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.