What if right now is the golden age of the book, or even the golden age of literary fiction? What if we are living in the golden age of reading, writing, and criticism? But all around us, the dominant trope of the day is death.
Is it possible that a decade of poor management at newspaper companies amid shifting media paradigms has led people to think that literature is on its deathbed? Are books dead? Is literature dead? Is criticism dead? Are we facing, as a panel hosted by the Columbia Journalism Review asks tonight, “The Case of the Vanishing Book Review?”
Speaking on a Literary Writers Conference panel a year ago Morgan Entrekin, president and publisher of Grove/Atlantic, taking measure of the times, said,
Young people don’t read newspapers… The big reviews don’t have the impact that they used to, and I think that one of the things that I’m worried about and trying to figure out is what are we going to do, how’re we going to get people in the conversation about literary fiction, and I don’t know the answer… Barnes & Noble and Borders have wonderful selections of books, and they’re in communities that never used to have bookstores, but they don’t always have the same relationship with their customer that a local bookseller did, and what you used to be able to do with literary fiction was seed it within those local booksellers around the country, get them reading and talking about it.
He goes on to say, “The Internet is an obvious way to do it with community.” While Entrekin, if you read the rest of his remarks, is actually fairly optimistic, the rhetoric from many (and particularly from some of the National Book Critics Circle’s more vocal members) has centered on loss, even as the rush to fill the gap with not just blogs but with communities like LibraryThing and GoodReads has created a literary landscape that, while it may not serve the critical establishment, represents a net gain for anyone likes to read and to talk to other readers. In fact, some find being a reader right now to be genuinely exciting.
Back when I first started this blog, before it seemed possible to me that it could be anything more than a place to share some thoughts about books with some friends, I used to talk about something called “a trusted fellow reader.” These are the people whose book recommendations are sought out and with whom discussing books is as rewarding as reading them. When this formulation first occurred to me, I happened to be working at an independent bookstore, surrounded by trusted fellow readers among my coworkers and the store’s patrons. I left there in early 2004 and have spent my time since trying to recreate that dynamic here at The Millions. With much help from readers and contributors, I think we’ve succeeded. (In fact, our annual end of year series is an attempt to flood the zone, as it were, with trusted fellow readers.)
If anything is dead, it’s the so called “print vs. online” debate and the interminable series of panels discussing our dying newspapers. Symposiums and editorials aside, the reality is fluid; writers and readers and critics consume and create in both media with regularity, and the focus on an empty debate and on column inches may be keeping us from recognizing that there are now many trusted fellow readers at our fingertips. We are in the midst of a shift, maybe now a revolution, in national (and international) literary discussion, which has migrated from book club meetings and bookstore aisles out into the open. Readers have fueled this shift, many critics and writers have joined in. We’re excited to be a part of it.
Further Reading: If you think that the disappearance of book reviews and book sections in newspapers is a result of anything more than a broken business model, read this. And, from the manifesto, an explanation of why we all need trusted fellow readers: “Given that you and I will only be able to read a finite number of books in our lifetime, then we should try, as much as possible, to devote ourselves to reading only the ones that are worth reading, while bearing in mind that for every vapid, uninspiring book we read, we are bumping from our lifetime reading list a book that might give us a profound sort of joy”