I got an email a while back from The Millions asking me to nominate my top 5 books for the new millennium, with the following constraints: they must be fiction, they must be available in English. The idea was, The Millions would then tabulate all votes and come up with a top 20.
So. If some of the most interesting writing I’ve read has been in a blog, or a pdf, or a webcomic, or just in emails, I can’t mention it – it has to be writing that been legitimised by a book deal. Also, if I’ve read someone brilliant in a language other than English – someone who hasn’t happened to sell English-language rights – I can’t mention that either. So I can’t use this to give interesting writers a better chance of attracting notice and getting an English-language book deal, I just have to endorse the status quo.
I’m pulling this out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, Helen DeWitt writes an excellent blog, Paperpools, and if you didn’t know it existed, well, I simply couldn’t live with that. So go read it, please. Secondly, I think the first sentence of this quote is somewhat arresting. No doubt a few of you scoffed when you read it. The best writing of the decade in an email? A web comic? A blog? This gets at something I’ve been thinking about for a while: books are great, but they make up a small percentage of what we read. Not only that, but the slice of the pie seems to shrink a bit more each year. We’re reading just as much as ever (and probably writing more, too), but it’s not always a book. This is something I discussed recently with Bob Stein from the Institute for the Future of the Book. Are we at a moment when the mark of intellectual achievement might be moving toward some new form? Something to think about over the weekend.
[Hopping in to edit this post a bit: This is not a “books are doomed” post. I think books have a robust future. This is really more about whether we’re undervaluing writing that happens online or in a non-traditional environment. Just wanted to avoid undue confusion. More thoughts on this to come.]