. This is one way to combat the shrinking readership in America. Well read youngsters turn into well read adults.

When I was undergraduate--and I was old then too--I would see these 20-somethings stumbling around campus with their iPods and cellphones and whatever. I wanted to snatch their gizmo away and make them trade it in on a copy of Quarterly West or the Paris Review. So many, so many distractions these days. I suppose there's always something more enjoyable to entertain us now than reading. And it has nothing to do with the quality of the fiction available to us.

Anonymous said...

But what good does it do to observe, and observe again, this decline in readership?
Most of the appeal of writing should be for the writing itself because when you start to worry too much about the way your writing will be recieved or if it will be receieved at all--rather than worrying about whether the story is riveting and the language clear and the characters fascinating--it's easy to water the writing down or get distracted from whatever emotional core you were trying to construct. Or such has been my personal, personal experience.

The world doesn't owe me a large body of readers and I certainly don't see it as a failure of a readership or a weakening in the reading habits of Americans if my book doesn't get picked up for publishing. I see it as a failure within myself to properly convey the story or emotions that are so clearly compelling to me. If my story really needs to be told, then someone who reads it over is going to feel like my story needs to be told. And if not, if the other people reading it aren't THAT drawn to my story, then the world probably doesn't need it (even if, and maybe often if, I needed to write the story in order to better understand the world around me--hence focusing on the act of writing, rather than the end result). Which isn't to say I wouldn't love to be published. I would!! I just don't think it's fault of modern culture if I don't end up there--and that's true even if my story is good. Which is, I think, the (at least partial) point that not-so-old scribe was making: good is different than great. The world doesn't need 2,500 good books a year. Man, give me 20 great books a year instead.

I'm also not entirely convinced that there are so many fewer actual readers of "serious" fiction out there today as compared to all previous generations. I'm not saying that there are a lot, I'm just skeptical as to whether or not the number was ever enormous.
It just seems a bit like a sky-is-falling argument. I read the P+W article and it quotes no facts, nor gives any specifics about actual numbers for declining readership. In fact, the focus seems to be a bit more on the unrealistic expectations of success that have been created because of all the MFA programs around.
Does anyone actually have any statistics that indicate that the number of novels being purchased regularly these days is actually lower than it was in 1920 or 1950? And I know that someone might argue that what is being bought now is different--but there were plenty of pulp novels then, and plenty of self-help books too. Is it actually that we're being nostalgic for a time that's easy to remember as more literary because our nostalgia focuses on a narrower subset of the population with which we identify in hindsight? This is actually a genuine question.

Smasheree said...

I listen to books on my iPod--please don't snatch it away!!!!

Old Scribe said...

Anonymous:

I possess no diehard facts/statistics that less people are reading, but speculation leads me to believe the article is fairly accurate nonetheless.

I do believe, however, that most/all writers are concerned about how their writing will be received, even if we do it subconsciously. After all, won't most of us make revisions to keep an editor happy? If s/he asks you to tweak page A & D and cutout paragraph H in order to see it in print, wouldn't you do it? As long as it doesn't compromise the integrity of the story too much, most writers would.

Smasheree: I didn't know you could listen to books (MP3) on iPods. So hang onto the Apple. But I doubt most kids are listening to Charles Dickens!

Anonymous said...

But the article never really says that fewer people are reading. It vaugely refers to that fact here (very vaugely):

"The creative writers in this country—those who have earned an MFA and those who haven't—produce untold millions of poems, stories, novels, and essays. But for whom are they writing? Where is the readership to support this prodigious output? Certainly, bookstores and libraries prove that there are still readers out there. Yet Reading at Risk sounds the alarm that the practice of literary reading in America is in serious decline."

But what jumps out at me about that paragraph is not the fact that fewer people are reading (the author actually seems somewhat skeptical of that explanation if you look at those final 2 sentences), it's the fact that we're producing millions of poems, stories, novels and essays. The production of "literature" is huge and there's never been a market to support that level of production. I'd venture to guess (and it's not that risky a venture) that the comfort of life in general in the USA (not for everyone, but the level of comfort for some people) has significantly increased production of personal writing, people studying writing in school, MFA programs, etc. etc.. And this is great. It means more people are spending time thinking about stories and life and words. But to say that readership is in decline because there aren't even avenues to publish millions of poems and stories and novels ... it just doesn't seem like a decline to me. It seems like reality. On a personal level it's like this: if I publish 1 book, I can expect everyone I know to read it. If I publish 25, I can't really expect everyone I know to read every one of them. That's just unreasonable.

And I was never saying that I don't care at all about my readership--of course I do. I write in a dirty, dog-eared journal if I only care that I read it; I write a short story or (hopefully, one day) a novel because I want to connect with someone else out there. My point is that worrying about the markets that do or don't exist takes time and energy away from worrying about something else in life. It seems sort of wasteful, not to mention illogical. Bemoaning the state of affairs of the American reading public isn't going to make my story any better.

I think subscribing to smaller literary journals is a great idea if you really want to read them. I love reading them. I once was in a diner in Baton Rouge and they had like 5 old copies of the Southern Review just sitting behind the counter, and when I asked after them they gave them to me for free. It was sweet! But to encourage people to go out and subscribe to them as a means to an end--the end being to inflate the readership of "literature"--just seems, well, like trying to put a bandaid on a really old, really big wound.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this will help add to the discussion:

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/08/books/08READ.html?ex=1247025600&en=0478807a580f2a85&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland

I work in publishing, and yes I can confirm that the number of readers (individuals purchasing books) has declined in the past two decades, while, at the same time, the number of books published has increased (excepting this past year, where the number remained relatively flat).

So: less readers, more books. That's how it is. All sorts of other media outlets take away time and energy from these potential readers.

On the other hand, I can also say that literary fiction has never sold well, though on occassion, we get lucky (see The Book Thief or The March) and a relatively large number of people pick up a title and make the purchase. And as the number of well-qualified, talented writers increases, there just isn't a market out there to handle and support these people.

Anonymous said...

I don't see a single reason to believe that this situation in literature is the least bit different in any other art form.

There are millions more paintings being made than there are gallery shows. There are millions more albums being recorded than will find a substantial audience. There are way more TV pilots and script ideas than will ever become shows.

There are simply more painters, musicians, sculptors, writers, directors and actors than the world can support.

Has this ever not been true?

Anonymous said...

It's worth noting, to maybe ease some of the concern out there, that the NY Times article does state that "the number of readers of literature is about the same now as it was in 1982— about 96 million people..." So, okay, the proportion of the population may have declined, but the raw size of the market seems to be roughly the same.

Anonymous said...

Even Dan Brown didn't sell 96 million books. I'll be happy if a 195th of that number buy mine...

Also, the 'Yeah, but how many *literary* books sell nowadays?' argument is a little troubling. Presumably, it doesn't worry publishers too much, because they sell the full spectrum of work. And, with a more flimsy or colorful cover, a fat lot of those 'literary' books would pass as sci-fi, romance, adventure, or whatever. These are marketing terms, and shouldn't concern us when we sit down to write, right? (Or do we say, My epiphany isn't big enough! Better push it back towards literature...)

I do think it would be a fascinating experiment to release your literary novel with a number of covers--say, the one you would have gone with, then maybe a thriller-like in paperback with your name half the size of the book...you might sell five times as much...

Anonymous said...

I think the previous comment on covers is somewhat valid, although a little naive. Covers can and do matter (do you really think Prep would have sold so well with a crappy cover?), but certain genres don't automatically sell better than others.

Yes, there are the rare few thriller writers (Grisham, Coben, etc.) who will outsell any literary title hands-down, but there are also SO many thrillers and mysteries that don't work at all. Dan Brown's first two books before the Da Vinci Code sold less than 10K each, hardly anything. When you get down below the very top sellers, literary fiction holds its own (especially with a nice cover).

Anonymous said...

Prep DID have a shitty cover though.

But you are right on. There is no genre that automatically sells tons of copies. If there was, then everyone would be writing in that genre.

So no cover making a book pretend to be that genre is going to automatically sell.

There are a few authors who always sell though. Maybe you could experiment by releasing the same book under different names like King, Wolfe and Jordan.

Anonymous said...

Hey, it takes *balls* to be naive.

I was thinking of--crap, who's that thriller guy that writes three best sellers a year? James Patterson, I think. His early genre books sold poorly, it's true. But then he had an inspiration--he'd simply insist that his name cover three-fourths of the cover. And then, presto! The first big-lettered book became a best seller. It was marketed the same as his other, poorly received books. The only thing he did was hugify his name. Now there's a marketing class at Harvard or somewhere based on the Patterson Principle. How they stretch out 'big letters' over a whole semester, I have no idea.

It could work for you!

Anonymous said...

That anecdote sounds like it should be true, but looking up Patterson on Wikipedia it states he quit his former job due to the success or his first novel, so it looks like he had a fine start.

However, I thought this bit was kinda appropriate to the conversation:

James Patterson has fallen under criticsm in the literary world from the likes of Stephen King, who called Patterson's books "Dopey thrillers."

Stephen King is a represntative of the "literary world"? I would think most definitions of literary that would include King would include Patterson.

Anonymous said...

The Patterson Principle, as it has been here named, applies to any author whose name is bigger than any work he produces. With James Patterson, Stephen King, John Grisham etc., most people aren't truly concerned with the specifics of each new release, they just want it because they know the name and they know they've enjoyed the previous titles. This name recognition, obviously, does not apply to most authors, and aren't therefore marketed in this way.

But yes you do have reach a certain status to brand your name. Patterson and Grisham reached this rather quickly.

How did the conversation end up talking about James Patterson? And Stephen King as literary?

Anonymous said...

I dunno, but you've pretty much described how I go about buying books from my favorite literary authors. I mean, I'm not going to spend hours finding out what Michiko thinks before I reach for the next Philip Roth or David Foster Wallace (or, heck, even McInerney!). I think the whole idea behind the huge name is not to help remind people that an author is a brand, but to convince them of it. Sort of an unsubtle ploy for your reader dollar--But me, damnit, my name is effin' HUGE!

Facing the Facts in Oregon said...

Everyone makes smart, valid arguments for continuing to write and for not caring if we ever get published/have a readership. I guess I still have issues -- a la Lynn Freed's Harper's screed of last year -- about unviersities and colleges using writing programs as "cash cows" without being up front honest about what, indeed, this low-res, low-impact, minimally-prestigious master's degree is buying you.

The Poets & Writers article is clear about an important thing: if we all want to write, we also have to READ. That remains, for me, a given. Keep on writing and rockin' in the free world.