Why I'm Not Worried About Academic Laurels or the Death of Mainstream Book Reviews
Back when I was Literary Fiction guy, I had a conversation about books with a girl I knew who was, if not exactly well-read, did certainly read books regularly. In the course of the conversation I mentioned Don Delillo and Dave Eggars, and she referred to them off-handedly as "people no one had ever heard of." It was at that point I realized how thoroughly we lived in different worlds.
I had a similar moment recently at my job at comiXology, when Jake, who does a weekly comics podcast, mentioned that he might have George RR Martin on as a guest and asked me if that was a big deal. There's this assumption that comics and science fiction are part of the same "geek" world (as if geeks are some monolithic entity), but Jake is extremely well-read in comics didn't have any sense of the scale of one of the best-selling authors in the world right now.
But then, I should hardly feel cocky for having heard of Delillo, Eggars and Martin. After all, according to Wikipedia, the top five bestselling fiction authors of all time are, in order, William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins, and Georges Simenon. Shakespeare and Christie are recognizable enough, but before looking this up I could not have told you for the world who those last three names belonged to. Apparently, Cartland wrote romance novels, Robbins wrote adventure fiction, and Simenon wrote detective stories. How is it that I, someone for whom books are practically a lifestyle, has not even heard of three of the five best-selling writers of all time? Imagine how absurd it would be if I were a film buff who had not heard of three of the five top-grossing film directors of all time?
Despite the constant, never-ending complaints that publishing is dying and nobody reads anymore (and publishing has always been dying), more books are being published now than ever before in human history, enabled by the intersection of the unprecedented size of the human population (which grew some 300% over the course of the 20th century), a higher proportion of literate people than ever before in human history, and the propagation first of the mass-market paperback which put cheap books in everyone's pocket around the middle of the last century, and more recently the rise of tools like the Internet which set the barriers to publication practically to nil and are gradually making "out-of-print" obsolete. While it was possible in the early nineteenth century to have read every notable author alive (with admitted restrictions of language and geography and putting aside any debate about notability), the notion of being able to do so now is laughable at best. And so publishing, much like music, has responded by fragmenting into niches, serving enclosed bubbles of audience that communicate with each other grudgingly if at all. Yes, JK Rowling and Stephen King and even Jonathan Franzen are so popular that they have name-recognition from all corners, but far, far more common are writers like Mary Gaitskill, Harlen Coben, Paolo Bacigalupi and Debbie Macomber, all best-selling, well-established writers whose name-recognition extends only as far as readers of single category. (And of course, far more common than that are the midlist writers who are known to a small portion of readers in a given category.)
There's a lot of—wearing, constant—hand-wringing in the "genre" world about "mainstream acceptance" and how to win over the university crowd. The academy, so we're told by the hand-wringers, despite the major inroads of Pop Art and postmodernism (and, as Barry Malzberg once pointed out, it's telling that when SF IS taught it's done in segregated courses and not as part of the larger field of contemporary fiction. I once took an undergraduate course called "The Novel Now" which included not one example of genre work.), tends to approve of a certain kind of book and with that approval come the awards, the accolades and laurels, the media coverage— in other words, interest, respect, people seeing the value in what we value, appreciating what we appreciate the way we appreciate it. There are quite a few problems there, especially one that I'd never seen addressed in all the treatments of 'what we write is literature too' that I've read: the "mainstream" and the academy are two quite different things. JK Rowling is far more mainstream than Don Delillo, and yet it's Delillo who gets the papers in the journals, the books from professors, the classes on his work and so forth. Indeed, the literary fiction writers who are ensconced in academic careers are the ones who refer to genre fiction--that fiction that supposedly does not have mainstream acceptance—as "popular writing". So why are we so concerned, so obsessed, about what they think?
People in other media they don't worry about this in the same way. Science fiction movie directors are hardly sitting around wondering when college professors will notice them. Only prose fiction has this problem.
What is it that we really want? Us readers?
Is it actually so bad if we all stay encapsulated in our little category bubbles? Saying you like Alfred Bester and Michael Moorcock and Kelly Link is like saying you like the music of John Zorn and Sun Ra and Bill Frisell; it's a cultural and personal marker that identifies you with a way of thinking and a social tribe: you say 'this is important and meaningful to me', and someone else says that too and instantly you're comrades as surely as if you'd both done the secret handshake of the Masons. And one of the greatest things about the Internet is how it has facilitated the formation of new cultural communities on a scale no one could have ever imagined. We are no longer beholden to what the mainstream media deigns to cover and comment on; we can sail into oceans of blog posts and forums and zines covering exactly what it is we care about and never have to come back to the shore. Why should we care about those people out there who don't get it? We probably wouldn't like what they like, anyway.
The thing is though, the handful of categories that fiction is still sold under—as classified on Barnes and Noble.com, "Fiction & Literature", "Mystery & Crime", "Science Fiction & Fantasy", "Teens", "Romance", "Horror", "Thrillers", "Westerns" (and lumped in is Poetry which is not fiction, and Graphic Novels which are another medium altogether)—are accidents of history and technology, and even these clear demarkations are of recent vintage; bookstores did not even have separate science fiction, mystery or romance sections until the 1980s or so, and books specifically marketed to niche groups were relegated primarily to book clubs, mail order, specialty stores, and if one was lucky, newsstands, all except the latter being where the modern genre categories really emerged after the implosion of the pulp magazine markets in the 1940s and of the bulk of the science fiction magazines in the 50s. And yet we now take these categories for granted and talk about "transcending" them as if they had such impenetrable physical form that they can only be passed over metaphysically.
The world that gave rise to these categories is fading rapidly into nonexistence. The new bookstores are not circumscribed by retail space, they're the limitless possibilities of a search box. We live in a world in which most any book you can think of can be downloaded to your home, and where anyone with an Internet connection can fill a blog with reviews, interviews, news items, and free-form ramblings about whatever she thinks is important. That is a paradigm shift on a level we don't fully understand yet.
I no longer believe we should stop using terms like science fiction and fantasy and so on; those terms can be useful in describing certain things, certain ways of reading. But their status as hard-and-fast slots into which we plug in all of our books is already starting to fade, as the once nebulous megacategory of science fiction and fantasy splinters into steampunk, urban fantasy, paranormal romance and so on, subcategories that once upon a time might have been merely commented on but which because of the 'Net have blossomed into subcultures all their own, distinct and often non-communicating with the groups reading the space opera or sword and sorcery that since Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings have dominated science fiction and fantasy respectively.
What's interesting about these new groups, to me, is how they actually represent crossovers from old groups. Stephenie Meyer, Charlaine Harris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and co. have conspired to bring legions of romance readers into fantasy. Steampunk, meanwhile, has become trendy among groups like goths and punks, not usually seen as the core audience of speculative fiction (Neil Gaiman, another crossover figure, not withstanding).
Which is the point: if we stay ensconced in our little bubbles we're going to miss out on amazing things going on outside of them. Because there's obviously nothing inherent about the tropes of the various genres that turns people off in general. Any set of tropes, from time travel to vampires to locked-door mystery to a star-crossed romance can be made palatable to just about anyone if presented in the right way. After all, the most popular movies in history are all what in publishing would be called genre. The fact that people who might not buy a book about blue aliens still rushed out to see Avatar strikes me as evidence of the abject failure of marketing and publicity by the industry and of the responsibility of informing the public of what's out there by the book reviewers. Because, as it stands now, unless you're actively plugged in to the science fiction literary scene you're just not going to know that a big science fiction novel has come out. It's been commented before that publishing is the only industry where the books that sell the best are not the ones that get reviewed; that mainstream media will cover and cover Jonathan Franzen but ignore George RR Martin who has outsold him by several orders of magnitude, which is kind of like if all the movie reviews were of films by people like Michael Haneke while James Cameron and Steven Speilberg went ignored. (I'm deliberately putting aside all questions of relative quality, which is an issue I've addressed elsewhere at length and not what this article is about. I'm not claiming that James Cameron is better than Michael Haneke; whether he is or not is irrelevant to the fact that it would be plainly absurd if every media outlet in America reviewed The White Ribbon while none reviewed Avatar, like the reviewers were putting their heads in the sand and pretending that the most popular movie in the world didn't exist.)
It's not going to stay this way for much longer. It can't. The fact is that the book review sections in major media outlets are dying out, being cut away as unprofitable and irrelevant, and while most people in the book world complain about this in no uncertain terms, it strikes me that for the most part these book sections have long since abrogated their role as arbiters of taste by hewing to anachronistic and snobbish notions of literary worth that have relatively little relationship to what people actually look for and value in their fiction. (Though obviously not true of every book reviewer, and definitely not to say that I take any pleasure in the fact that many fine people who love books and are losing their jobs.)
What is replacing them is a largely informal set of Internet systems gradually metastasizing out of things like Amazon's recommendation engine, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, social networking services like Goodreads and Kobo's Reading Life, none of which bears any resemblance whatever to the old system of book reviewing. These tools and systems have not reached their final forms; we still don't know quite what the future of book recommendation and commentary will look like, but I guarantee it will be personalized, individual and intensely relevant to the reader. Indeed, the concept of the book as we know it will probably change, once publishers realize that they are not in the business of selling objects but of selling information; and fiction will come to be consumed not in the publishing-friendly packages of 50,000-250,000 words we've become accustomed to but in all kinds of lengths and formats and perhaps mixed media.
Will there still be a place for the paid, informed specialist who reviews recent work? Perhaps, but the way they do their job will have to change in fundamental ways in order to stay relevant. (And examples like CNN's disastrous use of Twitter and "iReporters" shows how easy it is for old media's attempts at this to go horribly wrong.)
So what do we want, exactly, now that we stand at a crossroads where technology is forever altering the way we find and consume books? What do we need?
We need a new kind of book culture. We need to create a world in which genre labels are descriptors rather than lock-boxes and books can be valued and evaluated in ways that are meaningful to us as readers. Because the danger right now is that we'll get so fragmented and isolated that every category will descend into ever more incestuous, self-obsessed and oblivious quagmires. There's no easy fix, and no guarantee that the industry and the media, desperate to maintain the status quo, won't find a way to hijack the new technologies and continue to, on the one hand, relentlessly market to us as fragmented demographics and not as people, or on the other continue to maintain an outdated and classist value system concerning what's worth reading and reviewing.
But the direction of our technology is putting control over what we media we experience and how we experience it in the hands of the individual. And so there's the very real possibility that we can create the kind of book world that we want and need.