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writing, yes; reading, not so much

More bleak book news from the New York Times:

The point may soon come when there are more people who want to write books than there are people who want to read them.

At least, that is what the evidence suggests. Booksellers, hobbled by the economic crisis, are struggling to lure readers. Almost all of the New York publishing houses are laying off editors and pinching pennies. Small bookstores are closing. Big chains are laying people off or exploring bankruptcy.

A recently released study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that while more people are reading literary fiction, fewer of them are reading books.

Meanwhile, there is one segment of the industry that is actually flourishing: capitalizing on the dream of would-be authors to see their work between covers, companies that charge writers and photographers to publish are growing rapidly at a time when many mainstream publishers are losing ground. [...]

“Even if you’re sitting at a dinner party, if you ask how many people want to write a book, everyone will say, ‘I’ve got a book or two in me,’” said Kevin Weiss, chief executive of Author Solutions. “We don’t see a letup in the number of people who are interested in writing.”

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing. A publishing contract simply means that a business thinks they can make money from a particular piece of writing: if publication’s any measure of aesthetic value, it’s only indirectly. No, what’s depressing about the NYT piece is the suggestion of writing perceived as self-valorisation rather than communication.

Of course, writing always involves ego. But if the book’s just about my need to see myself as creative, what’s in it for anyone else? Hence the gulf between the desire of people to write and the desire of people to read.

It’s the same phenomenon manifested in the Australian poetry scene. As has often been said, if a tiny proportion of those who wrote poetry actually bought the poems of others, well, the infrastructure of contemporary poetry would be transformed.

In any other context, someone who talked but never listened would be unbearable. Why should it be any different with writing?

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Jeff Sparrow is the former editor of Overland. He is the co-author (with Jill Sparrow) of Radical Melbourne: A Secret History and Radical Melbourne 2: The Enemy Within, the editor (with Antony Loewenstein) of Left Turn: Essays for the New Left and the author of Communism: a love story, Killing: Misadventures in violence, and Money Shot: A Journey into Censorship and Porn.  On Twitter, he's @Jeff_Sparrow.

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  1. I think this is why the spoken word (or specifically, ‘poetry slamming’) community in Australia, or at least in Melbourne, is thriving. To be in it, you have to have an audience, so if you suck, the audience dwindles … it also makes sense to also OFFER audience to others if you rely on one yourself. Also, the feedback is instantaneous: there is little room for self delusion when a room full of your peers votes you down. With the written word, particularly with poetry, I think self-cocooning can work to fuel people’s delusions. (“No-one has bought my book because people don’t buy poetry anymore, and it’s a fledgling industry not because I can’t write decent poetry and am totally self-absorbed”)

    Of course, much literary opinion has it us apparently ‘new gen’ spoken word-sters are not ‘real poets’ and have brought the death of an honourable art, but there you go.

    Interestingly though, I read recently that movie sales/downloads have by far increased since the financial crisis hit: cheap entertainment as opposed to going out for the night.

    Which begs the question, what could bring cheaper entertainment than a visit to the local library? Are people borrowing rather than buying for the moment? If so, this might be bad news for up-and-comers looking for a publisher, and perhaps good news for existing authors (though I’m not completely up to scratch on Public Lending Right royalties: is there an allocated govt amount per year divided by books borrowed, or will the total pot increase if more people are borrowing?)

    Also, are less readers necessarily a bad thing if they are reading better quality work? If more literary writing is being read, surely that means what IS published will be more literary?

    All a bit chicken & egg really. And speaking of chickens, I was disappointed I didn’t get to see what they were up to yesterday.

    And speaking more of chickens, Recaptcha spam filter says ‘litter changed’ – I reckon ASIO is spying on your leftist cat-hating chicken talk through some affiliation with Recaptcha.

  2. I think that raises some really interesting questions. In her judge’s report for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize (which will appear in the forthcoming Overland), Keri Glastonbury suggests something similar: that poetry (and not just slam poetry) should consist of an entire context: the events, the community, the intereactions, and so on. (I hope I’d rendering her argument fairly).
    Blogs are kinda similar, aren’t they: the attraction comes from the dialogue and the links, as much as anything.
    It’s funny you should mention libraries, too, cos it’s something I’ve been thinking about. I participated in an event hosted by the City Library in Flinders Street last week. This was on the first day of the heat wave, when it was forty-five degrees or something, and yet the place was still packed with people borrowing books, signing up for classes, going to literary discussions and so on. The whole thing seemed incredibly vibrant — and the complete opposite of a literary culture that exists solely to get your name in print.
    As for chickens, let’s just say that they don’t much like hot weather. Might post something soon.
    Recaptcha is a tool of Satan.

  3. Glastonbury’s idea of context sounds interesting.

    How do you reconcile the vibrancy of a local library’s readership with the decline of those publishing houses? It would be interesting seeing the sort of books people were lending. I wonder if there’d be a high or low coincidence of books within those being borrowed from public libraries and those issuing out of the publishing houses?

  4. It’s partly a comparison of two different countries. Dunno what the libraries are like in the US but there’s a bunch of publishers in Australia doing quite well.
    That being said, I do think that providing a sense of participation and community is going to be more and more important to anyone in writing, as literature becomes more marginal. That’s an argument Mark Davis makes here (http://web.overland.org.au/?page_id=102)) where he talks about the possibilities for small press in ‘an era of ‘new humanisms’ where people are looking for alternatives to and critiques of the ideas and language of market culture, where there is a desire for meaning and content that reaches beyond the glib, or where histories and their narratives increasingly clash and search for ‘working through’ and resolution, or where the idea of ‘craft’ (to take Richard Sennett’s meaning of the term, as a set of practices that disturb the logic of the new capitalism) has growing cultural resonance’.

  5. What I find interesting about Davis’ article is that it’s entirely an analysis of what the indie publisher should do faced with the mainstream market; it doesn’t touch upon the form, content, or ideas of the fiction the publisher is representing. There’s a quick reference of Kate Grenville and Richard Flanagan, in a positive light, and a humourous wince about ‘My Brother Jack’ (which I’ve never read, actually).

    I would think there was another side to the discussion, about what Oz literature *isn’t* doing to promote interest from a readership (presuming their attention could be attracted). Davis’ article was focused on the market, fair enough, but I’d find it interesting to hear about whether readers really do find their appetite for reading satisfied with what is currently appearing.

    Cheers.

    P.S. Yes, Kaptcha is evil.

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