A friend of mine is an old-school, English major sort of guy. He was extolling the virtues of literature as we once knew it: contemplative novels; long treatises on the nature of the human condition; and “serious” novels chosen by a small cabal of unknown gatekeepers. His eyes gleamed for the nostalgia of MFA glories, tiny lit mag aspirations and the New York Times bestseller lists of old world, analog publishing.
This is the sort of conversation that takes me places I didn’t expect to go. Only in talking it out, and writing it out here, have I discovered and understood what I think about New versus Old writing, reading and publishing.
The “issue” is, have readers’ tastes changed?
All generalizations weaken questions and answers, but there’s validity waiting down there in the dark. Let’s delve.
Pre-WWII, many schools in the first world taught Latin and Greek. Long recitations of poetry were valued. My mom was an excellent example of that brand of scholarship. Two days before she died, riddled with cancer and taken low by the drugs meant to ease her pain, she recited, “The Village Blacksmith” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. My father listened, tears in his eyes, as her voice came, suddenly strong. “Under the spreading chestnut tree, the village smithy stands…”
Latin’s gone and Greek’s forgotten, unless you’re Greek. Rote recitation has ebbed. Penmanship as a skill is dismissed as obsolete. With the economy what it is and university fees rising, majoring in English is quite a luxury. I’m sure there aren’t as many women’s studies or Medieval studies programs as there were when I was in university. There’s a greater emphasis on job prep now. If you’re some kind of doctor or engineer, you can still make university pay. It seems we have less time to think about big issues, though. Like what happens when the doctor fails and what awaits us in the Abyss?
I guess, for that, there’s idiotic YouTube distractions and warm, fuzzy Facebook memes.
The rest is up to us, the writers.
Some curricula we’ll miss and others we’re glad to let go.
I feel very lucky to have received the one course in university I relished most. The Foundation Year Program at the University of King’s College was the history of philosophy and the philosophy of history. Best course ever. They called it a “programme” because they were the sort of Canadians who aspired to reek of British universities’ plummy pretension. Those Brit professors they emulated would look on us as snow-shoed colonials, but where else in Canada could you ask “what is the soul” and watch duelling professors fight over the answer for half an hour?
It was a great opportunity. Job skills were approached somewhat tangentially for many of us. We don’t know how to weld or split the genes for Monsanto that will kill us. With the death of newspapers, our journalism degrees are largely quaint and useless, but damn, we’re great conversationalists.
But that’s more nostalgia. What about now?
Many high school students and their families are seriously challenging the value of a university degree given that no jobs are waiting. Add in the costs of paying off that bill for most of the rest of their lives. Or never.
University fees have put on a lot of weight and are suddenly much less sexy. As the middle class shrinks down to the working poor, the dream marriage of career and long, happy retirement is doomed.
The generations who dressed up for air travel and studied Greek laid the groundwork and built the infrastructure for our modern civilization. They were sharp enough to use slide rules to deliver humans to the moon and back and dumb enough to invent the atomic bomb.
From what I’ve observed, “kids today” are probably up for the great and bad challenges, too. However, our politicians suck and so bridges and highways crumble and kids starve.
All civilizations that manage to rise, fall. We’re on the slide. As writers, we can help slow the inevitable, discourage idiots from hastening the collapse and/or entertain everybody on the way down.
What are the “classics” going to be for students now?
To Kill a Mockingbird? The Old Man and the Sea? Romeo and Juliet? Goethe?
I don’t think so. What students across North America and beyond will have in common as adults are these new classics: Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, and Glee. These are our culture’s touchstones at the moment.
And get used to a much more transient definition of “classic”.
Lucy crying at Desi for a job at the club is classic comedy for today’s waiting-to-die-on-a-ventilator-in-a-few-minutes generation.
For us? I’m not sure they make funny sit-coms anymore. And I don’t think I’ll be in an old age home some day screaming deafly, “Anybody remember that Frasier episode where Niles had heart surgery?”
This year’s college freshmen aren’t talking about their common love of Tolstoy. Take any pair of well-educated, first year roommates and, if and when they talk culture, they’ll be talking about the good old days of The Sopranos and The Wire. They’ll speak of Hollywood all the way back one decade, when the movie machine didn’t suck like Dyson vacuum cleaners. That’s if they aren’t talking sports.
Pop culture, not Euclid, is our commonality now. When you’re looking to make new friends on a bus trip, don’t ask what your sexy seat-mate loved about Dante’s Inferno. (Trust me, I tried it. It’s not the touchstone I’d hoped for.)
The habit of reading is established (or not) in our early years or in jail. But it’s not all on parents and educators and the prison industry. The market has changed, too. Our attention is fractured by so many choices. Writers are competing with Grand Theft Auto and free Internet porn. Talk about quixotic aspirations!
What does this mean to writers? I’ll tell you what I told my friend about writing and publishing:
1. Authors are expected to produce more books faster to gain readerships and hold them.
2. Series and serials are in. Writing books like a TV season (as someone complained of This Plague of Days recently) is in. No, I mean to say it’s IN! As in, that’s what I meant to do!
3. Pop culture references are in. They light up the cozy familiarity cells of the brain. Trying to make books “eternal” with zero pop references? Out.
4. More genre mash-ups are in. I sure didn’t see zombie erotica coming, so slice that mash as thin as you want. Keywords are relevant. Bookshelf labels are much less relevant.
5. Pulp. We can push back the walls of what readers expect from pulp, too. The Cuban assassin in my crime novels is politically aware and has a lot to say about drug addiction. My latest work tackles global warming, US foreign policy and the nature of God, though the recipe’s nutrients are hidden in the neuro-fudge cake of zombies versus vampires.
6. Niches are in. Appealing to a deep niche is achievable. Trying to appeal to wide audiences is out, or at least it’s something that happens to you. It’s probably not something you can make happen.
7. Ebooks are here to stay. Seems obvious, but there’s still some resistance from publishers on the remote island of Manhattan who don’t know the war is over.
8. Shorter books are in. I once thought that meant short stories are coming back, but by my sales stats, either I was wrong then or I’m impatient now. The economics and timelines of more books, faster, demand shorter books.
9. Intermediators will return with honor. The more books you write, the more you wish you had help. This week I lost four hours of writing to formatting a print book. We, the relentless writers and publishers, need help. We’ll be looking for more minions and partners, though, not publishers. After months of sixteen hour days, I am exhausted. Viva la outsourcing!
10. Hybrid authorship is becoming more appealing, as long as we retain our e-rights and audio rights. Once the Big Five stop chiseling their contracts in stone, call me.
11. Book prices will still be all over the place, charging what the market will bear.
12. Jonathan Franzen will still complain about social media comprising the end of the world, but Huffington Post will give up publishing his rants. The Amish aren’t Huffpo‘s demographic. The irony of complaining about social media on the Internet will swallow itself whole and disappear in a flash of yin quantum, pixelated justice, balancing out Franzen’s Neo-Luddite yang. Gee, I hope media starts ignoring Anne Coulter sometime soon, too.
13. Blog posts like this one won’t survive. Too Long To Read and too snooty by half. Unless you’re deep in my niche, who’s got the time for these presumptuous pronouncements about my betters?
Breaking Bad taught as much or more about the dangers of hubris than any Greek tragedy.
Everyone’s reflex to hate the future is just resistance to change away from the comfortable. Nostalgia is not thinking. It supplants thinking. It’s an old blanket that’s getting ratty.
We will adapt until the grid collapses and we start eating rats and insects to survive. Then we’ll have more time to devote to those deep conversations we’re not having. Those end of the world stories around campfires are going to be awesome.