Slouching Toward Tomorrowland
By Doug Borsom
This is the sixth in a series of posts leading up to the 2013 AWP Conference at which Eric Olsen will moderate a panel on “What We Wish We’d Known.” Please join us in Boston Saturday, March 9, 1:30-2:45 pm, in room 206 of the Hynes Convention Center.
When I was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the one indispensable career lesson for the would-be writer was impossible to miss: To be a writer, you write, with focus, every day.
The faculty were disciplined writers, always working on something and reading to us from their works-in-progress. By example, they let us know that we should do the same. I remember being particularly impressed by John Irving, who at the time was putting the finishing touches on Garp, soon to be a best-seller, and then a film. He exemplified a great work ethic. It was impossible to miss, but not easy to emulate.
That’s the problem.
The nuts-and-bolts stuff (such as first North American rights) was there in Writer’s Digest and their annual “Writer’s Market.” No need to freeze your ass off through two Iowa winters to get that sort of information. And much of the squishier knowledge was available at the Workshop, or at least the clues were in plain sight and easy to piece together. But you have to be at a place in your life where you want it and are able to absorb it. See the insight expressed in Ross Howell’s reflection on what he wishes he’d known—that wisdom comes only with years and experience. Telling it to someone doesn’t mean they can hear it. I don’t think most of us were ready for Ross’s knowledge when we were at Iowa.
Still, I think meeting once or twice each semester to talk about the post-Workshop world, publishing and other possibilities, would have been a good thing. Two of the permanent Workshop faculty, Vance Bourjaily and Jack Leggett, were both from the post-WWII Mad Men, Greatest Generation, and between them had decades of experience. Vance, of course, had written one of the definitive war novels, The End of My Life, ranked up there by some critics with Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity. Jack had even worked in the heart of publishing in the ’50s and ’60s and published a novel, Gulliver House, about an editor, and Ross and Tom, a dual biography of two authors who achieved sudden fame, then flamed out. Vance and Jack could speak with authority, no question.
That may be the big difference today. Back then, the latest breakthrough in publishing technology had happened thirty-some years before, with the introduction of the paperback book. Today, there is a revolution in publishing, and no one knows how it will turn out in five or ten years. Today, there are no authorities.
In addition to the traditional route for writers to get their work to the public, all kinds of new paths have opened up. (For one, see Don Wallace‘s “Adventures in E-Publishing.”) A writer can now retain control of practically every aspect of her book, opening up all kinds of new opportunities for self-expression as well as self-humiliation.
The question is no longer how to make a book available to the public—the Internet solves that. Amazon’s reach today is greater than Houghton Mifflin’s, Penguin’s, Scribners’, and all the rest combined ten years ago. If you like, your potential audience can be in the billions—Borges’ Library of Babel is just one block over.
The problem now is how you help readers find your book in that vast, dim, library. How do you capture their eyes? Or mouse clicks?
If a workshop wants to provide practical advice, who do they bring in? Someone with a twenty-year career at Random House? An Internet entrepreneur? The guy who hawked the Popeil Pocket Fisherman on TV? Someone who posted a YouTube video that went viral last month and is now long (in web time) forgotten?
In the meantime, writers are inventing the future of publishing. They post readings on YouTube, teasers of their books. They tweet. They host websites related to their books. They reach out to bookstores, libraries, book bloggers, book festivals. (In these sorts of activities, wewantedtobewriters.com and its traveling roadshow are exemplars.)
And the changes continue.
Over-all book sales drop even as eBook sales grow. A self-published bondage-romance makes the transition from the Web to eBook best seller to print best seller, and a movie is on the way. Simon & Schuster gets into self-publishing.
Recently in The New York Times Sunday Book Review, a mainstream publisher ran a full-page ad, and not one of the many favorable blurbs was from an author, Kirkus, The Library Journal, or the other usual suspects. Instead, each blurb was attributed to an Amazon.com reader review.
To combat Amazon’s growing influence, Hachette, Simon & Schuster, and Penguin are bankrolling Bookish (bookish.com) which bills itself as “The new digital destination for readers.” To show how much they esteem traditional publishing experience, they chose a guy from Comcast to run it. What? You haven’t heard of Bookish? See, the big money has to scramble just like everyone else for eyeballs and mouse clicks. The great leveling effect of the web can be a wonderful thing.
Reflecting all this turmoil, The New York Times offers ever-proliferating best-seller lists of books and eBooks that look as though they were lifted from a statistics textbook. (They still don’t tell us what we really want to know: How many copies sold?)
We won’t know what’s next until it happens.
I’ll end this by circling back to the original question, by way of Eric’s plea for practical advice on teaching. Presenting “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to immigrants headed for engineering careers was absolutely the best thing a teacher could have done for those students. Some day, maybe one of them will don an ESD hood and gown and enter through an airlock into the pressurized ISO 3 cleanroom of a $6 billion chip foundry in Hsinchu, Taiwan. The chip that will nudge us into Ray Kurzweil’s singularity is to be fabbed there. This is the moment. All is ready. Techs stand around, waiting for the go-ahead. Eric’s former student pauses and wonders, “Do I dare disturb the universe?”
That’s it. That’s the question I face every time I sit down to write. That’s what I wish I’d known.