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Writers. And Other Marginalized Members of Society.

At last year’s Book Expo America, I listened to a panel discussion entitled “The State of the Thriller,” consisting of several high-profile agents, editors, one notable reviewer and at least two rather successful authors: David Morrell (creator of Rambo, winner of the Stoker and other awards) and James Patterson (the undisputed king of the modern thriller, and author or co-author of roughly 1.7 million separate novels).

As the title of the panel suggested, it was meant to be an examination of the modern thriller genre: where it’s been, where it’s at, where it’s headed. But it ended up producing a moment that made me think of the place of writers in our society at large. That moment came when James Patterson came to the microphone and asked a simple question: “How many journalists are here?” In a crowd of about 80 people, three hands went up. I don’t recall Patterson’s exact response now, but the gist of it was: “We have a panel to discuss books, and we get three journalists to show up. If we were doing a press conference devoted to some new reality show, we’d have at least two dozen journalists here.”

Again, those weren’t his exact words, but that was the general thrust of his comments: books and writers don’t capture the entertainment imagination of the public the way they once did. Of course, we do have several notable exceptions–Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, The Secret, The Purpose Driven Life, and so on–but by and large, writers aren’t a major part of our society’s entertainment consciousness.

I’m not concerned, so much, with whether that’s a Good Thing or a Bad Thing (and one could argue both sides). But I do think it’s interesting to spend at least a little time thinking about why this is so. And in my opinion, it’s a result of many factors–some having to do with our society, and some having to do with writers themselves.

A few societal factors:

  • We are society with short attention spans. Songs, by and large, clock in at 3 1/2 minutes; television shows 30 minutes or an hour. Movies are a couple hours. Entertainment-wise, we can consume all of these things in the course of an evening.
  • We are a visually-oriented society. We want to see our celebrities. People who want to be celebrities know this, and are well-coached to manufacture and cultivate an image. When she’s posing for a photo, a good actress/singer/entertainer knows to stand with one foot at 12 o’clock, the other at 2 o’clock, and both hands on her hips.
  • We are a society obsessed with the success-failure-redemption cycle. We love to build up our celebrities as successes, then watch them fail miserably when the pressure’s on…and hope they’ll rebound to live another day. Hey, everyone loved seeing Britney Spears flame out with a set of hair clippers and an umbrella. But we’re also holding our breath, hoping she’ll pull out of that tail spin.

Think what these three things alone mean for writers and books.

  • Because people generally have short attention spans, they aren’t as willing to spend several hours digesting a book. It’s easier to wait for the movie version.
  • Books aren’t primarily a receptive, visual medium; they require more participation, which requires more thought and more work. When it comes to entertainment, people prefer it if they’re not forced to think too much.
  • Even though the success-failure-redemption cycle is a classic arc for any dramatic story (including most novels), people now want to see it happen to celebrities instead of fictional characters–and they want it to unfold in real-time, before their eyes.

Writers, I think, are further hampered by just being who–and what–we are naturally. Most writers aren’t comfortable with the mantle of celebrity or spotlights; we’re writers because we’ve become comfortable retreating into dark corners and pounding away at our keyboards. In many cases, we even have strange neuroses and compulsions that fuel what we write; those things are strengths when it comes to working out our angst inside our stories, but definitely detriments when it comes to being able to deliver a nice sound bite.

I suppose I should be working toward some grand conclusion with all this, but I’m really not. Once again, I’m more intrested in making some general observations. But I do think, as writers, we should probably be taking a more active role in the kinds of societies that seem tailor-made for us. Blogs and social networking sites such as MySpace, for instance, should be filled with writers and novelists who want to communicate with their readers. After all, these are venues that rely on the written word quite a bit, and they allow us to interact with others in ways that are familiar to us. But I’m amazed at how few writers actually do participate. Every band with any inkling of building an audience has a MySpace presence, but authors, for the most part, have shunned this huge marketplace.

So here’s a thought: let’s not, as writers, leave the marketing and selling of individual works to our publishers. Let’s be thinking of how to develop our own brands as authors, and reaching out to the people who go do that voodoo so well. Perhaps we should be taking some cues from our fellow travelers in the music, television and movie industries. Perhaps we should be finding out how to collaborate with them, and making our books more relevant in today’s society.

Perhaps we need to step out of our dark little corners a bit more.

The opportunities are out there, waiting. Just like Britney Spears.

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  1. Frank Wydra
    April 10th, 2007 at 18:50 | #1

    Hey, Tony, Cool observations.

    One thing in there got me thinking, the part about “When it comes to entertainment, people prefer it if they’re not forced to think too much.” And it hit me, if entertainment is what we’re about, then we’ve probably lost the game, same way the talkers did generations ago.

    But what if we’re not about entertainment? What if we’re about having somethig to say and entertainment is a gimmick to get attention for that message? Does that change the equation? Do we then compare ourselves not to movies and game shows but to philosophers?

    When was the last time a bunch of philosophers had the press show up for a panel discussion? Well, okay, maybe Chinsky would be a draw, but besides him?

    Writer wise-Rawlings made kids(of all ages) think. So did Brown. And Asimov. And Proulx. And, yeah, even King, Crichton, Grisham, Leonard, and Grafton. Making people think is tough, a one-legged man doing the two-step, but, man, pull it off and it feels so gooooood!

    My money, the only ones who can marginalize us is us. Poe had his hand out, as did Fitzgerald and Melville. None caught the golden ring. Yet, in the end, all had something to say, said it, and kept on trucking. To me, that’s the difference.


  2. David Niall Wilson
    April 10th, 2007 at 19:14 | #2

    Part of the problem, of course, is that the great wild world is shrinking. In the old days, a single new book might capture the conversation for a month…the book itself passed from hand to hand, maybe read more than once, and then out loud in a group. It was possible for a book to be an event.

    Now there is such an inundation of …STUFF… that it’s hard to get people to sit back and think and discuss things… but I for one don’t really want to follow our Entertainment brethren into mindless blather…I think there is and always will be a desire for a more personal form of entertainment – a one on one with the book, a recharging of the brain…you can’t get that as easily from short bursts of film, or endless video games, but you can curl up for a long time with a novel, and when you are done reading it there is a sense of accomplishment. I get no such sense from watching TV or a movie.

    Interesting ideas, though…

    Another point is that if James Patterson had been in a more entertainment or pulbic oriented place, he might have drawn his journalists…they follow reality TV stars because they hope they’ll crash – like watching a race, or a hockey game…not because they are particularly taken with the people involved…

    We have less obvious train wrecks, so we seldom draw a crowd.


  3. TL Hines
    April 10th, 2007 at 19:33 | #3

    Frank – Point taken. I do think Chomsky could always draw a crowd–although not for anything having to do with philosophy. As for the entertainment question: you raise a good point. Are we here primarily to entertain, or precisely to make people think? I like to think “all of the above,” but that’s certainly what sets us apart–makes us harder to digest–than other forms of entertainment. And that’s where we get grouped; like it or not, the book reviews always follow the TV, music and movie reviews in “EW” and “People.”

    David’s point about so much STUFF barraging us endlessly is a good one, and certainly it contributes. But all those TV shows and such have to compete with STUFF, too–and they get attention. Mainly because, I think, they match our cultural snack food mentality. The James Patterson session was in the Washington DC convention center during Book Expo America–it was a pretty public place, and the “biggest event” for books with more than 20,000 attendees. But I see what you mean: Patterson would likely have greeted more journalists if he’d set up a press junket, I suppose.

    At least, I hope he would have.

  4. Teresa
    April 11th, 2007 at 03:00 | #4

    “But all those TV shows and such have to compete with STUFF, too–and they get attention…”

    I think one of the things that contributes to TV and movies getting such concentrated attention is that they are a simultaneously shared experience. Tune in to American Idol and you are one of several million people who were ‘at the same place, at the same time, doing the same thing’. It’s impossible to avoid someone asking, “Did you watch last night?”

    Try to get even 4 people in your social circle, be it in the real world or online to agree to read ANY one book during the same one week period so it can be discussed. It’s a tough, tough task even when the people you ask WANT to participate. Been there done that; I’ve tried to arrange reading groups and I’ve been willing to participate in them.

    Only last month I agreed to try and participate in a group over at Dan Simmons’ message boards. When they decided on a book I didn’t have it. The group ‘leader’ bought a second hand copy and MAILED it to me: from the US to Canada so I could participate. I was tremendously pleased and went about reading with gusto… then Life intervened and the book just had to wait. I think maybe 2 or 3 people have weighed in on the discussion. I’ll finish the book when I can and I’ll go and make my thoughts known, but the ‘moment’ will be long past and it won’t be the sort of shared experience I or the other participants wanted.

    There’s no doubt readers want, indeed are sometimes desperate to share the experience of books with others but it’s just really hard to pull off.

    By the time I get around to reading the books I have on my ‘must read now list’ they will be relegated to the bibliography section on their authors’ websites and everyone will be on to the next batch of must reads. I’ll bet it the same for most of you… so how do we sustain the ‘moment’ to keep everyone feeling they haven’t missed all the excitement?

    What? You though I had an answer; I’m not one of the ‘Unpluggeed’, you tell me!! :)

  5. Michelle Pendergrass
    April 11th, 2007 at 09:39 | #5

    I am not shaving my head.

    But I’ll do the MySpace, and all that other fun stuff. ;)

  6. Janet Berliner
    April 11th, 2007 at 12:22 | #6

    Good blog. –Janet

  7. October 25th, 2007 at 19:27 | #7

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