Is it worth writing a book anymore? You can take the plunge. You can write an ambitious yet accessible book, market it, and even have a cover design you don’t mind readers judging the book by. What happens then? Does anything?
To me, these were sacrilegious questions. Is it worth writing a book? Of course! Writing was among the noblest callings. A writer sought to uplift readers with a story that poignantly described the human condition. Or something like that. You wanted to share a story you made up, a story you believed was cool enough to spend years of your life bringing to the world.
What would other people think? Only by finishing the book would you find out. It’s the great what-if of a writer’s life. “What happens when the book is done?” What level of success would you find? A lot of success, or just an average amount? It would be one of those. You knew the book was worth it.
If the above sounds like a lot of delusional thinking, I would disagree. This mentality of “write it and they will come” was standard operating procedure. It’s how the literary world was run prior to the internet. The twentieth century was filled with unknown writers who “just wrote” and became legendary. These authors woke up as household names. Their books were set on a permanent bookshelf of classic literature. It motivated the next generation of writers to become recognized in a positive domino effect.
All that is gone. We lost the society that supports and encourages serious literature. If you write a thoughtful book today, you won’t hear champagne corks at a party in your name. You will find apathy. And that’s if you’re lucky.
You may find skepticism, disapproval, and mistrust of your motives. Why is your book so thoughtful? What’s the point? What are you trying to say?
I encountered it all, from apathy to mistrust, to disapproval, when I put out a novel in early 2020. The pandemic was just beginning in the United States. Quite naturally, people were not able to focus on an unknown writer’s book. Time passed, however, and the reaction to my debut novel became clear. I learned a distressing truth. For a book of literary fiction, there were few interested readers. I saw it coming but hoped for better. People were addicted to their phones. They were into movies about vampires and superheroes, novels about teenagers, and binge streaming Netflix. Tastes in entertainment had changed. Time had passed by the genre I was devoted to.
Why would someone write a book for ten years in such a “quiet” genre as literary fiction? Coming of age in the 1970s and 80s, I grew up wanting to become a real writer, the definition at the time being a literary writer. It wasn’t only me. Many people shared this dream of literary success. It was a holdover from the 1960s and the birth of the Great American Novel craze. Who could encapsulate this country’s lifestyle, its values, hopes, and dreams in the most riveting, most persuasive way? The race was on to find out.
Everyday people were drawn to writing back then. It was a major art form that rivaled Hollywood for attention and credibility. When I was a kid, it was routine to see literary authors in tweed jackets on national magazine covers. John Updike, Philip Roth, and Joyce Carol Oates were household names, among others. You didn’t need to read their novels to know who they were. Authors were frequent guests on TV talk shows. Could you imagine it today?
Today, we would ask, “Did these authors sell a ton of books?” They couldn’t compete with commercial juggernauts like Stephen King. In their heyday, literary writers were judged on a different scale. It was the quality of their books that appealed to critics and readers; their artful depiction of humanity.
How did you join the ranks of Updike and Oates? Unknown writers at the time wrote their books “on spec” and pitched them to literary agents in New York. A literary agent was blown away by a book and signed the writer. Then, the book was shopped to New York publishing houses. There were no guarantees. It was part of the fun of an artistic endeavor. You bet on yourself.
An unpublished manuscript held promise back then. What was inside? Did the writer capture the world we knew and also show us something more? It was the pinnacle of literary writing. All serious writers wrote this way.
Fast forward to a different America. Since the death of George Floyd, American reality has been turned upside down in every way. You’ll find few who are unaffected. Why should the publishing world be spared? Today, the unknown writer doesn’t get published. It’s the writer with personal (Ivy League) connections. Manuscripts aren’t chosen based on their promise. Instead, manuscripts are carefully constructed to hold the correct political ideas. Authors today don’t wake up to find themselves household names. Aside from JK Rowling and Stephen King, you would be hard-pressed to think of a major author.
The publishing world is no longer searching for the Great American Novel, searching for gold inside of an unpublished book. Instead, those in the halls of power deconstruct American life in order to replace it with a socialist utopia. Many who took refuge in America from other “utopias” tell us, it can only end in a nightmare. Whereas we looked to publishers for the truth in the guise of art, today, we find them promoting lies for the sake of politics.
What of the independent publishing trend?
Most writers would agree, it’s a blessing that publishing is available to the masses. You can create a book, market it, and promote it exactly as the New York publishers do. Most readers won’t be able to tell the difference.
The problem lies in the reception your polished, professional book will get.
The written word has taken a tumble in the years since the internet arrived. Words are no longer crafted for artistic effect. They’re a cheap commodity. Online articles appear to get people to do something or buy something. Soon, AI will be writing them all. There’s nothing wrong with language being used for commercial purposes. And yet, when the view of writing is lowered, where does it leave a book?
There is an alarming trend of anti-intellectualism in America. You only have to write a book to see it. Otherwise, it’s easy to overlook in the binge-streaming and games-on-smartphone playing. People are afraid of ideas.
I saw firsthand how unprepared people were for a fictional story set in a realistic world that contemplated how we lived. A book of realistic fiction was a head-scratcher to the uninformed. “What’s it about?” When the answer involved a drama about regular people, the next question wasn’t spoken but instead registered in the questioner’s silence. What’s the point of that?
An informed person might say, “Of course, you got that reaction. Literary fiction is only popular in New York.” It’s true enough. I did receive positive responses from urban readers. They enjoyed the book. It read for them in the way I wrote it. As an author, it was validating to hear the book “worked.”
And yet, I had hoped for more. I was of a belief that everyone was interested in art. They only needed a chance to express it. I had written my novel in what I imagined to be an accessible way, without convoluted language. While I had written in the literary genre with a focus on details and character development, I thought it would hook people who said they were readers.
Non-literary readers, one hesitates to call them regular people, but it’s the gist, failed to find any interest in the book I wrote. The society they live in has cheapened words. It was a lowered value they brought to a literary novel. They were looking for a transaction, not an experience. They couldn’t find it.
It was likely my own idea of utopia that came crashing down. “If only non-literary readers read the right literary book…” A cultural diet of social media and lowbrow television left people feeling let down by a book that felt dry.
It’s amusing to remember the schizophrenic responses I received from struggling readers. One guy was having a tough time with the novel, but he asked for it to be longer. He thought, perhaps, more detail, more pages, would help.
A woman asked me when the book came out, “Will there be an audiobook?” A few months later, I sent this woman a link to the professional audiobook I commissioned. I bought her a free copy on Audible. She never listened.
There were well-meaning people who gave me advice. “Here’s where you went wrong.” These people weren’t literary readers. They didn’t understand the book but felt maybe they could point me in the right direction anyway.
Finally, there were the dozen people who bought a copy and never said a word afterward. They were readers lost in the great void of the unread.
Would it cross my mind the book was simply bad? People were sparing my feelings, one might think. I only wished it were the case. To say the book was bad would mean a reader had engaged it for a considerable length of time. I would have taken bad gladly, and been overjoyed by a true negative review.
It was enough that the “regular people” I hoped would like the book didn’t like it. Their way of not liking it wasn’t akin to a scathing review in The New York Times. It was conveyed through annoyance as when a fly buzzes around your head. One older woman was decidedly upset at the novel, which is set in New York City in the 1990s. The goings-on and happenings in a New York novel clearly offended her sensibilities despite its having PG-rated content.
All told I succeeded with five literary readers I knew of. I struck out with twenty-five-plus non-reader-readers who preferred their entertainment comfortable, predictable, and reasonable. It’s a ratio that makes writing books difficult. To keep the literary tradition alive, we’ll have to live with it.