Sunday, October 18, 2009

Are Writers Taking Enough Risks?

The New York Times Magazine published a very nice profile of Padgett Powell today, which is great for him and for his publisher and editor, who, in the interest of full disclosure, is a friend of JR's and sent us a copy of the book. Which I haven't read yet, though John has, and he will no doubt write about it sooner or later. I like Powell's writing because, as Dan Halpern points out in the article, "What Powell does with language and sound, with timing, rhythm and cadence, is a thing of strange precision." Powell's one of those writers I read just for his paragraphs.

But what I really wanted to talk about was a comment by Barry Hannah which is highlighted in the profile: "'At the moment, American fiction is kind of dull, frankly,' Barry Hannah says. 'I don't know who else is adding to it besides Padgett. Very few people are bringing something new. He is.'" And then, later on, Halpern says, "What Powell does that most writers don't dare anymore is to risk that failure" -- "that failure" meaning, of course, failing to connect with a reader.

Okay, hold it right there. If American fiction is in fact dull right now, it is not because writers have lost their nerve. Every writer risks failure every single time he puts his hands on the keyboard. Writing isn't easy, and, as far as I can tell, most writers don't have much of choice about what they write on any given day. They write what they can write, and if it's a 500 page Bildungsroman packed with social commentary, well, that's what it is. But if what they can write is a novel made entirely of random questions without answers, as Powell's book is, that, too, is what they write. Writing at all is risky. I mean, we could be planting garlic or coaching our kid's soccer team, for the love of god, doing something useful and good and admirable, instead of probably wasting our time in a small room somewhere.

The real risk taker, here, is the publishing house. Right now there are thousands of writers out there, I promise, who are writing the strangest, "riskiest" stuff imaginable... but no one's publishing it. Ecco Press took a chance on this book, and that is great.

However... it's probably not as much of a risk as it was a few years ago, now that all the 80's writers seem to be making a comeback: Lorrie Moore on the bestseller list, Jayne Anne Phillips nominated for a National Book Award. Knopf is rereleasing two of the late Laurie Colwin's books next spring. I've been going through next season's catalogs at the bookstore, and there's a notable lack of youth in them. Lots and lots of books by old -- and even dead -- people are being published. Also, books by white people, especially non-American white people: tons of Brits, Scandinavians, and Australians. For the time being, anyway, the fad for Asian and Middle Eastern writing appears to have waned a tiny bit. (Oh, and if you are a young new writer, and there are a few of them in the catalogs, it helps to have long flowing hair (women) or very short beard and tousled hair (men).)

It's the economy, of course, making everyone want to go with the tried and true. So maybe it's not even the publishers we should be blaming for any perceived lack of riskiness in American fiction. It's freaking readers! But wait, don't blame readers! Readers are great, they're keeping this whole thing afloat! (Inasmuch as it is afloat!) And who can blame us for not wanting to spend $26.95 on a book by some young punk we've never heard of? I only spend that kinda dough on books I'm sure about.

Anyway, yeah. It's easy to blame writers for whatever failure might be sinking the industry -- after all, they're a suspicious, unsavory bunch of people who don't have real jobs, drink too much, probably don't exercise enough, and rarely give us exactly what we want. It would be so much easier if they did, wouldn't it? If writers' abilities conformed exactly to public taste? If you could always find exactly what we wanted to read, if books were never rejected by publishers, if bookstores didn't have put huge boxes of stripped paperbacks into the dumpster. This guessing what will sell, what we should write, what we should buy -- what a pain in the butt.

22 comments:

avp said...

Yes, the depression really puts emphasis on literature as a money making venture, as opposed to literature that's risky, but may in some way galvanize its audience. In a sense it's good because it forces 'risky' fiction to seek new publishing models, or new ways into traditional publishing.

jrlennon said...

I could make a long list of great writers working in an experimental vein right now...David Markson, Kathryn Davis, Tom McCarthy, Lydia Davis, David Mitchell, Ben Marcus, Donald Antrim...Powell is terrific, but he is hardly alone in his pursuit. In fact...I shit you not...his new book is the SECOND novel I have read this year that consists entirely of questions. The other is by William Walsh, and I even blurbed it.

Anonymous said...

It's surprising that interrogative narratives still read as edgy and experimental, given the tradition behind them. Davis, Oates, and Wallace each have great answers-without-questions stories; Updike and (again) Wallace both have great questions-without-answers "problem set" stories; and then there are just the two q-w/o-a novels mentioned in this thread - all of which, moreover, seem to be drawing on Joyce's catechismal questions-with-answers Ithaca episode in Ulysses. Can anyone think of any others?

Louis said...

When I took an experimental poetry class around age 14, the instructor had us write as many questions as we could in two pages. He then had us read the questions, one after another, in front of about 50 people for 15-20 minutes.

I learned that a long list of questions puts an audience on edge -- it irritates people.

Teachers will correct experimental writing with plain vanilla prose. It's easy for a writer in training to sacrifice personal style in an attempt to "get it right," to find "acceptable" writing through outside validation. To successfully develop a unique style, one must have a unique kind of personal faith, almost religious. It's a big risk. You might develop a unique style that people appreciate. Or, your writing might be characterized as non-sensical or distracting.

bigscarygiraffe said...

What hope for me, with my long flowing hair and very short beard?

sjwoo said...

"And who can blame us for not wanting to spend $26.95 on a book by some young punk we've never heard of? I only spend that kinda dough on books I'm sure about."

I just read this in the Times, a quote from David Gernert, John Grisham's agent:

"If readers come to believe that the value of a new book is $10, publishing as we know it is over. If you can buy Stephen King's new novel or John Grisham's Ford County for $10, why would you buy a brilliant first novel for $25? I think we underestimate the effect to which extremely discounted best sellers take the consumer's attention away from emerging writers."

This is in reference to the price war between Walmart and Amazon. Corporate pressure is, as usual, doing the killing, and with more ebooks on the way, I only see this getting worse.

jrlennon said...

That said, though, I would be perfectly happy for the first runs of all my books to be inexpensive trade paperbacks, especially if e-books become more popular. "Pieces for the Left Hand" is the only paperback original I've ever published, and it's also the first book of mine to go into a second printing since 1997.

Commercial houses want more profits. Writers want more readers.

and BSG, with your follicular one-two punch, you are sure to achieve both.

Zach Cole said...

JRL: I think I contributed to the need for a second printing--I yack about that book anytime a friend mentions that they don't care for short story collections.

Zachary Cole said...

Why are hardback and paper releases a year apart--is it simply to have a second chance to sell the product and give time for buzz to build?

Wouldn't it make more sense for publishers to release most new releases as $13 trade paperbacks, with a limited run of more expensive hardbacks meant for long-term fans? I know some genre publishers who take this approach.

zoe said...

Me too with PFTLH - I give them as gifts! Apart from the economics of paper V hard backs, I prefer paper because it's easier to read one and carry it about. Wht not just publish paper backs and get more readers buying?

jrlennon said...

Gracias, Zoe and Zach. Yes, I do believe the HC/PB model is to help give books a second life. It's true that sometimes a book that fails in hardcover will take off in paper, and Graywolf, my publisher, has indeed taken this tack with my last novel.

I do like the HC limited edition idea for literary fiction, actually--in fact, I think most books could just be released as ebooks, with a physical limited-edition component for purists. I'm thinking of throwaway books, crime series, pulp type stuff, etc., which probably will not be read over and over again for years. Maybe literary fiction, too, although we like to think we're trying to do something that's of value to posterity.

sjwoo said...

Libraries want hardcovers, too, so I think doing a split run with a book is a brilliant idea. Why isn't this done? Is it the cost of churning out two types of books? I wonder.

Trade paperback original vs. hardcover debate has been going on for a while. There was always the idea that TPOs didn't get reviewed by newspapers, but it seems like the NYTBR has reviewed a lot of them this year (including PFTLF!). Of course, nowadays, newspapers aren't reviewing books, period, so maybe the point has become moot.

rmellis said...

I don't think I'd be as interested in writing if there was no chance of a paper copy coming out in the end. I mean, it would be like blogging -- fiction blogging. It would definitely change the way I feel about the whole thang.

But paperback only: that's fine. Except it means less money for writers. But oh well, that's inevitable.

jrlennon said...

You know how this is going to end, right? We will all be self-publishing, just like indie rock bands.

jon said...

Releasing a limited edition of hardcovers would be like the limited release of vinyl.
Whatever the end product, the old formula for publishing was that highly profitable genres, like cookbooks, pornography and detective stories, would pay for literary work. There is no reason why this isn't still viable except for greed. There is something depressing about writing only for e-publication as Rhian suggests, but at least there is publication there. I have read on agent blogs that editors won't take a book by a new author over 120,000 words. So what is an unpublished novelist to do? To me anyway it is not an option to only write to that length. We have a form of market censorship that is increasingly impossible to produce for. Established writers are in a better position, but only slightly. It used to be I could put my published novel down in a query and it meant something, but now some agents say they will only read queries from authors with major publication, no small press. So John is right, in the end it will be all e-books. As a book collector, that's depressing. Of course, I almost only buy used hardcovers. Not much profit there for anyone, except those rich used book dealers.

jrlennon said...

My goodness, Jon, what masochistic urge drives you to read agent blogs? I think just learning they exist has shaved months off my life.

rmellis said...

I've seen a few agent blogs, and they are terrifying.

There's a lot to like about self-publishing, actually... I'd do it in a heartbeat ...

jon said...

I try to avoid them,they're really vicious, but I had to know!
I guess masochism comes with the territory.

James said...

Can anyone think of any others?

The first thing I thought of when I heard about Powell's book was Gilbert Sorrentino's Gold Fools. Entirely interrogative, but also with a plot (of sorts).

dylan hicks said...

Hannah's quote is silly, but Powell's book is great, addictive, and inciting--I found it hard not to play its game while brushing my teeth or walking to the store.

Mr. Saflo said...

I wonder if there has been a time in human history when artists (or readers, or listeners, etc) didn't bemoan the state of their favorite medium.

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