Friday, February 03, 2012

The Death of the Author

In the Guardian, recently, Ewan Morrison shared his dismay over the impending death of the author:
In the last 50 years the system of publishers' advances has supported writers such as Ian McEwan, Angela Carter, JM Coetzee, Joan Didion, Milan Kundera, Don DeLillo, Salman Rushdie, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Anita Shreve, Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and John Fowles. Authors do not live on royalties alone. To ask whether International Man Booker prizewinner Philip Roth could have written 24 novels and the award-winning American trilogy without advances is like asking if Michelangelo could have painted the Sistine Chapel without the patronage of Pope Julius II. The economic framework that supports artists is as important as the art itself; if you remove one from the other then things fall apart.
Well. You know, I really don't give a damn about the death of the author. I've read one or two books by most of the people listed above. I may get to one or two more before I die, but I'm not fretting about the possibility of missing them. I certainly would never sink the rest of my reading life into reading all of the books of any of them. For one thing, most of the ones I've read are not all that good, and for another thing, for most novelists, when you've read one of their novels you've really read them all. After a couple hundred pages of prose, pretty much everyone takes to repeating himself. I don't know who the people are who “keep up” with the modern novel, but they must read thousands of pages of fiction per week. This doesn't strike me as a hunger for literature so much as a hunger for sedation.

We are now supposed to view with horror the fact that the system that sustained these writers, and kept them producing novel after novel after novel, is decaying. I really can't work up much. The novelist does not strike me as a major kind of artist, and the novelist is the only sort literary person that this system supported anyway.

And did this system ever work so splendidly, keeping the good writers in steady work? All my life I've known “failed novelists,” people working along, isolated and increasingly desperate, who couldn't “get their novels published,” and who took this to be the failure, not just of their books, but of their lives. I would guess that number of these men and women were novelists every bit as good as Morrison's list of makers. No one ever read their books, or ever will. Were they well-served by this system? Was it kind and humane to dangle the lure of professional authorship in front of these people? Everyone knew that novels were the only real literary form. And everybody knew that if you weren't published, you were nobody, and your stuff wasn't worth reading.

To my way of thinking, mainstream publishing was never good for writers. It never employed even a sizable fraction of the good ones. It promoted an idea of the “author” – meaning always and only, someone who writes a new novel every year or two for decades – that is limited and deadening. And it was incredibly centralized: the whole system orbited around a close, interlinked coterie of the graduates of a few universities, who had moved on (or, usually, back) to live one of the three capitals of literary English. They might adopt mascots from other places, exotics from the lower classes or from poor countries far away, but the power of selection remained firmly in their hands.

I'm not going to mourn that system. And I'm not going to miss the professionalization of writing, which is a much more recent development than Mr Morrison seems to realize. No, Shakespeare did not make a living wage from the publishing business. He made his money from producing plays, which he happened to write the scripts for. His “published” works, during his lifetime, were all pirated editions. He never made a penny from them. He thrived in an environment that was much more like the coming internet age that Morrison fears: an age in which intellectual property barely existed, and brought no income to anybody. He was not a professional writer; he was a professional producer. Like most of the best writers, he did a lot things, and did them very well. No one gave him purses of gold so that he could stop everything to brood and “focus on his writing.” He had plays to put on, properties to furbish, rehearsals to oversee. He had a life. That's why he had something to write about.



I do share one of Morrison's concerns. How will writers find leisure to write? But this is part of something larger: and it's not a literary issue, it's a labor issue. How will painters find time to paint? How will dancers find time to dance? How will anyone find leisure to do the things that make life worth living?

But this has nothing to do with the breakdown of the “professional author” system, which never employed more than a small fraction of literary writers. It has to do with wages dropping to levels at which one has to work most of one's waking hours just to sustain oneself. Having to work twenty hours a week at some crummy job never kept anyone from writing a great book or painting great paintings. But having to work fifty or sixty hours a week, or being unable to find any work, certainly will. That's the real disaster for the arts, and for all of us. In the Thatcher-and-Reagan world, we 99 percenters are either frantically busy or anxiously poor: swollen with economic desire or paralyzed by economic fear. That is something to worry about.



The fact that the dissemination of writing has become so cheap as to make it nearly free, that the classics are readily available, that the wealth of the literary world stands open to anyone who can afford an internet connection, is the most wonderful thing that has happened in my lifetime. It is a great good thing, and while I'm not surprised that the people who stood to profit by literary scarcity are complaining about it, I'm not about to join them. Today I will read some marvelous poems that a friend who lives off in the sticks of Kent sent me, and continue to review the manuscript of a terrific book on massage that another friend in Texas is preparing for publication. I wouldn't even know these people, if not for the internet. I would most likely never have seen the work of either of them, under the old dispensation. I'm willing to take the risk, in return, that I might miss Don DeLillo's 16th novel. I'll even forgo the $50,000 advance that Random House was poised to offer me to continue writing this blog.

23 comments:

...iph... said...

Well said, Dale! True to my own heart. I imagine some better world around the corner where we move toward more local systems and divide our time across wage-work, family, and creative and community work in a much more sane and balanced way.

Murr Brewster said...

At first I thought the internet age was bad for creative people; that, as Gillian Welch mourned, "everything is free now." I've come around. I've now written four books that are so dissimilar that one might never suspect they're written by the same person--and that's not something the publishing giants prefer. None of them is published, but that's within my grasp. I believe my novel will not be accepted by the traditional presses until I insert a vampire in chapter 3.

Zhoen said...

(standing and clapping)

rbarenblat said...

(o)

Beth said...

Dale, I don't agree that novelists aren't major artists, but that's just about the only thing I didn't like in your essay. The devastating link between economic necessity, time, and creativity so seldom gets talked about, but I think you're got it exactly right.

butuki said...

Good to see an expansion of what we were talking about the other day. And we still agree on all the points.

I do have to agree with Beth about novelists being just as great artists as in any other field. It most certainly has been a problem that until now there just hasn't been an outlet for the vast majority who were never published.

Because of the Internet I've come in direct contact with and had more chance to read the great writing of the average writers who never get noticed otherwise. I read them (like you and Beth) regularly and more often than I did my favorite writers of the past. I would never have discovered either of you if it hadn't been for the Internet.

My one regret is the disappearance of editors. A good editor is usually the reason a story or poem or whatever literary piece became great. I'm even thinking of putting together a communal editor's initiative so that writers on the Net can have their work evaluated and tweaked.

Dale said...

--...iph..., welcome, and thank you! We'll make a sane world yet, maybe.

--Murr, when do I get to read one of these books?

--Zhoen & Rachel, thanks!

--Oh, well, as I reckon you probably know, Beth, I don't really believe that the novel isn't a major form either. But it's a very annoying one. It takes huge amounts of time to read even a bad novel, let alone to write one. And it dominates our literary landscape the way the sonnet dominated Elizabethan England: everyone writes them, whether the form really suits them or not. I worry about some of our friends who *have* beaten the odds, and made the big time: The pressure on them to write more novels -- and to write only novels -- is going to be intense.

I partly disparage novels as a bit of a historical corrective: the bit of literary history during which the long prose narrative has been thought of as potentially serious art has only lasted a hundred years or so. (An exception might be the Norse sagas, but I'm not sure they thought of those as art -- more likely they thought of them as history. We think of them as art, but that's another matter.)

--Miguel, I should have credited you for putting me on to that Guardian article, and for starting the conversation! Thank you. --And yes, editors. We're going to have to learn to roll our own, for sure :-)

Anonymous said...

Hear hear! I agree with all of this, nobody will be surprised to hear -- including the part about the novels.

Dave said...

Oops. That was me.

Dale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
marly youmans said...

Very interesting and rather genial rant!

As somebody who is considered "all over the map" by publishers because she publishes novels (and doesn't like to do the same thing twice), a few fantasies for older kids, and a lot of poetry, I probably have entirely too many opinions to leave a comment! I have been through the New York wringer, become jaded, gotten over it and returned to joyfulness, and now publish more happily with smaller houses and university press--I don't even have an agent any more, and don't miss having one either.

What I found disappointing is that nobody left at the big houses wanted to do that old-fashioned thing of building a readership for an author and standing behind their work, no matter how oddball the next book might be... But that was already long gone.

That's okay. I'm still going to run wild with my beautiful muse...

marly youmans said...

P. S. I have written about that business of people feeling that they failed in life because they didn't get the book of poems or the novel published. It is distressing, and it has broken a number of people I know--as has the common event of publishing a book and having it be met with silence.

If you weren't a lead book, the big houses just didn't do all that much to let the world know you had a new book. If you were at a fancy house, you were likely to be the elegant wallpaper against which the lead books (the ones that had three full-time bodies of marketers rather than the hangnail of one) were displayed.

Dale said...

I was hoping you'd say a bit more! :-)

Mearcstapa said...

Hooray! Someone else who doesn't care that these people will soon be much less important than they think they are. My dad wrote about eight novels, some of them on the back of paper grocery bags. His life was blighted by his attempts to get published. They are the same people who tell us what is good literature. There's a great book called The Intellectuals and the Masses (lovingly parodied by an ex bf as the Intellectuals and the Masseuse) that shows them up for what they really are - a coterie that has had it all sewn up for far too long. Shall we let anyone tell us what is good and what is not good? I ditched a creative writing course (soul murder) last year and put all my poems in a book on Lulu.

butuki said...

Ach, kwatsch for the credit, Dale. I didn't start the discussion! Just relayed a link someone else posted and commented on it. Do people give credit during conversations standing about the burning oil can warming their hands? :^)

Which sort of latches onto the question of storytelling, something much, much older than the novel. I'm wondering if that is what the Internet is reviving, with its instantaneous reactions and audio-visual stimulation. The novel arose in atoms of long distance communication and travel, when it was impossible to convey anything other than text on a page over those distances. The Internet has bridged that gap and allowed us to >talk< again as is most natural for us. There's a reason why so any people dragged themselves through reading and writing books... a problem that speaking and listening and moving never had.

I'm it sure that people in the past, like the Norsemen, thought much at all in categories of "history" or "art". Since so much of it was oral it must have carried all sorts of connotations, art, history, comedy, religion, entertainment, philosophy, science all rolled into one. Sitting together in a long house regaling your guests with those tales probably didn't get divided up into the specialities of today.

butuki said...

that is, "in times of long-distance communication". Autocorrect gets me in more trouble than I think it's worth sometimes...

butuki said...

Ach, I won't be bothered with all th bad spelling and silly autocorrects. Hope what I wrote makes sense.

Rana said...

What I find interesting is that the old system was so heavily dependent on promoting one particular form of writing, The Novel.

I have to say, with one or two exceptions, I've never found Novels (by which I mean the sort of often-pretentious literary fiction that gets the praise and reviews in the NYT) to be all that compelling. I find far more interesting characters and stories in oft-derided "genre fiction" like science fiction and fantasy and in young adult books, and more graceful, moving writing in creative non-fiction.

If the scope of "good writing" could be widened out to acknowledge those sorts of work as well as The Novel, I think the reading public would be far better served.

I also agree with butuki's point about the decline of the editor.

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

I love Lulu! I love Pindrop! Three cheers for them both!

Hurrah! Hurah! Hurrah!

Joyce Ellen Davis said...

Oh, and ANOTHER cheer for YOU!!!

HURRAH!

Lucy said...

Yes, yes and yes. This is refreshing and affirmative. You make me less inclined to be apologetic about the way I find I'm reading now.

I've found more and more I rather resent the time I've spent reading a novel, even when I've been quite caught up with it at the time. Time was I would feel obliged to chew on down to the bitter end but less so now.

There are things I like to read being published in the mainstream though, but fewer of them seem to be novels; there's a lot of very inviting, satisfying non-fiction, which doesn't quite fit into the traditional pigeon-holes, neither biography nor history nor philosophy, which it seems to me owes quite a lot to the way we read on-line; it's intelligent and well-informed and serious but also colourful and rather Protean and playful and inclined to go off at tangents. And with e-books the whole of out-of-copyright classic lit is there free and instant, without anyone being short-changed. And if I spend time reading things by my friends which are less that masterpieces of literary perfection (present company excluded!), so what? The exchange as act of friendship is more enriching than passively ingesting what arbiter of good taste tells me is good for me.

Good times on the whole, I reckon.

Amanda said...

[breaks out pompoms and leaps up and down enthusiastically]

YES to saner lives. I've been saying versions of this for years. Up with having time to stand and stare!

Peter said...

"Having to work twenty hours a week at some crummy job never kept anyone from writing a great book or painting great paintings. But having to work fifty or sixty hours a week, or being unable to find any work, certainly will. That's the real disaster for the arts, and for all of us."

Yep!