Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Michael Allen -- author, publisher (Kingsfield Publications)

Michael Allen of Grumpy Old Bookman and Kingsfield Publications:

[Note: this interview first appeared in August, 2006]

1. You've said the novel may end up being a very marginal form, like poetry. Why is this? Because of mass media? Or is it because of some characteristic common to
many contemporary novels?

It must be 20 or 30 years since Gore Vidal (among others)started to point
out that, by and large, young people do not read books. They watch television and movies, and nowadays they have iPods and videos on the internet.

Certainly here in England there are figures published occasionally which show that only about 50% of the population reads books. If all that is true, and I believe that it is, then one has to remember that any future decline (or increase) in interest in novels starts from a modest base. Reading novels is not a universal habit, whereas watching television is something done by (at a guess) 95% of the population.

My reasons for thinking that interest in the novel is likely to decline are twofold.

First, there is so much competition. Consider the situation in the late nineteenth century. Nearly all the population could read (at least in England), and there were books and newspapers. But there was no radio, no recorded music, no TV, no movies. Outside the big cities, even theatres were rare. So the novel had little competition. Today, every passing year brings new advances in technology in the entertainment business. Ever more sophisticated devices are created, and it is not too far-fetched to suggest that, within a few years, we will have virtual forms of entertainment which include the viewer/audience as a participant. Against such sophistication, the novel begins to look pretty dull as a source of emotion. (Just as poetry now seems dull to most of us.)

Second, people who write and publish novels often seem oblivious to the medium's strengths (such as they are), and produce novels which even today few people actually want to read. This trend will continue for as long as people go on believing the kind of nonsense which is taught on Eng. Lit. and MFA courses.

2. You've also said that generally speaking novels would do well to be shorter. Why do you think this?

Can I refer you to my four-part essay on The Problem of Length, published in December 2004. Here are the links:

3. Is part of the problem with novels that they are overpriced? That is, when they are compared to, for example, the price of a movie DVD, buyers simply don't feel they're "getting their money's worth" with a book?

I don't think novels are overpriced -- not remotely -- provided they deliver what the reader wants. Consider the queues forming at midnight for the latest Harry Potter -- a book which the UK booktrade sold at a discount! No one in the queue would have minded paying the full whack, but, courtesy of clueless marketing, they didn't have to.

4. And if price is a factor, what can publishers and writers do to change this? In other words, what can they do to offer book-buyers "more"?

It's not a question of 'more', it's a question of better. The whole point of the novel is that it tells a story. The right story, told in the right way for a particular audience (e.g. Harry Potter again) exerts a powerful grip on the mind of the reader. And at the end of the book, the reader is conscious of having undergone a powerful (and ultimately pleasurable) emotional experience.

All that writers and publishers have to do is produce the right kind of books for the various audiences which we know to exist. It's not an impossible task, but it does require intelligence, hard work, and PRACTICE. No one can do the job straight out of the box. After that, it's all down to circumstance, fate, karma, randomness, chance.

See my essay On the Survival of Rats in the Slush Pile:

The problem with many novels at the moment is that they are not written for readers so much as to glorify the author. And, unsurprisingly, not many people want to read a book which says 'Look at me! Aren't I clever!'

Bio: Michael Allen is both an author and publisher. As an author, he blogs at Grumpy Old Bookman. He is also a novelist. His latest is How and Why Lisa's Dad got to be Famous. It can be purchased through Amazon or at his blog.

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