Who Is To Blame?

Western novelist Richard Wheeler starts off his new blog by tackling the demise of the mid-list and the declining paperback market, hot-button issues that have been discussed a lot in the publishing biz. But Wheeler points the finger of blame where it has never been pointed before. Not at publishers. Not at distributors. Not at bookstores…

Is it possible that authors are largely to blame for the sharp decline in
fiction? Most authors would vehemently say no. Most would argue that fiction is
better than ever, well done, vivid, rich and compelling. It’s not the fault of
authors. Not the fault of all those mid-list people who have been bumped and can
no longer get contracts.

And yet, I wonder. The decline in readership of
novels has been going on for years, and began long before the upheavals that
affected the mass market distribution system. There was a time when this country
had literary lions. A time when an author was a celebrity. A time when a
best-selling novel sold in the millions. A time when even genre fiction sold in
the hundreds of thousands. Are we, who create the stories, who fashion the
product, ready to say that it’s not our fault that we sell in the tens of
thousands if we sell at all?

He believes that, by and large, books aren’t as well-written these days, that they are "technically elegant" but lack any real character.

I think ever since the 1970s fiction has been in
trouble, and that if we authors are aware of what factors are making us less and
less readable and compelling, we can, in our own unique ways, write more
compelling literature and win back some of our lost readers.

He promises to discuss these ideas in more depth in later postings. I, for one, will be eager to see what he has to say…

9 thoughts on “Who Is To Blame?”

  1. I agree. I make a generalized cutoff at 1965 with mysteries (I don’t read ‘literature’ very much). I’ve always thought that mass television simply tookover the best writings – look at all the crime shows and all their episodes made.
    I’ve tried to glance at random ’90s novels a few times. BUT every page I open at always has a character driving a ‘Ford’ to ‘McDonalds’ for a ‘Coke’ etc. As the main exception, I do like Doug Allyn’s stories im AHMM.
    p.s. On Monday, I linked to your Making of comments of – last month – maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about 🙂

  2. I’d certainly say that’s a possibility as well. And why read when you can see a good story with the same character week after week in an hour.
    I’d say there are many factors involved, but this is an interesting one I hadn’t heard before.

  3. I know nothing about Richard Wheeler, but I’m instantly dubious of a piece that starts off saying that “since the 1970s fiction has been in trouble.” I don’t recall any great changes in writing in that decade. Most of the great upheavals in American fiction happened in the 60s — with New Yorker-ites like Cheever and Updike and Roth on one hand, and crazy experimentalists like Barth and Brautigan and Pynchon on the other — or in the 80s, with the rise of the Gordon Lish-inspired coke-and-sex-and-no-plot trade paperback originals. I can’t even remember great changes in genre fiction over the 70s — the two MacDonalds still dominated the PI field, a lot of the old pros of the 40s and 50s were still active, and it was years before that ol’ Knight in Tarnished Armor would saddle up and ride down the mean streets of Boston, ensuring that every PI afterwards would need a big, scary, monosyllabic sidekick to do his dirty work and occasionally — if only temporarily — puncture the hero’s pomposity.
    Science fiction was pretty much the same, caught between the Dangerous Visions-esque experimentation and literary works by LeGuin and Delaney, straight out of the 60s, and twilight works of old masters like Heinlein, Asimov, and Pohl — and years away from the whole William Gibson cyber thing. The only genre I can see as having changed substantially in the 70s is horror, and that’s thanks to a little known writer named King. Keep your eye on this guy, one of these days he’s finally going to break out.
    No, I don’t think anything stunning happened to literature in the 70s. But I do think that date is the key to Mr. Wheeler’s post… just not in the way he thinks.
    Listen, if you asked me to name the greatest artists in pop music, my list would start with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Roxy Music, and David Bowie. What these four have in common — aside from their indisputable brilliance — is that I fell in love with them when I was a teenager. There are a couple of later artists I’d put on the list, too — U2, Kate Bush — but I was listening to them in college. Fact is, there is a time in our lives when music means everything, when a new song can change the world. Eminem may be the greatest thing in the world, but I don’t hear it, and even if I could intellectually understand his appeal, he simply couldn’t move me the same way. I’m too damn old.
    To a great extent, I think the same thing is true of movies. And certainly of books. There’s a time in your life when you’re open to be taken over by a work of art. But as you get older, as your life becomes more burdened by, well, life, it’s harder and harder for something to make that big a difference. As I said, I don’t know anything about Richard Wheeler, but I’d guess this is why he finds a particular date for the decline of literature.
    As for the lack of literary lions, I don’t think this has anything to do with writers today, and lots to do with the media. Sure, Mailer and Vidal and Hemingway and Sontag were huge personalities. But that wouldn’t have mattered if there weren’t newspapers and magazines to write about them. Mary McCarthy and Lilian Hellman were famous for a fight they had on a late-night talk show. But what’s really astonishing about that fact today is not that two writers had a feud — it’s that a talk show had two writers on at the same time!
    There are plenty of writers today qualified to serve as literary lions. How about Dave Eggers, with that whole McSweeney’s empire, funding a literary movement on his own? Or, my God, William T. Vollman, author not only of prodigiously difficult and ambitious novels — like his multi-book cycle on the “Symbolic history” of the European founding of America, starting in Medieval Iceland — but a seven volume, non-fiction history of violence, published last year in a box set so beautiful and so audacious that I had to buy it even though I suspected I’d probably never read it. And talk about out-sized lives — one of his early (non-fiction) works recounts the year or so he spent getting into and living in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, hoping to take up arms against the Evil Empire and discovering, well, that everything he thought as a Romantic young man was wrong. Love him or hate him, this guy epitomizes the Literary Lion — and yet you’ll never read about him in People or see him on the Tonight Show. Don’t tell me it’s because he’s less interesting than Mailer; even if Vollman stabbed two wives, he wouldn’t get half of Mailer’s press. The culture has changed, and the media profoundly do not give a fuck about any writer aside from talk radio hosts who pay some ghost a couple of bucks to transcribe their blather.
    Can I say that fiction now is better than ever? Of course not, that’s a chump’s game. Will any novel ever engage me the way The Magic Mountain did when I was 18, Anna Karenina did when I was nineteen, or The Sound and the Fury ever did when I was 20? (Sorry, classics may be cheating. But I remember staying up night after night, breathlessly devouring Vance Bourjaily’s Now Playing at Canterbury; I was completely entranced by Trout Fishing in America and spent far too many hours pondering its significance, or lack thereof.) I sure hope so, but I say that knowing that all of those novels are much harder for me to get through now than they were then… when I was young and free and able to give myself over completely to a book, instead of thinking at the turn of every page that I really should be paying bills, or running around the Rose Bowl, or going back to work on my own writing.

  4. I own over 525 books right now. I read constantly, however I think the overall decline in the world of reading novels is largely the fault of the world wide web. I always ask people “What’s the last entire book you read and not because you had to?” I get a lot of blank stares. And then I ask “What is your favorite website?” and I get tons of addresses thrown out at me. I love the Internet. But I’d throw my computer right out the window if it came down to chosing it or books. That is unless the books were all published by Red Dress Ink…then I’d keep my computer and read classics all day long with much eye strain. 🙂

  5. Bill,
    You take on Richard Wheeler’s comments seem to be on target…though I think there is also a political element you didn’t factor in. Today, on his blog, his writes:

    But a funny thing happened and still is happening. The American people have turned away from fiction, slowly at first, but rapidly now. And readers are getting grayer. I have been wondering whether there is a connection between the great upheavals of the seventies and the decline of literature, and now I am certain of it. Fiction needs something to push against (or pull toward). The effect of the seventies was to drain the country of its beliefs, for better or worse.


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