January 5, 2014

"On the desolate beach that is the lot of the contemporary book reader, the footprints of one companion can still be found."

"They belong to the writer, who needs the reader not just to pay her or his wages but also to give meaning to their words."
As John Cheever put it: “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone.”

The troubling thought occurs, however, that this last remaining cohabitant may also be about to depart the island. With falling advances, writing is evermore dominated by people who don’t need it to earn a living: Tenured academics and celebrities spring to mind. For these groups, burnishing a résumé or marketing a brand is often as important as satisfying the reader.

And then there are the hobbyists, those for whom writing is primarily an act of self-expression....
But if it's precisely like a kiss, isn't the hobbyist exactly what you want? Worrying about falling advances and people who don’t need it to earn a living? Prostitutes don't kiss!

52 comments:

Hagar said...

Publishers give advances to writers who are guaranteed to bring a return, no?
That is those who are already rich and famous, no?

Sam L. said...

See Sarah Hoyt at accordingtohoyt.com on her life as a writer.

EDH said...

Nancy Pelosi @ 2m50s:

Think of an economy where people could be an artist or a photographer, a writer without worrying about keeping their day job in order to have health insurance.

rhhardin said...

Her or his?

He needs a reader with no ear.

tim in vermont said...

"But it derives from self-selecting volunteers whose authority is hard to gauge."

Where to begin? Is it about loss of a particular kind of sinecure, or loss of a platform from which to shape the public tastes in service of the new politically correct utopia?

The great old novelists filled a function now filled by movies. Very few people read the "new and interesting" writers of the past. How many people have read Ulysses, except, perhaps, on a bet. Or Mrs Dalloway? They natural market for these kinds of novels is not that large. I think what the writer misses is the ability to shove them down the throats of the masses.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Cheever ought not be taken as an authority on kissing judging from the cursory sex scenes in Falconer.

lemondog said...

A few months ago I attempted to locate a listing of 21st Century American writers, that is, serious writers of prose who have come into their own during the 21st Century.

Difficult to locate such a list. May be there no longer are such writers.

Wiki has a gooblegook listing of people with published books.

chrisnavin.com said...

I'm sure many people wake up thinking the one thing they're missing is a kiss from John Cheever.

Oso Negro said...

Yes, hobbyists! When it comes to writers, I want the girlfriend experience.

betamax3000 said...

Grand Theft Auto: the Novel.

betamax3000 said...

It Was the Best of Post-Modern Times, It Was the Worst of Post-Modern Times.

Ann Althouse said...

chrisnavin.com said: "I'm sure many people wake up thinking the one thing they're missing is a kiss from John Cheever."

Maybe not, but you may wake up thinking that orgasm has left you a cripple.

Ann Althouse said...

Video.

Michael K said...

I have read The Count of Monte Cristo several times the past few years. There are a few writers of fiction who have steady reader pool. They, of course, are dismissed by "serious" writers like those who belong to The Modern Language Association.

John Lynch said...

Drive pizzas when you aren't writing. That's what I do.

Geez, grow up. Welcome to a world where any literate person can type on a keyboard.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

I read that article in a bout of insomnia some hours ago, and was sufficiently annoyed to email the author. The whole "We don't have authoritative gatekeepers any more; how are people supposed to know what does and doesn't suck, if there aren't professional book reviewers to tell them?" line was irritating, especially combined with the "And now there are all these people taking up writing, resulting in more books, which makes it even harder to sort the sucky from the non-sucky."

I love the way the author manages to present getting your writing published as simultaneously so expensive that only tenured professors and celebrities can get a toehold, and so cheap that would-be readers are being drowned in a sea of undifferentiated dreck. Whereas if expert, professional readers only told us what to like, we'd all like the good stuff.

I've nothing at all against professional reviewers, being one myself (concerts and recordings, not books), and the Times Literary Supplement is the best periodical I know that isn't Cook's Illustrated. But I could count on the fingers of one mutilated hand the number of times a review has actually caused me to go out and buy a book.

St. George said...

"On the desolate beach that is the lot of the contemporary book reader, the footprints of one companion can still be found."

With sentences as treacly as that, no one readers are fleeing.

St. George said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
m stone said...

"Today, with our powers of concentration atrophied by the staccato communication of the Internet and attention easily diverted to addictive entertainment on our phones and tablets, book-length reading is harder still."

As a tech society we think less and less linearly; a traditional novel no matter how structured is still linear and reading one is becoming foreign to many of us.

Hence the popularity of (short) blog posts and comments.

Now we have the birth of hypertext fiction

Patrick said...

Michelle Dulack Thompson, I am sufficiently impressed with your comments that I would like to read some of your reviews. Could you direct me to where I might find them?

rcocean said...

Except for the TLS, Newspaper book review sections have always been worthless. They rarely give a bad review, and when they do its usually because of the book/author's politics or some personal pique on the part of the reviewer.

This going on for a long time, I read a 1963 quote -from James Cozzens - that it was almost impossible for a mainstream novel to get a bad review.

rcocean said...

I use Goodreads to determine which books to buy, just like I use IMDB for movies.

Much more reliable then "professional" reviewers.

chrisnavin.com said...

Yup. Seinfeld got there first.

chrisnavin.com said...

Sir, I 'question' your use of 'quotation' marks

And don't you dare suggest certain people with authority are watching it bleed away with so much rapid technological feedback.

Farmer said...

I've said the same thing, more or less, about music for the past decade. It's bound to become the exclusive domain of rich kids and hobbyists with a lot of extra cash lying around. The only people earning a living will be the ones who follow the trends. It seems to me that's already happened.

The old system wasn't perfect by a long shot but there was at least some hope of succeeding (albeit not on a superstar level, with rare exceptions), without just copying whatever was popular at the moment.

Farmer said...

That said, writers need to stop injecting their political views into their novels. I stopped reading John Irving because I finally lost all patience with his habit of interrupting his stories to insert long, dull political manifestos.

And I'm beyond sick of crime fiction with saintly gay supporting characters who are only there to verify the author's sexually correct bonafides.

Maybe what we need is more Catholic writers

chrisnavin.com said...

Make sure your imaginary garden has real toads in it.

I don't read Yeats because he hung out with Madame Blavatsky for a spell or for his political views

Fred Drinkwater said...

Michelle writes:
"I've nothing at all against professional reviewers, being one myself (concerts and recordings, not books), and the Times Literary Supplement is the best periodical I know that isn't Cook's Illustrated."

I just collared my daughter to read her that sentence. Because: now I think I know the essential things about Michelle.

Also, what Patrick said.

David Davenport said...

Now we have the birth of hypertext fiction

That's old news. "Hypertext" was hyped 20 or so years ago.

... And what is the difference, really, between Internet stories with links embedded and a novel with multiple first person narrators, some of whom are unreliable?

How many people have read Ulysses...?

How many people think James Joyce's jabberwocky is overrated ?

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Patrick & Fred Drinkwater,

I write for San Francisco Classical Voice (www.sfcv.org). I haven't been in a position to do concert reviews for the last four years, because I'm not in the Bay Area any more. If you're curious, you can go here. Only don't judge me entirely by the Britten piece, which is the most recent -- a copy editor got in there and mangled the heck out of it.

WestVirginiaRebel said...

I think it was Robert Heinlein who once said that the writer was competing for Joe's beer money?

Jane said...

It is in fact true for writing that, as is the case for many occupations, the numbers of people who want to purse the craft as a hobby, and are are happy to be unpaid, throw a wrench in the plans of those who want to earn a living in that manner. But the "hobbyist writers" are not simply writing "as an act of self-expression." Take the whole blogging project (which I started in the summer -- www.janetheactuary.blogspot.com). Having genuine readers provides validation that I'm writing things that are interesting, and it serves as a means of improving my writing. Why would I write, for public consumption (however limited the "public" is) nonsense without endeavoring to provide some value in it?

So I guess it's not "an act of self-expression" but of "self-improvement."

But at the same time, I admit that I virtually never read fiction, so I can't say whether its quality has improved or declined in recent decades.

Michael K said...

"But the "hobbyist writers" are not simply writing "as an act of self-expression."

I wrote a book on medical history because there was nothing suitable for medical students and young physicians. The role of history in medical education has lost out to a lot of politically correct nonsense. A profession should know its own history. Fortunately, after ten years, people are still buying it.

Zach said...

With falling advances, writing is evermore dominated by people who don’t need it to earn a living: Tenured academics and celebrities spring to mind. For these groups, burnishing a résumé or marketing a brand is often as important as satisfying the reader.

This, in a nutshell, is my problem with current literary fiction. It's not a commercial genre anymore, and the reader gets shortchanged. Things which impress tenure committees do not make for enjoyable reading for the reader as consumer (I will let the reader as member of a tenure committee speak for himself).

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Jane is janetheactuary! Woo-hoo!

Greetings from she who is "waterfowl" in all places Disqus.

Why would I write, for public consumption (however limited the "public" is) nonsense without endeavoring to provide some value in it?

Indeed. If it were merely "self-expression," you could extrude your "self" onto your own computer, and not bother about whether anyone else was reading it.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Zach,

This, in a nutshell, is my problem with current literary fiction. It's not a commercial genre anymore, and the reader gets shortchanged.

Me, I think "current literary fiction" is seriously handicapped by having to compete with previous literary fiction. Especially given that a lot of the best stuff is in the public domain, and lots more is floating around used bookstores for cheap.

Beldar said...

I have read (but have no personal knowledge to confirm or refute) that certain prostitutes specialize in the "girlfriend experience," as part of which kissing may indeed be involved.

Dr Weevil said...

When the sexual revolution arrived, premarital sex and many specific sexual acts that had previously been refused by the majority of 'nice girls' became things that just about any woman would do for love.

When that happened, did the women who had made a good living providing non-marital and non-standard sexual acts for money for men who couldn't get them from their girlfriends or wives complain bitterly about the unfair competition? I suspect they did. Did the number of prostitutes and the prices they charge drop? I wouldn't be surprised, though it would be hard to gather accurate statistics.

How would that have been different from contemporary complaints about the increasing number of amateurs providing exotic textual acts for free, and thus endangering the livelihoods of professional writers?

Dr Weevil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jane the Actuary said...

Hi, "waterfowl" -- thanks for motivating me to finally change my screen name to Jane the Actuary! (I was a more plain "Jane" long before I started blogging and thus needed a more identifying name.)

Kirk Parker said...

Farmer,

"Maybe what we need is more Catholic writers"

LOL!!!!!!

Look, if you mean more Flannery O'Connors and G. K. Chestertons (or even more Tolkeins) I'm all for it--but where, or where, to find such?


Kirk Parker said...

MDT,

The Britten piece still makes some sense, if that's any comfort.

To quote (?) Miles Davis: if you blow a wrong note, blow it again so they know you meant it. ;-)

Kirk Parker said...

MDT,

Oh, and fwiw: if the "Soaring Mezzo, Hidden Handel" piece is what happens when the editors don't mess it up... ... ... I see what you mean! :-)

Kirk Parker said...

John Lynch,

What do you write when you're not delivering pizzas?

JoyD said...

A question, slightly off topic, but clearly all the commenters are active readers: Which work of fiction , if you can choose, was the best book you read in 2013? I'll tell you mine: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Great review in the NYT, so I needn't take up space here. This is the best book I've read since Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I would love to hear some suggestions. I don't have time to waste on the schlock.
On another note, re starving artists. Our son is a blues musician, and he tries to make a living at it. He was a systems analyst and it was not sustainable: the late-nights gigs, the morning commute. Now he lives very frugally, and as always, he's very independent. In the dead of winter, when gigs are more sparse (down to 2/week) he is working at Speedway, stocking shelves when the truck comes three times a week. I admire his passion and his work ethic.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Kirk Parker,

In the Britten piece, there were pointless changes that distorted the meaning. I wrote, for example, that the finale of the First Quartet is "described" as "Haydnesque," and he changed it to "critiqued." Haydn's my man, dude; calling something Haydnesque isn't a "critique" in my book.

The more annoying part was that he took my "there is" formulation and substituted the likes of "it is to be noted." (e.g., my "There are the individual strengths" in the graf about the Takacs became "The individual strengths are noted") This he tells me he did, if you please, because my formulation was too passive-voice-y. Yes, dude, and how is your emendation not in the passive voice?

I'm afraid that I must lay personal claim to whatever you think is amiss with the Handel piece, because I don't believe there were any editorial changes at all in that one. The Britten got the full treatment only because it was extra-long. (CD reviews at SFCV are supposed to be 800 words max, a limit I don't observe rigorously. The Britten, because it involved several recordings, got a special dispensation.)

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Farmer,

That said, writers need to stop injecting their political views into their novels. I stopped reading John Irving because I finally lost all patience with his habit of interrupting his stories to insert long, dull political manifestos.

I'm of two minds about this. A writer's worldview is part of the writer, not to be roped off. I remember an essay of Chesterton's, in which he replied to people who complained that he kept intruding his Catholicism into his work. He responded, more or less: Well, I'm a Catholic; it's natural to me to think like a Catholic; it would be unnatural to me to expunge from my writing anything that hinted in any way that I was a Catholic.

(Compare the just complaints of gay men and women who are constantly accused of "shoving something-or-other down other people's throats" for merely mentioning their partners, having a photo of their SO on their desks, &c.)

So, there's no way to write honestly while excising part of yourself. Then again, there is a difference between a polemic thinly disguised as a novel, a novel in which there are political themes, and a novel into which are dropped undigested lumps of ideological speechifying.

I don't know which category Updike inhabits. The first is surely headed by Ayn Rand. Atlas Shrugged would seriously be a much better book with an editor. It would weigh a lot less, too :-) Robert Heinlein was another polemicist, only really insufferable when he got on the subject of sex, but invariably preaching truth as he saw it.

Sara Paretsky, say, is in the second category. Her protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, is a tough 40-ish solo practitioner in Chicago, and it's natural for V.I. to think what she does about (e.g.) abortion and the Catholic Church. There is some special pleading in one or two of her mysteries, but not much.

Kirk Parker said...

MDT,

Not at all, I was trying to say the Handel piece definitely seemed better than the Britten one.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Kirk Parker,

Oddly enough, I got a contrite email from the editor in question a couple of hours ago, saying that he'd reviewed the memo I sent him about the changes, and had concluded that I was nearly always correct the first time.

A more paranoid person than myself would suspect that there was a Google Alert attached to my name :-)

Mike said...

Professor: more posts like this please. It brings out the writers in your commentariot. Sure there's no blamestorming and political theatre, but it IS interesting! Thanks! Thanks to all who contributed here.

Kirk Parker said...

MDT,

One of the benefits of appearing as yourself on the internet! :-)

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Jane the Actuary,

Hi, "waterfowl" -- thanks for motivating me to finally change my screen name to Jane the Actuary! (I was a more plain "Jane" long before I started blogging and thus needed a more identifying name.)

I really ought to switch my own screen name to Viola Pomposa. (Or Marcia Funebre, or Ben Tenuto.)