The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available on Amazon and in some stores already, and the official release date is March 1st.
The writer of the future will crouch in wind-swept aeries miles above the electronic din of the modern world, crafting feathers out of the leaves of old books.
Watch him strap the wings to his back and toddle to the nest’s edge.
Watch the wind ruffle his fine, sparse hair as he tilts farther and farther into the abyss.
At night, the writers of the future sleep but never dream. In the morning, their watchman arrives and flips on the lights, whistling under his breath. He carefully unrolls the writers’ dust-cloths. The writers are bunched on a stainless steel table, their screens so thin that it is impossible to believe that they each contain the power of a million typing monkeys. The watchman flips their switches; the cursors blink on the screens; the writers hum to life; and by the time he emerges from the back room with his caffè mocha and ham sandwich, already one of the writers is printing out the first chapter in a multi-generational comedic masterpiece, destined to be hailed by a similar bank of critics of the future as “Powerful,” “Luminous,” “Finely Wrought,” and “An Important Debut from a Writer to Watch.”
The writer of the future will sell her wares on the dog-crotted sidewalks of city streets, desperately flinging open her trench coat to reveal advance reading copies, braving the disgusted or averted faces of the more respectable kinds of pedestrians to whom French flaps or deckle edges mean nothing even remotely titillating.
A writer of the future sits in her office in the present, trying very, very hard to not panic.
Every year, the writers of the future will gather on a desert island, nervously clutching their notebooks to their chests and shuffling their spectacles on their noses. Over the course of two weeks, a series of competitions will take place in a great number of disciplines: Awkward Social Encounters, Furious Scribbling, Midnight Angst, Imperviousness to Blistering Reviews, Book Club Chatter, Esprit de L’Escalier, and Networking, among others. At the end of the Writer Olympics, points will be counted and the Bestsellers will be announced, and the losers will be shuffled one by one off the cliffs onto the jagged rocks below, notwithstanding some bitter muttering about how none of the judges even cracked the spines of the manuscripts under consideration.
It will be mandated: At every table in every diner in the world, there will sit a writer about the size of a napkin dispenser. At the end of the meal, one shall put in one’s credit card and out will pop a novel in a hundred and forty characters, or fewer.
Bleak House: Fog in London, judicial shenanigans. How does it end? Nobody knows.
The Road: A boy and his father in black and white and red. And roasted babies!
Portnoy’s Complaint: Oh, my penis. Oh, my mother. Oh, my penis again.
A writer of the future holds her head in her hands.
For a moment, the writer of the future stands backstage, listening to the roar of the crowd chanting her name, steeling herself for the inevitable barrage of panties and roses as soon as she emerges, hearing the nervous voices of her groupies whispering their good lucks, and knowing that while this part of the job isn’t the easiest, all writers must deal with such crazed adulation at some point in their lives, and she can rest for the hour or so after her poetry reading in the carriage behind the six white stallions that will draw her slowly over the petal-strewn streets that will be, inevitably, thronged with her admirers shouting her own words back to her in soft and mellifluous tones.
In America’s brutal quest to compete with China to produce the best writers of the future, Baby Farms will sort infants into two distinct groups: Future Writers and Future Watchers of Television. The elite few will be ruthlessly prodded, tested, measured, and coached for the first thirty years of their lives, after which time they will have roughly five years to attempt to attain the status of Great American Novelist. If they fail, as of the eve of their thirty-sixth birthday, they will be forever afterward shuffled into these increasingly belittling categories: Promising Emerging Writer; Regional Writer; Midlist Writer; Catalog Copy Writer; Composition and Rhetoric Adjunct; Award-Winning Short Story Writer; Writer’s Writer; Genre Writer; Self-Published Writer; and, last, and most ignominious, Hollywood Screenwriter.
A writer of the future knows that no matter where she sets her work (in the historical-fiction past; in the science-fiction future), all she really is doing is talking about the present, anyway.
The writer of the future comes into his study and shuts the door behind him. There are actual books on the shelves, to the frequent wonderment of his friends, who secretly decry the dust; the windows have darkened themselves at his entry; the coffee of the future has been instantly percolated and awaits his lips. He paces for a moment or two to listen to where he left off the day before. When the last words die down, he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes.
He unfolds his hands from the sleeves of the robes of the future. He lifts his elegant fingers. And he begins to conduct his words with vigorous armstrokes, the way a theremin player summons music from the air.
If the writers of the future all look just like James Patterson, with their leathery jowls and sandy comb-overs, it is because they all are, as a matter of fact, genetically cloned replicas of James Patterson.
All writers in the future, in order to be granted permission to publish their first books, will first have to collect a satisfactory number of previous careers. The Ministry of Arts and Letters, or Mini-Al, will issue little badges at the completion of stints in the occupations of: Food Server, Lifeguard, Transcriber for the Deaf, Rheumatologist, Data-Entry Clerk, Cashier, Sherpa, Furiously Disgusted Amazon Reviewer, Picketer, Pamphleteer, Census-Taker, Auditor, Policeperson, Interior Decorator, Groveling Toady to an Outsized Ego, and Over-consumer of Media Culture.
The writers who are at last allowed to become Writers sometimes sit in their mahogany-lined studies, behind locked doors, and dabble their fingers in the miniature waterfalls on their desks. They sigh, pace, and check that the door is locked. At last, they open their desk drawers, take out their little sashes with the badges stitched on them, and run loving fingers over each badge, in fond remembrance of those distant, awful times.
From a distance—say, through binoculars from an unmarked Mini-Al van in the street, or from the satellite that has turned its pulsing attention to that exact spot in the world—the writers who fondle their badges and wear fond, misty smiles on their faces often look like oversized Girl Scouts, beanies and all.
The writer of the future will have her body surgically modified to fit the contours of her work, canting her spine forward so it hovers over her desk, bowing her hands to better fit the shape of a keyboard, and inserting a titanium shell under her epidermis so that she can take her agent’s wise advice and grow a goddamn thicker skin already, jeez.
A writer of the future shakes it off and continues on.
Of all the many predictions that one can make about the writer of the future, there is only one that holds a whiff of the indisputable: that the writer of the future is the writer who writes. He is the one drawing word after word, pushing his sentences outward, into the darkness, into the thrilling unknown. He’s not going to put it off for tomorrow, and he’s not content with yesterday’s work. He is the one alone somewhere, writing, right now. And right now. And right now.