This post has whiskers on it, but even though the Garrison Keillor column “When Everyone is a Writer, No One Is” is long since gone for fishwrap, the issue it attempt to raise is, of course still with us. So I thought I’d reanimate this from my fallow period for your reading pleasure.
To be sure, there was a fair amount of blog traffic on Keillor’s jeremiad about the book industry, at the time.
Broadly the response seems to have been pretty dismissive, which is right. This is an awful piece, self aggrandizing, a work of anecdotage (h/t the irreplaceable Herb Caen, I think), not to mention that it’s a bizarre misreading of media history, given Keillor’s place of pride in that obsolete venue, radio.
It begins with a bit of don’t-you-wish-you-were-me aw-shucksitude:
In New York the other night, I ran into my daughter’s favorite author, Mary Pope Osborne, whose “Magic Tree House” books I’ve read to the child at night, and a moment later, Scott Turow, who writes legal thrillers that keep people awake all night, and David Remnick, the biographer of President Barack Obama. Bang bang bang, one heavyweight after another. Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, Judy Blume….I grew up on the windswept plains with my nose in a book, so I am awestruck in the presence of book people, even though I have written a couple books myself…I’m not one of them — I’m a deadline writer, my car has 150,000 miles on it …
Well, yeah — and he is a nationally broadcast host of a signature program on America’s most prestigious radio network, and a contributor to places like The New Yorker, and, as he notes, the author of a few books himself which haven’t done badly at all. He may say he hit that party by the grace of a well connected friend, but dude, you don’t need to go all bachelor Norwegian farmer on us. You know as well as we that everyone else there was making the same list: there’s Remnick, and Blume, and Jong and by gum that’s Garrison Keillor too….
But leave the formerly uncelebrated their conceits. (And remember that Hemingway retort to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different.” “Yeah — they have more money.”)
Keillor gets down to cases by declaring that all this glittering pleasure is a mask, or rather a vision of the unknowing dead walking under the delusion that they yet live:
…this book party in Tribeca feels like a Historic Moment, like a 1982 convention of typewriter salesmen or the hunting party of Kaiser Wilhelm II with his coterie of plumed barons in the fall of 1913 before the Great War sent their world spinning off the precipice.
What’s going to send all these beautiful people to a Western Front in which the trenches are lined in Book Antiqua and Garamond? Not the loss of readers, an audience for, if not The Word, then words.
We live in a literate time, and our children are writing up a storm, often combining letters and numerals (U R 2 1derful), blogging like crazy, reading for hours off their little screens, surfing around from Henry James to Jesse James to the epistle of James to pajamas to Obama to Alabama to Alanon to non-sequiturs, sequins, penguins, penal institutions.
So what’s the problem? There are several: the first is the lack of that which by asking for it (as the joke of my youth had it) New York singles used to get rid of their apartments’ cockroaches: commitment.
and it’s all free, and you read freely, you’re not committed to anything the way you are when you shell out $30 for a book, you’re like a hummingbird in an endless meadow of flowers.
This is just weird. I was and am a reader — and the author of four books,* all published by major trade houses, all sold in that price range (not quite that high, actually) as hardcovers, half that or less in paper — and this isn’t how I either acquire or engage books.
I use libraries, I borrow, I dig through give away boxes, I buy used…and if there is a book that is a beautiful object, and it tickles me, and I have the money, I pay vastly more than the words could be had for to get that volume in its role as an object, a work of art.
And now, I have classics and pulp and all the rest on at least three devices (yes, I plead iPad-ity. It ain’t worth it, but I love it…)
All of which to say is that you don’t read a long work because it cost you a lot. You read it — I read it — because it gets its hooks in me. And the medium is less important than you think, at least than I thought, once that hook is well and truly set.
I read most of U.S. Grant’s memoirs (h/t Ta-Nehisi Coates) on my iPhone, all 3.2 inches worth of screen, through a download from Gutenberg.org. It’s better on the iPad, and I wish I had had access to proper maps, but I couldn’t stop reading, pulling out my phone at every crosswalk, at the supermarket counter, and so on. And I am 50 mumble mumble years old; this isn’t some damn kid doing a byte dance.
The idea that how much someone pays for a piece of work evokes a reader commitment to it is…how to put it?
Then there’s Keillor’s odd complaint that too many people are writing these days.
And if you want to write, you just write and publish yourself. No need to ask permission, just open a website. And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to Lulu.com or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. No problem. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.
And so what? If someone wants to write for pleasure and share it, who cares. There are lots of things wrong in book publishing and the like, but it’s not that people aren’t buying my book on Newton (see below for all the links to let you do just that 😉 just because John or Jane Doe just popped a book with Newton in its title up on Lulu. And it’s not that the publicity/marketing problem is made difficult because there are lots of free or cheap books. It is that the broader demise of go-to media makes it harder to promote books — to enable original work to find its audience readily.
That is: we are definitely in a transitional phase, but from where I sit, having done pretty ok in getting the word out on Newton and the Counterfeiter through a variety of channels, the fact that what used to be called literary journalism has evaporated from mass print media and drive time radio even faster than science writing has gone is the most important single change in America’s book culture. Not the fact that you can buy my work on Kindle for ten bucks, in hard cover for 17 or so, and in paper for around 9 — and certainly not that someone else out there might be writing a work they’ll sell for less. It ain’t my grandma, nor Cory Doctorow that’s the problem here.
Rather, as Rebecca Skloot’s incredibly innovative (and exhausting) self-created book tour (warning: PDF) shows, there are ways to reach audiences, (and it helps to have written a damn good book, of course). But of course, Skloot’s experience is a prototype of new ways to make connections between authors, works, and audiences; it’s not the finished version that non-maniacal (and/or childless) folks can precisely emulate. We will, we are getting a new interconnected web of readers and writers, I think (I certainly hope so). But as in so much of the digital transformation, the collapse of a distinctive regional as well as national, print-based culture of writing about books isn’t getting replaced instantly. And whatever constellation of ways to get the word out emerge (a bit of Scalzi here, a bit of barnstorming there), it’s going to take a while before at least fogies like me really figur out how to use these resources to reach all the people who might in fact want to check out what I have to say.
Here that sermon endeth. But back to Keillor’s jeremiad:
Back in the day, we became writers through the laying on of hands. Some teacher who we worshipped touched our shoulder, and this benediction saw us through a hundred defeats. And then an editor smiled on us and wrote us a check, and our babies got shoes.
Really? I became a writer because I felt books telling me to write. I still write because of what I read, or because I feel compelled to say something (like this!). I’m not going to claim universal truth for a data set of one, but I know plenty of other authors whose experience is the same.
Yes, of course, the encouragement of teachers, editors, fellow writers all matter. It can be hard to go on if no one seems to think what you do is any good. But in fact such notice is the result, not the source of writerly identity. If what Keillor really means is that it took professional acknowledgement to make a living as a writer, well of course that’s true, banal, but still factual enough. But writers write; the laying on of hands, when it happens, may encourage, but it does not alter the underlying dynamic. All that has changed is that those who do not or do not choose to have a commercial career (see Adams, Henry) have ready means to create an expression external to themselves and their desk full of copy. And what is so bad there?
Well Keillor thinks that’s pretty dangerous:
But in the New Era, writers will be self-anointed. No passing of the torch. Just sit down and write the book. And The New York Times, the great brand name of publishing, whose imprimatur you covet for your book (“brilliantly lyrical, edgy, suffused with light” — NY Times) will vanish (Poof!). And editors will vanish.
Really? Does Keillor actually think, in spite all the evidence of major media enterprises on the web, that the proliferation of data will reduce the audience’s demand for assessment, validation of consumer choices, the critical filtering role that acquiring editors and critics (maybe not at the Times, but in the newly emerging literary mediasphere)? The way the book writing and reading world will communicate is certainly changing…but there is no evidence, none, that Keillor adduces to suggest that self-anointed writers will be anymore successful or significant than they now are. The mechanisms by which writers of books reach audiences and make money are changing; but the fact that some writers command both more audience attention and more cash than others hasn’t changed, and won’t.
And as for editors: Vanish? Really? News to my wonderful editors over twenty years now. The models by which books are acquired, helped and published are all changing, of course…but change is not the same as evaporation…and the blunt truth is that authors I know are hiring free-lance editors because book publishers have (long before this latest round of transformation) abdicated a lot of that task, and real writers know that real editors make them look yet more brilliant.
The upside of self-publishing is that you can write whatever you wish, utter freedom, and that also is the downside. You can write whatever you wish, and everyone in the world can exercise their right to read the first three sentences and delete the rest.
And this is different from my right to follow Einstein with Newton, and Newton with — I’m not going to tell you yet — and your right to stop after the first line of my first book “In the beginning…,” never to return again? How, exactly?
Self-publishing will destroy the aura of martyrdom that writers have enjoyed for centuries. Tortured geniuses, rejected by publishers, etc., etc. If you publish yourself, this doesn’t work anymore, alas.
Bullsh*t. Trust me. Writers can martyr themselves at the drop of a hat (“Ouch! My back!). Writing a book is a long, slow, hard slog for the most ephemeral and capricious of rewards at the end. It hurts to spend a day casting prose, knowing all day it isn’t working, not knowing how to make it work, and not wanting to stop until it does, but running out of daylight, of eyesight, of words. Then you get up the next day and, if you are lucky, figure out what is now obvious (any f*cking monkey could have got that one, bub), and get on with it. We don’t need any help feeling lousy; the process of sustaining a long work contains all the resources to enhance our self-loathing that anyone needs. The moments of joy are there too, (they have to be, or else no one would do this a second time, just like bearing children).
What I’m trying to say here is that Keillor has stopped even trying to make a coherent case; this is just masturbation.
Children, I am an author who used to type a book manuscript on a manual typewriter. Yes, I did. And mailed it to a New York publisher in a big manila envelope with actual postage stamps on it. And kept a carbon copy for myself. I waited for a month or so and then got an acceptance letter in the mail. It was typed on paper. They offered to pay me a large sum of money. I read it over and over and ran up and down the rows of corn whooping. It was beautiful, the Old Era. I’m sorry you missed it.
And I walked to school in bare feet through the snow. Uphill. Both ways.
When I got my first contract, one guy bought me a drink at a bar on the Upper East Side when he heard someone was paying someone else to write. That felt great too.
Then, starting in 1985 I had to write the thing, which I did, on a Zenith laptop running MS Dos that boasted not one but two 3.5″ floppy disc drives — hot stuff indeed in those days. I can’t tell you how happy I was not to have to confront my dad’s Olivetti electric typewriter nor smudge my hands on a single sheet of carbon paper. What Keillor is touting here is a fetish bathed in nostalgia.
Words are toys, books are miracles (and albatrosses) and I don’t give a damn what you use to make them, nor how you choose to read them, nor whether someone I don’t want to read still chooses to write and let the world know that they have done so. Keillor’s dream of a closed circle of self-congratulatory demigods*** (“it was beautiful the Old Era” and all that) is the muttering of someone too scared to pause, even for a moment, against the chance that all that chaos and noise out there might yet contain the reward of beauty.
His loss, not mine.
*Not to miss an opportunity to plug a little — you can find my most recent, which a lot of folks seem to like, Newton and the Counterfeiter, at all the usual suspects: Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound and across the pond at Amazon.co.uk, Waterstones, Blackwells, Borders, and John Smith & Son — not to mention electronically Amazon’s Kindle store — and while there are no electronic editions of the earlier ones, you can check them out here.
**Bonus Eddie Izzard, Alan Rickman version for your viewing pleasure:
*** Demigods in the sense Einstein described his new Princeton neighbors as “puny demigods on stilts.”
Images: Simon Vouet, “La Richess,” 1633
Carl Spitweg, “The Poor Poet,” 1839.
Okumura Masunobu, “Book and Paper Peddlar” 1720-1730.