Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Frank Wilson -- editor, critic (The Philadelphia Inquirer [retired])

Frank Wilson of The Philadelphia Inquirer (retired), Books Inq., and When Falls the Coliseum:

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 (as the NEA's recent uptick of optimism implies)? 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?

FW: I cant say that I take all this dire grousing about the decline in reading all that seriously. Doesnt anyone remember that, when they were in high school – and I was in high school half a century ago – the kids who read a lot were in a minority? This idea that, not so many years ago, everybody, including kids, were reading up a storm is fantasy, as is the idea that young people nowadays dont read as much as young people used to. Its probably about the same. Off the top of my head, I can name three young women — Caitlin Kelly, 15, of Tunkhannock, Pa.; Jennifer Berger, 18, of Philadelphia; and Eliza Fox, 20, a student at Stanford — all of whom read passionately. I dont say that they are typical. Passionate readers are never typical and they will always be a minority.

For much the same reason I am wary of categories like literary fiction. Some kid reading Philip K. Dick back in the 60s would have looked down on as just a sci-fi nut. Now Philip K. Dick is included in the Library of America series. One cant, on the one hand, complain that people dont read, and then, on the other, up the ante by insisting that the only reading that counts is of the sort of books one approves of, or that critics approve of, or academics, or whomever.

The mention of 9/11 in connection with this is interesting. The idea that writers should be commenting in their fiction on major events of the day is a dangerous one. Events like 9/11 can be a kind of Medusa to writers, turning their imaginations to stone. If you want to comment on big current events, become a journalist or a historian. If you want to be novelist, pay attention to people, their foibles, their pathos, their sad dreams and high hopes, their small victories and large defeats. If some earth-shattering event happens to have some bearing on any of that, fine. But bear this in mind: Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812. Tolstoy wrote War and Peace 57 years later.

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?

FW: I think the question that needs to be asked is whether the internet is a medium of expression or a transmission device. At present it is almost exclusively the latter, but it has the potential to be both. I ran a review a few years ago of The Daughters of Freya by Michael Betcherman and David Diamond. This was an email mystery. You subscribed and the emails were sent to you and you read as they mystery deepened and was eventually. The reviewer liked it and I thought this sort of thing might have a future. It still might. See Jill Walkers list of email narratives.

Serialization, very short stories, poetry are already things well-suited to the web. But the web itself offers the potential for an entirely new kind of literature. Imagine a story told by means of hypertext, audio and video. Radio took drama and made it its own. So did television. The web needs to do the same. Is it not possible that someone will turn computer games into a form of literary art? In the meantime someone with limited resources perhaps, but with a talent for spotting talent, will start an online POD publishing house with quality design and editing and find himself breaking even, turning a profit, competing with traditional publishers. It is bound to happen.

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?

FW: I already have a Kindle and I love it. Again, that online POD publisher mentioned above could well work in collaboration with Amazon (or Sony). People who travel a lot and commute are going to want a device that enables them to take a library with them. Im no businessman, but I cant believe a viable business model will not emerge from this.

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?

I think books have become too expensive. Were talking about $25 for a hardback. Thats a lot if youre talking about the latest in a mystery series. No wonder people wait for the paperback. On the other hand, I got Joseph Wambaughs latest on my Kindle for $9.99. Says it all, dont you think?

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?

FW: If you charge more for less of a product consumers will catch on (see newspapers). If you want to put out trade paperbacks, then skip the hardback. In the long run the hardback is going to be the keeper. What I mean is, people are going to want the books they treasure in hardback. But find out what books they treasure, books in general are going to have to be more affordable. Publishers have got it backwards. They want you to work your way down from a luxury item. Most people would rather work their way up to one.

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?

FW: Obviously, someone with an eye for quality that is also likely to sell is worth his weight in gold. What I see is a lot of agents peddling an imitation of the most recent success. Publishing has fallen victim to the same thing the art world has. If you go to the Phillips Collection in Washington or the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston or the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y., you immediately discover that real collecting involves faith in your own preferences and predilections. But then go to the new wing of the Phillips Collection and see what the curators have chosen. The sheer lack of spirit of what is on display is unmistakable. No eye, no personality has actually engaged what is hanging on the walls.

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 book is worth reading and all these others aren't?

FW: Prizes are nice for the person who wins one. But have you read any Henrik Pontoppidan lately? Pontoppidan shares the 1917 Nobel Prize for literature with the ever-popular Karl Gjellerup. On the other hand, Conrad Richter won the National Book Award in 1961 for The Waters of Cronos, which is a masterpiece. And not many people may know the work of Pär Lagerkvist, who won the Nobel in 1951, but he is great writer. My point? Prizes are hit and miss, and insofar as they influence taste the influence is probably nefarious.

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?

FW: Regrettably, Im an old guy who only knows as much technology as he needs to get by. I hope to partner eventually with someone younger and more tech savvy than I (who also has some business acumen). Then maybe I can turn the blog into something really estimable. In the meantime it is an object lesson in doing something for the love of it.


Assiduously following the course of least resistance has been the key to Frank Wilson’s success. Admirers have attributed this to his mastery of existential jujitsu, detractors to indolence and inertia.

Either way, it has served him well. Faced in college with a choice between his principal interests, medieval history and English lit, he realized immediately that the former would entail a mastery of Latin and other languages that could be had only by an effort he was disinclined to expend, while the latter required only an already demonstrated facility with his native tongue. English lit won hands down.

Through a process of elimination he went from being book critic of his college newspaper to arts and entertainment editor to editor. He had a well-paying job as an editor lined up even before graduation. Things were looking grand. But then, thinking life as a college professor might suit his laid-back approach to life, Wilson decided he should put in some time in graduate school. Unfortunately — or perhaps not — he realized that the tedium and toadiness of academe were not for him.

Thus began his years as a kind of 20th-century Goliard, delivering a lecture here, placing an article there, editing books for the likes of Philadelphia’s venerable J.B. Lippincott Co. and others, even landing a column in a local weekly. It was not to last. Publishers began cost-cutting and editing contracts dried up. The weekly went belly-up.

Happily, a friend got Wilson a job at the Philadelphia Inquirer. Less happily, it was at the ground floor, doing things like the racing charts. But the pay and benefits weren’t bad, and the work was hardly onerous, leaving Wilson time to review books, write poetry, and pursue his lifelong interest in world-class partying.

The partying took its toll, however, and he was forced to give that up. At last he seemed as staid as everyone else, so naturally he was promoted, first to the copy desk, where he won a first prize for headline writing from the Society of Professional Journalists, then to book editor. He had come full-circle, doing what he had done in college, but also what he had always wanted to do. Unfortunately, it proved to be an ongoing — and eventually losing — battle with space cuts, budget cuts, and managerial obtuseness. In February 2008 he retired, after eight years as book editor. Now he just blogs away at Books, Inq.: The Epilogue and writes — articles, reviews, poems. Oh, and he also has time now for that best of all activities: life itself.

Wilson writes a weekly column for When Falls the Coliseum called That’s What He Said, published on Tuesdays, which features his riffing on quotations and following the train of thought wherever it leads.

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