Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Thoughts about the Slow Demise of Literary Fiction

Not too long ago, an aspiring writer worth his salt would follow the great masters of literature as his role models. Thus, the emergence of literary giants like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow, Paul Bowles, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and many others. These writers wrote their novels at a time when fiction was an undivided part of literature. The term literary fiction wasn't even known then, for there was no need to distinguish between serious fiction and any other form of story writing.
Only after World War II did we begin to hear about popular fiction, a form of paraliterature––by definition a less serious alternative to literary fiction.
The post–war technological explosion, characterized mainly by television, marked the beginning of the decline in book reading as a major source of information and entertainment. Book publishers had to find ways to awaken new interests in a diversified readership base. They did this by targeting the less educated among us, who never were interested in literature. Publishers introduced what was and still is known as commercial fiction, also referred to as genre fiction––nonliterary work that includes categories of mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, western and horror. Genre fiction appealed to large segments of the American public, much to the delight of the traditional publishing houses. As their catalogues grew, the publishers encouraged promising young genre writers to submit their manuscripts. With this, great writers like Stephen King, Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, and many others, appeared on the scene.
At roughly the same time, however, the new digital era produced the first, albeit small, challenge to our traditional book–publishing industry by way of what was called Desktop Publishing. The writer himself could publish now his work, banging his computer to produce typeset–like pages to be later printed in book form by conventional printers.
When this proved to be impractical, our ever-alert business hawks devised the ultimate publishing scheme. Entrepreneurial non–traditional publishers began to offer the unpublished writer ways to self-publish his books, bypassing the big traditional publishing houses. There was a catch, however. The writer would pay a fee, an amount rather small thanks to the inexpensive production costs made possible by the computer.
The new self–publishing industry mushroomed. Anybody could now see his or her name in print, with their byline in a book, like a published writer. The number of new writers exploded, as evidenced by the hundreds of writers groups that sprouted all over the country. So did the self–publishing companies, the real beneficiaries of all this. Soon, this type of publishing would be known as Vanity Press.
The genre fiction market exploded. More and more newcomers began clogging the serious writer's world. Writing–related entrepreneurs sprang up like mushrooms––print shops became publishers, unsuccessful writers often turned into proofreaders, editors, lecturers. All aiming to profit at the expense of the struggling aspiring writer.
Without realizing it, these writers became potential customers. Instead of hoping to be paid advances so they could continue their work, they now paid an advance to see their byline in print.
Fortunately the old system of traditional publishing isn't dead. Many new, inexperienced writers still see their future in the traditional publishing houses. However, the sheer number of unsolicited manuscripts overwhelmed the slush piles of the already overworked editors. The publishers erected barriers in the form of literary agents, who act as first perimeter firewalls by selecting manuscripts the traditional publishing houses might want to buy. For the unknown writer, this pretty much closed the gates to the traditional, advance–paying, publishing house.
But the gates closed only so much. Like in any other endeavor, talent, perseverance and good work can still open them.
Today's new writer should remember that none of the world's greatest authors got their first submissions published. And he should be wary of people who cater to mediocrity, for they will steer him in the wrong direction.
Self-publishing may be all right for those who write for tiny readerships or for the desire to see their bylines in print. The serious writer, however, should think of his work as an art and not just a craft; an art that offers his readers an intellectual and spiritual journey into the realms of an unknown world.
To summarize, instead of succumbing to what is considered nonliterary writing, the new writer should steer his aspirations toward higher grounds, where, if his efforts are worthy, they still are sought by traditional, advance–paying publishing houses.
If you are a writer worth your salt, either of literary or genre fiction, seek a traditional publishing house over a self–publishing company.
The Writers Guild of America doesn't recognize self-publishing as a standard for membership.

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