From Creative Nonfiction (Issue #31, 2007): “Imagining the Future”
Here’s a scenario: It’s 2032 and you want a book, you being a senior who still remembers books fondly, a book being a non-voice-activated, tangible, artfully designed, paper- and ink-scented collection of human-generated original prose. Times are rough. An MP3 of the Spark Notes for The Da Vinci Code has replaced the Bible in every hotel in America, and Harry Potter is a middle-aged couch potato on welfare. You know this about Harry because you put him there in the videogame, Write the Next Harry Potter Sequel. Paper, pens, rubber erasers – they no longer exist. The last of the book critics wrote the last book review of a Post-it note from Pynchon while Pynchon was in the other room surfing YouTube. “What we got here,” you say in your best prison warden accent, “is a failure to communicate.” Nobody laughs. Nobody remembers how to spell communicate.
Here’s another: It’s 2032 and in the latest census, 87% of the population claimed “writer” as an occupation. The universal library of all human verbiage shows 1.4 million genres, with 230,000 subcategories labeled “For Dummies.” You narrow your search for a good read to fantasy novels with three-figure page counts and polysyllabic vocabularies, which helps, but you still face a choice of 547 sub-genres. Do you want fairies or ogres? To fly or to kill? With quick plot twists or snappy dialogue? You arrive at the Lengthy Literary Fantasy Polysyllabic Flying Fast-Talking Ogre section, and you settle in to read the 12,468 opinions of the titles you might like. You choose a title and click the link to buy it. You don’t know why you chose it because you failed to notice the subliminal ads that popped up and whispered breathy directives while massaging your neck and temples, all from the sole remaining New York-based, foreign-owned publishing conglomerate in America, which paid the author an advance equal to the national debt. The book is about an ogre who writes a book, which the author claims is nonfiction. He’s already sold the rights for his next book, What I Would Have Written Had I Written a Book, which he claims is fiction. You don’t care; your neck feels good. You’re sure you’re going to love it.
What will the literary landscape look like in 25 years, for real? I don’t think it’ll be drastically different, frankly, despite new technologies. But that doesn’t mean I don’t worry about certain trends, or think that if we become complacent those trends won’t push us toward one of the aforementioned scenarios.
Consider the literary trifecta: What will be written; what will be published and distributed; and what will be read. I don’t lose sleep over the first question. I would if funding sources for non-mainstream writers dried up, or civil liberties were curtailed, or we returned to a time when only privileged white men felt they had something to say. But I’d like to think we’ve come too far to silence the plentitude of perspectives. We might change how we tell our stories – through hyperlinked graphic novels, for example – but the novel, the poem, the short story, the play have all survived this long. Perhaps the larger concern will be the decline of the well-written, but the gems are always out there. It’s just a matter of finding them.
Thus the latter two questions are what get my attention. The trend toward fewer gatekeepers driven purely by profit will surely make for less diversity, more schlock. By gatekeepers I mean the publishers and booksellers who decide what to make available, and how manipulative they get with their marketing. It’s a rough system for the risky and midlist writers, the poets, the foreign authors who require the added expense of a translator. I am mostly heartened by the accessibility provided by online booksellers and, in theory, the gate-crashing rebellion of bloggers and self-publishers. But the answer to too few gates shouldn’t be none at all, so that we get lost in a stampede of mediocrity.
It’s enough to make readers give up the struggle – and they have. Fewer than half of American adults now read literature, according to a study my agency published in 2004. The rate of decline is steepest among the young, and countrywide cutbacks in arts education are getting worse. Those who do read are often too beleaguered to look past the old standbys, or the hype of the latest newcomer with a TV-ready personality. I worry, too, that the Internet, while it taught us to make complex, spider-web connections and think fast under pressure, has also diminished our ability to think quietly and deeply, to make time for the longer works that give us a nuanced understanding of the human condition.
But here’s what gives me hope: parents who read to their kids. Writers who visit schools and prisons and homeless shelters. Teachers and librarians who quote texts with closed eyes and quickened breath. Book clubs. Editors and agents who got into the business because they love to read, and haven’t forgotten that. Journals and small presses that publish exceptional literature not judged on commercial viability. Arts organizations that support writers and build audiences for literature through festivals, readings, workshops, and awards. Oprah. Yes, Oprah gives me hope that there may be more influential booklovers in our future. And most of all, lest you’ve forgotten where I work, the National Endowment for the Arts. We are the largest funder of literature in the country, helping to arrest the downward spirals with support to writers and translators, nonprofit publishers and arts organizations, and with larger programs like The Big Read, a nationwide effort to encourage Americans to read and discuss books within their communities. I wish there were many more funders building a stronger infrastructure for the writing and publishing and reading of fine literature. But as long as the NEA sticks around, I think literature in America has a chance. Me, on the other hand … I have this dang kink in my neck.
– Amy Stolls, Literature Program Officer, National Endowment for the Arts