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Writers. And Other Marginalized Members of Society.

April 10th, 2007 7 comments

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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