Books are commodities, and as we head into the sharpest economic downturn since 1982—indeed, quite possibly since 1932—publishers are feeling the pain. The reactions of many of the industry leaders do not instill confidence: in just one example, albeit a flagrant one, Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt declared an acquisition freeze, only to make an abrupt 180 degree turn when the move resulted in widespread shock. (In a much less publicized but arguably worse move, HMH also unceremoniously showed the door to legendary 79-year-old editor Drenka Willen, who oversaw the acquisition of an almost impossibly good backlist, the likes of Calvino, Grass, Eco, and Saramago; the publisher has since allowed her back, presumably so that she can resign with a measure of dignity.)
The troubles of the big houses are making headlines, but it’s unclear whether their answer isn’t, like the 36 head-sanded Senate Republicans who voted to scrap Barack Obama’s stimulus bill for one made entirely of tax cuts, more of the same. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Anita Elberse, who previously proclaimed that Chris Anderson’s “long tail” theory was so much backwash in the wake of blockbuster books, argued that tough economic times will make the blockbuster publishing model even more alluring and successful than ever. She stated that in the past the blockbuster strategy has “worked wonders,” and that it makes more economic sense to make a few high-stakes bets than to spread money among a number of low-payoff books. Of course, one might point to the many large advances paid out to authors who have flopped, as well as the glut of celebrity memoirs finding a second life as home insulation, and conclude that Elberse is speaking from the decks of the Titanic. As opined Richard Nash, the editorial director of plucky independent press Soft Skull, “she’s only looked at the corporate model and developed theories about what works on their system. Which is self-fulfilling, since their system is designed to work that model. It’s really quite dense. Almost hare-brained.”
Nash might be onto something. Amid chaos and layoffs among the large New York publishing houses, Nash reported that 2008 was a banner year for his press. So have numerous other indie and small publishers, including Margo Baldwin, whose Chelsea Green Publishing specializes in sustainable living titles, just the thing for hard times. In a recent interview Baldwin predicted large-scale changes for the publishing, nothing short of a general reinvention of the industry, and she isn’t alone. Beyond indie publishers, who might be seen to have a vested interest in predicting the demise of corporate publishing at large, Gideon Lewis-Krause, who was sent off by Harper’s magazine to report on the Frankfurt Book Fair, intimated in the resulting essay that the kind of ego-ridden system that recently gave Richard Ford $3 million for 3 books is on the way out. Although Lewis-Krause was somewhat coy in his critique of corporate publishing, it didn’t take the closest of readers to sense his disdain for the publishing houses that have been agglomerated into billionaires’ media empires, and his eagerness to see their business model disintegrate.
But books aren’t only commodities, and reading isn’t essentially an economic activity. In fact, one of the nicest things about reading is that you can do it without buying anything, and it lets you take a time out from being a productive cog in the economic machine. Recent events have nicely demonstrated that the fortunes of publishing and reading aren’t necessarily coupled. Anecdotally, as the economy has failed librarians from around the country have reported renewed interest in these communal repositories of books. And although the Dow Jones continues to plummet (at the time of writing it has tumbled to a low not seen for six years) and parts of the publishing industry are in crisis, Americans are reading more literature, at least according to the National Endowment for the Arts’ recent study, Reading on the Rise. In stark contrast to the downward trend has characterized the past two decades, the NEA found the first recorded rise in American reading in 26 years.
Great news, certainly, but perhaps not the epochal turning point heralded by NEA chairman Dana Gioia. After all, this amounts to a lot of hoopla over what’s just one data point (and one must wonder why the NEA’s concern for the fortunes of American reading doesn’t result in more than one “snapshot” study every 6 to 10 years). The 2008 results are possibly a fluke, and they might even be misleading. As book journalist Caleb Crain noted on his weblog, if you consider the NEA’s 2002 survey an outlier, since it was taken when Americans’ minds were occupied with terrorism, duct tape, and the rollout of that product known as the Iraq Invasion, “you’re looking at a gentle but almost uncannily straight descending line.”
As with previous predictions of the demise of reading, it’s probably too early to tell. Reading on the Rise might be indicating a renewed interest in reading, or it might be statistical noise. Wait until 2014. Still, with Amazon, Sony, and other interested parties battling to sell you an ebook reader, with Google courting lawsuits in a headlong rush to digitize the world’s great treasure trove of books, and with American publishers churning out something on the order of 200,000 new titles in 2008, reading seems to not be in the perilous straits that some melancholics might believe.
But whether or not reading is moribund, the same as always, or thriving like never before, what’s important is that you’re here because you’re reading. And there’s a lot for you, like twenty-one reviews of new and noteworthy works of literature and poetry.
Our essays include two fine ones by Matt Bell and Matthew Cheney. The former tackles the oeuvre of literary noir author Brian Evenson, a noteworthy, upcoming author who has carved out a definite niche for himself, and angered his Mormon church in the process. Cheney deals with lauded South African author J.M. Coetzee, discussing how his work fits into the larger genre of the “post-apartheid” novel, as written while South Africa was still a segregated society.
François Monti writes about a book you can’t even read yet, in English at least: the much-discussed French novel Zone (currently being translated into English), a single sentence of over 500 pages.
In an innovative essay on an innovative book, George Fragopolous considers how Salvador Plascencia’s novel The People of Paper rewrites some of the rules for metafiction. Lauren Elkin’s incisive essay ponders why Susan Sontag felt compelled to record scatalogical detail in her journals, and how such excruciating attention to personal detail helped her make herself into the person she was. And, just to show that printed and bounded books aren’t the end of literature, WP Wend reflects on the burgeoning field of electronic literature and what it can teach us about classic printed works, like Tristram Shandy and Borges’s stories.
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