Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Where have all the writers gone?

Those of us who love to read (which means pretty much anyone who gives enough of a damn to be online on meaningful sites, and not chat-trash) will understand what I’m talking about when I ask this question.

Remember when we were beginning to learn to love reading, and the authors we cut our literary teeth on? Where are the new writers who could have matched the greats of yesteryear? Where are the modern Sholokhovs and Dickens, the Hemingways and Kurt Vonneguts? Is literary talent extinct?

Where, for instance, are satirists like Joseph Heller, fantasy writers like Lord Dunsany, humourists like Mark Twain, or anti-war authors of the calibre of Remarque or Mailer? Instead of imaginative horror writers like Sheridan Le Fanu, we have formulaic, utterly predictable hacks like Stephen King. Instead of the visionary (if not particularly well-written) science fiction of Arthur C Clarke or Ray Bradbury, we have people with unmemorable names whose tales are so involved that you finish reading them still unclear what the author was talking about. Instead of real detective fiction from writers like Baroness Orczy, we have John Grisham. Instead of suspense, we have zombies.

What the hell is going on?

Obviously, it’s not true that the talent isn’t there. If anything, more people than ever before are writing, and the laws of chance will mean that all other things being equal, we should see more, not less, great authors. So why aren’t we?

I suggest that the primary reason is the publishing industry. Books are nowadays thought of in purely marketing terms, and publishers will ignore literary merit entirely for “saleability”. That, in turn, means being acceptable to the lowest common denominator; literary pap, to be more succinct.

Any one of us who’s ever tried to publish anything will have come across the publishers’ demands about what’s “suitable” and what isn’t; the current favourite genre seems to be something called “Young Adult” fiction, as though late teens can’t read anything more mature. I wonder how we managed to consume Melville and Dostoyevsky as teenagers without our brains imploding, then.

So, since the vast majority of good writing isn’t writing aimed at the market, you no longer get good writers getting published. Good writing has always been edgy, out of the common herd; it has to be, to stand out. Often it’s been controversial – Lolita for example. Anyone here thinks Nabokov would have found a publisher today?

Then, there’s the fact that less and less reading is actually getting done. There’s too much TV feeding pre-digested garbage into people’s brains. There’s too much channelling of kids into reading “useful career-oriented” material rather than “story books”, at least in India where today’s children can scarcely call a minute of their time their own. There’s too damn much background noise for writers to be heard, unless, of course, they go with the flow.

Is there a way out? Funnily enough, I think there is. Once global warming and the decline of fossil fuels reach their logical conclusions, the modern frenetic pace of society will quite definitely break down. There will be chaos, social disorder and civil war, but once that phase is over, the remnants of civilisation will pick up the pieces and the survivors will return to a quieter and more sustainable mode of existence. And then, there will be an enormous amount of material to write on, too, as there was in the years when we were growing up.

So, we shouldn’t give up writing. The flame needs to be kept burning, even if it’s only going to kindle a blaze decades after we’re gone.

And meanwhile we can re-read Quiet Flows The Don or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. At least we know we have quality there.


  1. What you're saying is true, Bill.

    Most of us who write for writing's sake either turned to chronicling our own small corner of civilisation's demise, or gave it up altogether.

    There's no demand any more for anything other than escapism. Vampires; werewolves; zombies - these sell books to mindless teenagers, who have the time to read.

    The rest of the world is too busy dodging bullets and trying to grub a living to care.

    As you've said - it'll change, but not before a lot of unpleasantness....

  2. Good one.

    I think there are quite a lot of good writers out there right now. I've been finding some great and moemorable fiction, although it does take some searching.

    The thing is (I think) that the publishing INDUSTRY was geared for so long to selling books with famous names on them - knowing that no one who bought the books were going to bother reading them, anyway - that it skewed what we typically saw up front in the book stores.

    I'm hoping that with the publishing industry AND the music industry currently imploding due to new technologies, that it will mean that the LACK of profit incentive will keep away all but the people who really NEED to be writing.

    In other words, the Britney Spears of the world won't bother recording if there's no money in it, and the Lou Reeds of the world don't know how to do anything else...

  3. At the risk of causing a riot (which it seems I do anywhere I go these days), I think those of us who cut our teeth on "the classics" and "the greats" may also need to stop turning our noses up at work that doesn't address the lofty themes we grew up reading about. I work with teenagers, and the readers among them are able to distinguish between the stuff that's froth and the stuff that's quality writing. It's always a joy to listen in on their conversations about books and writing, even when they're talking about vampires and ghouls.

    You see, these kids realize that what's significant is how thee stories they read, or the non-fiction, all deal with the human condition, and how we are managing our lives. They understand that good writing is about people, not causes or systems. It is the people who make the causes and systems significant or not. Grapple with figuring out the people, and the rest is do-able.

    I think there's hope...if I can keep influencing the thinking of a few young folk. Who knows, some of them may even end up adding to the roll of "the greats". While there's life, there's hope, eh?

    And in the meantime, I guess I'd better not slack off myself...

  4. I have no problem with the idea that kids can read; they, however, are being deprived of the chance to read good fiction because the industry (and publishing is an industry, as a fellow writer you know that as well as I do) is depriving them of that chance due to the lure of marketability.

  5. Publishers are rejecting works because they don't fit the formula for being marketable. I recently read where a best seller was an accident, that it was suppose to be on the discard pile. It is almost impossible for a new writer to get published by the publishing corporations today.

    Self-publishing is now possible at very low costs; and with the advent of e-books there is no cost at all to self-publishing. Some place the label of "Vanity Publishing" on self-publishing as if the work itself may have no value just because one is not having the book published through the main publishing industry. Of course this is not the case at all. The problem with self-publishing is that one also has to do self-marketing of the book.

  6. I doubt there's any less great literature being produced today than at any other time in history.

    I also believe that pandering to the lowest common denominator isn't all that new in publishing either. While novels have always been published in large amounts, few had the literary worth of Twain or Melville or Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy.

    What about the following 21st century authors: Umberto Ecco
    Italo Calvino
    Milan Kundera
    Margaret Atwood
    JG Ballard
    Kathy Acker
    Thomas Pynchon
    Haruki Murakami
    Phillip Roth
    Chuck Paluhnic
    VS Naipaul

  7. Most of them are hardly new, Mila.

  8. Of course there is little of real merit because beget what the majority will buy.... The good writers are out there, but unless our collective attention span allows us to take the time to think, we.ll not be willing to buy and read quality.

  9. Many of them have published in the last 5 years... and all within the last 10. I'd hardly constitute that as being "old".

    Bill, the problem I have with this post is that you seem to be assuming that great authors today aren't as thick on the ground as they once were. I don't believe that for a moment. I can't think of any period in our literary history were we produced a new "great author" every decade... even during our most fecund periods.

    Good authors are, and always have been, rare. Great ones even more so.

    What I DO believe is that far more shyte is being published today than ever before. We live in the Age of Vanity, after-all. But I don't that this over-abundance of dross means that good authors are a thing of the past.

  10. Off the list... Calvino and Ballard are dead... Pynchon has released three books in the last 25 years - and Pynchon's fantastic, although he'll never match his 60's-70's work... Murakami and Pahlaniuk are fantastic and very much from this generation of 21st century writers...

    And there are a lot of other folks releasing good stuff, especially from the non-English-speaking world.

    I agree largely with what Bill is saying here, though.

    But I also think there was a lot of crap released in the past that didn't have the legs to come down to us.

    I mean, that's a good thing. We've got enough of our own crap writing - we don't need the 19th century's...


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