Discovery and Credibility: Fiction in the Digital Age

by Patrick on January 21, 2010

Have we all read this essay yet?  If not, hop over to Mother Jones and read it.  It isn’t too long, and it’s well-written and presents a dilemma I’d like to discuss.  While you’re at it, read this companion piece and the fascinating comment thread that follows it.  And if you have the time (I know, I’m asking a lot), take a look at the response from if:book.  As I’m married to a fiction writer, I’ve been hearing about the declining state of the literary journal for some time.  I think it’s telling that even though I’m an avid reader of contemporary fiction, I rarely (almost never) read literary journals.  My wife subscribes to a few — A Public Space, One-Story — so I will occasionally browse through them.

Why?  Undoubtedly, it has to do with my preference for novels over short stories and for fiction over poetry.  I don’t read enough fiction or poetry collections, either.  But no doubt some of the problem is that I don’t want to be the nozzle on the hose of fiction.  What does this mean?  Well, it seems to me that there are two distinct fears present in this recent bout of articles.  The first is that literary magazines will go under, which is a very real possibility.  As someone who doesn’t read them, I can’t say that it’s a major fear of mine.  Still, as someone who reads lots of contemporary fiction, I no doubt benefit from the springboard such journals provide to young writers.  Maybe the literary agent doesn’t take a second look at that new manuscript if it isn’t for the publication history of its author.  And then, in turn, the editor at Riverhead doesn’t take note of that piece she read in Fence a few months ago (Indeed, something that none of the articles touched on exactly who the readers of these journals are.  In a way, if the readers tend to be tastemakers like editors and agents, that’s worth a lot more than a group of 1500 hobbyists.  It might not be enough to justify a for-profit business, but it might be something to sell the trustees of a university, should they come wielding the ax).  This leads us, logically, to the second fear:  if literary journals are losing influence and folding (and they are), how are we going to find the next generation of great writers?

That’s the question that concerns me a bit more, as I haven’t found an answer to that.  I love to read, but I want a book to have been vetted by somebody — a critic, a sales rep, a coworker or friend — before I’ll give it a try.  This isn’t because of intellectual cowardice on my part — I think I’m perfectly capable of determining whether a book is any good or not — but rather due to a limited amount of time.  I really don’t have the time to try your self-published novel, not because it isn’t any good, but because it might not be any good.  If this sounds harsh, well, welcome to reality.  The Virginia Quarterly Review, as well as all of those other ‘gatekeepers’ I mentioned a paragraph ago, are separating the wheat from the chaff for me.  I think they do a pretty good job of it, too, as I’m always finding great new books to read.  I don’t think we have a crisis of fiction being dead, as the article’s rather misleading and linkbait-y headline suggests, but we do have a crisis on our hands.

The crisis, it seems to me, is one of discovery and credibility.  It’s a crisis non-fiction doesn’t have to deal with, in part, I believe, because a work of non-fiction, sourced and corroborated, provides its own sort of credibility.  (Non-fiction faces a different challenge, as it often requires a more significant financial investment than fiction does.  While it takes time and energy to write a novel, it takes that and money for research and travel to write a longform work of non-fiction (except memoirs, of course).)

Fiction, on the other hand, needs a champion.  I haven’t yet put my hands on who that might be, though.  You might think, as a bookstore employee, that I would be one, but the truth in this case is that I come into play quite a long ways after a work of fiction has come into existence.  The writer has already written the book, an agent has taken an interest and sold it to a publisher, who has then given it to sales reps to push to buyers.  That’s a lot of people to be on-board in order for a book to make it into my hands, let alone yours.

The issue with this system seems to be that it doesn’t make enough money.  For anybody.  Authors are always getting the shaft, recouping a small fraction of the list price of a book, if anything at all.  Even the authors who hit it big and get a six-figure advance (do they still give those out?) are making a relatively small amount for their time.  It takes 3-4 years to write a decent novel, so getting paid $100,000 for it isn’t unreasonable.  It’s a fraction of what a hedgefund manager makes in a single year, for instance.  Publishers aren’t rolling in dough, either.  Too often they guess wrong on a big advance and end up losing money.  And independent bookstores?  Well, we all know our recent history.

I’m of two minds on this whole system.  On the one hand, I think it continues to deliver high-quality fiction at a rate I can’t keep up with.  And yet, if it’s unsatisfactory to so many of the people involved (we haven’t even touched on the writers who can’t, for whatever reason, gain access to this system), might there be a better way of doing things?  Can we just open it up to the readers and expect them to find the best fiction out of a mass of electronic files?  Isn’t that a recipe for missing the next Joyce or Beckett because their work isn’t easily accessible?  It’s a complicated issue, one that everyone who loves great literature has a stake in exploring.