Writers On Writing
Installment # 6: "The Dickens Of It "
As our ship sails over the horizon, these thoughts from the observation deck:
For writers, these are truly the best and worst of times. If youre the sort of
writer whose primary interest is freedom of expression and getting your material out there
somewhere for someone to read, the current state of affairs must look pretty
good to you; certainly its better than it was, say, a decade ago. The printed
literary magazines have more visibility now than during the 1970s and 80s and a few
the revived Story, for instance are relative newcomers to
the dance. Additionally, the Internet has generated scores of sites like Our Own Worthy Trefftpunkt,
many of which boast an audience as large or larger than their hard-copy cousins.
If your goal is simply to appear in print, your number of potential outlets has grown
and continues to grow. On the other hand, for those whose goal is to be paid for their
work, perhaps even to make a living from the words they create, these are indeed tough
times. This is not solely the opinion of your Uncle Brucie the publishers,
writers, retailers, editors, and agents who will tell you the same thing number into the
hundreds, if not the thousands. Who has caused the situation to erode during this past
decade? Here are just a few of the culprits:
THE SUPERSTORE BOOKSELLERS. I know youre
thinking, "How can a store stocking over 100,000 titles be a villain?" Let me
answer the question with a question: "How many of those 100,000 titles are poetry,
novels, or story collections?" Not many, not compared to their number of
"non-books" the interminable "For Dummies" and
"Idiots Guide" series... the rows upon rows of titles that tell you how to
beat the current hot video games... the coffee table books that are long on pictures,
short on text. The Superstores care little about writing as art; their primary concern is
the bottom line.
Further, Superstores have driven up publishers order quantities. Editors once
would buy a first novel with projected sales of 10,000 copies. No more. The minimum
satisfactory sales projection is closer to 25,000. Why has that number grown? Because
publishers are now shoveling product into the Superstores rapacious maws. Through
their ordering patterns, Superstore managers have effectively become The New Editors, a
classic case of the tail wagging the dog.
Finally, the Superstores have an unfortunate habit of crippling or killing
independently-run bookstores, the places that are typically the writers best friend.
Though superstores have their uses, in many ways wed be better off without them.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MIDLIST. Historically
there is a long list of fictioneers who built solid reputations as "midlist
authors," producing paperback originals that were never less than competent and
occasionally scaled the heights of greatness. Some writers moved from the midlist to
best-sellerdom (John D. MacDonald immediately springs to mind), some spent their lives
there, doing respectable, journeyman work (Richard Matheson, John Brunner). Most
important, this was the cradle for new talent, a fertile birthing-ground for many a
In 1999 we find the midlist shriveled into a shadow of its former self. As a result,
the opportunities for writers especially first-time novelists
Certain writers and editors (and writer/editors) have claimed the withering of the
midlist does not bother them: "It was in trouble for years," they claim with a
sniff. "Even if thats true," my Writers On Writing co-author Doug
Thornsjo observed, "how come no one bothered to ask why it was in trouble, or
how it could be fixed? They rushed to toss away the baby with the bathwater."
Somewhere out there right now is a writer who should be the next John D. MacDonald or
Richard Matheson except his career will never be launched because the midlist
is no longer strong enough to nurture and sustain him until he realizes his full
potential... and those of us who would have loved his fiction are diminished as a result.
THE DYING OF THE WORD. As a form of entertainment, the
word is old news. The novels peak of popularity was late in the 19th Century, the
short storys was the magazine explosion of the 1930s. Since then the new kids on the
popular entertainment block have combined audio and video (movies) in individual homes
(television) and allowed the audience an increasing level of participation (video games,
computers). The changes that lie ahead in the 21st Century seem more likely to promote the
cause of interactivity rather than the pleasures of the written word.
Unless we are careful, there is a possibility writers will become as quaint and
old-fashioned and about as numerous as blacksmiths or
barrel-wrights are today.
LOOK AROUND YOU. The final group of villains is the
scariest of all, because they are Ourselves. Or at least that portion of Ourselves that
buy movie and TV novelizations or the latest John Grisham and Danielle Steel piffery while
the superior output of lesser-known authors languishes unread. They are the ones who take
root inside a literary niche and then blind themselves to the dozens of types of material
they would enjoy just as much if only they could be convinced to try
something new. They are the ones who assume "bigger" is automatically
"better" and abandon their independently-run bookstore the moment a Superstore
opens in the nearest strip-mall. They are the writers who believe their job is done once
the manuscript is turned in, who never invest a moment to try growing the audience or
promoting the fun and value of reading for pleasure.
There is no shortage of threats to the future of imaginative written fiction, and in
recent years the battle has become even more difficult. It is not over yet, however. If
you are like me you believe in the worth of the scrawl and you feel writing is the noblest
of callings. You are prepared to do what must be done to preserve not only our
livelihoods, but the livelihoods of generations to follow.
So what have you done today. . .?
This is the final installment of Writers On Writing for The Cortland
Review by Douglas Thornsjo and Bruce Canwell. We both thank you for sampling our
opinions, anecdotes, and predictions. We consider the time we spent producing this past
year of columns to be well spent; we only hope you feel the same way about the time you
spent reading them.