The economy is weak and people don’t have a lot of money. There are a lot of writers around, but they are finding a hostile market where it is hard to get paid a decent wage. Some of them have started writing in a more experimental if hard way in part to get noticed. Eventually, a new technology will create new markets for their work and a “Golden Age” of writing in a new style will be born.
Sound unlikely? It happened once before, in the Great Depression. The new technology was the paperback, and the writers that came out of this difficult time include Faulkner, Buck, Fitzgerald, and Steinbeck.
There is no doubt that there is an excess of writers in the world, at least in the fiction market. Advances have become increasingly rare for those that manage to get the attention of a publisher. These writers have come out of the woodwork from all classes and professions, many looking for the cache of the title “author” as much as anything. Self-publishing and the ability to economically make a small run of individual paperbacks has made their dreams possible.
This new generation of writers is challenging a canon built up in Universities that offer an MFA to anyone who wants to take the professional route to writing. What the new arrivals offer is a different approach, one that is more akin to the folk art of story telling and often based on very real experience. When the two meet, the result is often that they talk past each other. Theory isn’t communicating with the personal art all that well.
The result is something that I call “Waiting for Steinbeck”. In cultural terms, the systems that we have come to depend on are imploding from cronyism, incompetence, and irrelevance. In technological terms, the internet promises to deliver writers a new way to reach their audiences once we figure out how to cheaply deliver text while still allowing the author a financial incentive. In writing terms, we have to have a system for identifying and developing talent much like a minor league farm system.
The paperback was key to this during in the Depression, the last time the systems of our lives fell apart. Steinbeck was first published in hardback, but his immense popularity came from early paperback editions. Pearl Buck also was an early adopter of the paperback form. Mass audiences made books written for the masses possible, and a new style of writing took hold. The internet could do this for us again, at least once the key questions are answered.
The time is right, the pool of talent is wide, and the way the written word is delivered is changing. Something will come of this, and it may even be a new Golden Age. The question is how it happens and who takes advantage of it first. I hope to be there, and I look forward to chatting with anyone who has a few ideas.