Friday, April 13, 2007

Some Lit-Links

I wasn't aware, until this morning, that humorist David Sedaris was receiving a public scolding for being a bullshit artist. My original response was, "As if we didn't know!" Then the Rodney Rothman affair was raised, and I remembered my own finger-wagging re: Frey and Chabon. Are there distinctions to be made?

Yes, there are. Chabon was straight-facedly telling his audience that his neighbor was a Nazi posing as a Holocaust survivor. The man he referred to was real, but was never a Nazi, a survivor or even Chabon's neighbor: simply an American veteran who had actually fought the Nazis. When I'm generous, I call that ill-advised tom-foolery on Chabon's part; in a less generous mood, I call that malign deceit. Frey walked in with his tattoos and prosaic bravado, asking one and all, "Who's a tough guy?" I call that leading with your chin. Sedaris walks in and says, "Listen to this: isn't it crazy?" I'd call it a crock, if I weren't laughing so hard. As for Rothman, if you scroll to the comments, it looks like he's got a perspective on it all that's worth consideration.

*****

Print On Demand vis-a-vis Lulu is an oh-so-nifty innovation that has relieved me of the burden of wondering if my fiction might ever see the light of day. The burden of cultivating a larger audience, however, is still there. Mary Scriver outlines the challenges facing POD author here.

*****

Fifteen years ago I picked up a bizarre little novel called Strong Motion. It had a conceptual energy that I rather liked. Four years later I noticed its author was featured on the cover of Harper's Magazine, with the proposal: "In the Age of Images, a Reason to Write Novels." Jonathan Franzen's quest was personal, and the answer he finally lit upon was personal. I thought it was terrific.

Since then Franzen's manifesto has come to haunt the pages of Harper's the way Tom Wolfe's did before him. Brainy types are weighing in, trying to put Franzen in his place (somewhere other than post-Oprah best-sellerdom, I assume), proposing we look elsewhere for answers to ailments that beleaguer "serious" fiction. I don't know what Harper's pays per word, but even at rock-bottom prices Ben Marcus made off like a bandit with what was meant to be a high-falutin' broadside of Franzen. Jess Row lamented this sort of pissing-match and wondered if a woman mightn't have a better perspective on it all.

Well, be careful what you wish for: here's Cynthia Ozick giving both lads a maternal pat on the head, telling us they're both a little right, both a little wrong. What our novels really need to survive, she says, is critics. Preferably critics like James Wood.

I think what this patient really needs, if it wants to survive, is yet another doctor. Sheesh. Neither of these Poindexters give more than passing consideration to the genuine issues Franzen raises, namely the demonstrable unrelenting decline in the sales of fiction. Franzen's question was what's the point of devoting three (plus) years of your life writing a novel if only a dozen people read it? He answered it, and so far as I'm concerned, I'd love him to tease apart the point of writing yet another novel after everyone on the continent has bought, read and publically weighed in on the merits of your last one. Franzen was pertinent then; he'd be just as pertinent now.

*****

It's the end of the novel as we know it, and I feel fine. Michael Blowhard throws out three possible publishing scenarios facing the "literary novel" here. He uses a 300 year timeframe, and taken with a grain of salt, they all strike me as entirely possible assuming humanity is still around to play with such concepts.

I've never considered the eBook to be an attractive option, until I read this bit, via ALD. By golly, if those puppies came equipped with a "search" feature, I just might climb on board. But then I read this bit, via Boing Boing, and now I'm not so sure....

Three hundred years, if things keep developing at the current rate, is a Sagan-like "BILL-YUNNS AND BILL-YUNNS" for technology. Still, it's the printed word that fuels well over 90% of the world's education programs. I think this means that print and paper will likely remain an attractive medium for people to aspire to for many, many years to come.

Whether the North American publishing industry will survive is another matter. Beyond the textbook industry, I just don't see how it can. Back in the 90s, when I talked shop with the publishers, sellers and buyers of books, people looked at publishing's return policy, which basically allows stores to stock as many copies and titles as they wish then send them back for free, and figured it was doomed. The store I worked in, when I first came on board, had a publisher return rate that approached nearly 40%. We worked to get that below 20% (I'm proud to say that as a buyer I averaged 12%, and had a trimester that dipped to 9% thanks to strong sales on the floor. No-one got rich from it, but then no-one went broke, either).

Since then, there's been one single Big Box Behemoth that's taken over the Canadian bookselling landscape, and publishers are facing return rates that are wildly beyond anything I encountered. That's just Canada, which is a very small part of the American publishing scene. In the States we've got more box stores, more publishers, more money getting sent through the pulper. Yes, the sky is falling, but at least we've got an engaging history of it.

2 comments:

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Anonymous said...

WP,

I see the epoint of esales elogistics for ebooks. (Just being cute - no small task for Monday morning).

Here's the thing: writers love to write, readers love to read. What better business plan could there be than that? Oh, I understand the financial pickle, but surely there can be a good resolution?

I certainly have no marketing savvy, but what I do know is this: I love the simplicity of a paperbound book, take it anywhere, including the bathtub where most of my serious reading takes place these days. There is a special symbiotic relationship between a book and its reader.

Then, there is a distinct tactile sensory association with "dead lumber" books; the smell of old dusty books with hefty weight and gilt-edged binding, or the feel of tooled leather against the palms of your hands when reading a fancy-bound, private library-quality tome. Just opening a volume in our old 1965 World Book encyclopedia kept from my elementary school days brings a flood of memories, the sound of the book spine creaking a bit, the smell of the slick pages. When I turn to certain pages, like the clear overlays for the human body, I am transported back to our living room late one Sunday evening when my brother and I giggled over such a vivid anatomy lesson.

Does this sensory part of the equation make the book better?

The answer for me is "yes".

Sigh. Maybe I am a dinosaur.

Cowtown Pattie