I bring two different perspectives to Sprint Beyond the Book. The first is the perspective of an author. My first novel, Pop Apocalypse (2009), is a near-future science fiction satire about a world where the Internet has been consumed by a new, closed platform called the mediasphere. As someone who likes to make fictional predictions, I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of media.
I’m also a literary scholar. In my academic work, I’m interested in contemporary American writers, the rise of celebrity authors, and the radical transformations of Anglo-American trade publishing since 1960. I’ve been impressed by new literary scholarship such as Mark McGurl’s The Program Era (which is about the rise of creative writing programs) and by literary sociology such as John Thompson’s Merchants of Culture (which is about the social field of trade publishing). These books show how profoundly the literary field has changed over the last four decades. Publishers have been concentrated, often becoming subsidiaries of multinational media companies. Agents and retailers have gained market power, squeezing the bottom lines of publishing companies. Authors, most of whom make little to no money from their writing, have increasingly had to support themselves either through secondary income streams (such as talks) or by seeking patronage from institutions such as the university.
These transformations affect what authors do – and what they can’t do. Institutions are always legible on the page. As a fiction writer, I’m intimately aware of how these pressures migrate into my everyday practice. My ability to write, and the content of what I write, is hemmed in by the institutional supports, the community gathered around me, the assumptions editors bring to my manuscripts, the constraints of the current book market and broader economic and technological trends.
That’s why we need to reimagine (and transform) publishing as a field, not just as an industry, from production to distribution to consumption. We need to ensure that authors receive the support they need, and that readers have access to well-edited, high-quality writing. What are the forms of support that allow authors to survive and write well? What forms of mentorship and career development are possible today? Who creates and shapes reading publics? What direction do we want to move in?
These aren’t only academic questions, but also questions whose answers should guide what actions we take in making a better future. We shouldn’t simply submit to the market or to the allure of new technologies, but should make a new literary system that works for readers and writers.