Is the novel dying?

Hey, here’s a new take on the “Is _____ dead?” thing that shambles back around every now and then: novels! Novels are dying now, too! Welcome to the club, novels. Let me show you around: the poets are over there, making fun of the playwrights, and this chest of drawers here is where we keep the printers and bookbinders. If you want to find a small bookstore owner, you might try down on “Obsolescence Way” where they tend to hang out around a remainder bin. Copyeditors you can find anywhere. They’re like stray cats.

If you admire fiction and consider it at its best richer than philosophy and novelists as the true historians of the present, but, like me, find yourself easily resisting contemporary novels, the reason, I believe, is that recent novels no longer do many of the things that once made them so glorious. They want a certain weight, gravity, seriousness that has marked the best fiction over the centuries. They have turned away from telling grand stories issuing onto great themes. Some may admire the cleverness or the sensitivity of certain living novelists, but none seems as God-like in his or her omniscience and evocative power as the great Russian or Victorian or French or American novelists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Art, we know, is not on the same onward and upward progress curve as science and technology, but might it, in the novel, be demonstrably regressing?

What constitutes piracy nowadays?

This article looks into the bruhaha around the internet’s National Emergency Library and asks if pirates know (or care, or even think) they’re pirating.

The million dollar question here is whether the work of the Internet Archive, and its actions, amount to book piracy. If you ask publishers and publishing trade organizations, the answer is unequivocally “yes.” If you ask internet and information freedom advocates, the answer is, “hell no.” 

So which is it? And what are regular readers supposed to make of all this?

The answer, of course, is complicated, because it involves copyright, and copyright is complicated. But here’s the short version: Libraries hoping to lend books in the U.S. have to either have them donated or purchase them from publishers. (Those purchases, when made by public libraries and public school libraries, are made with taxpayer dollars.) Once they purchase a print book, they own it, as does anyone who purchases anything in a capitalist society. E-books, however, need to be acquired directly from the publishers.

But publishers don’t sell e-books to libraries. They sell e-book licenses. Terms of those sales vary from publisher to publisher, but typically, each e-book license is limited to a period of two years or 52 individual lends of each licensed e-book, whichever comes first. The typical cost is usually three to five times the cost of a consumer e-book. The idea, on the publishers’ end, is to account for the loss of sales of either print or e-books. Physical books, after all, degrade with use, and the most popular books need to be replaced now and then, while digital content, for all intents and purposes, lasts forever. 

I learned it from you, DAD!

Remember this? From the Bookninja Cover Redesign Contest back in 2008. Good times. (Ingrid Paulson won with this cover).

Are writers worse parents? Some, for sure. Whether it’s lack of presence, behaviour modelling, or disposition, there’s a certain portion of every segment of society that probably shouldn’t be parents.

That said, I have four kids and I have given up so very, very much in my so-called career to be as good to them as possible: residencies, teaching gigs, jobs, editorial positions, etc. But the biggest sacrifice of all has been time.

I usually work a day job (because kids = more food and activities, families = solid roof, and teens = allowances and gaming systems), so that’s eight hours, minimum; then I help with homework (homeschooling now), household duties, driving people places, doing bedtimes when they’re younger, etc. It basically leaves about an hour each day in which I just want to suck back two beers and fall asleep.

And I don’t really feel they’re old enough yet for me to fuck off to a two- or four-month residency or semester at a distant school, so I turn down offers. I even try to keep my book tours packed into about one week of hectic travel so I can minimize the time away from them. My partner and I, both being writers, have developed systems for supporting each other through this, but before her, it wasn’t an option.

I’ve got friends on both sides of this: on one hand there are those who chose to not have children (or can’t) and have been able to flit about the world chasing every opportunity and writing whenever it suited them, and on the other are people like my buddies Mark and Pete, who are rooted up to his knees in dadding and are reliable, loving caregivers. (Further are those who gave up writing altogether, bu that’s a whole other post.)

When Mark and I have a beer we end up talking parenting more than writing. Sometimes, I suppose, we lament the missed opportunities. More accurately, we look at the lives of our friends without kids and feel a sort of envy, but not one that is strong enough to incite action on our part. Neither of us are going anywhere until all our genetic messages-in-a-bottle are settled in the world and ready to make their own lives.

So, am I shittier parent? No, I don’t think so. But in trying to preclude that, I admit that am a reduced writer, at least in opportunity. Am I resentful? A little. I used to be much more resentful. Not of the kids, mind you. Just of like… the situation. More of a regret, much in the same way I’m sad I didn’t stick with Judo just as I was getting near a higher level.

I sometimes daydream about having been born a century back. I’d marry someone who does all the work, then after they cook dinner, and while cleaning up and tend the kids, I’d fuck off to my study to write. Then later the kids would show up for a half hour dandle on Dad’s knee and head to bed. Then I’d write all night and wake up when they’re in school. Then rinse and repeat. It’s much easier to be great when you’re selfish.

It’s all a distraction, of course, but everything is grist to the mill. The pram in the hall, the lack of the pram, the spouse, the job, the lack of the job, the lack of the spouse, the chores, the chaos, the drudgery, the unvarying routine. Life can be difficult, but for writers it often seems to be more difficult than for most – or maybe they just complain about it more. Pity poor me. The provocative, publicity-seeking title of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s multi-volume, self-regarding autofictions My Struggle – the series’s Norwegian title, Min Kamp, deliberately intended to recall Mein Kampf –is not just a sick joke, it’s a boast. I am a terrible father! I’m a terrible son! Behold, readers, and worship the colossal wreckage!

While Knausgaard is widely acclaimed for his frankness about his struggles with his family and his life, others are roundly condemned. John Banville was only the most recent victim of his own honesty when in an interview with the Irish Times last year he admitted that as a writer you “take so much and suck up so much of the oxygen that it’s very hard on one’s loved ones . . . . You see, because you have to concentrate so deeply, and have to sink down into yourself as far as you can go, you lose sight of the people around you. The people you are writing about can be more real than the people you live with, which is very cruel on the people you live with”. Cue the righteous with their indignation, among whom David Simon, creator of The Wire, was perhaps the most outspoken: “Speak for yourself, fucknuts”. 

Why can’t we ever have anything nice?

So, the global pandemic has changed everything, we can all agree on that. Book buyers are changing how they get their fixes, and Bookshop has been a big part of that, giving indie-shoppers a non-Amazon option to get their books in one place. But is buying from Bookshop leading to a better world? Some are criticizing the site’s margins, etc. What are your thoughts on this? Still better than Amazon, obviously, but better than buying direct from your favourite store? Probably not.

Despite its success, the site has critics. Brad Johnson, owner of East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, Calif., which maintains a Bookshop page, pointed out that though the site is helpful, it is not a replacement for direct sales, as the profit margin on Bookshop sales is significantly lower. In particular, Johnson said, the site doesn’t provide any direct engagement with customers—or individual customer data. “There seems to be a belief among many people that buying a book from Bookshop is the same as buying it directly from the bookstore,” he added.

Johnson also objects to the way Bookshop is marketing itself to indie booksellers. “While, I see [Bookshop] as a tool that can conceivably be used, they’re making it much more difficult to do that because of their narrative of saving bookstores. They’re not.”

Hunter sees things differently. “I only use the word supporting,” he said. “We’re not claiming to be saving anyone. I do think that selling books online is going to be important to the survival of stores in the future, and we want to help stores make the transition.”

Hunter noted that this is a time of crisis and that there are several large bookstores that may not continue to use Bookshop when they reopen. “They’re using Bookshop as a stopgap until they go back to their stores,” he said. “And we’re happy to have them for now.”

But Hunter believes the platform is providing a long-term revenue stream for smaller stores. “These stores are using Bookshop as their sole means of commerce,” he explained. “They don’t have a lot of resources or inventory to satisfy their customers. They just want a turnkey solution, and to earn money every day without doing much work.”