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How the Recession Has Hurt Literature

Question: How has the recession affected literature?

Rick Moody:  I think the economy is changing the way people are writing and that writers are more desperate then at any time since I’ve been watching what’s been happening closely.  And I worked in publishing in the last big recession in the early 90’s, so I saw some of it at that time.  I think people are just really scared that they’re not going to get published at all, and as a result, they’re trying to shoehorn themselves into pretty rigidly formatted kinds of things.  One of those formats is conventional realistic contemporary fiction, which doesn’t necessarily... I mean, there are no dead bodies or no robots in that fiction at all.  It can still be done—you can try and write like George Elliot and you can potentially get published, but what worries me is you can no longer write like David Foster Wallace, perhaps.  That maybe there’s not a place for a first novelist who's experimental in that scale in the way that there was in the '90s.  

And indeed, my former students who are out there now trying to get published are having trouble on those lines.  It’s the crazy great ones, the kind of mad ones who are really struggling to find people to publish them.  And not because the projects don’t have merit, but just because everybody’s looking at Bookscan and they want certain numbers of units to ship and so on.  That is going to affect people going forward, not only because we miss out but because when we miss out we then forget that the opportunity exists for that kind of experimental work.

Question: Does the ease of self-publishing online help or hurt fiction writers?

Rick Moody: This is a great idea for me from a democratic point of view, but the thing that I worry about is sort of how we draw attention to those many tens of thousands of novels that are published in that way.  

There was a novel by Richard Brautigan in the late '60s called, "The Abortion" that’s about a library that will hold in its collection any manuscript given to them.  So it becomes this repository of all the kind of lost, desperate, forgotten manuscripts that people squirreled away in their desk drawers over the years.  And in the vast majority of cases, no one reads any of these books of course, but it’s the idea of collecting them that’s important.  

In a way, that’s the exact library that you’re describing, the sort of future library of publish-it-yourself-straight-onto-the-Kindle-style manuscripts.  The only thing that the big publishing houses have going for them in that environment is that they can editorially select for us, and they can attempt to draw our attention to things.  But they have to be willing to do it.  They have to be wiling to be more catholic, more polyglot in their interests and intentions.  And as long as they’re selling physical books and they’re really desperate and worried about selling enough physical books to meet their sales goals and so on, there’s not that much incentive for them to sort of publish the 400-page manuscript narrated by coffee.  You know? Or something with eight different points of view, or multi-generational saga that contains 10 generations.  I mean, they’re just not up to it right now.  

And I understand why it’s harder for them, but I’m not sure that just allowing all the writers to dump everything onto the kindle is going to solve the problem for us.

Recorded July 28, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

Fiction writers are more desperate than ever, says the novelist. Scared that they’re not going to get published, they’re trying to shoehorn themselves into rigid—"sellable"—formats.

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