Monday, March 22, 2010

Lilian Nattel - author

Lilian Nattel -- author (The Singing Fire, The River Midnight), and blogger (A Novelist's Mind)

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 down to counteract it?

LN: In Canada, despite the recession, book sales are up, so I'm not sure that literature is in a terrible state. The demise of the novel, for example, was mourned in magazines like Atlantic a hundred years ago, and it's still going strong. The fact is that popular entertainment has always been, well, more popular then literature. That goes back to the days of bread and circuses. But that doesn't mean that art and literature aren't important or don't have an impact beyond their sales. The impact can be felt in many ways, language, social impact, ideas, beauty, and because of that human impulse and need that goes beyond particular distribution methods or profit demands, literature will continue to be made and read.

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?

LN: I don't think anyone can predict the future with any degree of accuracy. That isn't just my opinion. Studies show that experts are actually worse at predictions (probably because of axe-grinding) then people who have no expertise. What I would say is that the problem with the internet is that there is no filtering system and with the mass of material posted online, it is hard going to find anything really good. So the challenge, I see, is not so much with the internet as technology as with finding a way to implement a filtering system.

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?

LN: Ebooks have a place. They're great for holding large volumes (pun intended) of material. They're great for travelling, for example, or for agents reviewing manuscripts. But the problem I see with e-books is two-fold. Firstly, they are expensive devices easily lost or dropped in the tub. Secondly the providers are offering a service, not in fact selling books whatever they call it. Amazon has recalled books from people's devices and has banned people who own a Kindle from purchasing any further books, turning it into an expensive paperweight. But who can say about the future? The printing press was an innovation, too. All I know is that people need and love stories and that they will continue to tell them to each other in various forms.

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

LN: A book costs less than a movie plus popcorn and provides more hours of entertainment and education. So, no, I don't think it's all that pricey. But besides that, writers need to earn a living. How that will happen, how that will look, I don't know. In order to write beautifully, we need to eat well and pay our mortgages. I think that we need to move out of the framework that has been imposed on us, one that focuses on prices, sales, making people consume a product.

Literature isn’t dyed sugar water that you have to convince people they need because they really don’t, it isn’t any different really than the other guy’s sugar-water, and in fact it rots your teeth and makes you fat. Literature is wonderful. It is art, it is light, it comes out of a desire to make beauty and show truth, it is fun, it is mind blowing, it is educational, it is consoling. I believe that underlying all the talk about making money, agents, publishers, cover designers, and authors really love books and I also believe that readers love books. We need to change how we speak about these things, and let go of the sugar water talk. Let's find the underlying truth that comes about in the magical partnership of a writer who puts words on a page, the people who get those words out, and the readers who read them, in their minds the words coming to life. Research has shown that the brain activates in areas of emotion and action while reading as if the reader is really experiencing it. Isn’t that amazing?

CBT: Staying with the same theme: Literary novels were once published 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?

LN: You're forgetting the demographic bulge. Baby boomers need larger print. One benefit of e-books is being able to change the size of the font (though then there is not as much text on the screen). So I don’t know about the literary pocket-book. Maybe trade paperbacks should use a font size slightly larger than at present instead.

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 unsolicitied submissions?

LN: There is some question as to what publishers actually do, since much of their former role has been passed down to agents and authors themselves. That’s true regardless of the size. With e-books, publishers may need to redefine their roles or agents and authors may at some point simply by-pass publishers altogether.

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?

LN: Anything that draws attention to books is good in my view. It’s unfortunate that we are living in a winner-take-all culture, which shows itself in American Idol type reality shows and in the
Olympics where a fraction of a second separates “winner” and “loser”. But most readers who pay attention to prizes are interested in the short list, not just the winners, so it widens the field. But I’ll tell you, my reading list is made up just as much from reviews I read in my favourite book blogs. What I think we need is a network of book blogs equivalent to Again, the issue is filtering, and I’ve come across the book blogs I enjoy partly by chance and partly by clicking through the links on those blogs.

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?

LN: I don’t see blogging as a way to post my books because, by their nature, blogs favour short pieces. However it does have a valuable role in communicating with readers. One exciting thing I will get to do is post scenes that I have had to cut from my current novel. They are good scenes in themselves, but slow down the pacing of the novel. Now I have a place to put them and readers who want to know a bit more about the characters or linger with them have a way to do so. I also use a blog to post Q & A and another to write about my interests and thoughts, which are wide ranging, but not cohesive enough for a book of non-fiction. Sometimes it is an immediate response to an immediate situation, politically or environmentally for example. Blogging is perfect for that. And it’s a venue for readers and writers to speak directly to one another, which itself is rewarding.

BIO: Lilian Nattel is the author of The Singing Fire and The River Midnight, which have been published in Canada, The United States, across Europe and in the Middle-East in seven languages. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two daughters.

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