Sunday, March 02, 2008

Literary Scraps for Real Readers

Networking Not Working

One day after work last week, I found myself in a dimly lit music venue a few blocks from the store wearing a bizarre name tag and scrounging for a few bites of food. I was at a networking function for writers hosted by Boulder's Daily Camera newspaper and a new magazine called The New West. I never would have attended this soiree, except that I really wanted to meet Jenny Shank, a writer for New West, who said wonderful things about my blog. I wanted to thank her in person and make sure she wasn't deranged. I also wanted to express my gratitude for the book coverage that she's providing the region on the New West website.

I don't usually go for networking events. I'm not interested in small talk, unless it is about baseball, and I am absolutely terrible about keeping people's names straight when I first meet them. The name tags should have helped with that problem, but they didn't. In addition to your name, the tag included either the first line of a novel, an author's name or the title of a book. The venue's black walls and mood lighting might work for a rock show, but it made reading name tags a challenge. You can only squint at a woman's breast for so long trying to read her name before getting walloped. I ended up calling one woman Jodi, but it turned out her author was Jodi Picoult. The idea of the name tags was that you were supposed to walk around the room to find your name tag match and start a conversation with them. On mine, I had the first line from Ian McEwan's Saturday. I never did find out who had the title, but the bookstore's promotional assistant, who sits five feet away from me every work day, had McEwan's name.

Even without the name tags, the event would have seemed a bit strange. The attendees were an odd mix of published writers, aspiring writers, publishers and reporters. It sounded great until you looked a little closer. The local publishers generally don't publish the type of work that the writers write, and the reporters generally don't report on the type of books that the publishers publish. Romance writers and young adult authors aren't going to find their way into the catalog of a nonfiction publisher. Rocky Mountain News freelancers aren't all that likely to review a hiking book.

I was mostly besieged by writers who had a book that we should be selling or could be selling or for some reason -- usually because it was self-published without a spine -- just wouldn't sell. I listened to them all, took a few bookmarks and anxiously looked around for the food. Every few minutes, the book editor of the Daily Camera got on stage and announced another winner from a drawing of business cards. The lucky person went up and selected a book. I had no hopes of winning because I had left my business cards at the office. I've managed to make 500 business cards last over 10 years in this manner.

It was great to meet Jenny from The New West, and I was very encouraged by her enthusiasm and energy for what's happening in books in the Rocky Mountain region. I must admit I was discouraged by most of the writers that I met. Many of them, especially the reporters, are excellent writers but can barely make ends meet. I was shocked by how many of them hold down full-time jobs, but still need to freelance to supplement their income.

The whole event was a study in irony, since the Daily Camera was one of the chief sponsors. The Daily Camera, like many newspapers throughout the country, has drastically cut its book coverage in the last few years. The difference is that Boulder is one of the most literate towns in America, and the paper rarely utilizes the great writers that are here. For example, the paper hardly ever features authors in any section other than the book page, and it didn't have the sense to keep Clay Evans, their passionate, talented, home-grown book editor. That they could be involved in holding a networking event for writers is almost comical. Perhaps Boulder's authors and reporters wouldn't have to stand around trying desperately to make connections if they actually had a local paper that supported and valued their work.

New Century, Same Old Story

I recently read a novel that was an extremely accurate depiction of the trials and tribulations of today's literary world. Struggling writers, the battle between artistic merit and commercial viability, the plethora of books being published, and the infighting of book reviewers are all featured prominently in George Gissing's New Grub Street. The funny thing is, Gissing has been dead for over a century and his masterpiece was published in 1891. Yet, as Francine Prose mentions in the Modern Library edition introduction, many passages seem to be taken out of today's conversations.

Gissing, a writer in the naturalistic style of Theodore Dreiser and Emile Zola, depicts several writers in 1880s London trying to make their way in the literary world. He's concerned about the working class, the poor and the downtrodden members of the writing class. Edwin Reardon is small-time novelist who can't compromise his artistic values to write something commercially appealing. Alfred Yule is an aging reviewer, novelist and essayist, who has never attained prosperity. Jasper Milvain, Reardon's friend, is his opposite, a man who will do whatever it takes to get ahead. Jasper is one of literature's great networkers, by the way. The two friends' divergent paths tell you all you need to know about Gissing's thoughts on literature.

When it comes to newspapers and magazines, Gissing predicts the advent of USA Today and other dumbed-down publications. One of the more worldly, if less literary, characters in New Grub Street proposes to change the magazine Chat into a publication called Chit-Chat. The new title is supposed to better represent the changes in the literary journal he is proposing -- all the articles will be limited to two inches in length and no paragraph will be longer than an inch. Is it any surprise when Chit-Chat becomes London's most influential magazine on culture?

Here are a few of my favorite quotes from the novel:

"Speaking seriously, we know that a really good book will more likely than not receive fair treatment from two or three reviewers; yes, but also more likely than not it will be swamped in the flood of literature that pours forth week after week, and won't have attention fixed long enough upon it to establish its repute....The growing flood of literature swamps everything but works of primary genius. If a clever and conscientious book does not spring to success at once, there's precious small chance that it will survive. "

"If I am an unknown man, and publish a wonderful book, it will make its way very slowly, or not at all. If I, become a known man, publish that very same book, its praise will echo over both hemispheres. I should be within the truth if I had said 'a vastly inferior book.'"

"I maintain that we people of brains are justified in supplying the mob with the food it likes. If only I had the skill, I would produce novels out-trashing the trashiest that ever sold fifty-thousand copies."

Too many books in 1880s London? I'd love to show Gissing my stack of Random House catalogs.

Let the Readers Read

A few days ago, I was asked to write a short piece for the PubWest newsletter on what independent bookstores, and specifically the Boulder Book Store, do to attract non-readers. Publishers Association of the West is a collection of western publishers. I've spoken at their annual conference in the past and was asked to contribute to the newsletter by a Kash's Book Corner reader who is with Boulder's Velo Press. The question was spurred on by the NEA's "Reading at Risk" report that showed that fewer people are reading now than during an earlier, Edenic period in our nation's history.

I started writing about the bookstore's free giveaways to teachers and schools, our attempts to make the store less stuffy and more inviting to people that might not be regular readers, and our multitude of events that appeal to the general population rather than the literary reader. It was the usual litany of desperate measures that you hear from bookstores around the country.

About halfway through my writing, I just got pissed off. Reading is just about the greatest pleasure a person can have in the world. It's absurd that we have to coddle all of the idiots out there that can't figure out how much fun it is to read a book or even a magazine. Perhaps bookstores would be better served, and the Boulder Book Store does this to a great extent, by catering to the people that are passionate about reading. It's more important to coddle the true readers in our community than become missionaries to the unconverted.

Books aren't going to disappear. If people haven't learned to value reading by the time they would become our customers, our chances of winning them over aren't very good. Even if all the independent stores in the country banded together, their efforts would be a mere drop in the cultural cesspool of our society. Instead, let's focus on the really cool people that are smart and hip enough to read books. Maybe the non-readers will start wondering what's going on and want to join the club. Sounds crazy? Look at Harry Potter.

I'm tired of being flogged by the NEA study. Do people really think that books are less prominent now than 5o years ago? Books were never absolutely central to the majority of Americans' lives. There has always been a select group buying most of the books published. It's hard for me to believe that things are as dire as the NEA would like us to believe. For bookstores, it is really a matter of competing for the book sales that are out there, not trying to drum up a bunch of reluctant readers. Today, there are three bookstores of over 20,000 square feet in Boulder. There probably wasn't a single bookstore that size in the entire state of Colorado in 1958, despite the fact that no one could buy books online back then.

There was a great article, Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading, in the February issue of Harper's Magazine by Ursula Le Guin that discusses the history of reading in America and makes some great points about the NEA study and publishing today. It should be required reading for anyone who ever mentions this NEA study again.


lady t said...

Hi,Kash-I've been reading your blog for awhile now and as a former bookseller, I identify with many of your posts. However,this paragraph really peeves me:

"About halfway through my writing, I just got pissed off. Reading is just about the greatest pleasure a person can have in the world. It's absurd that we have to coddle all of the idiots out there that can't figure out how much fun it is to read a book or even a magazine. Perhaps bookstores would be better served, and the Boulder Book Store does this to a great extent, by catering to the people that are passionate about reading. It's more important to coddle the true readers in our community than become missionaries to the unconverted."

I agree that reading is one of the greatest pleasures in the world but as one of my literary idols,Jane Austen,might say,you should make allowances for differences of situation and temperament. Calling those folks who are not into books and magazines as much as you are "idiots" who need to be "coddled" not only defeats your purpose but makes you sound like an elitist to boot.

If you think it's better to cater to a more bookish crowd than to go after fresh blood,that's a legitimate business perspective and yes,I get the whole frustration with all of those studies that claim reading is dead(those things run in cycles-every decade or so,some art form gets put under the grindstone for cynics to work away at)but to slam nonreaders like that is rude and condescending,to say the least.

Perhaps you're just blowing off some steam there but I really think that you could've said that better.

sanjana said...

Well written article. Reading is real pleasure for all the book lovers, and now a days it has become very easy to get a book that you would hunt for in the market through e-bookstores. I love collecting books. I am a frequent visitor of SiliconIndia, saw a wide range of books on and it made me very nostalgic. I had been looking for these books for a long time. I can’t imagine life without the companionship of these books. I guess you would agree to that since you are so well read yourself.

LJW Publishing Administrator said...

I really enjoyed reading your post. Thanks so much for your opinion on the NEA study. I'm off to check out the article you mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Hi Arsen,
I really enjoy checking out your blog and just wanted to send a quick note about the networking party. It was not actually sponsored by the Daily Camera at all, but by our writing group, which we named the Murphy's Fiction Collective. We are a group of writers who wanted to create a venue for local writers to meet each other. We organized the event ourselves and paid the overhead out of our own pockets, though New West graciously made a contribution.

Our invitation to the event may have been confusing. There are seven members of our group, and we listed ourselves as hosts and included our bios. One of our group is the Entertainment Editor at the Daily Camera. But our group also works variously for the Rocky Mountain News and the Lighthouse Writer's Workshop. None of these employers, however, were sponsors of the event.

I hope that helps to clear things up and put the event in a different perspective. We were really just trying to bring the local writing community together.

- Ashley Shires

Steven Williams said...

First of all I wanted to thank you for this article, it was fun to read. For me, it seemed to me to strike just the right balance of humor and despair that many in the book business seem to be feeling right not.

I did want to comment on your argument about, as I take it, not wasting too much if any energy trying to attract non-readers and invest those resources developing and extending relationships with active readers instead. Generally I am inclined to agree with your point of view for what I consider very pragmatic and prosaic reasons. I simply think that non-readers as a group have too much demographic diversity to actually be accessible to any reasonably coherent marketing efforts.

Also, it seems to me that it is the enthusiasm of a reader that is most likely to draw someone to a book. Word-of-mouth is simply the best way, in my opinion, to get a person 'into' reading.

I also tend to agree with your questioning of NEA doomsaying regarding reading rates. Like the economy, especially the gray and black market segments, it is actually very difficult to determine through survey and statistics what is actually going on with reading behaviors and rates.

I frequently overhear, in all sorts of situations, people talking about borrrowing books. They are either recommending one that a friend lent and they liked or else asking someone if they can borrow their copy to read. Because of these admittedly anecdotal experiences, I think that the error rate of the NEA's study is significantly larger that they claim. I think the NEA study is generally not very accurate in revealing actual trends in reading and book purchasing.