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Old 05-14-2007, 03:48 PM   #1
Steven Lyle Jordan
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Roth's Complaint: "Age of books is at an end"

Literary news is full of Philip Roth, author of "Portnoy's Complaint" and many other novels, winning the first ever PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, a $40,000 prize named for the late Nobel laureate and one of Roth's closest friends and literary heroes.

However, when listening to this news bit on the radio this morning, my ears pricked up when Roth was recorded saying, "(I regret that) the age of the book is coming to an end." (I've found no further info on this quote, or anything else said around it. Maybe someone can track down the entire statement somewhere.)

Sour grapes? Just an old man resistant to change? What do you think?
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Old 05-14-2007, 04:03 PM   #2
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I suspect he was comparing time spent watching TV to reading a book. Etexts are probably off his radar screen.
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Old 05-14-2007, 04:10 PM   #3
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I think others have talked about younger generations have a short attention span and are more likely to read online than "real books." This might be what he means. Even music albums are disappearing in favor of non-sequenced mp3 tracks on mp3 players.

But did TV shows result in the disappearance of movies? Neither do I think books will disappear due to online reading or short attention spans. Like other media, they will be fighting against ever increasing entertainment choices, but they fill a niche that won't be replaced completely. Just migrated in part to e-book form, which will hopefully help save the book, not kill it.
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Old 05-14-2007, 04:24 PM   #4
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even radio is still with us and stamp collecting
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Old 05-14-2007, 04:26 PM   #5
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They're thinking of pulling TV off the airwaves though!
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Old 05-14-2007, 06:09 PM   #6
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Quote:
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even radio is still with us and stamp collecting
Yes, but the radio of today is nothing like the radio of the first half of the 1900s. Will books be the same in 100 years?
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Old 05-16-2007, 11:14 AM   #7
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reading vs. novel reading

Philip Roth was speaking about a decline in reading of novels as a source of relaxation and entertainment. This observation is probably correct.

We simply have more entertainment options, and unless there are ways to "read" during commute times, there is no way we can spend more time reading.

On the other hand, more reading than ever is going on. It may be more casual, shorter formats and for reasons other than sheer entertainment. For example, I read a lot more forum posts today than I did 10 years ago...
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Old 05-16-2007, 11:44 AM   #8
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Recently seen someone reading "Crime and Punishment" in the subway. I see no decline in reading novels of any sort.
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Old 05-16-2007, 12:25 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rjnagle
Philip Roth was speaking about a decline in reading of novels as a source of relaxation and entertainment. This observation is probably correct.

We simply have more entertainment options, and unless there are ways to "read" during commute times, there is no way we can spend more time reading.

On the other hand, more reading than ever is going on. It may be more casual, shorter formats and for reasons other than sheer entertainment. For example, I read a lot more forum posts today than I did 10 years ago...
I gave up about 50% TV viewing just to read more. What's on these days has been built on old plots from the fifties sixties and seventies. Like they say 'Nothing new under the sun!' Instead of rewatchig ...reread.
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Old 05-16-2007, 12:45 PM   #10
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Agreed... I can count the TV shows I regularly watch on one hand (and I don't need my thumb).

There may be more "distractions" and other new entertainment options out there, but reading isn't going away. It's just developing new formats!
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Old 05-16-2007, 01:32 PM   #11
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novel is in decline

but I think the "novel" as an artistic form is becoming harder to sustain.

I'm talking about the production side as well as the consumption side. People can continue writing books and reading them, but financial opportunities for authors have been declining and will continue to decline.

Perhaps the key metric to look at is: how many authors have published books this year? and what was the median earnings by the author for the book?

I don't mean to sound anti-tradition, but every public domain book you read is a book by a contemporary author you didn't read. There's only a finite number of novels you can read. Novels will remain an important part of our culture, but only in a more retrospective way (much as symphonies and sculpture are).

Having more public domain ebooks out there is a great thing, but it doesn't help contemporary authors in making a living. On the other hand, if you are writing a book about Ruby on Rails or some nonfiction type, it is still a good time to be writing books.

A good novel takes 2-5 years to write; but if there is little commercial interest in financing these projects, creative types (even the respectable ones) will naturally favor more lucrative genres. Writers go wherever the audiences are. And the audiences are renting DVD's and playing videogames. The novel as a genre will survive as long as it continues to attract talented producers of them. I write fiction fulltime (and I've committed a lot of time to practicing the art), but if I were 5 or 10 years younger, I would go into a different kind of writing with a hope of reaching a wider audience. Grassroots projects like nanowrimo provide a reason for hope, but they won't change market realities.

I am not being pessimistic; I am just taking note of where the audiences are right now. Also, as I stated before, reading is continuing; it's just not in the genre of novels. (On the other hand, poetry and more compact on-the-run formats are receiving renewed interest).

Here's an essay I wrote about the topic.

Last edited by rjnagle; 05-16-2007 at 01:34 PM. Reason: hyperlink
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Old 05-16-2007, 02:19 PM   #12
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Artists are not rich people and have rarely been unless born so, with exceptions obviously. Making a living from art is an administrative task at which very few are proficient. Those that do well by it work just as much at promotion then at their art. But face it, what artist wants that? Many writers of lore, popular today, died poor. Thse who inherited or bought their rights are making money. Then again this is an administration of rights task.

I wish I could have been taught that in school but would I have listened?

You're not pessimistic about the whole thing. There are many art forms competing against one another and the additional digital media have taken a big chunk of it, lowering even more the "audience, readership, patronage" capacity.

People today, being bombarded from all sides, tend to restrict their availability to others' artistic expressions. Works have to be broadcast further to get attention.

One of my friends is a radio journalist. He took a sideline job with a publishing company to write custom stories for them. This company can then tailor its readership. It's a job but can it be art? To me it feels like the artwork you can buy in furniture stores. It lacks the reality and edge only a starving artist can perform.
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Old 05-16-2007, 06:05 PM   #13
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Robert, (rjnagle)

When have authors *ever* made tons of money off of their novels? No, I'm not talking about the 'next great "Bridges of Madison County"' here. I mean, the average mid-list novelist? If novelists wanted to make money, they'd give up the dream of writing and become publishers - or found Google! And there are *thousands* of novels being published each year. I bet if we went back to the 'good old days' of Dickens and Dumas, we'd find that fewer than a hundred authors managed to get their works into print on any given year.

Stop bemoaning the 'death of the novel' and get yourself outside - it's raining soup!

As for ebooks, I prefer to buy my ebooks for the very reason that I *WANT* my favorite authors to keep getting paid! If they don't get paid, they might not write any more! (Of course, I have Mobipocket, eReader, Fictionwise and Baen accounts set up. I can't afford to limit myself to just one author or just one genre. )

Furthermore, despite what some professors of literature might claim, the best novel out there isn't one which causes the reader to pause and ponder the human 'condition' - it's the one which entertains the reader the most and causes the reader to buy another. And maybe you hang out with authors who 'gestate' their novels for more than two years, but most authors I hang with kick their babies out of the nest into the 'maybe never' files after 12 to 15 months.

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Old 05-17-2007, 02:41 AM   #14
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For a moment let's leave aside the issue of dollars and cents. Imagine all books and novels were free. (And essentially I regard all novels as free these days ("free" is < $5).

do you read as many full length novels as you did 20 years ago? Do people today read as many books as they did 50 or 100 years ago?

In the 19th century there was a modest number of writers, but insatiable demand for reading material. It roughly parallels what is happening in the DVD market today.

As for "human condition" novels, the novel assume different functions in different time periods. Honestly, I don't want to sound as though I'm putting down "story for story's sake". In literature the story is the thing..the only thing! It's just that print books are less likely to reach a wider audience than a DVD or TV show. These days, a movie is the genre more likely to attract media attention and commercial attention. Of course, the ebook revolution (and by implication the wider availability of content) may change that--but they can't add more reading time to a person's life.

The novel's raison d'etre is is to do and say what only the novel can do. What kind of story can you tell which you can't do in a DVD or TV series? The implication (as I see it) is a novel more intellectualized than what we had in previous centuries (whether you like it or not).

I have nothing against a nonmonetary system of publishing novels. My only point is that fewer financial rewards reduce the incentive for writers to continue producing for that genre. Writers go where the money (and audience size) is. A print book is considered a "success" if 5000 copies are sold; videos have far larger reach (especially as a result of Youtube).

But as I said, the INternet changes everything. My personal fiction site easily fetches 100,000 unique visitors per year, something I never would have envisioned under a print publishing system. And many others out there are receiving many times more traffic than I could dream of.

Perhaps just as many novels (if not more) being produced as there was 20 years ago. That's not the point. Aren't novelist's less likely to receive recognition than screenwriters? The novel is an intriguing form (and read Jane Smiley's 13 ways of looking at the novel for a nifty evaluation of it), but there's nothing sacrosanct about it. Genres come and go; but storytelling continues...
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Old 05-17-2007, 03:57 AM   #15
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Hmmm... You ask an interesting question. (Leaving aside the concept that a novel that costs less than $5 is 'free' - which it *ISN'T*! :P ) Do I read as many full-length novels now as I did 20 years ago?

Let me think about this [Insert Jeopardy 'waiting for an answer' music here]... Okay. The answer to this is *MORE*! I used to consume about four or five per year back in the mid-80s. Now I consume about twelve times as many. Right about now I'm reading through Suzann Ledbetter's "Hannah Garvey" series and as soon as I'm done I'll be moving along to my spanking-new ebook versions of Steve Miller and Sharon Lee's Korval novels - courtesy of Baen's Books and Webscriptions, had to get the plug in as each set of five novels costs $20. And while I'm flat on my back this summer recovering from gastric bypass surgery, I fully expect to go through all of Carl Hiassen's books as well as re-read David Weber's "Empire From the Ashes" - which as everyone knows is actually the three novels "Mutineer's Moon", "The Armaggedon Inheritance" and "Heirs of Empire".

I think the major reason I read so little back then was because at the rate I read, I'd have had to pack around three or four paperback or hardcover novels and that wouldn't have left much room for work material. With my PDA I can stuff a dozen full-length novels into main memory and over a thousand more onto the Compact Flash card; give me sufficient battery life and I'm good to go for weeks! All in one pocket-sized device. And I don't know where you're getting the idea of 'nonmonetary' from. I shelled out $30 to Miller and Lee for the privilege of reading their new novel, "Fledgling" as they serialize it online. (What can I say? I get off on studying the gestation process of a novel. )

But I don't really *like* being tied to a weekly timeslot before I get my 'next fix' as one must with TV series. And while the 'rush' of a movie can sustain me for a half-hour or so, it fades rather fast. On the other hand, reading is something which gives me my 'fix' in dose sizes *I* control and I don't have to get all strung out waiting. Plus, (and I realize this is less true for series) the danged movies are far too 'choppy' for my tastes. Let's take a relatively unknown ebook, Carl Bussjaeger's "Net Assets". It is a fair-to-middling Libertarian, Near-Future SF piece and it might do well as a mini-series, but too much of the message would be lost in a straight movie adaptation or it would suffer from being too drawn out if one tried to turn it into a series.

There is *still* an insatiable demand for written entertainment - novels. Of course, one has to adapt to the times and seek rewards in a range of fiction genres. I think what we're seeing is the realization of authors that this is no longer a producers' market. Consumers *are* more demanding, and authors who limit themselves to one genre are not going to see the sales that ones who branch out will. Look at John Ringo with his "Paladin of Shadows" series - quite clearly NOT SF and nothing like his series based upon "A Hymn Before Battle".

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