The New Old World

Jason Pinter recently wrote an interesting essay on the Huffington Post about ebooks. The upshot of it all is that things are changing very quickly. I had a meeting with agent Laurie McLean on Saturday, and again and again we returned to this idea: the publishing world is in for a big shake-up.

I was caught off guard by the speed with which publishing is going digital. I was flatly unmoved by the Kindle and remained convinced for many years that the book is a technology that needs no improvement. Whether this is so or not, publishing has been going about things without significant change for about 100 years. It seems to me it is impossible for this enormous industry to resist the inexorable pull that has reshaped pretty much every other industry on earth.

This change is frightening to a lot of people, as all big changes are. Will authors simply begin e-self-publishing all their work? Will bookstores disappear? Will the world end in 2012? I wish I could tell you. Remember, however, that changes occur to meet the needs of the moment, and the needs of the moment are always driven by humanity’s insatiable desire to grow. I know sometimes this growth is ugly; I know sometimes we cut down forests or perch oil rigs in the open ocean. We are not perfect. We cannot always get it right. But we must grow and we must expand. Asking ourselves not to would be like asking ourselves not to breathe.

After all, are you going to write the same novel over and over again? Will not your next story be an expression of your desire to expand as a writer? And how often have your experiments and writing adventures gone sideways? How often in your desire for the new have you produced draft after draft of dull and formless dreck? But this dreck is always the caterpillar of your coming butterfly. You just can’t see the butterfly yet.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this moment in time that needs fixing. Or that is, nothing would need fixing if human beings never changed. And so this perfect, un-broken moment must change because human beings are change. We are a walking, talking, writing, singing, snoring manifestation of change. We don’t know how to do anything else, and the pain of resisting growth will always far outweigh the fear of the new world we ourselves desire to create.

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Eyes On The Road

Jonathan Evison is unusual in that one of his first introductions to reading (at age seven, no less) was Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. He lived to tell about it, and wouldn’t have had it any other way. Most writers I interview, however, report a different trajectory that usually begins with comic books or Nancy Drew.

I loved comic books when I was eleven. I had a collection. This was the same year I read The Hardy Boys – my first experience of not being able to put a book down.  All of six years later I read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Lolita, and my writing and reading habits were changed for good.

I bring this up because I recently read one of Jason Pinter’s blogs in The Huffington Post about the age-old conflict between the literati and basically everybody else in publishing. Academics like Yale’s Harold Bloom have a habit of decrying the end of civilization whenever they glance at the bestseller list. Likewise, I will point out, commercial fiction writers periodically write essays saying, “Hey. Everyone is reading us. Would it kill you to review a romance or suspense novel from time to time?”

To which I always think, get your eyes off other people’s papers. Writers can moan about not getting reviewed, and academics can harrumph about popular fiction – and for what? Everyone, no matter what they write or read, is on precisely the same journey: following the scent – sometimes elusive, sometimes quite strong – of whatever interests them most. No one belongs between you and what interests you most. No one deserves to comment on the value of what interests you most. I love writing and language and stories, but I do not care how bad something is; it doesn’t affect me and what I write and read one lick, unless the so-called bad writing is what I’m reading or writing, in which I can put it down or cross it out.

Besides, in this hunt for what interests us most, we are bound to be led from one thing to another. Sometimes we find a happy place and stay there; sometimes we read nothing but romance or suspense or 19th century navel histories. And sometimes comic books lead us to T. S. Eliot. Your eyes belong on the road ahead. And when you find something that truly makes you happy – tell the world about it. Not everyone will be interested, but the expression of joy always reminds us that the hunt remains worth it.

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