Colin Robinson has a piece in last Sunday’s New York Times strangely entitled “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Reader”. (Probably the title’s not his fault.) The message boils down to a claim that the mid-list book is no longer being published; which is seen as a bad thing.
We need to be constantly vigilant that we avoid the pitfall of claiming that because things are now different from what they were when we were young, they are therefore worse. Different is just different, not axiomatically worse.
“The ‘mid-list’ in trade publishing parlance is a bit like the middle class in American politics” Robinson tells us in an odd simile. It got me thinking, but I fear my thinking didn’t take me much further than the surface. What really typifies the mid-list book he’s thinking of is that it attracts an advance — usually fairly modest, and quite likely to be one of those which fails to earn out. Now, we can all see how no longer being able to get an advance for that mid-list book is bad for the people who write them, but to extend that to dire forecasts about the state of literature is putting way to much weight on the facts. In so far as these mid-list books are apprentice work for the few who go on to write blockbusters, we can assume that alternative routes to publication will be found (and indeed Robinson himself identifies many). His fear is that “the mid-list, publishing’s experimental laboratory, is being abandoned”. But what is at most being abandoned is surely the smaller end of mid-list publishing from companies who focus on blockbusters. Plenty of non-blockbusters are (of course) still being published. Because of all the well-known stresses on the business, trade houses have to be ever more focussed on big sellers, and so have less space on their lists for smaller books. They also need to moderate the cash which used to flow out in advances. Robinson himself complains about the fact that a record 300,000 new titles were published in 2012. Is it too hard to imagine that some of these missing mid-list books are turning up in the catalogs of smaller, non-establishment publishing companies, like the one Colin Robinson himself works for. If he doesn’t see it, I guess I should hesitate to contradict. Certainly some of them are being self-published — and what’s wrong with that? It is surely rash to sneer at the 300,000 people he reports as participating in Nanowrimo in 2012 — maybe he might want to sign one of them some day.
To describe publishing employees as “professionals who have traditionally provided guidance for those picking up a book” seems a bit condescending as well as unrealistic. The only people who think that any guide to the quality of a book is provided by the fact that this one is published by Knopf, while that one is published by Back-Street Books are the folks employed by publishers to whom such distinctions are life and death, or better, bread and butter. Most readers probably can’t name more than 3 or 4 publishers anyway. True he does imply that reviewers and librarians, groups he sees as being under threat too, are also guidance providers. Strangely he doesn’t really include booksellers, the main group who do often provide advice and guidance to the searching reader.
Not only are these professionals allegedly facing existential threat — he also finds that the reader is disappearing! “Reading, always a solitary affair, is increasingly a lonely one” he tells us, despite the fact that his essay goes on about Goodreads, that epitome of the “social reading” which has become such a feature of our times. I think it is really silly for publishing folks to keep on about how hard we all find it to concentrate nowadays so that we can scarcely read long-form work (i.e. a book). If we say it often enough, some fools out there may start to believe it’s true — after all lots of people think that what they read in The New York Times must be true. Of course it is nonsense — I spoke to a guy in the laundry room the other day who’d just finished War and Peace for the first time, and was now reading Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (the War and Peace of World War II). And I did just read 5,000 pages of George R. R. Martin in one go recently. Does that mean I get to write an op-ed piece in the Times reporting on people’s renewed thirst for really long books?
John Cheever may have said: “I can’t write without a reader. It’s precisely like a kiss — you can’t do it alone” but he almost certainly didn’t have his Knopf editor in mind when he said it, nor the book reviewer for The New York Times, nor his local librarian — though muses can of course be found anywhere. Any writer will write with a “reader” in mind — an ideal reader who may or may not correspond to some actual, existing person. Even if every one of the disappearing readers Robinson thinks are at risk vanishes from this earth, authors will continue to address their own reader/muse whenever they write.