The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Hurricane Season Returns

[a summer re-run]

As the hurricanes of post-literacy sweep their way (and not for the first time) over the levees of literature, we are left to ask one simple question: how will we -- we poor lit-types -- survive? For it is up to us to figure this one out! No mercy for us -- no indeed! We who have set ourselves as guardians of some of the finest traditions of culture have been revealed to be fools who ignored the most obvious warnings ... self-absorbed fools; monomaniacal fools, capable of simultaneously obsessing over one set of problems -- our writing -- while ignoring another: the gathering electronic storm.

Yes, yes, the hurricane, it was foreseen. And not just a week beforehand. It was foreseen forty or fifty years ago! Sharp winds gusted through our living rooms! Powerful breezes sucked back the drapes, fluttered the pages of an open book, and sent shivers over our skins! And the cause of it the eye of the mindless storm sat in front of us, a seeming zone of peace, the television!

Well, some will say, be careful how you apportion blame! Was it this small invention, a mere electronic box, that could have triggered the horror and the death that now floods the world of literary publishing? (The corpses lie everywhere: the creative writing MFAs, now draped in plastic sheets, their manuscripts soaked and illegible in the toxic water.)

Its true, its true! The book was in trouble its levees were weak long before the television set! Remember the typhoon of 1931? Remember the movie?

We must remember the old disasters! Not because they were worse than the new disasters, but because they put it all in a little perspective! We writers (the ones who still survive) are dehydrating on the floor of the stadium, pacing how we drink from what might be the last plastic jug of water we receive for a very long time! And wasnt it just yesterday (or a few years ago) that it was all about the twin towers? Wasnt it only recently that 9/11 was the real cause of the malaise in literary fiction?!

Who knows? Were shell-shocked! We cant think straight! But think we must! Yes, we writers have lost very little compared to the ones who have been devastated beyond comprehension: the distraught parents, the orphaned children, the uninsured and the desperate!

But please dont dismiss us literary types huddled in a corner as self-absorbed! We not only are aware of the greater suffering around us, but wish to document it! And in our state of tender sensitivities, please do not insist that the only valid way to do that now is through an article through non-fiction! Dont you see?! Thats how we were traumatized in the first place! Were novelists, dammit! Indulge us! We are not asking for a gargantuan handout! All we want is the ability to make literary art!!

A bas les demandes sociologique! Down with an insistence on constantly being factual! We realize there is a crisis! The Millennial Century has already shown it is quite adept at producing crises! But don't tell us that's all we can write about! Allow us our scrap of creativity!

We will think in new ways! We will try to anticipate the next storm! Why not new forms, new techniques? Perhaps the levees and break-waters can be strengthened! And so we will do our best, we writers of a literature that seems impractical! We will attempt to be -- well, we attempt to be novel! We will write books that read like screen-plays! We will use pictures, drawings, unveiled autobiography! But please, please ... listen to us as we speak: a moment of indulgence a small gesture of understanding.....

We want shelter! We want to build a new house to live in!

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Kristen Nelson on things not to do when querying an agent.

Jennifer Jackson on healthy perfectionism.

Matt Bell's new home-page of online short story links.

Rodney Welch on fashion porn.

Amnesty International on proportionality and war crime.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

How Can We Read in an Age of Images?

My essay "How Can We Read in an Age of Images?" appears in the most recent edition of The Quarterly Conversation. Here's the opening:

Typically, a litblog's traffic pales in comparison to image-based sites. For example, I recently came across one image-based site called The Sartorialist. It's based on a grabby idea: just a series of snapshots of people who are in some way well-dressed, with commentary underneath. And then when I looked at the number of profile views the site had received, I--well, I blanched with envy.

Even more heavily visited, of course, are the big name sites with enough corporate dough behind them to generate high-octane buzz. Otherwise sensible newspapers such as The Washington Post or The Guardian have blogs that deal with literary subjects. But while these latch onto the cool of the blogosphere, they do not partake of its democratic nature. Therefore, you, dear reader, are supposed to visit these sites, but they will not visit you.

And then there are the "bloggish" big-money sites. These are not even blogs at all--they are homepages attempting to manufacture their own street cred. An example of this is a site I recently saw put together by the BBC for a white hip-hopper. Attention-grabbing, for sure. But its grabbiness proceeded precisely from its use of image, and its images were effective because they were assembled by well-paid designers.

In any case, the question of the power of the image--the great seduction of looking--is one that litbloggers have to wrestle with....

Click here to see more.

I'm still making my way through the issue. But I've already found several good pieces in it. Well worth reading.

Friday, August 18, 2006


Rodney Welch, Steve Mitchelmore and Mark Sarvas on Gunther Grass.

Sidney Blumenthal on Bush's leadership.

Ed on the graphic novel vs. the snobs.

Robert Nagle on the next terrorist threat: snakes!

Scott Esposito on Liesl Schillinger.


DIE HAPPINESS -- excerpt one

At the beginning of the 21st Century, against a backdrop of political and military catastrophe, questions of what art is, what art can do, and what art should do acquire new importance. But the irony is that, precisely because of the crisis that is currently unfolding across the world (the crisis of failing and corrupted Western power), these questions seem trivial and beside the point. After all, there is a deep-seated human tendency to view art as secondary to the needs of daily life. More precisely, because art is secondary to essential needs, humans tend to think its importance evaporates.

But that just isn't true. Art -- and by this term I mean all culture, from literary novels to fine art to movies to pornography to advertising to reality TV -- molds our thinking. It even molds our perceptions, or, as they say these days, our hard-wiring. It is both one of the major sources of human folly and one of the best hopes of its salvation. The problem, though, is that when we talk about art, there is not one kind, there are several. Some are traditional in their narrative, some experimental, some are socially engaged, some are based on the authors own experience, some spring from the imagination.

What follows are a series of excerpts from a novella I wrote and then videotaped several years ago. (The tape was never broadcast, but I have copies available for any publishing/broadcast professionals who might be interested.) The monologue is entitled DIE HAPPINESS, and on the surface its the story of a love triangle a contemporary, sort-of, kind-of love triangle.

It's about Nils, a failing artist, and his encounter with Bitte and Hilde, two exchange students from Germany. Hilde is the nice one, Bitte the sexy one. But both are conspicuously decent; they are educated, after all, and they are German. And to be German sums up so many of the contradictions of the 20th Century -- the capacity of civilized people to do astoundingly monstrous things, of course. But more than that, the sins of the German nation were also the sins of economic progress; one aspect of mid-20th Century history that is rarely discussed is not just the failure of the nearby European states to put a stop to Nazism, but their start-and-stop, occasionally-winking complicity with it. Nazism served the goals of some people in some other countries -- namely, it was an effective means of stopping socialist revolution from starting in Germany and spreading across the continent.

To be German, then, is to be both linked to a terrible historical crime but also aware of a historical over-generalization. More than Germany was guilty of the murderous racism that ultimately engulfed Europe, and more than Germans made deals with the devil. As the history of collaboration shows, the Nazis found "willing executioners" in many lands.

But the novella DIE HAPPINESS is not about the Second World War. And it's not about its aftermath. It's about the mid-1990s -- a time when the stock market (but not the job market) was roaring, when the most recent war in the Middle East had been the techno-krieg of Gulf War One, and when a popular dance club tune was Prince's "1999". If the ideology of mid-20th Century democracy was defeating fascism, by the late 20th Century the ideology had become ... no ideology! Hey, whadd're talkin about anyway, egghead? Have a good time!!!

The ideology, in other words, was happiness....

Who could have thought that happiness, too, had its dangers?


The adequate moderating of emotion may not sound like the most thrilling topic, but it's a timely one. We live in a world which is headed towards disaster -- what kind of disaster, we don't exactly know. It could be nuclear, it could be pollution-caused, it could be the social instability and resource-depletion which will inevitably result from overpopulation. Or it could be war ... simple, old-fashioned, never-ending war.

There are so many big things on the verge of going wrong that we deal with them by not thinking about them. Or rather, since that's a cliché, we think about dealing with insoluble problems by sublimating them; our fantasy life is dominated by this kind of pseudo-reasoning. We're subconscious extremists. We believe in bold actions, and violent and romantic either/ors. It's hard to approach the beast of Global Complexity without reducing it to something that can be overcome in a showdown with a gun, or, at very least, a yelling argument like the kind you see in a drama on TV.

But the world is filled with grey areas. And grey (as we, demographically, grey) is good. It's subtle. However, subtlety is borne of self-control, and to a large extent self-control feels unnatural to a modern soul. It isn't, it seems, heartfelt. And this is too bad, because sometimes what's constrained is deeper than what's expressed. The trick is in not allowing your constrained feelings to eat away at you; not letting them destroy your capacity for happiness.

In the fall of '95, on Thanksgiving weekend, I met a couple of exchange students from Germany. Their names were Bitte and Hilde, and they were adorable. Meeting them, I felt, indicated that my life was finally taking a turn for the better...

[more to follow]

All rights reserved. Copyright 1997,1998, 2006 by Finn Harvor

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ca Dao

Rick Green on John Balaban and Ca Dao (folk) Vietnamese poetry:

In 1971 John Balaban went to Vietnam to record ca dao, lyric poems passed down orally through generations. Guided by a sympathetic monk, he traversed the war-torn southern countryside, capturing some five hundred ca dao on tape. Most of these poems had never been written down, not even in Vietnamese. In Ca Dao Vietnam: Vietnamese Folk Poetry Balaban presents forty-nine of these stunning, crystalline lyrics in English translation.

The introductory essay suggests that the unassuming, mostly anonymous ca dao are quintessential expressions of Vietnamese culture. “Agrarian dynasties with a cultural continuity of millennia have left few monuments more enduring than the oral poetry and song known today as ca dao.” Linguistic and formal analyses show ca dao to be both ancient (perhaps many thousands of years old) and endemic to Vietnam. In this, they differ from Vietnamese literary poetry, which borrows heavily from Chinese tradition.

As Balaban states in the introduction, “Ca dao are always lyrical, sung to melodies without instrumental accompaniment by an individual singing in the first person…The range of ca dao includes children’s game songs, love songs, lullabies, riddles, work songs, and reveries about spiritual and social orders.” They are informed by a keen, rural sensibility which sometimes appears in brilliant nuggets of folk wisdom.

I am a Mo Village girl.
I wander about selling beer, chance to meet you.
Good jars don’t mean good brew.
Clothes well-mended are better than ill-sewn.
Bad beer soon sends you home.
A torn shirt, when mended, will look like new.

Many of the poems take love as their subject, but patience and duty generally overrule passion. Buddhist notions of karmic destiny foster a romantic quietism and the necessary social coordination of village life makes the fulfillment of individual desire something less than a priority.


Friday, August 11, 2006

Michael Allen Interview: Part 3

Q: Is part of the problem with novels that they are overpriced? That is, when they are compared to, for example, the price of a movie DVD, buyers simply don't feel they're "getting their money's worth" with a book?

A: I don't think novels are overpriced -- not remotely -- provided they deliver what the reader wants. Consider the queues forming at midnight for the latest Harry Potter -- a book which the UK booktrade sold at a discount!

No one in the queue would have minded paying the full whack, but, courtesy of clueless marketing, they didn't have to.

Q: And if price is a factor, what can publishers and writers do to change this? In other words, what can they do to offer book-buyers "more"?

A: It's not a question of 'more', it's a question of better. The whole point of the novel is that it tells a story. The right story, told in the right way for a particular audience (e.g. Harry Potter again) exerts a powerful grip on the mind of the reader. And at the end of the book, the reader is conscious of having undergone a powerful (and ultimately pleasurable) emotional experience.

All that writers and publishers have to do is produce the right kind of books for the various audiences which we know to exist. It's not an impossible task, but it does require intelligence, hard work, and PRACTICE.

No one can do the job straight out of the box. After that, it's all down to circumstance, fate, karma, randomness, chance. See my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile.

The problem with many novels at the moment is that they are not written for readers so much as to glorify the author. And, unsurprisingly, not many people want to read a book which says 'Look at me! Aren't I clever!'

Commentary: Allen's comments on the marketing of Harry Potter are worth keeping in mind. And they also have an interesting implication: if the book trade was willing to discount these books -- which already had a guaranteed audience -- does that not sugggest an acceleration of the trend over recent years (or decades) to bank too much on a select number of blockbuster titles? In other words, since the discount is a profit-loss, it is in effect more money into the Potter franchise's marketing budget; apart from this particular "investment" being unnecessary, would it not be too much to ask that some more time, energy and money be put into all books that are published (taking into account the varying resources of each publisher)?

Allen is at his strongest when he comments on the marketing/business side of publishing. I suppose where I part company with him is in his strong emphasis on populist writing. It seems to me that there is already an enormous pool of writers out there perfectly willing to give the audience what it wants, entertainment-wise. And I'm skeptical that the emotional experience of reading a Potter book is the sort of emotional experience writers in general should aim for -- just as the emotional experience of a well-made-but-formulaic studio movie certainly doesn't represent the end-goal of all movie-making.

Ultimately, given the stress the publishing industry is under, there will be an increasing pressure on writers to produce marketable product. This may mean attempts to turn literature itself into a form of genre (that is, formulaic) writing.

Personally, I think the publishing industry, which includes many selfless individuals who need to be given great credit for the work they do to try and keep the ideal of good writing alive, would do well to experiment not so much with dumbing down literature, but publishing new forms of it ... as well as good traditional novels.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Non-mediated Accounts

Natalie d'Arbeloff on Mid-east bloggers:

To read non-mediated accounts of what life is really like in Beirut and Baghdad and Palestine and Israel, go to the bloggers on the ground. Thanks to Velveteen Rabbi for the link to Mazen Kerbaj (Beirut). There's Rafah (Gaza), riverbend (Baghdad), Allison (Israel). This item from ("American Jews call for ceasefire in Lebanon") is not one you'll find in the mainstream media.

Maybe if bloggers worldwide get to know each other as human beings, beyond the glut of received opinions, ignorance and misinformation, there might be a chance, eventually, for peace based on genuine friendship, across the barriers of geography, culture, religion, ethnicity, nationality and the politics of revenge.

(See also the fascinating/bizarre photos from "The World's Biggest Sand-sculpture Festival".)

A House in Negril

Geoffrey Philip on agents and The Biz:

Agents control publishing and the majority that Ive met are in the business to make money. They make their living off the 15% (and upwards) commissions. They have to eat. Realistically, they are the final arbiters of who and what gets published. 95% of all publishers nowadays will not accept the work of unagented writers. Money is the force behind what agents do. In this respect, book agents are no different than any other kind of agent--they sell things: books, cars & pork bellies. For many of them, especially the younger ones, its just one of the things that they can do or will do in their lifetimes. If selling books works out, they can retire (before they are 35!) to a beach (it really doesnt matter which beach) with their Blackberries (or whatever new gadget is in vogue) and drink mojitos (or whatever new drink is in vogue).

If selling books doesnt work out, they can take a long vacation to a fashionable beach somewhere where they can meet and network with someone whos been there and who can give then some tips on selling It really doesnt matter, for even if that doesn’t work out, they can always move on to something else.

I know. I’ve met them on the beaches of Negril or overheard their conversations that sound like “Sonny” in The Apostle when he rattles of his talents, “I can speak in tongues” and the other “gifts of the Spirit” as merely some of the things that he can do to make a profit for the church: “It's pay before you pray."

Wednesday, August 09, 2006


re: Michael Allen -- see also Simon Owens' interview with Allen at Bloggasm.

Michael Allen Interview: Part 2.

Q: You've also said that generally speaking novels would do well to be shorter. Why do you think this?

A: Can I refer you to my four-part essay on The Problem of Length, published in December 2004. Here are the links:

part one

part two

part three

part four

Commentary: The discussion Allen has on length covers both the marketing and aesthetic reasons for writing novels that are either long or short. (Although the discussion is about books generally, its real focus is on the novel; non-fiction, presumably, is not as prone to fashions in length as fiction is -- fiction, after all, is the skirt of the publishing industry.)

This discussion is a must-read. Allen begins with a history of the novel, beginning with the Victorian novel -- a form we automatically associate with great length. Allen shows that in fact the long Victorian novel was driven by market demand, and makes a strong case for believing this was in large measure because of the influence of one man: Charles Edward Mudie.

Mudie owned many libraries. These were privately-run enterprises. (A person subscribed to the library -- paid a fee, in other words -- and was entitled to borrow books from it rather than buy them outright; the analogy with ebook services is not hard to draw.) Because Mudie's libraries were plentiful, this gave him considerable power as a consumer. There were cases of his buying a novel's entire print run. As a result, he dominated the book market, and his taste had a strong influence on what publishers published. For example, as Allen describes, Mudie realized that he could make a greater profit from dividing novels into three sections. As a result, the "triple decker" novel -- the long Victorian novel as we commonly think of it -- became popular. And so, commercial demands had a noticeable effect on the form of an artistic medium.

Allen continues by illustrating how changing economic circumstances played a significant role in the length of the novel. During the Second World War, paper was scarce; novels became shorter. The length of the average novel fluctuated for a variety of reasons, not all of them economic, but as Allen shows, it is a mistake to think novel-length is merely the result of pure artistry.

Allen continues in following parts of his essay to argue that the novel should, ideally, be short(er). There are sound reasons for this, he says, the primary one being that a short novel places less demands on the reader and forces the writer to tell his/her story directly, instead of allowing the impulse for meandering and unnecessary description to take over. In other words, short novels not only read better, but tend to be better written.

Allen allows that there are exceptions to this rule, and he cites the example of Neal Stephenson. I can't personally speak on Stephenson's work, but agree that the preference for shorter novels must always be, at most, a very general rule, and each work of fiction should be judged on its own merits.

[Just as an aside, a while ago Eric Rosenfield posted on the merits of short literary magazine, One Story.]

FAQs link

For a post that describes what this site is all about in frequently-asked-question form, click here.

To see the screenplay-novel Truth Marathon, click here.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Team-work vs. solitude: or the medium and the artist

The following was recommended to me by Robert Nagle of Idiotprogrammer. It is from The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Cinema. The original post is highly worth reading. But what struck me in particular was Murch's comments on how visual artists once worked by necessity as part of a team when painting in fresco but how they eventually were able to work solitarily when painting in oils. Murch extends this comparison with how visual/text artists (if one could call a movie-maker that) work now again in teams when making movies.

This, though, might change once more. Movies (and art that possesses some of the qualities of movies) are in the process of adopting digital technology.This technology once more allows the creator more individuality of expression, in part because digital technology allows more solitude.

Some of the greatest, if not the greatest triumphs of European pictorial art were done in fresco, the painstaking process whereby damp plaster is stained with pigments that bond chemically with the plaster and change color as they dry. One need only think of Michelangelo’s frescoed ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, the pictorial equivalent of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.A great deal of planning needs to be done with fresco, and the variables — like the consistency and drying time of the plaster — have to be controlled exactly. Artists needed a precise knowledge of the pigments and how they would change color as they dried. Once the pigment had been applied, no revisions were possible. Only so much work could be done in a day before the plaster applied that morning became too dry. Inevitably, cracks would form at the joins between subsequent applications of plaster, so the arrangement of each day’s subject matter had to be chosen carefully to minimize the damage from this cracking.

There was more, but it should be clear that for all these reasons, fresco painting was an expensive effort of many people and various interlocking technologies, overseen by the artist who took responsibility for the final product.

The invention of oil paint changed all this. The artist was freed to paint wherever and whenever he wanted. He did not have to create the work in its final location. The paint was the same color wet as it would be dry. He did not have to worry unduly about cracking surfaces. And the artist could paint over areas he didn’t like, even to the point of re-using canvases for completely different purposes.

Although painting in oils remained collaborative for a while, the innate logic of the new medium allowed the artist more and more control of every aspect of the work, intensifying his personal vision. This was tremendously liberating, and the history of art from 1450 to the present is a clear testimony to the creative power of that liberation — and some of its dangers, which found their ultimate expression in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the emergence of solitary and tortured geniuses like Van Gogh.

The nature of working with film has been more like painting in fresco than oil. It is so heterogeneous, with so many technologies woven together in a complex and expensive fabric, that it is almost by definition impossible for a single person to control. There are a few solitary filmmakers — Jordan Belson comes to mind — but these are exceptional individuals, and the films they make are geared in their subject matter to allow creation by a single person.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Michael Allen Interview: Part 1

Michael Allen is the man behind Grumpy Old Bookman -- a litblog that almost certainly is in no need of introduction. Recently, he was kind enough to consent to a short interview. I am posting the interview this week. Although it is short, I've decided to divide it into three parts, since the responses Allen gives are interesting enough that they deserve deeper discussion. (I provide commentary below, but invite further comments.)

Like many of the better litbloggers, Allen is opinionated and informed. And at least some of what he has to say is controversial; he has, for example, argued that the novel may very well wither away and become a marginal art form -- an argument very different from the one made in recent years by, for example, Jason Cowley, who argued the exact opposite (or rather, argued the novel retains its central place within the culture). He has also argued that it is meaningless to distinguish between literary fiction and what is commonly called mass market or genre fiction.

Whether one agrees with him or not, Allen is raising serious questions that need to be discussed. It is unlikely in the extreme that book sales -- particularly fiction sales -- will increase in the short term. (This is an overall statement; obviously some titles will do well individually.) The literary publishing industry currently seems trapped by inertial forces. It would be healthier by far if more change and experimentation took place.

For writers and publishers both, a lot is at stake.

Q: You've said the novel may end up being a very marginal form, like poetry. Why is this? Because of mass media? Or is it because of some characteristic common to many contemporary novels?

A: It must be 20 or 30 years since Gore Vidal (among others) started to point out that, by and large, young people do not read books. They watch television and movies, and nowadays they have iPods and videos on the internet.

Certainly here in England there are figures published occasionally which show that only about 50% of the population reads books. If all that is true, and I believe that it is, then one has to remember that any future decline (or increase) in interest in novels starts from a modest base. Reading novels is not a universal habit, whereas watching television is something done by (at a guess) 95% of the population.

My reasons for thinking that interest in the novel is likely to decline are twofold. First, there is so much competition. Consider the situation in the late nineteenth century. Nearly all the population could read (at least in England), and there were books and newspapers. But there was no radio, no recorded music, no TV, no movies. Outside the big cities, even theatres were rare. So the novel had little competition.

Today, every passing year brings new advances in technology in the entertainment business. Ever more sophisticated devices are created, and it is not too far-fetched to suggest that, within a few years, we will have virtual forms of entertainment which include the viewer/audience as a participant. Against such sophistication, the novel begins to look pretty dull as a source of emotion. (Just as poetry now seems dull to most of us.)

Second, people who write and publish novels often seem oblivious to the medium's strengths (such as they are), and produce novels which even today few people actually want to read. This trend will continue for as long as people go on believing the kind of nonsense which is taught on Eng. Lit. and MFA courses.

Commentary: There are several issues here. There are two I'd like to focus on. The first is the role played by the institutions of literature, in particular university English departments and libraries.

In May of this year, Allen remarked that several decades ago, because of the very good library system that existed in Britain at that time, a novelist could count on selling roughly 2,000 copies. This may sound like awfully small beer in today's hype-addled cultural marketplace, but it was a sales figure that allowed publishers to make a small profit -- in other words, to avoid the fate that befalls many titles today, which is to actually lose the publisher money.

Leaving aside the endlessly complex question of what, exactly, good writing is, focusing on the manner in which it is marketed and distributed is essential if the sustainability of publishing generally is the goal. Contemporary book marketing seems to have left the library system out of the equation. This is too bad, because the old system Allen describes above has tangible benefits the publishing industry -- especially at the smaller levels -- would do well to pay attention to.

The disadvantage, of course, of libraries sustaining book sales was that the library system also limited the number of sales that could occur; obviously, if libraries are sustaining book sales, that means most of the books bought are read by borrowers. Libraries these days have instituted a payment scheme whereby authors receive a small monetary rebate for the books of theirs that are borrowed through the library system, but it's a paltry amount. So a system in which libraries effectively sustain many publishers is not enticing to a modern mentality, which is obsessed with the big score. But these days book sales -- especially literary fiction sales -- are falling so drastically that even the small number of book sales a well-maintained library sytem can guarantee are not bad at all. At the very least, they protect publishers from bankruptcy, and they allow writers the kind of environment they really need in which to grow as artists -- an environment in which they don't feel constantly ignored.

English departments, too, could assist by organizing and developing curriculums that didn't just focus on the canon or the modern conception of the canon (which may turn out to be wrong). They could help augment a library book-buying system by teaching x-number of small press books, for example.

But then, this brings us to issue number two, and the main point raised by Allen -- if young people are so distracted by TV and iPods that they're not reading at all, what is to be done? Would a beefed-up library/English department system really help in the long run if it existed in a post-literate culture in which only a small percentage of the population really cared about books anymore?

Here I think more experimentation -- experimentation with audio books, with reading-as-performance, with new forms of narrative -- is in order. It's time for literary culture to recognize that what a culture like ours produces is narratives. How these narratives are "delivered" is secondary to the quality of the narrative itself.

Perhaps an essential part of what defines literature is simply that it is a narrative that is truthful about how life really is. Look at what popular culture is producing these days: it's entertaining, but it's only a series of unreal fantasies -- of having magic powers, of being incredibly tough and good at fighting, of being unusually good looking.

In a sense, the book (or audio book, or videotaped reading) is more necessary than ever. People now live in a cultural environment in which they are literally saturated with the pop cultural narratives of action movies, porn and video games. We need counter-narratives to provide psychological and cultural alternatives to these ways of experiencing our reality.