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Dire Predictions from Updike

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John Updike, making the rounds promoting his new novel, Terrorist, raised eyebrows with his passionate warnings at BEA about digital publishing. That much-discussed speech, by the way, is available as a podcast here.

In the June/July 2006 issue of Details, Updike sounds yet another ominous note about the potential for young authors to build lengthy publishing careers.

Q: Can there be an Updike today, a Hemingway, a guy who turns out volumes over a lifetime?

A: There is a make-it-big-or-you’re-out mentality in publishing. And publishers are not, unlike when I was young, willing to carry an author who never makes it big–does respectable work and has a small following. So no, I don’t think you’re going to see another Hemingway or even another Mailer. I just don’t think there’s the ability of the writer to grab the reader’s attention–and it’s the sort of thing that could be proved wrong tomorrow. Somebody can come along who produces books that people feel compelled to read.

I suppose that at the end of his comments, Updike does leave that hopeful door open just a tiny bit. The problem is that I think there’s a split in that quote. He starts out by saying, essentially, that the industry isn’t going to wait on someone to slowly and steadily build a career. The machine isn’t going to tolerate someone who “does respectable work and has a small following,” Updike says. 

The final, optimistic note, seems to refer more to an author who comes out of the starting gate at full speed. “Somebody can come along who produces books that people feel compelled to read,” sure, J.K. Rowling did just that. But, if the first Harry Potter book sold 2,500 copies, would she have been allowed to build up to her current figures?

Chuck Palahniuk comes to mind as an exception. Fight Club was released in 1996 but I don’t remember the Cult really picking up a huge amount of converts until the movie came out in 2000. Yet, he managed to hang on and produce a couple of darn good books before the film put him over the top. So Palahniuk is someone that immediately comes to mind as an exception to Updike’s rule. But unfortunately, there aren’t a whole lot of those exceptions.