Saturday, April 26, 2008
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Rachel Donadio says that writing and publishing are on the way up:
In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006, according to the industry tracker Bowker, which attributed the sharp rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles. University writing programs are thriving, while writers’ conferences abound, offering aspiring authors a chance to network and “workshop” their work. The blog tracker Technorati estimates that 175,000 new blogs are created worldwide each day (with a lucky few bloggers getting book deals). And the same N.E.A. study found that 7 percent of adults polled, or 15 million people, did creative writing, mostly “for personal fulfillment.”
Self-publishing is on the rise and the big retailers are getting in. Barnes & Noble has a deal with IUniverse, Borders with Lulu, and Amazon.com owns BookSurge. More college-level writing programs too:
Mark McGurl, an associate professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of a forthcoming book on the impact of creative writing programs on postwar American literature, agrees that writing programs have helped expand the literary universe. “American literature has never been deeper and stronger and more various than it is now,” McGurl said in an e-mail message. Still, he added, “one could put that more pessimistically: given the manifold distractions of modern life, we now have more great writers working in the United States than anyone has the time or inclination to read.”
One little remarked upon feature of creative writing programs is that while only a minority of graduates go onto become working writers, many more get some intensive training in reading contemporary poetry or fiction. It trains readers as well as writers. La Jorie (Jorie Graham to you) in our inspirational don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out pep talk called upon us to buy one book of poetry a month. She said that if every MFA program graduate did that, the poetry biz would go gangbusters. I don’t know how well we followed through, but it has to make a difference.
Poets also can pick up a little cash by washing each other’s laundry.
Lawrence is not to blame for passing along the pep talk, but it’s an infuriating one. If 7% of adults are doing creative writing, whose chapbooks are they going to be buying? Those of a few contemporary, published poets, so they can pump up the “poetry biz”? Pardon me while I vomit.
Sure, that’s going to happen some, and I wouldn’t be surprised if standard published poetry does better than it has. But mostly those 7% / 15 million people are going to be reading each other. Anyone can publish these days, as long as you’re talking less than a hundred copies and no distribution. So everyone does. And who would you rather read? Some well-recommended poet? Or the person who you spend an hour or two a week working with? The important poet sure has no interest in you or your work, unlike your friend from the writing group.
Someone is going to have to come up with a new ideological / aesthetic structure to let this kind of thing grow, instead of vaguely hoping that this means all will be well for a traditional publishing industry and that every MFA student will buy one of Joe or Jane Poetry Star’s chapbook’s as one of their book-of-the-month club. But I don’t feel like repeating all of my previous remarks again.
But one last couple of things. It’s not really “writers rising”, it’s that readers are more and more universally becoming writers. And it’s not the publishing industry that’s really going to benefit; it’s the printing industry.
If everyone who was about to enter an MFA program instead decided to spend all that money on books of poetry, poets would be a bunch of smug, northeast liberal types, shopping at Whole Foods and writing poems about cats.
Is there any evidence that people are reading any more these days than they were a few years ago? My impression is that they are not, but I’d be very interested in anybody who can make a case that they are.
Poems about cats are fine. Better than poems about [self-censored], anyway.
Thanks to the internet, self-publishing, print-on-demand publishing, and new small presses, I’m reading plenty of authors and works I would not have read otherwise, including some that are vital. Publishing them too: http://liblit.org/
Rather than an expansion of “preaching in the desert,” I experience it as a growing green space and increased fertility.
Thanks to MFA programs, I’ve read more authors and works than I likely otherwise would have also, more of the classics and establishment works probably.