You may have heard. Google has just launched a service called Google Print. Like Amazon, Google’s service allows people to search through books. Google announced at the Frankfurt Book Fair that are adding a lot of major publishers and they will be adding many titles. As with Amazon, there is a limit to how many pages you can view. And, at this stage anyway, it’s not possible to search the book database exclusively. I’ve found that the best way to get a Google Print result to show up is to type the word “book” and then whatever it is you’re searching for. It’ll be interesting to see if this develops further.
“The Short Story is Not Dead.” This headline appeared in The Nervous Breakdown in January above an essay written by my friend Alex Chee in which he discussed the ways that technology was making the short story more accessible, and specifically, accessible on his iPhone. The assertion of the negative – not dead – seemed to me an odd way for the copy editor to introduce an article on good news for short story reading. I wondered what he meant by the possible ‘death’ of the story. I find that when someone asserts that a thing (the story), or an idea (God), is not dead, they usually mean that a nostalgic version of the thing has lapsed and not been replaced by something comparably satisfying.
What has changed with the story? Not the writing. Short story writing is alive and well. The evidence: Three of five of the New York Times’ notable works of fiction in 2010 are short fiction collections (counting Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad). And consider all the print and online journals that survive on paid contest submissions, which is evidence of the large number of writers who aspire to be published authors. The human impulse to tell stories has not diminished.
What then? Short story reading has declined. With few exceptions (The New Yorker is one), mass circulation general interest magazines no longer publish short stories. And, editors and agents blanche at the prospect of debut story collections, and often publish an author’s collection only with the promise of a follow-on novel. The popular wisdom – and commercial reality – is that story collections don’t sell.
What to make of this conundrum? Is today’s short fiction not as good? Hardly. Why aren’t readers holding up their part of the bargain? The answer, let me suggest, is related to how readers are given the opportunity to read – distribution, in commercial terms. The short story became one of the great 20th century art forms when inexpensive publishing technology gave rise to mass market general interest magazines. Oral story telling is a deeply human tradition, but it was only with the blitzkrieg of 19th century mass publishing that the written short story became a specific art form. Magazines served up stories as snacks for readers, and did so with relish.
The Saturday Evening Post, and other widely circulated magazines, provided outlets for stories by writers with now-household names, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, There were more than 25 mass market magazines in the 1920s and 1930s that published one short story each week. When Life magazine published Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, in 1952, that issue sold 5.3 million copies.
Stories in magazines could be read in one sitting. And, story collections became the publishing industry’s way to capitalize on already popular works when they were repackaged in compilations. Poe’s, Chekhov’s, Hawthorne’s, Gallant’s, Updike’s, and Cheever’s great stories all first appeared in periodicals. Only later in books.
The decline in short story reading is, I suggest, linked to the precipitous decline in mass market magazine readership. Magazines’ sales decline began in during the 1960s when consumers shifted their entertainment and news interest to television, but the decline recently accelerated with the explosive growth of online and mobile real-time access to news and information. The story, which was popularized by new printing and distribution technologies, has slowly become a victim of the displacement of those technologies. To be sure, stories themselves also suffer from the crushing competition for consumer’s attention posed by TV, video games, and the Internet. But, without mass market distribution outlets, readers entertain themselves in other ways.
Literary journals continue to publish stories, but they come out seasonally, or occasionally, and the months’ long gap between issues doesn’t serve a creature of time-worn habit, accustomed to weekly soap operas, weekly television dramas, or the weekly story in The New Yorker. Consumers like predictable engagement. There are hundreds of online literary journals that publish bi-weekly, or monthly. Many — and there are a great many for readers to discover — are better suited to launch new voices than to publish top authors. And the seductive distractions of Facebook and Twitter make literary reading on a computer a difficult act of will. What’s a reader to do? Technology gave rise to the flowering of the short story, contributed to its decline, and technology will, in my opinion, again solve the problem of connecting readers and stories.
Like the song, the short story is perfectly suited for mobile consumption. The iPhone and iPad and other tablets are with their owner all the time, and a story on these devices can be read on a treadmill, in a bank line, on an airplane, wherever the user has a few minutes and wants to be transported to the magical place stories can create. Poe’s definition of the short story remains as true today as when he wrote it: “a story is a thing that can be read in one sitting.” If he were writing today he might rephrase it: “…in one hour on the tread mill.”
So, how many Americans actually read short stories? How large is the market? There are no accurate answers to the question, but there are ways of approximating the number who read, which of course, is reduced by the fact that many people who might like to read stories don’t know where to find them. A few facts:
9 million adult Americans annually read more than 50 works of fiction (NEA study, 2008).
2 million adult American publish personal creative writing (NEA study, 2002; writers are usually also readers.)
1.1 million: the subscription rate base for The New Yorker in 2009
150,000: the graduates of creative writing MFA programs in the past 20 years (all of whom learn to write and read short stories).
50,000-100,000: the estimated annual sales of The Pushcart Prize collections of stories (my estimate).
These population snapshots overlap, of course, but suggest that there are 500,000-to-1.5 million American adults who are frequent readers of short stories.
Stories are meant to be read one at a time, savored individually, taken in, and reflected upon. Collections are ways of repackaging known works. Publishing executives today don’t expect collections to sell (because they haven’t in the past), so they aren’t marketed, and this cycle of low expectations and insufficient care creates a self-fulfilling outcome: collections don’t sell.
Web connected devices, like the iPad and the iPhone, can connect readers of short fiction with the best writing in the market. Mobile and web technologies reduce friction in markets. Storytelling is a deep human need, and readers of stories are entertained and instructed by clever plots, sympathetic characters, and artful writing. Words create imaginary worlds that provide readers with an experience that is similar to, but different from, the worlds of movies and television. Technology provides a new way to connect story tellers and fans. We’re all ears.
(Image: 732 – Power Grid – Pattern image from zooboing’s photostream)
A pair of interesting addenda to my post on Amazon from earlier in the month:The online bookselling giant went ahead and snapped up the piece of book cataloging site Shelfari that it didn’t already own.As we had noted, after buying AbeBooks, Amazon suddenly owned the two big rivals in the book cataloging space, Shelfari and LibraryThing, and since, to this observer, it seemed like combining the two sites would be a non-starter, Amazon was likely to throw its weight behind one or the other. Unsurprisingly, Amazon picked Shelfari, as Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s founder, has long been wary of Amazon (though not hostile towards it). As TechCrunch speculates, Amazon may divest its shares of LibraryThing, and I’d guess that Spalding wouldn’t mind that too much.Secondly, bookfinder.com, the extremely comprehensive used book search engine (now owned by Amazon via its purchase of AbeBooks), has released its annual report on the most sought after out-of-print and hard-to-find books over the last year. Once again, Madonna’s relic from the 1990s, Sex, tops the list. But from there the list gets very eclectic and interesting, with books like Bob Dylan’s Drawn Blank, The Jerusalem Bible illustrated by Salvador Dali, and Bruce Davidson’s photo book Subway. The report also has lists by genre and offers up a little background on some of the more interesting titles.
Science fiction author and Boing Boing blogger Cory Doctorow explains why science fiction writers should be excited that theirs is the “only literature people care enough about to steal on the Internet.” Doctorow has made his books freely available on the Internet – while also selling copies through traditional channels – and has been impressed by the results:I’ve discovered what many authors have also discovered: releasing electronic texts of books drives sales of the print editions. An SF writer’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy. Of all the people who chose not to spend their discretionary time and cash on our works today, the great bulk of them did so because they didn’t know they existed, not because someone handed them a free e-book version.The full column is available at Locus Online. For my thoughts on these topics a good place to start is here.
A few weeks ago, I spent several afternoons at a book morgue, otherwise known as The Monkey’s Paw secondhand bookshop in Toronto. It was a refuge of sorts. I had been feeling slightly down about writing and wanted to linger in a place of pure bibliophilia. Like many novelists, I tend to experience an existential crisis every time I finish a book. Why bother? Why engage in such an intangible and self-involved vocation when I could be doing something more tangibly and socially useful? (i.e., stopping a pipeline, regrouting the bathroom.) Why write longform narrative in a world that prefers to live swiftly and episodically?
In the past, this soul searching has lodged itself in the personal-neurotic realm. But lately it has ballooned into a broader crisis about how much less novels matter to the mainstream than when I started writing.
I don’t want to sound self-pitying or ungrateful (I’ve been very fortunate) but the work of writing novels — literary fiction no less — just seems an increasingly weird and arcane thing to be doing with my time. It’s fairly obvious when I look around that fewer and fewer people I know and love are reading books. (And, here, I’m not referring to people who are opting to read books on screen over print — I’m talking about reading books period.) They don’t see the point. They’d rather be watching Downton Abbey or clicking through obscure indie news sites. They would prefer to be resting in Supta Baddhakonasana or sitting on a meditation cushion at their neighborhood Sangha. Or hanging out with circus friends in the park or blogging at their local coffee joint. You get the idea. They are drawn to culture, just not the culture of reading books. And to my dismay, this lack of books does not seem to have left a yawning void in their lives.
So, I went to spend time at The Monkey’s Paw, feeling disgruntled about the ailing state of the literary novel; grieving somewhat for myself and my forthcoming effort (what a way for a new book to begin, intubated, on precious life support); and grieving for my children (what are the “soul effects” of choosing Angry Birds over Lewis Carroll?)
What compounded my disgruntlement and despair was the feeling that it needed to be borne stoically, in silence. Of course, I was silent. Any novelist with her head screwed on properly knows better than to announce publicly that the novel is doomed. As Jonathan Franzen cautions in his book How to Be Alone:
However sick with foreboding you feel inside, it’s best to radiate confidence and to hope that it’s infectious…In publishing circles, confessions of doubt are commonly referred to as “whining” — the idea being that cultural complaint is pathetic and self-serving in writers who don’t sell, ungracious in writers who do.
In other words, no unseemly griping, no joyless defenses of publishing, no intellectual shaming of non-readers, etc. No matter what misgivings may flicker beneath the surface, the smart writer knows to present herself as a polished and sanguine human.
This posture of dissimulation started me thinking about the tradition of non-disclosure in Japanese hospitals. I have had two uncles die without knowing they were terminally ill. One thought he had appendicitis. The other thought he had lower back pain. I began to wonder: What if the book was a patient in a Japanese hospital? What if it was actually doing more poorly than anyone would admit? I know what you’re thinking. We’ve heard people say that the “book is dead” forever and each time we’ve seen cultural attempts to make the book matter again. But what if it was really bad this time? What if the book was truly and irrevocably dead?
Cue: Stephen Fowler, owner of The Monkey’s Paw. It was while chatting with Fowler in his beautiful shop that I had an epiphany. At any given time, his bookshop is packed with over 6,000 dead titles on everything ranging from terrestrial slugs to false hair. Rows of books rest in peaceful repose on tables: gorgeous idiosyncratic corpses that would excite any literary necrophile.
These books are unquestionably deceased. I don’t think a single title in Fowler’s collection would be considered commercially viable if published today. (Some are barely readable. One can only imagine the prose challenges of a book called Carp: How to Catch Them.) Yet, oddly, it’s one of the least depressing bookshops I know. Even the bad books are not bad in the usual — vapid, trite, cynically formulaic — way. They are uniquely, bizarrely, captivatingly bad. (e.g., Vans and The Truckin’ Life, The World of Clowns, The Problem of Being An Icelander: Past, Present and Future.) A sense of strange beauty and calm pervades the shop. Fowler who describes himself as “the youngest person to come out of the old book trade,” and who was recently invited to join the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, has created a genuine Mecca for booklovers.
He has done this not by championing literature’s survival. Not at all. Fowler had accepted the book’s demise. In fact, having passed through the customary stages of grief, he may be the only person I know who can openly say, and with a smile on his face, that the book is dead. Dead as a doornail.
I was there one afternoon when he had just returned from a buying trip in the Niagara area. Sitting there, I watched as he went through his newly acquired stack, thoughtfully penciling in a price and sometimes a word or two (“quaint,” “uncommon,” “macabre,” “obsessive!”)
A man browsed through the “Ego Annihilation” section (books on sex, drugs and death.) A woman flipped through an old copy of Creative Wood Craft (a store bestseller). These were not calls of condolence. These customers were not looking for scented candles, bath salts or other non-literary tchotchkes. They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves. Inspired by what I saw, I also browsed. I browsed through the slowly aged Penguin paperbacks and the bird book that cracked audibly when I opened it. I looked through the poetry and film sections. I bought a book by Igor Stravinsky and a copy of Amerika by Kafka exquisitely illustrated by Edward Gorey.
By the time I left, I felt buoyant. It dawned on me that this is what happens when you are done with mourning. This is what is left when you pass through denial, rage, wallowing, when you lose the desperate edge of your grief: you free yourself up for other emotions, including curiosity and love.
I’ve heard some people say that as the publishing industry rapidly realigns to meet the digital age, antiquarian books and fine press books will thrive. I don’t know if The Monkey’s Paw is the bookstore of the future but, for me, on those cold February afternoons, it was a nice place to spend time; a place to befriend the dead.
As writers, perhaps the best we can hope for is that our books leave beautiful corpses, that they will be loved for what they are, visited occasionally, tenderly maintained.
I realize that this may not be your definition of a successful life but it’s enough for me.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Fowler
Not much news here, but a BBC story suggests that, as part of its digital book initiative, Google may sell e-books sometime in the future. CEO Eric Schmidt – being extra careful in this area it seems – said “that this would depend on permission from copyright holders.” Google already provides links to online booksellers from its book pages, but, as far as I can tell, this would be the first time that Google was selling books directly.