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Books: increasing authorship and decreasing readership
April 26, 2008 3:26 PM   Subscribe

You're an Author? Me too! The trend of increasing authorship and decreasing readership.
posted by stbalbach (61 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I started the article feeling depressed and then I got to:

and novels like “September Sun,” in which, “enticed by the powerful aphrodisiac of sex, Michael learns to his chagrin that Murphy’s Law is always in play.”


and I feel better again.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:33 PM on April 26, 2008


The big change is that discourse is shifting to the comments sections of blogs, YouTube, FaceBook, etc. And people are reading these as well as writing, even if it is often like an open mic (or a bad conversation) where they are mostly waiting their turn in the spotlight.

Nobody WE know, of course...
posted by msalt at 3:41 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


TL,DR
posted by sourwookie at 3:44 PM on April 26, 2008 [5 favorites]


The signal-to-noise ratio gets worse and worse, and even broad readers don't care to risk reading things which may be mediocre (or bad). A lot of people just don't read; others, like me, read older books, books by authors we trust, and books which have won or been nominated for major awards.

So how do you enter that second category? One of the reasons I like the short story is that it allows me to "try out" an author in a quick, bite-sized nugget--but many authors don't even bother to write short stories. They dream of Stephen King-style fame and riches, and dive right into a 1300 page Great American Novel. It's silly. Writing is as hard as any other art, and easy/cheap publishing doesn't change the fact that most writers don't spend a great deal of time honing their craft before turning out their potboiler.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:44 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


I've noticed this trend too.

I'm sure that there are a lot of reasons for this related to the way technology has created more free time for people, and the way that our economy has shifted from blue collar jobs to information jobs, thus removing some of the power of the idea that sitting around and thinking isn't really respectable or actually work, but honestly? I think a big part of it is that at some point we started seeing art that didn't really have plots, but which was just several moments of personal revelation strung together, and suddenly everyone felt that their life was art even though nothing had really happened to them. Most of the literature I see now doesn't go anywhere or amount to much - its all first person stories of life changing events that... sound more typical than life changing if you weren't there firsthand.

Personally, I blame the beats and On the Road in particular; that seems to have been a paradigm shift in what Americans considered to be artistic literature.

But what do I know? I have two blogs.
posted by Kiablokirk at 3:44 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


Interesting article but I take issue with this line:
as if writing were a hobby, like golf, rather than a calling or a craft.
I think writing is a hobby, like golf, for a lot of people, and that this isn't a new thing. The difference is that today due to much lowered publishing and distribution costs, more of these people are being published.
posted by peacheater at 3:45 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


msalt: One of the best ways to determine the health of online communities is to look at the interconnectedness of discussions. If you visit a message board and all of the posts have one reply--or the replies are all very disjointed--that's a problem. Something I like about MeFi is that despited the unthreaded structure of the comments here, there tend to be a great number of "discursive" posts.

Of course, we've got the $5 filter.
posted by sonic meat machine at 3:46 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


How are they measuring reading? I've read the complete works of P.G. Wodehouse (I've lost count of how many books that is) on Guetnberg, plus listened to about 20 books in mp3 form from librivox.org. Do they count stuff like that or is it all book sales?
posted by joannemerriam at 3:54 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


You think people reading public domain books is large?
posted by smackfu at 3:56 PM on April 26, 2008


I was told that once I got tenure I would not have to read ever again. But I do reread my diss and my bar mitzvah speech every year. Rereading these classics keeps me well informed.
posted by Postroad at 4:10 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


Self-publishing companies may produce books for less than $5, but how much does all this production cost readers? In “So Many Books,” Zaid playfully writes that “if a mass-market paperback costs $10 and takes two hours to read, for a minimum-wage earner the time spent is worth as much as the book.” But for someone earning around $50 to $500 an hour, “the cost of buying and reading the book is $100 to $1,000” — not including the time it takes to find out about the book and track it down.
Asinine. By that logic I should never watch a movie, read a blog, make dinner, have sex, or brush my teeth. This assumes that all time is created equal and determined by your job. My hourly pay work out to be pretty good, considering an 8 hour work day and a 40 hour week. But my job doesn't pay me when I go home, and they won't pay me to hang around and do extra work.

By the same token, my job couldn't pay me to not take a vacation (or hell even to not have my 6pm martini)

This is a publishing industry problem. All those new authors are new readers, but they're reading their author-friend's stuff on livejournal, blogspot, and wherever for free.

This is problem for the decrepit publishing industry to work out, not the downfall of western civilization.
posted by device55 at 4:13 PM on April 26, 2008 [4 favorites]


One of the reasons I like the short story is that it allows me to "try out" an author in a quick, bite-sized nugget--but many authors don't even bother to write short stories.

but any respectable book store wont mind if you sit down (they will usually provise some nice reading chairs) and read a page or a chapter to test a potential book/author. An experienced reader should be able to make an educated guess from that sample.
posted by mannequito at 4:16 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Poetry already is where the rest of us are going: all producers and no consumers. Our collective loss, of course (as it was with poetry) will be monumental. There will be a couple centuries of shit, then something as fine, as difficult, and as granular as prose literature will rise again.
posted by Faze at 4:18 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the author of the piece makes a predictable mistake by focusing her argument too much on self-publishing and today's vanity presses (iUniverse, etc); the argument is actually much stronger if one considers just what the traditional publishers are publishing--and how much of it goes unread.

Having worked in publishing on and off for many years, I can attest to an economic model that encourages over-publishing.

Many publishers feel compelled to publish more rather than less b/c they know in advance that:

a) bestsellers cannot be depended on on any kind of regular basis; one has to hedge one's bets on more rather than less and
b) as long as they meet certain minimal margins for most of their books, they will be better off planning for high returns...

B/c the trade is a returnable business (i.e. stores return to publishers massive amounts of books that do not sell), and b/c the better shelf-space and display space requires publishers to pay the retailers "co-operative" advertising money, the whole industry is geared towards a steady stream of unread books. And thus the reason publishers are now keen on print-on-demand/instant publishing models is b/c it allows them, at least in theory, to keep backlist inventories to a minimum. Trade publishing historically was for the most part a cottage industry, and there is every indication it is headed back in that direction.
posted by ornate insect at 4:29 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


mannequito, I disagree. A novel is generally a huge work, and qualities inherent in the whole may not be clear in a page or two. The same goes for flaws, of course. I would never have read Kafka on the Shore on the strength of a small snippet, but it ended up being an excellent and enjoyable book... and one of the books which I did buy based on the "read a bit of it" methodology, Foucault's Pendulum, I never bothered to finish.

On the other hand, a short story is usually designed to be read alone, and it displays in a nutshell many of an author's finer points. If an author can create a compelling plot and characters in the space of a ten thousand word story, I am much more likely to read and enjoy his novels. Some people fall part at the "grand project" level, of course, but these are relatively rare. The best authors are good at any length.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:31 PM on April 26, 2008


Just like dinosaurs, over millions of years evolved from great ravenous king-beasts into cute little tweeting birds - Poetry has evolved from lumbering cultural dead weight into popular music and hip hop.

Sure, there are a few Loch Ness Monsters lurking around Universities on academic life support desperately jamming their fingers in their ears pretending not to hear the alarm clock shouting "You're missing the 21st century!" but they don't really matter in the grand scheme of things.

See also: Painting.
posted by device55 at 4:32 PM on April 26, 2008 [8 favorites]


device5 -- I think you're right about poetry. And painting.
posted by Faze at 4:39 PM on April 26, 2008


I have an aunt who was born in 1900 and died 20 years ago. She had a privileged upbringing with private tutors and it was considered proper that she should learn to paint, play music and write poetry, stories and letters to a high standard. Recently I looked at a book she and a friend had composed, lettered, illustrated and bound when they were about 13 - I was amazed by the quality of it but apparently that standard of authorship was considered par for the course by those who had had an education like this.

My schooling was not like that. The emphasis was much more on studying what others had produced. Being an author or a musician was something you did as a profession when you grew up and if you found an agent. The expectation was that you would go for a big audience or nothing at all.

I suspect that the tend for more people to produce their own stuff is more of a reversion to some of the habits that were prevalent when my aunt was growing up rather than anything new. A blog and music sequencer are understood and readily available now in the way that letter writing paper and pianos were then.
posted by rongorongo at 4:42 PM on April 26, 2008 [11 favorites]


See also: Painting.

What do you mean? Graffiti = modern painting?
posted by msalt at 4:42 PM on April 26, 2008


see also: talking and listening.
posted by jonmc at 4:43 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


msalt, more like print advertising, postcards, film, TV, magazines, and printed t-shirts = modern painting.

Painting was a highly valued, difficult, expensive means to visually communicate something. It was only affordable by the wealthy or the powerful and required special equipment, training, and talent to do well.

And then cameras were invented.
posted by device55 at 4:49 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


I just don't understand the griping about too many books being published. I'm quite sure that every reader out there relies on various methods to select books that they are likely to enjoy (e.g. reviews, recommendations from friends, AskMe questions, etc.), so I fail to see the problem if the field of available books expands. I care about the quality of the books that I read, but I don't care at all about the general quality of all book published.
posted by ssg at 4:51 PM on April 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


ssg, I agree. It's a non-problem.

An over abundance of ideas and stories to choose from and material to read? The horror!
posted by device55 at 4:54 PM on April 26, 2008


Me$5Filter
posted by anthill at 4:57 PM on April 26, 2008


But I do care about the quality of MeFi comments, dear reader, and so I correct myself: ...the general quality of all books published.
posted by ssg at 4:58 PM on April 26, 2008


device55—I agree with you, particularly about poetry. Poetry as it exists today is an ossified, sort of silly caricature of what it has been. There are a few modern poets who I think will be fondly remembered, but most "poetry" just isn't very interesting. The few poets who are interesting you never hear about: Edward Dorn's Gunslinger should be considered a modern classic, but I learned about it only by chance.

And of course no "cultural authority" would call Sam Beam or Leonard Cohen a great poet.
posted by sonic meat machine at 4:58 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


ssm - great links - yes, I suspect cultural authorities are more concerned about shoring up their authority than anything.

But maybe I'm cynical.
posted by device55 at 5:03 PM on April 26, 2008


The percentage of active readers in the population might be going down but the absolute numbers are going up.
posted by clockworkjoe at 5:10 PM on April 26, 2008


That's because the absolute number of people is going up, Captain Pedantic.
posted by jonmc at 5:17 PM on April 26, 2008


As an aside: Leonard Cohen is considered a great poet, actually...his work is included in anthologies of Canadian poetry, and I studied his work as an undergrad. That's a "cultural authority", right? Sometimes they get it right. :)
posted by Hildegarde at 5:20 PM on April 26, 2008


Exactly. This article is misleading. It implies that civilization is somehow declining because of a lack of readership when this simply isn't true. This is a tempest in a teapot.
posted by clockworkjoe at 5:21 PM on April 26, 2008


The few poets who are interesting you never hear about: Edward Dorn's Gunslinger should be considered a modern classic, but I learned about it only by chance.

Doesn't this imply that interesting poets may not be so few, but that you as a reader just aren't aware of them? Try some Jennifer Knox, some Sabrina Orah Mark, some Lucia Perillo, some Matthea Harvey, some Mary Jo Bang, some Katie Degentesh, some Zachary Schomburg, some Christian Bök, some Dean Young, some Tony Hoagland, some Albert Goldbarth, some Nate Mackey. Seriously. Try some.

And Ed Dorn's Gunslinger IS considered a modern classic.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 5:36 PM on April 26, 2008 [13 favorites]


Poetry already is where the rest of us are going: all producers and no consumers. Our collective loss, of course (as it was with poetry) will be monumental.

Or maybe the producer/consumer model is losing traction. Seems to be happening in music, to much applause from nearly everyone but major label execs. Not sure why it should be a "monumental loss" when it comes to writing/publishing.

The poetry communities I'm aware of are incredibly engaged, vibrant, stimulating, etc., in part because market forces don't whittle their output down to what's most palatable to the broadest demographics.

Please, let all forms of Big Media go the way poetry has gone. Maybe then we'll become a culture that actually cares about art as much as it does about profitability and mass hero-worship.
posted by treepour at 5:43 PM on April 26, 2008


I recently wrote a book of poetry and it sold several thousand copies. Of course, that might be because no one actually knew it was poetry (i.e., I composed it in free verse and then edited it into standard paragraphs). This amuses me, I have to say.

I see nothing but upside in people writing and self-publishing, especially now that companies like Lulu make it easy for them to do so without falling prey to avaricious vanity presses. People who self-publish are in love with the idea of writing, and in love with the idea of books. Both are good for me personally, and good for the idea of a literate society moving forward.
posted by jscalzi at 6:14 PM on April 26, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'll, bite. John... which book was that? (I'm guessing, The Sagan Diary?)
posted by deCadmus at 6:42 PM on April 26, 2008


Powerful Religious Baby, sure there are good poets, but filtering is one of the major issues (as I noted up-thread). I read (well, in the past tense—I don't have as much time recently) poetry journals and magazines and found myself reading a lot of really dull "MFA fodder,"

the sort of poetry that's called
"poetry"
because the "poet"
and here I use the term loosely
has learned to use her "enter" key.

There was very little of the incredible language that is to be found in poetry I would consider "great." Gunslinger I didn't hear of—despite study in the field and pleasure reading—until I made a typo in an Amazon search and it was returned as a result. (Serendipity!)

Hildegarde: Glad to hear it. :)
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:08 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


There's still a huge gap between the conventional publishers and the small publishing/self-publishing world. The big bookstore chains that dominate the industry typically will not carry titles from the latter, even when there's money to be made.

Starting Strength, for example, is a hugely popular book on weightlifting that you can't find in chain bookstores.

A quote:

"Lemme tell you about the book business. We are on Amazon because of a program they have called Amazon Advantage, that enables small publishers to sell directly to Amazon. The retail book business is obviously dominated by the companies you cite: B&N, Borders, and their subsidiaries, and these companies will not enter into a wholesale relationship with any publishing company that represents fewer than ten titles, like us. Small publishers typically go through an aggregate wholesaler, like Ingraham or Baker and Taylor. We will not deal with these rapists, and therefore we are not in stores, and will not be for quite some time.

But I believe that we may be the highest rated independent title on Amazon, with BBT having reached 613 at one point in early January. We are frequently ahead of Arnold's book, usually ahead of NROL, and all of the Human Kinetics titles except Delavier's anatomy book, even considering the fact that we are twice as much money. " -- Mark Rippetoe

posted by jason's_planet at 8:10 PM on April 26, 2008


Long-established poetry journals serve a purpose, but they're no longer the place to look for truly new language, in my opinion. Happily, online magazines like Jacket, Octopus, Fascicle, Diagram, Blackbird, No Tell Motel, Exquisite Corpse, and Coconut are rising up to supplement if not supplant them. And they're free!
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 8:32 PM on April 26, 2008


Poetry has evolved from lumbering cultural dead weight into popular music and hip hop.

Most popular culture stuff is not very challenging, by definition it is meant to be entertaining, usually titillating to the senses, but not hard and challenging. What's it mean for arts and letters if we "evolve" away from challenging art (which is ultimately the most rewarding), to art that is basically McDonalds - looks good, feels good, easy, has no substance. This is not idle hand wringing, so-called "cultural studies" programs are replacing what used to be a common knowledge of the "classics", the very idea of "canonical" is under scrutiny. This leads to a fragmentation of knowledge, isolation - like being on the outside of an in-joke (a common experience on many Internet message boards). I think many people sense this and it is driving them back to the classics, back to canonical works, as a way to connect with others on common ground. Thus I would argue in this age of over-abundance we need canonical works and study more than ever.
posted by stbalbach at 9:03 PM on April 26, 2008 [4 favorites]


Or maybe the producer/consumer model is losing traction. Seems to be happening in music, to much applause from nearly everyone but major label execs. Not sure why it should be a "monumental loss" when it comes to writing/publishing.

Absolutely. And I think intimidation was what kept a lot of amateur writers away. And, just like music, it draws dabblers who may never become very good (often because of the almost completely mythical story of the gifted amateur to whom it comes naturally). And it's sad that people are so stuck in the consumer model that they care more about the loss of quality as an average, than about fostering a culture of participation in creative activity. Participation doesn't have to mean a loss of appreciation for more complex works. I don't stop appreciating Rembrandt because I mess around a bit with paints. On the contrary, I appreciate him more.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:16 PM on April 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


As a part time poet, I'm part of this problem. I add to the number of authors, and I don't really read that much. Of course, in the past, I've decried the death of the reader & waved my hands in anger over the large numbers of bad poets that got in the way of my craft and my potentially huge audience.

But I think my hatred of the glut of people who write rather than read poetry is bullshit. Anyone complaining about the death of the reader is usually complaining about the lack of their own audience. I've stopped worrying about being published and as a consequence, I've been able to get back to what I love about writing. Which primarily, is a love of creating.

As for readers who are unable to find the truly good works which exist democratically alongside those which are bad. Well, tough. Part of your problem doesn't exist. All art is filtered through time, and as such older books and paintings and poetry collections are going to be better on aggregate. You can give up and go back to these works, or you can continue struggling through the new in order to find something that you enjoy. As for me, I'll continue writing.

Finally, I'd suggest that the problem here is not so much a reduction in "quality". The problem is a change in the reading habits of people. What you want to read is not what most people want to read. Because of that, you're either going to have to look harder for stuff you like or you're going to have to finish that time machine so it takes you back to some halcyon day when they enjoyed "real literature".
posted by seanyboy at 4:57 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think the issue is a combination of an antiquated business model on the side of the publishers combined with the fact that we have been trained to have a shorter attention span. That seems like bad news for novels but good news for whatever comes next.

We have seen it in music with the revolution brought about by the iPod. For a long time, the idea of buying a single was something that only hardcore music fans did, usually to get whatever the 'bonus' song was. Everyone else bought the full album on CD or vinyl. Now the single has been brought back to life. As for me, I listen to more music with the iPod than I have in years. The last time I was this into music I was in high school and had nothing better to do than buy albums and sit around listening to them.

Literature is in the same position, but nobody has hit on the next distribution model. You can see Amazon trying with the Kindle, but god is that thing ugly and clunky. I wish Apple would add an e-book module to the iPhone. I can't see reading a novel that way, but I would definitely read short stories that way. Last year I signed up for a service that emails a single novel page per day. So every day for the past year I have been receiving a page of Moby Dick in my inbox. It's too unpleasant reading it that way, though, so I haven't kept up.

When I look at how most people are reading these days--blogs, message boards, articles, even forwarded emails (god help us)--I can't help but think the short story is about to make a big comeback. It won't be by way of the current distribution model, though. I don't know what it will be, but it will be different.

Do you know what would revive the novel? A serious, nationwide implementation of public transportation. Maybe global warming combined with high gas prices will save the novel. In the short term, novel writers can at least count on having an audience comprised of Hollywood producers.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 5:26 AM on April 27, 2008 [3 favorites]


Poetry has evolved from lumbering cultural dead weight into popular music and hip hop.

You hear me, rest of the world that isn't governed by the Brooklyn zeitgeist?! Stop writing words! Your American masters have reached the end of cultural evolution; and it turns out that our black obelisk, our 42, was Nas on an iPhone.
posted by kid ichorous at 5:46 AM on April 27, 2008 [4 favorites]


deCadmus:

The Sagan Diary
is indeed the one.

The Loch Ness Monster:


"Do you know what would revive the novel? A serious, nationwide implementation of public transportation."

What will revive the novel is novelists remembering they are storytellers first and foremost. Look at the bestsellers in every genre and what you realize is regardless of the literary "quality" of the books, the authors know how to tell a story in a way that keeps people entertained, and wanting to find out what happens next.
posted by jscalzi at 6:20 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


jscalzi, that's what I meant to say. I don't know what I was thinking.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 6:27 AM on April 27, 2008


jscalzi, Your point is taken. I am hoping for a backlash against "reality" media. Kiablokirk said upthread:
I think a big part of it is that at some point we started seeing art that didn't really have plots, but which was just several moments of personal revelation strung together, and suddenly everyone felt that their life was art even though nothing had really happened to them.
and that's dead on, and you're right too. But there are also trends in reading that have as much to do with the lifestyle of the reader as they do the craftsmanship of the author.

As for the "problem" of the proliferation of amateur writers, I can't see it as anything but good for literature. There will be those amateur writers who are terrible, and those who turn out to be good. From the article:
About would-be writers, André Gide used to say: ‘Découragez! Découragez!’”(discourage!), Zaid said in an e-mail message. “The implication was that real writers would not be discouraged, and the rest would save a lot of time. Of course, some mediocrities are never discouraged, and some potential real writers would be lost. But there is so much talent around that we can afford it.
But I say, let everybody write. There will be those who care nothing about writing and only want to be a rich and famous authors; there will be those who think their common life will be fascinating to everyone else. Whatever. The problem, if it really is a problem, solves itself. The people who only want fame will never get their books written, and the people who write their reality dramas will either publish or not, but either way nobody is forcing me to read them, so I couldn't care less.

On the flip side there are people who write for no other reason than catharsis. More power to them. Some of those will write something good, some will not. There are people who will write because they have something to say. Some of their books will be important, some will not.

I don't believe that the health of the publishing industry is the same thing as the health of modern literature.
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 7:24 AM on April 27, 2008


I have several books on my "to read" shelf, including a biography of Sir John A. MacDonald and Richard Ford's Independance Day. I have been reading them here and there in chunks over the past few months while I concentrate on writing my own novel. Around June or July, when I finish the novel-writing, I can get back to reading -- be part of the solution rather than the problem, as it were. Too many cooks and not enough customers in this here restaurant, y'know?
posted by spoobnooble at 8:11 AM on April 27, 2008


On a somewhat related topic, does anyone know what percentage of total paper use is dedicated to books? The environmental impact of book production seems like a relevant factor in the question of whether a "bad" book deserves to be published or not.

My totally uneducated guess is that the primary consumers of paper (to keep it simple, in North America) are:

1) packaging
2) newspapers
3) magazines
4) books
5) home computers, fax machines, etc.

Can anyone tell me anything about this?
posted by crazylegs at 9:19 AM on April 27, 2008


I don't read things published after the '70s (usually the 1870s, actually). Not because there aren't good contemporary books to read, but because I would have to wade through an infinitely expanding pile of crappy free verse and Twee Brooklyn Novels to find anything at all that fits my taste. So I use the best filter there is: time. It works for me.
posted by nasreddin at 9:29 AM on April 27, 2008 [1 favorite]


#:Painting was a highly valued, difficult, expensive means to visually communicate something. It was only affordable by the wealthy or the powerful and required special equipment, training, and talent to do well.

And then cameras were invented.


I passed this to a colleague that I went to (Ivy League) Painting School with and it's initiated an interesting conversation thread. I don't know about you guys, but there seems to be a similar 'crisis' in the visual arts, especially when undergrad performance artists create fake abortion tempests at Yale.

As someone who's ended up being interested in visual storytelling, I don't ever recalling any of my high-priced instructors introducing me to Scott McCloud or Robert McKee. That much was a carryover from my lifelong interest in film and comic books. The film courses I took filled-in from time to time, but none of that instruction was as beneficial as McCloud's Comics 101.

John Badessari and Jasper Johns are instructive for learning about sequential narrativity, but McCloud does a far better job of just breaking it down.

To wit, storytelling is something that needs to be re-learned by visual artists everywhere.

</stepping off virtual soapbox, waiting to be thrashed about the head and neck...
posted by vhsiv at 10:06 AM on April 27, 2008


The poetry communities I'm aware of are incredibly engaged, vibrant, stimulating, etc., in part because market forces don't whittle their output down to what's most palatable to the broadest demographics.

Please, let all forms of Big Media go the way poetry has gone.


I understand one might had fun at the latest open-mike poetry slam at one's neighborhood bar and there were quite a lot of people there, but the problem is here is that there is nothing Big Media about poets selling a few hundred copies, if they're lucky. How much does Charles Simic sell? And Charles Wright? Either those elusive poetry-loving masses you talk about are downloading Simic's stuff off of the Internet for free instead of buying it (poetry torrents? really?) or, as Faze pointed out, nobody really cares about buying and reading poetry books anymore except a very, very, very, very small number of people. And getting smaller every year.
posted by matteo at 10:41 AM on April 27, 2008


My totally uneducated guess is that the primary consumers of paper (to keep it simple, in North America) are:

1) packaging
2) newspapers
3) magazines
4) books
5) home computers, fax machines, etc.

Can anyone tell me anything about this?
posted by crazylegs at 12:19 PM on April 27


Don't forget offices. I work in admin and I go through about half of a package of printer paper a day, printing out reports for people and the like. There's a whole army of people like me wasting paper for things that (by and large) could be done electronically.
posted by joannemerriam at 11:38 AM on April 27, 2008


Short stories are a catch-22 business for aspiring professional writers. It's quite rare that an agent or large publisher will take on a collection of short stories as a writer's first book, yet the professional writer must often hone his craft and make a name for himself by publishing short stories (usually in magazines or anthologies). Success stories of first time novelists getting a book contract without any previous accomplishments are even more rare. The message that aspiring writers receive is that short stories are not marketable, that no one is reading them.

If you have time, an open invitation to read Three-lobed Burning Eye magazine (editor: me) which has believed in the integrity of the short story and provided it to the quick-clicking internet audience for nearly a decade. Or I offer a few of my own fictions.
posted by asfuller at 11:59 AM on April 27, 2008 [2 favorites]


(Sigh) Tell me about it. Hard enough to write a book, hard enough to sell a book, but then you have to even get your book noticed. Some folks have even resorted to fake controversies to get themselves noticed ...
posted by MChristian at 1:18 PM on April 27, 2008


The message that aspiring writers receive is that short stories are not marketable, that no one is reading them.

Not at all. The message is simply that they don't sell in book form. People are reading them avidly, in magazines, literary reviews and on websites. They use them the same way agents and publishers do -- to decide who has shown enough talent and work, on a short story, to justify reading an entire novel of theirs.
posted by msalt at 3:06 PM on April 27, 2008


Graphomania is not a desire to write letters, diaries, or family chronicles (to write for oneself or one's immediate family); it is a desire to write books (to have a public of unknown readers). [...] Graphomania (an obsession with writing books) takes on the proportions of a mass epidemic whenever a society develops to the point where it can provide three basic conditions:

1. A high enough degree of general well-being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities;
2. An adcanced state of social atomisation and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual;
3. a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation.

Milan Kundera, The book of laughter and forgetting, 1978

Kundera goes on to say that "everyone surrounds himself [sic] with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without."

Découragez! Découragez!
posted by yoHighness at 5:02 PM on April 27, 2008


Découragez! Découragez!

Everyone except Milan Kundera, André Gide, and me!
posted by The Loch Ness Monster at 6:18 PM on April 27, 2008


The message that aspiring writers receive is that short stories are not marketable, that no one is reading them.

Not at all. The message is simply that they don't sell in book form. People are reading them avidly, in magazines, literary reviews and on websites. They use them the same way agents and publishers do -- to decide who has shown enough talent and work, on a short story, to justify reading an entire novel of theirs.


We're in a golden age of short stories, unless you want to get paid for them. In my own neck of the woods, there's Thug Lit, Demolition, Plots With Guns and Hardluck Stories. Eighty years ago the contributors might have made a living writing for Black Mask. But eighty years ago everyone probably smelled awful and had bad teeth. So, trade-off.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:57 PM on April 27, 2008


So how do you enter that second category? One of the reasons I like the short story is that it allows me to "try out" an author in a quick, bite-sized nugget--but many authors don't even bother to write short stories. They dream of Stephen King-style fame and riches, and dive right into a 1300 page Great American Novel. It's silly. Writing is as hard as any other art, and easy/cheap publishing doesn't change the fact that most writers don't spend a great deal of time honing their craft before turning out their potboiler.

Sonic Meat Machine, that almost reads as if you think that short stories are like novels, only shorter. That's not the case, and there are many novelists who don't write short stories, and short story writers who don't write novels. It's because they're not comfortable with the form, or because they recognise their own limitations, or because the story they have to tell at that time needs a sprawling canvas, or a miniature frame, not because they can't be bothered with it.

Writing short stories is not necessarily honing your craft to write a novel. It's honing your craft to write short stories. And vice versa.
posted by reynir at 1:40 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


No, reynir, that's not what I think at all. Short stories are a completely different form: shorter (obviously), more densely plotted and usually "sketched" settings... but I think the skills generally transfer. If you're a good short story writer, you're probably going to be a decent novelist. There are exceptions, of course: I love Stephen King's short work, but his long work is bloated and empty, and many "genre" novelists don't seem to understand the idea of the short and write it very badly, but most great writers are versatile and write well at any length. Gene Wolfe, for example—my favorite SF author—has written compelling work from the multi-series epic (The Book of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, The Book of the Short Sun), the series (the Latro novels), the novel (Peace, etc.), the novella ("Forlesen") and the short ("La Befana," "The Death of the Island Doctor," etc.). William Faulkner wrote great novels, great novellas, and great shorts. Leo Tolstoy, though of an older vintage, wrote great novels and great shorts.

Modern novels would be greatly improved by the fundamental understanding of language and writing which short stories confer upon the writer.
posted by sonic meat machine at 1:55 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


Or maybe the producer/consumer model is losing traction. Seems to be happening in music, to much applause from nearly everyone but major label execs. Not sure why it should be a "monumental loss" when it comes to writing/publishing.

I don't think the end of this transition needs to be terrible, but I can see at least a few aspects of why it's hard:

(1) The economic disruption makes it hard for some people in career positions where the current model somehow supported a life that allowed them to focus on and develop their art.
(2) A less pre-sorted sheer volume of work will eventually make lots of people indifferent and hard to reach (especially when the inevitable 80% turns out to be crap)
(3) For a while, even though the direction may be the end of the producer/consumer distinction, a lot of new producers are still going to expect and be reaching for the former level of stardom being a producer allowed, ie, lots of newfound producers don't want to listen/read.

As a part time poet, I'm part of this problem. I add to the number of authors, and I don't really read that much. Of course, in the past, I've decried the death of the reader & waved my hands in anger over the large numbers of bad poets that got in the way of my craft and my potentially huge audience.

But I think my hatred of the glut of people who write rather than read poetry is bullshit. Anyone complaining about the death of the reader is usually complaining about the lack of their own audience.


I really buy that the first audience member an artist has to satisfy is him/herself, but I also think it's perfectly valid to complain at least a bit about lack of an audience. -- in particular, the producers who don't read/listen.

At the bad open mics I go to, a lot of performers at open mics show up, do their set, and then leave. They don't realize that listeners are topsoil for even the purest artists, and since pure artists are rare, more essential for even the garden-variety sort. And that listening to other work (even bad work, if you do it right) is fertilizer for your own artistic impulses. So what happens? Nobody learns anything or meets anybody, people don't stick to what's going on, readers/listeners decline, publications and events get canceled.

The good open mics? Most of the artists will stick around -- some for the entire evening, some for at least a handful of sets after theirs. They'll listen and comment to other people about what they like. People respond to this and come back. You end up with a community of growing artists.

The audience shapes the development of the art...
posted by weston at 4:58 PM on April 28, 2008 [1 favorite]


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