Richard Crary of The Existence Machine:
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?
RC: I don't think 9/11 ever had anything to do with why people were or were not reading literature--why would it have? The idea is silly on the face of it (though I realize it was said by many, just as we were told that somehow irony was now dead for the same reason; nonsense). There may have been a brief period in which there was an uptick in interest in history or politics, but that's about it. We hear a lot about this "general decline in reading", and it's easy to point to reasons why I don't read as much as I'd like: time spent on the internet chief among them, but also my lengthy commute, making me tired at home in the evenings, tv, movies, etc. And I'm someone for whom reading is very important. If it's less important, if it's just seen as another form of entertainment, reading probably is on the decline, since there are more and more distractions every year.But you mention the recession. I think that we're in the midst of something much worse than a recession, however serious. We've been riding a decades-long wave of ever-increasing consumption, in which we have grown to expect that we will always have access to everything, including new books. And yet it seems to me that even in those heady times, the practices of the publishing industry made little business sense. Publishing was probably kept afloat on a handful of popular selling novels (Harry Potter, Da Vince Code, etc) and other non-serious books, particularly as the larger houses became subsumed under larger, literature-indifferent conglomerates. Publishing entities that have flooded the market with all manner of right-wing political blather deserve to have much worse happen to them than simply going out of business.
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?
RC: I think it's a technological pipe-dream. I, personally, have no interest whatsoever in reading fiction online, unless the piece is a very short story indeed. I suspect that this a fairly common view.
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?
RC: I'm skeptical. For my purposes, an e-book reader is an attractive option for downloaded pdfs, but I have a hard time imagining that I'd want to read too many books using one. Granted, as with much technology, it could be different with younger readers who will be more used to the idea. But it seems to me that, if the decline in reading itself is true, then e-books are not going to reverse the trend. Frankly, children like to handle books and turn pages. (Yes, they like gadgets too.) Another reason I'm suspicious of all the e-reader talk, and other technological solutions, is in fact the economic and environmental situation we find ourselves in. While it's true that book production (over-production, really), requires a lot of paper, and thus is another drain on trees (few ever discuss politics and industrial hemp in this context), it's also true that computers and by extension e-readers (or iPods) are just as reliant on the oil economy as other elements of the economy. I admit that part of my automatic response to what ails the book trade is not necessarily in the spirit of these interviews. I tend to believe that soon we're going to have to adapt ourselves to massive changes, huge downticks in consumption, which includes fewer books and electronics (the latter of which won't work at all without constantly available energy; not a problem for books). This kind of doom scenario may not materialize in my lifetime, but it will materialize, and it seems to me that failing to see beyond the immediate short-term has been hugely destructive in this country (and of course is a basic feature of modern capitalism) (and of which the practices of the publishing world are merely characteristic), so we may as well think about how to adjust before we, or our children, are forced to.
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?
RC: I'm not sure about this. Those who complain about book prices seem to believe that books operate independent of other economic factors. I used to marvel that books were so much cheaper in the UK than in the US, but then in my experience, American books are vastly better made than their UK counterparts. Better paper and other materials, better design, and so on. In addition, I think our expectation that we should buy every book we want to read is a factor here. I used to think this way, and it's more than a little nutty. I've only recently been making adequate use of the library, and it's been great. (Though I'm finding that I can't find a lot of what I want to read there, particularly if it's recent criticial, literary, leftwing political, or philosophical works--that is, the bulk of my interest in "new" books. So for these, I am indeed forced to either buy or go without.) So, books ARE too expensive, if you expect to buy everything you read, if only because it adds up. On balance though, no, I don't think they are. (Though, of course, books from academic presses, which includes much of what I cannot find at the library, books very often ARE too expensive, but I know there are reasons for that too.)
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?
RC: Was it prudent? I don't know. I like the trade paperback, esp. the well-made American ones (particularly those from publishers such as Dalkey or New Directions or NYRB) (though the more recent trend toward enormous paperbacks has not been to my liking); I think they last longer than the pocket books and are generally more attractive and provide a decent alternative to the hardcover. Now, whether it has made much business sense to stick to the hardcover so long, I'd imagine not. Paperback originals are a good idea.
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?
RC: I don't know much about agents, nor do I much care about them. However, I would say large houses, which is to say large corporations, are not good for art, period.
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?
RC: I have, on occasion, allowed prizes to help determine my reading. I wasn't reading critics at all when I started reading and prizes seemed like an acceptable way to go. They brought books to my attention I otherwise wouldn't have known about. I did ok for a while. But as my tastes have matured, I have found that the prize-winning books are rarely all that interesting. With exceptions of course. In general, I now find the focus on prizes silly. I don't care about them, at all. Now, most of the new books that come to my attention are due to a small cadre of trusted bloggers and a handful of critics.
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?
RC: My blog is a very personal endeavor. While I respect some of the online efforts other bloggers have undertaken, I'm highly unlikely to make changes such as you describe. It's all I can do to maintain my current level of activity! The only change I'd LIKE to see happen, is my having more time to devote to ideas that occur to me but which I have all too often been unable to develop.
bio: Richard Crary is a lit-blogger and critic. You can find him at The Existence Machine.