The essays collected together in Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times present some interesting perspectives on the state of modern writing and publishing. In the introduction, written by editor Kevin Smokler, the 2004 National Endowment for the Arts Reading at Risk report serves as the catalyst for this examination of reading and writing. The report gathered twenty years worth of data and a sampling or nearly seventeen thousand subjects and concluded that literary reading had dropped across every age, ethnic, economic, and geographic group in the nation. Smokler recounts all “the sky is falling” cries that greeted the study even though he doesn’t necessarily share in their doom and gloom. Nor does he agree with the report’s pointing the finger at the obvious causes of reading’s decline: the Internet, video games, and television. Smokler writes
Were we simply a country of morons fulfilling our insipid destiny? Could we blame sexier, flashier media options with which the humble book couldn’t compete? Those are pat, elitist answers to a complex problem, and America’s reading public, however big or small, deserves better. If many factors are to blame as [NEA] Chairman Gioia asserted, surely some come from inside, from the industries and institutions that depend on a healthy reading populace for their very survival and yet seem to be losing more of it every generation.
One of the key problems in the state of reading today, Smokler argues, is publishing itself.
Smokler bemoans authors who give “dull, mumbly readings at bookstores and see interaction with readers, at best, as tedious distraction and, at worst, a frighteningly awkward social predicament. Universities, local lecture series, and writers’ conferences are enablers, presenting writers in hushed, reverent tones, as if they were dangerous animals on safari.” This certainly isn’t true of every writer. I’ve attended readings that were as awe-inspiring and as passionate as any rock concert and I’ve seen authors put on performances worthy of Broadway. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen too many authors in tweed jackets stumble through readings that drag on worse than a trip to the dentist. And those are just the boring ones. Some authors are just plain assholes and they can make a booksigning hell for the poor clerks and staff that have to work around them. This isn’t relegated to writers; all occupations have a certain small percentage of jerks. But when Eminem is packing in 50,000 people to a concert, totaling millions of tickets sold in a year, he can afford to be a little grouchy, maybe a little late. I’m constantly amazed to meet authors who sell little more than 10,000 books in their entire career yet they act like human contact is a torture.
One of my pet peeves in this disdain for human interaction, connecting-with-fans, discussion is that so many authors do not have websites. You’ll notice that most of the authors we’ve interviewed here on Slushpile tend to be younger and many of them tend to be mystery or crime writers. That’s not a result of any particular slant or choice on my part, but rather the simple fact that I have interviewed authors that I could find. So many of my literary heroes (I won’t mention names but they will jump off the shelves if you come over and look at the Slushpile library) are basically unreachable. They don’t have websites, their publishers won’t forward requests, and the identities of their agents are state secrets. There are so many critically lauded authors, most in their fifties and sixties, who have no presence available to fans or to critics or to other writers. Obviously, that’s their choice and I respect that, but I also have to wonder how that may hurt their business. Today, most people, particularly young people, expect to be able to see a website. Yet many older authors either feel like they don’t need a web presence, or they don’t know how to establish one, or they don’t like the Internet or any number of explanations. So that while you and I may be familar with Great Writer X’s work, when a younger person hears his name, Googles him and finds nothing, will that person then still take the time to seek out the books?
Smokler continues “we lusty bibliophiles know that reading, unlike just about anything else, is both good for you and loads of fun. But look at how literature presents itself in public; then say loudly, ‘Where the hell is the fun?'” I think this is not only true of the writing and publishing industry, but also how literature is taught in this country. I had amazing English teachers in high school and one particular lady’s instruction continues to influence me to this day. But we bury our junior-high and high school literature education under theme, symbolism, and structure. We write research papers, we write reports, we learn to use the critical dictionaries and what have you. But I honestly don’t remember ever being asked “did you have fun reading this? Did you enjoy it?” I’m not saying that our young people don’t need academic rigor and instruction when they’re growing up, but even for me, after sitting through the drone of literature classes in this country, I have to wonder why bookish people are surprised that more people don’t like to read.
However, Smokler does point out some reasons for optimism. First of all, the obvious, the can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees, the main culprit of the decline of reading is essentially a form of reading.
Arguing that youth are neglecting reading in favor of online media ignores one simple fact: The Internet is fundamentally a reading and writing medium… The number of blogs and online diaries worldwide reached 5 million this year, with half their creators under the age of thirty. Say what you want about the contents. That’s millions and millions of young people writing and reading out of habit.
Smokler also included online conversation about books. “Each day, reading and publishing are more vigorously debated online than anywhere else in old mediascape,” he writes. It’s important to note that as far as I know, only three major newspapers in this country still feature dedicated book sections and most magazines have moved away from publishing fiction entirely. Yet, the discussion of books and fiction roars on in cyberspace. Smokler also applauds the McSweeney’s Factor and how Dave Eggers “and company have convinced a generation of young, media-overloaded readers that literature is cool,” while the influence of hip-hop, the culture of collaboration, the culture of transparency, and the culture of story all continue to bode well for reading’s future.
Listen to Steve Jobs talk about the latest offering from Pixar, the creators of the Myst video game series and musical epics like the Flaming Lips’ Yoshi Battles the Pink Robots and Jay Z’s Black Album. Their creators all say that, no matter how flashy the effects, in the end it’s all about story: A compelling narrative, an original voice, and characters both relatable and wondrous. We writers are the frontline artisans of story. It’s our world out there, no matter how humble and plain our creations seem in comparison.
So Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times is not a lamentation for books and writing. Far from it. The book is actually a celebration of young writers (the oldest are in their early forties, the youngest is nineteen) who are doing things in new ways, who are energized by the state of the industry, and who are determined to make an impact. Rather than complaining about the Internet, these writers embrace it. Instead of whining about their lot in life, these authors enjoy the unknown. Smokler writes “This is an amazing time for books. If reading and literature are in crisis, it certainly isn’t one of apathy but one of seismic rumblings of change that will have profound effect on the future.” Like many of us, Smokler states that “since I’ve never been on time for any trend in my life–not indie rock, breakdancing, or parachute pants–I’d rather be at the party now than in an imagined past when a nation read together, authors walked as gods on earth, and publishers went home fat and happy every afternoon.”
With contributions from Christian Bauman, Tom Bissell, Nico Cary, Tracy Chevalier, Paul Collins, Meghan Daum, Kelley Eskridge, Paul Flores, Nell Freudenberger, Glen David Gold, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Nicola Griffith, Howard Hunt, Adam Johnson, Dan Kennedy, Robert Lanham, Vivien Mejia, Benjamin Nugent, Neal Pollack, Pamela Ribbon, Michelle Richmond, Douglas Rushkoff, Tara Bray Smith, K.M. Soehnlein, and Elizabeth Spiers, Bookmark Now is a great read for anyone who wants to know what is next in line for writing, publishing, and reading. Pick it up here.