Tag Archives: the death of literature

The Death of Books Is Nigh

For various reasons (some very clear, some not), we’re in a very apocalyptic period, and people tend to love to hear “end of everything” arguments. For some reason I’m not quite clear on (though it probably involves getting hits via the Twitter), people who write for the mass media love to cheer the apocalypse on. I don’t really disagree very much that we live in difficult times or that the literary world is getting squeezed about as much as other facets of society, but if you look at what’s going on in the industry you have to be seriously dishonest or myopic or something to think that reading is dying. People are buying millions of devices costing hundreds of dollars with no other end function than to read a book! Amazing! Publishers have an entirely new format to monetize and spin off into new products! Fantastic! The numbers of books being published and people writing them continues to climb at a remarkable rate!

And then there are the people who seem to think that being an author somehow gives them a right to a dignified life with a fat salary, as though such a life ever existed for anything but the most famous and successful writers.

So where does this sense of authors being squeezed come from? It could simply be a sign that publishing, as an industry, is becoming more commercial, more competitive, more efficient. You may not like that. You probably don’t. There is a profound queasiness which breaks out at the conjunction of art and business. But the pressure is definitely there. As Maxine Hitchcock, editorial director at my publisher Simon and Schuster puts it: “You’ve got to publish harder and more nimbly than ever before.”

There is another pressure on writer’s incomes. It seems that there are more writers to go around. Last month, membership of the Society of Authors passed 9,000 people for the first time since the Society was formed in 1884. There has been a steady increase in the number of book titles published in the UK, from almost 110,000 in 2001 to just over 150,000 in 2010. More surprising, perhaps, is the Nielsen Bookscan data on the number of new publishers each year in the UK and Ireland. What this actually records is new entities applying for ISBN records in each year. In 2001, there were 2,248 such new entities. In 2010, there were 3,151 of them. Nielsen Bookscan has this quite interesting thing to say about that increase: “The year-on-year increase between 2001 and 2010 shows that last year’s figure is the highest in this period and can be explained by the fact that many new authors continue to publish their work under their own publishing name.”

And I’ll bet that there are more titles available today from more authors than at any other time in history. So, even if people were buying as many books today as they were a decade ago, the average writer’s income would be falling. Now, that may not be good for the average writer – but it might be a good thing for society as a whole.

Useful Always Wins

Obviously there are tons of markets where books are seen as tools to be employed toward certain purposes (how-tos, cookbooks, etc), but it’s more than a little strange to read editorials that seem to believe that that’s all they are.

My daughter’s generation will probably have ebook textbooks. They will never experience dog-eared, vandalised, outdated school books, shared one-between-two. They will enjoy books that are enhanced with video, interactive graphics and picture galleries. And they will see these things are the norm. Printed books will be strange relics from their parents’ generation. They might appreciate their form but they will approach them as fundamentally less useful. And useful always wins in the end.

Useful obviously doesn’t always win, otherwise we wouldn’t have art, not to mention technology columns that repeat conventional wisdom.

The other problem with arguments like this is that, even with all the advantages ebooks offer, I’m sure people will find ways to screw them up. To take just one example, 10 – 15 years ago people couldn’t have predicted all of the variously malicious and annoying ways people have found to spoil something as truly great and common as email. Yes, email still works very well, but it doesn’t work quite as well as people thought it would have, and it’s created a host of problems all its own. Which is to say, as useful as ebooks will be for certain purposes, I’m sure they haven’t solved the “outdated, crappy” textbook problem for all time.

The Other White Meat

Hmmmm, somehow I don’t see this working:

Publishers should tantalize consumers by evoking books’ sensory pleasures: the smell; the feel in your hands; that crisp, appealing crinkle of a turned page and smooth snap of a dust jacket. Publishers should elicit the joys of “curling up with a book,” the satisfaction of seeing your library on a shelf in your bedroom — the years of your life marked by rows of colorful spines, the pages covered with marginalia. To do this, publishers could borrow vinyl enthusiasts’ lines like, “Records have a certain smell. You can’t smell an MP3,” and, “I associate certain records’ smells with a certain summer, a particular girlfriend.” Audiophiles also discuss fidelity, how records sound undeniably better than MP3s. Surely there’s a book analog waiting to be developed.

Book sniffing. Yes, we’re done.

I seriously doubt that print books are doomed, and if I believed that they were doomed I’d doubt even more that a TV ad campaign could save them. And anyway, as Michael Orthofer points out, publishers would be much more likely to advertise particular books for sale in any bookish medium than to try and shore up print over electronic.

(Incidentally, since the last time I watched serious amounts of TV Clinton was president, I found the descriptions of Kindle ads in the linked article interesting. Will the Kindle finally make reading sexy to the vaunted 18 – 24 male demographic?)

Rushdie: Novel Out, TV In

I suppose Salman Rushdie is absolutely right:

Salman Rushdie is to make a sci-fi television series in the belief that quality TV drama has taken over from film and the novel as the best way of widely communicating ideas and stories.

All the more reason for novelists to stop with the dull kind of boilerplate realist lit and write something that could only exist in book form.

On that Oft-Predicted End of the Novel

I wish I had time to make some comments on the Boston Review’s think-piece essay on the death of the novel, but for now all I can do is point you to it. This is the on-sentence summary:

There is no crisis of realism in contemporary fiction; there is only a crisis of ownership.

That’s about as good of a slogan as I’ve seen regarding the perennial entombment of all that is novelistic. If you like that, read the whole thing. Suffice to say, there’s oodles of Bakhtin (and well-quoted/summarized Bakhtin), plus some Woolf, Bloom, etc, even a little Wood, all gracefully deployed and well-synthesized.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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