Sunday, January 11, 2009

Edward Champion -- critic, writer (Reluctant Habits)

Ed Champion of Reluctant Habits:

CBT: When I started this interview series it was already clear that publishing -- especially of literary fiction -- was in dire straits. At that time, one explanation that was fashionable was 9/11 was the reason people weren't reading as much literature (or as much anything) as they used to. Now we are living in a time when the long-term repercussions of 9/11 are still with us. But using 9/11 as a primary explanation for what ails literary publishing simply doesn't work. For one thing, we are now in the midst of a particularly serious recession, and for another, it is clear the general decline in reading is a widespread -- and possibly unstoppable -- phenomenon that has roots which go back decades.

What is your take on the current depressed state of literary publishing? Is it a passing phase? Or is it an intractable problem -- in other words, it is the new normal? And if the latter, what can be done to counteract it?

EC: First off, I don't believe that 9/11 is the definitive triggering point that explains where literary fiction and the publishing industry is currently heading, any more than World War II entirely explicates the mergers and consolidations within the publishing industry during the 1950s. The issues pertain more to technological developments and distribution. While there are undeniable economic shock waves which reverberate from historical events and failed economic policies, significant incidents do not stop writers from turning out novels and there remain plenty of passionate people within the industry who don't perceive the book world as if it's a sausage factory. The publishing industry has taken some terrible hits, slashed jobs, and ushered in some crazed consolidation in Q4 2008, but we haven't yet seen the majors close up shop. And we won't see them close up shop until they face serious distribution threats which prevent them from acquiring the vital revenue that keeps them in business.

I do have concerns about what current business developments will mean for emerging debut novelists and whether we will see a book landscape which offers room for quirky or dangerous books. But it's also worth observing that genre novels continued to sell quite well in 2008. (Before Bookscan sent a takedown notice to Paula Guran, Guran published some interesting Bookscan numbers on her blog revealing that genre book sales were up.)

The central issue to be concerned about right now is distribution. AMS's collapse in early 2007 obliterated a number of independent publishers, and revealed just how much publishers rely on distribution to survive.

Now let's take a look at bookstores. Barnes & Noble and (in particular) Borders are both in trouble. The two chains are seeing reduced profits and are closing stores. It's possible that the independent bookstore will survive, particularly if the stores consider community and what consumers want into account. But here's the rub. Amazon continues to maintain such a hold on distribution and price point that even Powell's, which was wise enough to keep up a thriving online business, has recently asked its staff to voluntarily cut their hours. With the Kindle, Amazon has been subsidizing publishers to get them on board (and keep titles at $9.99 a pop) and this, combined with Amazon's lower prices and shipping, has caused the bookstore, in all forms, to face a significant threat right now. If the profit margins are seriously reduced for publishers because of these distribution developments, then this will almost certainly translate into authors receiving a smaller piece of the pie. If, on the other hand, the price point issue forces publishers to be honest about where the money is allocated, well this could entail many positive discussions about the current role of the book in culture. But all of this could spell serious trouble for the publishing industry.

Nevertheless, I maintain some optimism. Nature abhors a vacuum. And if we see nearly every bookstore close, there may finally be a very public debate about how Amazon has changed the publishing industry, and where the industry currently rests.

I am not sure what study you're citing regarding the decline in reading (the NEA Reading at Risk study perhaps?), but books are far from dead. People still want to read their newspapers, books, and magazines. It's a question now of HOW they read, whether it be reading material they purchase at a bookstore or a newsstand, or books purchased through Kindles, Sony eReaders, or, iPhones. (To resist all these developments is suicide. But you'd be surprised by how many dogged people in publishing fail to see the present.) Nevertheless, despite all the hype and the successful sales, and my grave concerns that Amazon is possibly violating some antitrust provisions by selling and distributing the hardware and the software at these price points, I'm not entirely convinced that the Kindle will instantly demolish printed books as we now know them, although the Kindle does represent the greatest success thus far for the e-book. But it's worth pointing out that the printed book is a form that has somehow survived the rise of radio, cinema, and television. The book may not have the prominence it had at the beginning of the 20th century, but so long as we have more J.K. Rowlings and Stephenie Meyers to get young readers excited about books, I believe that both printed books and e-books will continue to flourish in some sense.

Certainly none of these realities have stopped writers from writing. Looking at the literary fiction front in 2009, we see new books from Richard Powers, Nicholson Baker, Thomas Pynchon, William T. Vollmann, Colson Whitehead, China Mieville, and numerous others Whether these books will sell, of course, is another matter. But the way to counteract the possibly decreasing attention now paid to literary fiction is through word-of-mouth. I'm extremely dismayed by attitudes held by some media types that the regular reader is incapable of grasping or getting excited about literary fiction (or even independent films; the disease has spread to other mediums). Did not last year's Bolanomania put a dent into that? Are there not still book clubs around the country devoted to discussing books? And what of the Oprah Book Club? There needs to be more book coverage in the media outlets that remain. Smart, entertaining, and inviting book coverage. Not the dull, bland, and condescending nonsense championed by Sam Tanenhaus at the New York Times Book Review. We need to see more authors on television. We need to see authors going to cities around the nation and engaging directly with the reader. And we need to embrace community. The Internet seems to be doing much of this already, but it still represents a mere sliver of the possibilities applied to all forms of media.

CBT: How much potential do you think the Internet has as a vehicle of publishing? It's clear that there is a place for online criticism; the lit-blogosphere is dominated by it. The blogger Dan Green has even coined a phrase for this form of critical writing: the crit-blogosphere. But the crit-blogosphere's logical partner -- the fic-blogosphere -- is marginalized. Not many people read short stories or novels online.

Will the Internet really become the medium in which serious people both publish and read fiction? Or is this a technological pipe-dream, and is it more a question of using the Internet as an effective means to sell and distribute printed books?

EC: I don't think the Internet faces any shortage of opinions. What is especially interesting is that the so-called "crit-blogs" that have arisen (a label, incidentally, that I reject, because a vehicle that is nothing more than long-form criticism is needlessly limited in my view; you wouldn't know it from reading my longass answers to your questions, but some opinions can be expressed succinctly, as the rise of Twitter has shown) and litblogs that have cropped up have emerged with a strange authority. The blogger's views and sensibilities are on full display, with thoughts and facts openly challenged by other readers. The blogger, if she is any good, gets better at honing and expressing her thoughts. And all this creates a fun and wonderful alternative to some of the stale nonsense that now passes for thought in mainstream media.

Fiction blogs represent a problem: one that pertains to the medium. Blogging is predicated on facts, links, and comments. And you can't very well challenge an author who has composed a fiction piece and come off as anything less than an asshole. Further, when one considers the relentless tales of Kirk ass-raping Spock, Willow getting it on with Anna Torv, and the remarkably illiterate nonsense that most, but certainly not all, fan fiction entails, then anyone with taste or sensibilities views a fiction blog with natural suspicion. I think online fiction has more of a chance with podcasts. We've seen this with such podcasts as Escape Pod, which has built up a well-deserved following presenting audio versions of great science fiction stories. And I believe that Escape Pod has been such a success because fiction demands considerable attention. One takes its authority seriously, because the MP3 player that pops up is entirely separate from your browsing experience. Therefore, you're more or less experiencing the story in that sequestered way that comes with picking up a book. I'd say that if you were a fiction writer content to use the Internet as a primary means of distribution for your work, you should consider radio. Because the shortage of good radio drama (hell, nearly ANY radio drama) in America is truly appalling. And that means presenting work that WORKS for radio. Not just a dry read, but something that presents us with the natural contemporary evolution (not mimesis, mind you) of such wonderful old shows as "Dimension X," Arch Oboler, "The Mysterious Traveler," "Suspense," and numerous others. I truly believe that if there were more places like Escape Pod out there, we could very well see a second golden age of radio through podcasts. And it would likewise be a great boon to short fiction (and could, in turn, move a few printed books).

CBT: It is arguable the Internet isn't effective as a medium for publishing long works of fiction because very few people can stand looking at regular screens for the necessary length of time. But e-ink provides a solution to this. It eliminates eye strain.

How much potential do you think e-ink and e-book technologies have? Do you see e-books catching on with the public? And do they provide a reasonable business model?

EC: I think I've addressed some of this in my observations about the Kindle in my first answer. I believe e-ink is certainly an improvement for the e-book. The format (and such distribution outlets as Fictionwise) presents great possibilities for newspapers and magazines that are now limping by. Aside from these practical publishing issues, you've probably seen some of e-ink's other contributions without even knowing it: there are billboards, magazine covers (such as that blinking Esquire cover celebrating its 75th anniversary), bus station signs, and the like that are using it. The flashing advertisements (which resemble e-ink) that bombard the poor people in Spielberg's film, MINORITY REPORT, will probably be here sooner than 2054. If these developments aid the publishing industry and make our reading experience easier and more pleasant, then I think that's fantastic. I'm certainly no Luddite, but, at the present time, I find it infinitely more practical to read a book that I don't have to recharge. And I can't see myself parting with my books. There are a number of qualities to printed books -- being able to arrange them, being able to sift through them, being able to mark and bookmark them -- that I can't see e-ink entirely replacing. There is something about the permanence of text that I would hate to see go away. But truthfully, on the e-ink/e-book question, I'm more concerned about the long-term effects of Amazon's efforts to monopolize the e-book industry through subsidies.

CBT: In the past few years, articles and blog posts (for example, at LitKicks) have appeared criticizing the pricing of books. Are books too expensive? Has this been a factor in reducing the size of the book-buying audience over the last twenty or so years?

EC: Certainly the rise of warehouse discount stores in the 1980s and Amazon's efforts to make books all about price have made this more of a visible issue. Are books too expensive? It depends upon what books that you're buying. Independent bookstores such as Cody's became an intellectual center in the 1960s and the 1970s because there was a mass market explosion. You could essentially walk in with very little money and walk out with a solid library to keep you busy for some time. If we must price reading by hour, it's actually better than a movie or a concert. A $25 hardcover for five hours of reading? That's about $5/hour. Certainly better than the $6/hour you'll pay for two hours at a movie, or the $20 you'll pay for a 74 minute CD. Or the $15/hour you'll pay for a two and a half hour concert at a midsized venue. And speaking gruffly, you'll have to pry my hardcovers from my cold, dead hands, thank you very much.

Nevertheless, with Levi's entreaties for more paperback originals and fairer book pricing, I think he was right to point out that publishers are cutting out younger readers and a certain economic sector. There's a good book on this subject that Kenneth Davis wrote years before his success with the DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT series (and indeed presages some lessons for his own success) called TWO-BIT CULTURE: THE PAPERBACKING OF AMERICA that takes these issues into account. My great concern about pricing is that the conversation is too much about the ruthless free market, rather than the ethical consequences of always buying from Amazon (the independent bookstore goes out of business, et al.). Then again, America got quite used to buying cheap clothing and not paying attention to the sweatshops and the export processing zones which sustain that industry. So I'm sure that America wil have no problems looking the other way in relation to books while the rest of us worry.

CBT: Staying with the same theme. Literary novels were once publishing in hardcover and then, several months later (and a spot on the best-seller lists willing), they were available as affordable pocket-sized paperbacks. However, in the 1980s this practice ceased and literary paperbacks started being published in North America as pricier trade paperbacks. Only genre fiction retained the pocket-book form. In retrospect, was this a prudent decision by publishers of literary fiction? Or should the literary pocket-book make a return?

EC: I'd like to see the pocket book format for literary fiction return. As a scrappy young man, this was an invaluable and affordable way for me to get acquainted with numerous authors. It can be exceptionally prudent for a publisher to keep mass-market editions out there if the publisher wants to think about hardcover sales for the latest volume. Consider Neal Stephenson's ANATHEM. It debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, which is rather extraordinary for a 900 page novel with an invented language that deals largely with mathematics and philosophy. I think one of the reasons this happened was because the publishers were wise enough to split up THE BAROQUE CYCLE into eight mass-market paperbacks and thereby keep it in print. I also believe that FSG was smart to issue Roberto Bolano's 2666 in both hardcover and a three-volume paperback set. That was also one of the reasons Bolano sold as well as he did. Perhaps if publishers kept mass-market print runs smaller and could find a way to justify doing this for the midlisters, we might see an increase in demand. This might likewise be a way for prolific literary authors who aren't quite hitting to get unexpected outreach. Keep an author in print in mass-market and this may very well persuade readers to come around and purchase the latest $25 hardcover. (Consider the $35 price point for Harry Potter.)

CBT: Agents now have enormous power, effectively controlling which writers get access to acquisition editors at major houses. Furthermore, agents find themselves under enormous pressure, acting as the line of first readers who have to sift through avalanches of submissions. Is this tenable over the long run? Is it good for art? Or should large houses be accepting both agented and unsolicited submissions?

EC: Well, let's also keep in mind that agents are also quite helpful for the writer. There remain enough a good deal of writers out there who have no real business sense, can't mind the store, and willfully sign everything away. Yes, I think agents are tenable, because an agent has a vested interest in staying alive. (Keep in mind that the two-year cycle in which an author gets paid for a book also applies to the agent.) Just as the publishing industry has places for the commercial and the literary, there are literary-minded agents and then there are the well-oiled Andrew Wylies. If the writer really wants to produce art, then he'll find a way to do it. And if we get rid of the agent, then we get rid of someone who is, by and large, looking after the writer's financial interest. Some quality control is necessary in order to keep wretched manuscripts from being sold or considered, and I don't believe this criteria, much less the financial health of writers, would be aided by a house suddenly considering a torrent of unsolicited submissions.

CBT: Literary prizes have also grown in power. They have arguably replaced the glowing review as a marketing tool. But are they as effective as criticism in building a contemporary canon? After all, critics can express nuance, prizes can't. Do book prizes give the message: this books is worth reading and all these others aren't?

EC: You're right. Book prizes (and prizes in general) are mostly useless in relation to a greater consideration of a book. And one thing that's overlooked in all this backslapping is that prizes are almost never about the more interesting quality of conversation. I certainly don't go about my business expecting to win a prize. I don't see book prizes having much of an impact on book discussion, but they certainly have an impact on sales. And by this standard, you may as well have authors mud wrestling on television or perhaps competing on FEAR FACTOR. Obviously, pointing to good books is helpful. The question is whether any of this gets anyone, other than the publishers who bankroll these events, excited about books. I do think a lot of great books, particularly genre titles, get overlooked by the snobs, who are usually the type to point how important great talents like Thomas M. Disch and Donald E. Westlake were to them just after their deaths. Well, where the hell were they before Disch blew his brains? And, boy, you certainly were a Richard Stark champion just when you realized that loving him and Westlake was the hip thing to do. I think we have an obligation to find and celebrate the misunderstood talents who are now tilting at windmills, offering them some appreciation when they are still alive. (To this end,I have been organizing an online symposium to one such writer in March.)

CBT: Thinking of your own site, what sorts of changes do you foresee in it? Are blogs destined to become the new magazines? Will you start using a format (and possibly working with partners) in a magazine-type way? Or is blogging as it's currently defined how you want to keep posting work on the Net?

EC: It may be the long-form conversations or the newspaper work, but I've found myself more interested in long-form content. The website is hardly profitable, but it is a good deal of fun for me, a great way to get the community fired up, and certainly a place where I can write at length about ideas and authors whom the editors I work with sometimes resist. I am now branching out into a few other cultural areas, and I'm trying to make the website not entirely books-centric. This is an effort on my part to prevent burnout and to ensure that everything I write (or that others write) remains fiery and passionate. Just about the last thing I want is to turn into some condescending bourgeois hack like Laura Miller, Lee Siegel, or John Freeman. I look to folks like the late John Leonard, James Wood, Scott McLemee, Ed Park, Liesl Schillinger, John Updike, and Tom LeClair (to name only a few), all of whom understand that remaining open-minded, passionate, playful, and sometimes a bit idiosyncratic about books (yes, even Wood and Updike) is part of the deal. I am certainly very lucky to be here, and don't feel entitled to anything. Nevertheless, if I can make all this profitable in any way and do what I do with a sense of joie de vivre, then I hope that I can help others. Perhaps blogs or more outlets like The Quarterly Conversation will be the first place for books as the newspaper books sections dwindle, although let's not kid ourselves: editorial oversight is invaluable. The daily question I ask myself is whether I can extract enough dimes from under the couch to pay the rent.

Bio: Edward Champion is the managing editor of Reluctant Habits. From 2003 to 2007, he wrote the literary blog Return of the Reluctant. In 2008, this was absorbed into the long-form written format of Filthy Habits, before being transformed into the short-form/long-form site Reluctant Habits. His work has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, New York Magazine, Time Out New York, The Philly Inquirer, Newsday, and elsewhere. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, a podcaster, a playwright and director (Wrestling an Alligator, the San Francisco Fringe Festival) and a fiction writer (novel in progress, working title: Humanity Unlimited).


  1. "I truly believe that if there were more places like Escape Pod out there, we could very well see a second golden age of radio through podcasts. And it would likewise be a great boon to short fiction."

    BRAVO!!! I wish there were more people from the literary community saying this.

    As a young writer, I became jaded early-on with the current publishing industry and made a decision to start producing short stories I'd written over the years as audio drama pieces, a move that works pretty well (let me know if YOU think they work:

    Meanwhile, I've been championing modern audio drama with a weekly 'pod and while there is great hope to be had in all of the new, original and independent producers out there (thank you cheap microphones and Audacity), most often the story seems an afterthought. As in, "Hey, we want to make a radio drama! Let's get all the mics and actors and music together, and then let's find a script to shove into it!" rather than an attitude predicated on "Damn, this story is great. Wouldn't it work well in audio?"

    Seems logical to me -- tons of producers out there, inexpensive to produce, and legions of emerging authors looking to get their name out with dozens of stories in their back pocket. Why not audio?

    It's a hell of a lot cheaper than film, gets in front of people who are too lazy or time-stretched to read, is distributable to 100 or 10,000 with no additional spend on your part, and makes a great portfolio piece for a film adaptation or book deal (look at Scott Sigler's example!)

    Which reminds me, if anyone has any killer stories they think would work as audio, do feel fee to hunt me down and talk more.


    Radio Drama Revival
    FinalRune Productions

  2. 'Fiction blogs represent a problem: one that pertains to the medium. Blogging is predicated on facts, links, and comments.'

    Most, but not all, blogging is predicated on this - it's not writ in stone! And I think it will take just a few decent - literary - writers to help change the face of online fiction.

    It's true that my podcasts are very popular, but the audio medium is really entirely different, something I discovered after not revising my written text to suit it.

    I do think that litcrit bloggers themselves are in part to blame for giving very little attention to online fiction. Yes, the mass of stuff is poor. So is the mass of conventionally published fiction.

    I'm dead serious about what I do. I have no illusions about my abilities, but I see no reason why online fiction can't attain a respectable level of competence, even excellence. Good second-tier writing is not to be disdained.

    And I am adamant about not seeking conventional publication. Why bother? Writing is not about money or popularity. One good reader ...

  3. Another point:

    'Not many people read short stories or novels online.'

    I used to think so too, but I'm beginning to wonder. As EC rightly points out, it's necessary to distinguish between online and other e-formats. My YA fantasy Mortal Ghost is downloaded in various formats ca. 50-100 times per day. (And read online from the blog several more times daily, based on the number of hours spent at the site.) Now, I'm perfectly aware that download numbers don't reveal exactly how many times the novel is actually read (nor do sales!) but my stats are slowly but steadily rising, so that I have the impression that more and more people may be starting to read fiction, even long fiction, on a screen.

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  5. Fred and Lee: Very interesting comments. Thanks for both. Briefly, yes, it's obvious, I think, that audio lends itself very well to short fiction. (I've noticed before that Lee has podcast versions of her work online). I don't know how easy Finalrune's technology is to use; my only experience so far has been with Odeo, which provided rather iffy quality. But perhaps Finalrune is more user-friendly. And Lee: interesting statistics. You seem to be doing better than some traditionally published writers in terms of building an audience [insert exclamation mark here].