Publish or Perish

Is serious fiction on life support?

Mark Steele

In a New Yorker profile written 13 years ago, Philip Roth spoke of the future of literature in pessimistic terms. “Every year, 70 readers die,” he was quoted as saying, “and only two are replaced.”

Would he have given different numbers if he’d known that in 2012 the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy by TV executive E.L. James — published by one of the most prestigious presses in the United States — would sell more than 70 million copies worldwide? Doubtful. He was pointedly talking about “people who read books seriously and consistently.” A quick perusal of a handful of the almost 20,000 comments posted on Amazon about the allegedly erotic and occasionally grammatical novels makes it clear many of the books’ biggest fans are looking for something “easy to read,” “totally relatable” and “hot,” and are generously willing to overlook the fact that — according to one reader who gave the trilogy a five-star rating — it “sounds like it’s written by a teenager.”

Or, as a friend of mine said when asked about the books’ leaden prose and meager character development: “I didn’t read them for the writing.”

Is Roth cheered by the fact that this year “The Great Gatsby” is one of the biggest-selling trade paperbacks in the country? Doubtful again. Soaring sales of the Fitzgerald classic are directly linked to the release of Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation, and one of the things Roth identified as contributing to the rapid decline of long-term serious readers is the way the page has been supplanted by the screen — movie, television, computer — as the go-to source of information, entertainment and artistic gratification.

Of course, the New Yorker interview was conducted long before the advent of the iPhone, the iPad, the Kindle and related gadgetry that some claim are the best of both worlds — alluring, irresistible screens used to deliver literary content. Certainly, advantages abound. E-books make it easy to carry a small library in the palm of your hand and impossible for people to judge you for what you’re reading on the subway. The fact that some e-book readers applaud being able to “read quickly” (skim?) undoubtedly pleases publishers like Simon & Schuster, which ties its uptick in profits to increases in the sale of electronic books. E-books, after all, require none of the overhead of print — paper, distribution, design, warehousing and so on. Speedier reading means more frequent buying.

But before you breathe a sigh of literary relief, take a look at Scott Turow’s April 7, 2013, New York Times opinion piece, “The Slow Death of the American Author.” Turow, author of “Presumed Innocent,” paints a gloomy picture of the impact electronic books are having on the ability of writers to earn a living and, ultimately, on the culture that nurtures literary production. Publishers pay lower royalties for e-books. Amazon hopes to sell “used” e-books for pennies, making it unlikely anyone would buy the identical, pricier “new” copies. Libraries plan to allow cardholders to download e-books at home through an Internet connection — erasing any reason for anyone to actually pay for the things in the first place. And then there are the pirated free downloads you can access in seconds through a simple Google search. According to Turow, fewer writers will be able to afford to invest the time it takes to write quality fiction.

A comparison of hardcover and e-book best-sellers in The New York Times Book Review suggests that e-book readers are especially drawn to the pulpier genres — romance, erotica, fantasy. Zadie Smith, George Saunders and other acclaimed authors sell well in hardcover but barely show up on the list of best-selling e-books. Big publishers who give top priority to the bottom line find it easier and more profitable to forget about the next “White Teeth” and hunt down the next “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Two agents and one editor I’ve worked with in the past recently announced that they’re giving up on literary fiction and moving over to more-commercial niche genres.

In short, the sky is falling.

Or is it?

I attended two annual literary events in Boston this spring: the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference and Bookfair, and the Muse and the Marketplace, a three-day series of lectures and writing workshops sponsored by Grub Street, the second-largest independent center for creative writing in the United States. Given the current climate in publishing and my own essentially pessimistic nature, I assumed these events would have an atmosphere of apprehension — like an outdoor wedding on a day of gathering clouds — if not outright despair.

Much to my surprise, both conferences boasted record numbers of presenters and attendees. Aspiring writers cheerfully crowded into seminars on craft, meet-and-greet sessions with literary agents, and lectures on new media and the expanding opportunities in self-publishing. Lines were long for the open mikes at reading events, and the cocktail parties were lively. At the AWP event, I learned the number of students enrolling in creative-writing MFA programs across the country is at an all-time high.

What to make of this? In our narcissistic culture, everyone wants to be heard, but no one wants to listen? Undoubtedly, there’s some of that. A clerk selling books at the Muse conference reported that sales were modest, at best. But it’s hard not to hear a note of optimism, even if somewhat muffled. People still feel the pull of literature and the desire (or the need?) to transform their experiences and views into literary art. Now that the standards for truth in politics and journalism have eroded to the point that spin is really outright lying (Election 2012, anyone?) and rumor is reported as fact (CNN on the Boston Marathon bombing, for one example), what better place to tell the deeper truths about life than in fiction? Hasn’t the self-contained world of the novel, in which the reader is an active participant, always been the most trustworthy source of emotional honesty?

As long as people feel called to produce art, to write stories and dig for the deeper truths, they will find a way to distribute their work, and readers, even if significantly fewer in number, will find a way to discover the best of it. Writers are selling e-book “singles” (short stories) directly through online stores, and small presses are having modest successes with literary books by established authors abandoned by large publishing houses — two indicators of the unlikely and, at times, counterintuitive durability of the literary impulse.

And so we beat on, boats against the current? Well, yes. That’s what artists have always done. So let’s go.

Stephen McCauley — the author of six novels, including “The Object of My Affection” — is associate director of creative writing and associate professor of the practice of English fiction at Brandeis.