Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

the book isn't dead yet, but fiction "needs all the help it can get"

Happily, not everyone predicts an imminent doomsday for the book (or book publishing).

David Ulin at the LA Times urges publishers to stop panicking and “focus on the writing rather than the noise.”

And Amelia Atlas at the New York Observer talks to some industry insiders who think the book might do OK in a recession: reading is, after all, a form of escape. She herself suggests: “There are only so many times, it would seem, that the industry can hear the sound of its own death knell and still worry.”

Still, she quotes Sonny Mehta as saying that “Fiction can use all the help it can get.”

We talked about this a bit in my class last week. Jenni, my super-agent and friend, visited the workshop to field questions about writing and publishing; one student asked her if she thought that fiction had become “more depressing” since 9/11. After noting that the best fiction is often about darker themes (or at least relies on enough conflict/discomfort to hold our attention), Jenni spoke a little about the kinds of books that have been doing better in the American marketplace since 9/11–and that will likely continue to flourish during financial crisis: nonfiction (people are scared and want to have more information at their disposal, to understand things) and international fiction (people pick this up for similar reasons, though some readers might be seeking an escape to an “exotic” landscape).

Of course it’s not a bad thing to read for knowledge or escape; quite the opposite. But I do tend to recoil — in or out of the classroom — from reading solely for either purpose, from approaches to reading that are joyless or thoughtless or overly-methodical, from readings that treat a memoir or novel by a Nigerian author as a textbook. It’s wonderful that Americans are reading so much international fiction, but does it have to be *instead* of American fiction — why can’t it be *in addition to*? I get a little upset when it’s spoken of (especially bitterly) as “competition” for American fiction, something edging books out of the marketplace. And in this context, International Fiction is certainly viewed as an all-in-one category: American Fiction vs. Fiction from Everywhere Else. America vs. the World Beyond. Gah!

Back to the issue at hand: how can we get more readers excited about fiction, book-by-book and overall? Most people are excited in the abstract about movies, about food, about baseball. How can we instill that desire for novels and short stories in others? Probably not by teaching to the test in our schools (though many wonderful teachers continue to inspire new readers). Probably not merely by blogging into the yawn of cyberspace (though sometimes it wakes to a good idea).

Does anyone have any grassroots ideas or greater epiphanies? In the short- or long-term, what might FWR do to give fiction just a little bit of the help it needs?

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