Writers tend to be a pessimistic lot. You’d be pessimistic, too, if your income depended on having a good idea—on being visited by the Muse, whose visits usually come few and far between, if they come at all—and then getting that idea down on paper in a way that makes sense and is entertaining and that someone might buy, all while that pesky internal editor is going on and on and on: “No, you can’t be serious,” and “No, no, that really sucks,” and then “No, no, no, no what the hell are you thinking?” And then if you can get past all that and manage to finish something and send it off to a publisher, chances are you’ll get back one of those little postcards with a “Thanks, but it’s not for us, good luck,” if you get anything at all.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I asked novelist T.C. Boyle a few questions about the future of publishing, and what he thought the new digital technologies might portend, and I got an earful of how messed up things are.
Boyle, who’s giving the opening keynote address at the Vegas Valley Book Festival this year, must be visited by the Muse by weekly—maybe daily—appointment. I can’t imagine his internal editor saying anything but, “Splendid! You’ve done it again, old boy!” About every three years, he publishes another novel that invariably is both a critical and commercial success. What does he have to complain about?
“I’m no expert on technology,” he told me, “far from it. But with the relentless assault of the visual it seems inevitable that print will continue its decline. Perhaps the new technologies such as electronic readers will keep things going, but the old pleasures of working with an editor at a publishing house and creating printed books that are objets d’art in themselves or even browsing in a bookstore where you might—God forbid—brush shoulders with a fellow citizen or discover a new author or title seem doomed.”
And there you have it, folks: Doomed.
So then I turned to some of Vegas’ own to get their views on the matter. I figured I’d get an earful from them, too, and I did, but it wasn’t quite what I expected.
I started with Todd James Pierce and Jarret Keene, editors of Dead Neon: Tales of Near-Future Las Vegas (University of Nevada Press, $20). Their collection of speculative fiction will be among the books featured at this year’s festival. The stories in this collection involve all sorts of Vegas-based catastrophes, but as for literary doom and gloom? Forget it.
“I don’t think the turmoil in publishing is a bad thing,” Pierce says. “The people who’ll lose will be the publishers, but kids now are more interested in the tonalities of language than before; they all have blogs and e-mails and so on, and they’re more sensitive to contextual tone. They have a stronger connection to language than ever.”
On the topic of young writers, even Boyle managed a glimmer of hope. “Young writers are better than ever, and those born to write will create their work whether there’s a market or not, and those born to read will seek them out. Still, it would be nice to get paid for it.”
“It’s hard to separate legitimate concerns form being stuck in the old days and missing them,” says an upbeat Vu Tran, one of the contributors to Dead Neon. “The world is changing, and you have to adapt to the new technologies. People are reading on machines now, rather than books; they’re reading on the Internet. But people will always want stories; that’ll never go away.” Tran’s story features climate change, conflagration and a one-armed mind-reading cab driver and poker player. Tran lived in Vegas for seven years while he worked on a Ph.D in fiction from UNLV’s creative writing program. He now teaches fiction at the University of Chicago.
“I’ve been enjoying my Kindle immensely and I’ve been reading books that I would never have discovered through older, traditional distribution channels,” Keene says. “My concern is one day the Internet will be re-shaped in such a way that it gives corporate publishers an advantage and then digital platforms/publishing will succumb to the Twilight/Franzen effect, where everyone’s reading the same book because they’ve been told to.”
Lori Kozlowski, another contributor to Dead Neon, grew up in Las Vegas and now lives in L.A., where she’s a writer for the Los Angeles Times. Her story in Dead Neon includes mean, sentient pigs. “I feel like there’s a lot of excitement,” she says. “People are seeing the new technologies and new ways to tell stories. I’m hopeful, actually. I don’t think narrative is going anywhere. People want to tell stories; people want to read them. And we’re beginning to see how technology helps.”
“A lot of people are irrationally scared right now of things going to digital rather than paper,” Pierce says. “But it’s no big deal. If we get rid of distribution and publishing costs, that frees up what we think of as a book.”
“You’ll have writers who like the short form, writers who prefer the long form,” Kozlowski says. “In Japan, they’re writing novels on cell phones. How do you get the most out of your words? Every word on Twitter has to mean something. Poets ought to be very good on Twitter.”
So I checked in with poet Joshua Kryah, a visiting assistant professor at UNLV. His first collection of poems, Glean (Nightboat Books Inc., $15), was published in 2007. He’ll be heading a panel on poetry and conflict at the Book Festival. “Most conversations concerning the state of publishing today usually have little to do with poetry because poetry as a profitable form is almost completely devoid of remuneration. So anxieties about profitability don’t necessarily factor in the production of poetry. The move to online publication has, if anything, allowed poetry to reach more readers than ever before. More poetry is happening now online, and poets and readers prefer it that way. I know I do. Instead of telling friends or family to pick up a journal that’s published a poem of mine at their local Barnes & Noble, I can send them the link. And I can link to the poem from my website. And I can share it with folks on Facebook. Or I can Tweet about it. It goes on and on.”
Literary Darwinists say that humans evolved the desire to tell stories precisely because such activities helped us survive. Speculation, they explain, offers a no-risk way of anticipating future problems, the better to avoid them in real life. Imagine that: Our forebears managed to not get eaten by hyenas because they told good stories, and most likely stories with plenty of sex and violence. Who’da thought?
Which might help explain why local writers seem so upbeat in these tough times. The place is a rich lode of pure material. Let’s thank our lucky stars for the Vdara Death Ray. You can’t make this stuff up. But you can sure try. And you’d have to have a hell of an imagination to pull it off, and imagination, again, gives you the edge …
“America in 2010 is not in a good place,” Pierce says. “America is on the verge of being eclipsed by China and India; the world of everyone’s grandparents is about to be changed in radical ways. Writing is a way of figuring things out, and when it goes well, it’s a joy.”