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April 25, 2005

Comments

christian bauman

I hear his point, and the point of others who in one way or another wrinkled their nose at the letter. Two things, though:

1. I don't think anyone asked Oprah to save fiction. That didn't actually get said.

2. Most important: What everyone except the signatories of the letter seem to forget is that some of us have to make a living doing this. It's all well and good to say what you want about Oprah's audience or the chances any of them will become a serious reader of literary fiction after reading one or more of her picks...my take: who cares? I could care less if they never read another book. I care that they have bought mine. I care that they have bought mine and now I can pay the bills. I care that they have bought mine and now maybe I don't have to work a second job anymore.

A few years back I spent a weekend with a former Oprah club recipient. (We were both booked at the same book festival, and spent quite a bit of time together that weekend.) He was an older man, who had written all his life. He had published many books (both poetry and fiction) over the years. All of them critically well recieved...all of them poor sellers, quickly out of print. He supported himself his whole life by teaching. Not a bad gig, but not how he'd wanted to support himself. He'd recieved very little money for his work over the years, and even less attention. It was nice, he said, that he'd had good reviews. But it would have been nice, he said, to have had readers.

And then Oprah picked one of his books.

I asked him how it had affected him.

He said "It changed my life."

Would he have died a happy man without Oprah? Of course. Was his life up to that point a good one? Of course. But then suddenly...his wildest dreams came true.

Perhaps you can't appreciate it unless you're on this side of the desk. But one thing every published fiction writer in America knows (both the successful and unsuccessful ones) is how arbitrary success is. How completely arbitrary it is who among the literary writers manages to cross the line and become a bestseller, and who doesn't. And in the meantime, we have to make a living. Call it crass, call it commercialism, and I say sit on this side of the desk for a while.

I ended up at a picnic last year, a small gathering of less than 10 people. Among them were 3 writers who had between them 3 Guggenheims, 2 National Book Awards, a Pulitzer, and 1 a name who frequetly crops up when the press talks about the Nobel. And do you know what these 3 writers -- artists, all of them, amazing artists -- talked about for almost the entire picnic? Making a living. All of them are on the other side of 50, and they talked about making a living, how hard it had been, how aritrary things were, how they'd had bestsellers out of work they considered inferior and what they considered their best had sold nada. One of those writers, by the way, is a signatory to the Oprah letter.

Wrinkle noses all you want, but writers (even literary writers) have to send our kids to college and buy milk and clothe our children. What's more, we all want to be read. And not just by a small, snobby group of academics. We want to be read by people in Wisconsin. We want to be read by people who don't often read. We want to be that one book they remember.

Cheers,

-chris

Shauna McKenna

I guess I don't see the nose-wrinkling so much as a condemnation of trying to sell books, as a bit of understandable caution against putting all eggs in one basket. If the only way authors can make a living is for one, single, particular media mogul to champion their books, then they need more champions, and fast.

As I'm sure you remember, Oprah halted her book club shortly after her falling out with Franzen. I'm not condoning his behavior, but what precedent is set by those terms? If she can be persuaded to come back, are potential book club selectees under the unspoken burden of making sure their benefactor is happy with their media performance?

Certainly, that wouldn't be the only situation in which authors would be obliged to dance for their dinners, and I'm sure much less onerous than others. But I think readers and cultural critics (like these here bloggers) have every right to wonder what the implications are when the power of what appears on the bookshelves becomes more and more concentrated, and what it means for literary authors who likely will never be championed by someone like Oprah. It seems to me they were and would be, by contrast, reduced.

And further cheers,

Shauna

christian bauman

Good points all, Shauna. Thanks. Just a few notes:

I don't think anyone's trying to put all eggs in one basket. It was an appeal to Oprah, not an appeal to Oprah to the exclusion of all other publicity avenues. And you're right, we do need more champions, and fast. I can think of no one stepping up to the plate. Some of the network morning shows are running or ran books club of sorts a la Oprah, but I can think of few others with that kind of reach doing any serious, regular publicity for novels. And there's a reason for this: there's no money in books. It was no different with Oprah. From our side, we saw glass half full: millions of books sold from her book club shows. In fact, though, the glass was half empty: the book club shows were consistently the lowest rated programs Oprah ever did.

As far as "benefactors being happy with media performances," that IS the reality of modern fiction writers, Oprah or not. And it doesn't start from the big, bad world of the media. It starts in the publishing houses. For newer authors especially, if you're not media savvy you're likely to not get a second book published.

Anyway, as I said: I agree in general with you Shauna. I'm not saying any of this is a happy situation. But it is the situation. And consider this: go read again the names of those who signed the letter. Hard to dismiss with some of those names on there. Really, it's a different world on this side of the desk, and whether it's Oprah or NYTBR or BOMC or...you name it, past and present...writers need to sell books, and writers need to attract readers. I'd be hard pressed to snub any avenue that leads to more of those things.

Dave Worsley

Same here. Whatever it takes, be it Oprah or the LitBlog Co-op; anything to keep the humble book in play.
If some Oprah picks are medicre, so what?
It's a bit disheartening (though we independents are nothing if not hopeful) being a bookseller post-Oprah, because I'm not sure a similar machine exists to get tentative readers to consider new or backlist literary or genre fiction.
Secondly, it was easy and fun to use Oprah picks as a jumping off point to something with a bit more bite. For those who liked book X, ya gotta read this, etc.
I'll also heartily second anything writers like Dan Chaon and Francine Prose think is a good idea.

Jackmormon

Christian, that's a moving story in your first comment. I'm taking the liberty of citing from it at my homepage; I hope you don't mind.

I agree with you that Oprah's show populized (some) novels to an unusual extent and that her efforts were both commendable and necessary, but I also understand why Shauna is pushing you about her singularity. People aren't reading as much fiction as before, and Oprah, mighty as she may be, can't single-handedly reverse that trend. What can be done?

One trend I'm seeing is the rise of the teaching writer: more MFA programs exist today than was thinkable twenty years ago, and in part they serve as safety-nets for writers whose work isn't selling as it might deserve.

Genre-stuff and soft cultural criticism continues to sell fairly briskly; a turn or two into genre-lit or cultural journalism was once the only way writers could earn their living, and perhaps we're trending that way again.

More ominous trends--that have been documented here (thanks Mark!) and elsewhere--are the reduction of reviewing fiction in popular magazines and journals and the decision made by many magazines to eliminate their fiction features.

Oprah's show always seemed something like first aid to me: extraordinary measures to revive viability. I admire what she did, and your anecdote confirms my sense of the difference she made. It would be great if she started her book-of-the-month feature back up. But more has to be done. Any ideas?

Fred Schoeneman

Christian,

Nice comment.

Jack,

People have been complaining for years that the literary novel is dead. What they ignore is that there's some good work being done in the land of genre, and writers can still make good money over there. Not that I make money as a writer. But still. I think it's time we stopped blaming TV and Radio. Shit, those mediums have been around far too long to explain what's happening in, say, lit magazines. And I don't think it's the Internet, either. I'd argue the opposite, actually, which is that right now the Internet should be causing an explosion in the short story because we can't quite download movies yet, or get from our computers what we get from TV, and the surfing habits of the average netizen are about perfect for a 2-5000 word short story.

So. The solution? Blogs like this one are definitely part of a solution, if one exists. And I'm willing to bet that the online short story markets will start to do a better job of filling niches. But they'll have to stop trying to compete with the New Yorker. They'll have to define themselves by geography, i.e. zyzzyva or by taste or by demographic.

An interesting theory to read on all of this -- how the Internet empowers niche -- can be read here:

http://www.fredschoeneman.com/archives/000913.html

f

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