On publishing and being a writer in the Right Now

Maybe it’s because I spent last weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books, soaking up a love of literature, reading, and writing, that when I came home to the usual publishing gloom-and-doom emails and blog links in my inbox (no one cares about quality anymore; all but a very few writers need to let go the quaint idea of getting paid, etc, etc, etc), I felt the need to say (again) something to this general notion that Right Now is the moment that publishing is falling apart.

Because Right Now has been the moment everything is falling apart the entire two decades I’ve been writing professionally. For more than 20 years I’ve been hearing about how Right Now is the worst time to publish, and if only I’d gotten in 5 or 10 or 15 years ago everything would have been Utterly Different and I would have had this perfect and shining career that’s sadly out of reach now, because everyone knows it’s impossible to sell a book anymore; or if you do sell the terms offered will be worse than they used to be and the numbers of copies you sell are lower; and besides all that, selling doesn’t mean anything anymore because the books that do sell aren’t quality books, not like in that golden age I’d only just–just!–missed.

It was only when that golden age everyone was talking about inched forward to encompass years I actually remembered being a working writer that I became more skeptical–and stopped mourning all I maybe hadn’t lost after all.

From the perspective of my 90s-to-now career, publishing has always been on the verge of collapse, and the Good Days have always been just out of reach. Maybe right before the 90s there really was some amazing alternate publishing world in which merit was always, always rewarded and all the best books sold and nothing else did; I can’t say for sure, having not been there. I’m skeptical, though, because if that were true … why was A Wrinkle in Time ever rejected by any 60s publisher? Why are so many poorly written 80s problem novels on the shelves of my local used bookstore? Why were there subjects that authors were routinely told children and teens either couldn’t be allowed to or wouldn’t want to read about even though they desperately needed to read about these things? Why were there so many fewer places for non-Caucasian readers and writers to find themselves reflected at all? I have trouble, when I look back, seeing anything approaching an unambiguous golden age. I see some excellent books and some not-so-excellent books, much like now.

I also see writers who have done well and poorly through every part of the past two decades. Some of the years in the late 90s that we’re now claiming were the Good Years (though we weren’t saying that at the time, because in the 90s everyone knew that Good Years were the 80s) happened to be some of my own very worst writing years. I know other writers who struggled then, too–and I know writers who thrived, and writers who worked somewhere in between. I know all those things now, too. No writing era has ever been good for everyone. We all have our careers with their lumps and bumps and good times and awful times that make us want to give up, and all of those can happen at any time. I find this unpredictability as terrifying now as I did 20 years ago, but it isn’t new.

The other thing one hears, about the just-out-of-reach golden age is that it was better for readers, because books were better and reading more mainstream. Yet when I was in high school, carrying a book–even a bestselling book–through the halls would much more quickly get you teased than today, with our midnight Harry Potter and Hunger Games parties. I have never seen teens embrace reading as openly as they do today. I see adults reading with enthusiasm too, either with those teens or on their own. As for quality–well, literary quality is a dangerous thing to discuss, because on one level, if a book makes readers turn pages, it has some measure of quality for some group of readers. But by whatever definition of quality one uses, I suspect there’s never been an era when quality was all that mattered, but also that there’s also never been an era when quality didn’t play some role. It plays a role now, for certain: because if asked, most of us can all name gems of recently published books that would not have been published at all, had literary quality not counted for something. Like so many things, every last book doesn’t have to be quality literature (again, however one defines it) for quality literature to still routinely be published.

Really, this all feels like the latest manifestation of the Kids These Days phenomenon. Kids These Days, along with the world they live in, have always been seen as worse than their parents and grandparents–I believe the earliest letter from a parent complaining of this dates back to Sumeria, actually–and the world we live in has always been seen as having fallen from some a better, grander time. (The fantasy version of this is that magic has always been waning, and the elves have always been departing into the west, never to return. Yet somehow magic and elves persist, regardless.)

There are challenges. There always have been challenges, and there always will be. Some of the specifics of the challenges will change year to year and decade to decade. Worthy books will be overlooked and unworthy books published, in all the formats in which books happen, and we’ll mourn this even as we argue about which is which, even as we also keep embracing all the wonderful books which continue finding their way into our hands.

Aside from a new format (ebooks) and a new way for sharing recommendations (online) with the friends who’ve always shaped my reading more than reviewers, I’m not seeing the level of change, let alone collapse, that everyone seems determined to convince us we’re in the midst of. What I see the ongoing and shifting and unpredictable challenges that have always gone with being a writer. That’s all.

But I worry about new writers, hearing for the first time that the Good Days are just out of reach, believing they’ve missed all the best years and all the best chances. It’s a little easier to give up, after all, when every turn you hear, “Well, what can you expect, with publishing the way it is today?”

So I want to say: Just keep working. Just keep telling your stories. I spent last weekend surrounded by 100,000 people who still care about stories, crave them, love them. Not nearly as much has changed as we think.

And if we really are doomed to always live in a just-fallen world, stories are the very thing we’re going to need.

Just like always.

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