OK, let’s admit it. We’ve all done it at some point over the past few weeks – headed over to the nearest Borders to pick the last meat off the bones, grabbing whatever we could to add to our personal libraries before the doors finally closed for good next Friday.
Not that most of us have ever really loved the big box bookstores. Yeah, they have some nice cafes. But every writer worth his salt knows that the local independents treat us better, care about us more, actually welcome us (sometimes personally!) when we walk through their doors.
Still most writers live on really tight budgets. And a bargain is a bargain. This is just a one time thing, trust me! – as we peruse the shelves for hidden treasures, novels by our favorite forgottens, obscure poets or essayists, dictionaries, and research for our in-progress novels.
I was looking for The Landmark Herodotus, but, believe it or not, there wasn’t a copy in sight. Instead, I found rows and rows of cheesy romance novels, cookie-cutter thrillers by authors I’d never heard of, plenty of cookbooks, large-format non-fiction glossies, and those books for kids that include a toy or a small stack of collector cards. Oh, and smelly candles, fuzzy throws and coffee mugs with hackneyed aphorisms embossed in funky fonts. But books worth reading? Well, there were a few I finally bought, but finding them took a while.
Going through the stacks, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of futility, first, that the second largest bookstore chain in America was closing, and second, at the pallid offerings – our industry’s blemishes bared to the world. True, most of these books were the very last of the leftovers, the ones that no one else would touch. The words between the glossy, trying-too-hard covers may even have been reasonably good. Perhaps I’d never heard of these books because they were poorly marketed, as most books are. Perhaps it was their sycophantic packaging. Pink = chick-lit. Woman with head cut off, turning away from the reader = genre historical. Woman with head still visible, looking just a bit too sexy in her period attire = romance. To me, these packages wreaked of predictability and bad taste. But I don’t blame the authors. Hey, they were lucky. They got published! That’s a feat of such magnitude that none of us has the right to see anything but a fellow comrade in arms.
But in these last dregs of pulp, I saw the precipitated futility of our industry, the sweaty desperation to get something – anything – sold, especially in a landscape that is digi-bytes away from literary destruction.
Or is it? I’m definitely not sure right now how or where books will be sold in the coming years. But stories? There’s no lack of hunger for stories.
I’m no longer afraid of the digital transformation of the book. In fact, I see a lot of value and possibility. First, no longer will books kill trees or burn so much fossil fuel as they are carted in tractor-trailers from printer to warehouse to bookstore to gigantic shredder. And no longer will it take months or even years to publish. It could and should take only weeks, as today’s NY Times article about news-based non-fiction proves.
It’s just a question of how we’ll discover what’s worth our precious reading time and what’s not. That’s what bookstores have always been for.
My husband and I love to go to bookstores on our “date nights”. After a satisfying meal where we actually get to talk about something other than the kids, we head to the nearest bookstore, sometimes losing ourselves in opposite corners, coming together now and then with a book in hand we think the other might like, inevitably leaving the store with a small stack of tomes.
Surfing on Amazon.com or GoodReads.com doesn’t come close. There’s no romance and little chance for serendipity.
Still I see great hope in the least likely corner – the diminutive local, independent bookstore. Anne Patchett’s essay about her book tour this summer portrays independent bookstores as alive and well. In fact, many forecasts say that indies will benefit most from Borders’ demise, and may well take their place once again as the vital central hub of the literary world.
In these smaller, cozier havens for books and their dwindling lovers, authors and their fans can still meet one another to discuss the vagaries of character, setting, language and plot. And booksellers can “hand-sell” as they always have, recommending books based on their customers’ personal interests and passions.
At the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, it has always been a bit like meeting someone at a bar. Sure, you might hook up and have a little fun. But if you’re looking for a more serious relationship, wouldn’t it be better to be introduced by a trusted friend?
That’s what indie bookstores have always been like, and now, after years of struggling to survive, they are emerging from the clouds, populating the book universe like small, twinkling stars. Perhaps their influence will never be enough to recapture literature’s place at the radiant core of culture and society. But for as long as books are produced, printed and sold, these small, local bookstores might just be the best place to pick them up and bring them home.
As an addendum to my last post, Shouting in a Crowd, be sure to read the wise advice of literary agent Nathan Bransford about, yes, promoting your work, but also knowing when enough is enough, focusing on what you’re best at and, most of all not, driving yourself absolutely crazy!
I fear this satirical jab at the reality of publicizing new books in this age of digital everything is all too familiar to those of us who’ve been through it or anticipate stepping into the fire again. Check it out, and try hard to laugh so you don’t start crying:
Subject: Our Marketing Plan by Ellis Weiner from the October 19, 2009 New Yorker Magazine.
We’re probably all familiar with Marshall McLuhan‘s phrase “the medium is the message”. McLuhan writes that the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action”. In the world of creative writing and journalism, we’re seeing that more clearly every day. Words have migrated from print to screen, and with that shift have come new forms of communication, both more free and more wild. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter tweets and more have completely transformed journalism, knowledge transfer, social interaction and even politics.
Increasingly the world of creative writing is being affected by this shift. Digital readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader are becoming more commonplace. I believe the economic pressures on publishing will eventually force the full adoption of print-on-demand and other virtual solutions.
Meanwhile creative writers are experimenting with new online forms: serialized stories told in blog format in 350 word bites or, even more dramatic, cellphone novels and “Twitter fiction” in which each entry is only 140 characters long! (See “Call me Ishmael. The end.” by Barry Yourgrau on Salon.com.)
I confront this truth every day in my own writing. Even from the start, when I was toying with short stories, I realized that writing was much easier on a computer. As I grew to take my work more seriously, I questioned how I could write at all without the ease of revising and saving countless drafts. It’s a strange thought for someone who wrote long hand in journals and notebooks for years. I have a box of them in my basement, representing mostly early hopeless attempts that never quite got finished. Somehow the flow of typing on a computer without worries about making mistakes freed me to create in ways that the thick slog of pen and paper or an old, clunky typewriter never had.
But as I’ve progressed, I’ve also noticed a downside to that freedom. Though I compose mostly on computer, I end up editing in hard copy. Somehow the words simply look different in print, even when I change my page view to “Print Layout”. My rhythms change in hard copy; my scenes that had been rich online read more flatly, or sometimes they seem overlong or over the top. I’ve come to rely on a hearty stack of pages for final editing, much to my environmentalist soul’s chagrin.
What am I seeing that wasn’t there before, when all the words remain exactly the same? It’s Marshall McLuhan’s message embodied – the medium does matter, innately and inextricably.
I found this article on the topic particularly intriguing: “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson. It is a commentary on “The Gutenberg Elegies” by Sven Birkerts that explores, as Stephenson writes, “the relationship between a reader and an imaginative text at a time when serious literature is increasingly marginalized by the communications technologies that are transforming mass media and mass culture.” Both article and book were written in the mid-1990s. They are a fascinating time capsule of the world that was.
We’re now living increasingly in the world as it has become, a world where the written world is less frequently printed, less frequently held in hand. The written word is less private, more public, more virtual, more immediate, more dynamic, and yet more ephemeral. How we process information online – where we go in our minds and souls – is immediately in question. Is it possible, both as writers and readers, to descend into that quiet place inside a story as we once did tucked into a comfortable chair with a book? How difficult is it for any of us to avoid checking our email or going online while we’re in the midst of writing? Are we able to escape, or has our attention span and our time been so truncated that the experience of depth and perception is getting more and more elusive? It reminds me of another article I shared with some of you last year, also from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr.
Overall my question is: what precisely is this transformation and where will it lead us? I’m fascinated by these new fiction forms that are growing like viruses online. Some I’ve barely peeked at; others I haven’t begun to explore; and some honestly, I probably don’t want to. I’m the first to admit that I’m a traditionalist, if perhaps not quite a Luddite, about my literary work. I mean – come on – I do write historical fiction about people and cultures where sometimes even writing itself hasn’t been developed!
Still I’m drawn by the urge to trace this strange path, not only to the past, but to the future. It’s evolution in its purest form – as we watch the human mind transformed by human experience. Our own invention is altering culture itself. And culture is perhaps the most inherent aspect of what makes us human.