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John Irving Worries For New Novelists — Should Teachers?

November 5th, 2009

Thanks to the twitterverse, I was turned on to this video by author John Irving when asked about the future of the book:

The anxieties presently circulating about the marketplace for fiction certainly are causing a lot of changes in the publishing industry lately. In October, price wars among booksellers splashed on the headlines, causing many — including the New York Times — to worry about the economics of publishing and the resultant devaluation of the printed book itself. Some speculate that this is all due to the mainstream attention and interest that ebook hardware is finally getting, especially the Amazon Kindle.
Updike speaks to the impact of all this on young writers. I am starting to wonder how the role of creative writing programs and the teaching of creative writing professors will change as a result, since young writers are who we serve. Here are my thoughts — a rapid fire of brainstorming, more than fully-composed thoughts — about what, perhaps, creative writing teachers should be considering.
For one thing, we should neither give up on the book, nor hide from the realities of the trade by squatting behind a library shelf or the literary canon. We need to be engaged with the present AND the past, with a toe dipped into the future of our students, as well.
We should adapt to paradigm shifts not by teaching to the marketplace but by teaching to the long-view and by persistently putting publishing into historical context. Students need to be aware of current industry realities, and we need to be engaged in it to understand it completely as teachers. But there is wisdom in our experience and we need to share that experience, in order for students to recognize that publishing as an ever-changing process, and is never “stable” in any fixed way. It has always been historically-contingent, and always been in a state of flux across time. The “book” has always been an artifact of the marketplace of ideas — a trace artifact of a cultural movement always in-process. This is as true of business trends as it is of artistic movements, and often one change is simply responding and/or adapting to the other.
We should discuss electronic publishing not as the “new” or the “best” but simply one medium for messaging which is as equally valid for expression as any other. When it comes to publishing contracts, ebooks are just one license among many that a writer can act on, and while one license may be more economically viable at any given time than another, all are equally legitimate ways to transfer intellectual property to an audience.
We should inform students about intellectual property law, and advise them to protect their property — or to know what rights they’re donating to the public domain when they unleash it free online or in free ebook giveaways.
We should encourage experimentation with format just as we encourage experimentation with the blank page to poets.
Too often writers glom on to one format or medium or genre and fixate on it (usually because they derived some success within it) — and this includes everything from the Kindle of today to the illustrated manuscript in days of old. We need to engage new technologies while also understanding the book as a technology itself. But more than that, the key point for new writers to understand — after they’ve learned the art of writing and become interested in pre-professional, career trajectories — is that the products of their imagination and craftsmanship are also ultimately social texts once they become published. Writing, when all is said and done (and revised and marketed) is a form of property that can be traded, and graduates of writing programs rarely learn enough about this stage of the process.
Publishing needs to be considered a stage of the writing process. It is the end stage, but not necessarily the terminus of the process. Books get printed, but the life of the book does not end when the ink dries. There are dialogues that open up (such as in reviews) and books are often updated and revised, serialized and sequelized…and one book experience always informs the next book experience, for writers who survive it.
It is good to teach students “the book life.” To think of writing as a way of life in a culture that is not inherently friendly to that way of living. Texts like Jeff Vandermeer’s recent title, Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer are movements in the right direction. Courses like our own “Publication Workshop” at Seton Hill U, are others.
Sharing the end results of work produced in a classroom — in end-of-term class readings, in class-generated anthologies, in online literary magazines — are all forms of publication. Many teachers neglect to exploit this as an arena for learning the way. Because it’s the messiest part of the process, and the part where “rejection” (beyond grading systems) looms. Bridging the conventional forms of classroom publishing (such as a reading of revised work to the classroom at the end of the term) with emergent formats (such as video recordings to be uploaded for public comments from youtube) will engage writing students with the marketplace of ideas today.
In addition to the “book life” and being aware of the status and reality of the economy of writing, there is also something simply called the “reader’s life.” We should remain role models for engaged readers as much as writers, with an interest in the output of the publishing world. We should advise students to take literature courses and spend time in the library. We should buy books, and practice what we preach by investing in the world that invests in us as authors. We should share and explore new technologies and trends in publishing and talk about these formats with our students. We should show that we are readers as much as writers — we are bookish. Students need to see us reading, hear us reciting published works, spot us in the faculty break room reading a kindle, recognize us in the audience at a public poetry reading, see us browsing the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, sit across from us at a table in the library. When they do so, they will see themselves reflected in the world of books as a real, lived experience.
Last week I bought a Kindle. I carried my ebook device around all week not to show off some new gaget, but to say Look…this might be what our future looks like. I’m interested in where this is heading…are you? I opened up a dialogue with readers on my horror writing weblog, about the ebook watershed. I uploaded documents for a Dean’s Council meeting to my Kindle and brought it to the meeting instead of printing them out or using a laptop. I showed my Kindle to almost every student who came to my office for advising this past week, for both the “wow” factor and to say “hey, you might be getting your textbooks this way someday.” Down the hall, my colleague ordered a Kindle DX for his journalism courses, and posted an interesting blog about the kindle’s impact on academics. Teachers and writers open up conversations about books; books are portals into conversations about culture. Writers shouldn’t be worried, but engaged and thoughtful; we need to be steeled up against the fluctuations inherent to the industry, but also willing and able to transcend it. That’s the skill of the creative writer — telling a good story transcends the medium and the economics of the exchange. But we also have to be creative in finding ways for getting our stories heard.
And we need to keep publishing our own writing, creative or not, as well. That’s the only way to truly learn what it’s like out there. To accumulate knowledge of the book world and bring it back to our classrooms, whether explicitly or obliquely. The skills and knowledge that we’ve always taught will never go out of fashion, but we need to recognize what is at stake in our students’ lives when changes are on the horizon.
It seems almost criminal to advise a student to become a novelist without also arming them with some sort of knowledge and wisdom about the marketplace for fiction. The power of an educated writer is not simply to write well, but to join a community of like-minded thinkers and to participate smartly in the world in which they hope to operate, economically as well as discursively. We can react to changes in the industry with optimism or skepticism, but we should never abandon the one certain thing we have to give writers of the future: hope, balanced by wisdom and intelligence.

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  1. April 5th, 2010 at 11:18 | #1

    I love my new Kindle. We travel all over the world for long periods of time and it is impossible to bring all of the books I enjoy reading since the airlines charges so much for additional baggage. I find it easy to use, easy to purchase and love when I’m standing in an airport and see the newest releases, that I can search on my kindle and usually for under $10 I have the book loaded in about 2 seconds. I would definately highly recommend this item to all who love to read and do a lot of traveling!

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