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The nightmare of every author on a book tour (Thinkstock)
The nightmare of every author on a book tour (Thinkstock)

Russell Smith: On Culture

A bleak forecast for books, and other literary humiliations Add to ...

I promised more stories of authorial humiliation from our most famous writers. These stories will seem more relevant after you have read the latest controversial evaluation of the future of reading. This essay, by Scottish fiction writer Ewan Morrison, was read as a lecture at the Edinburgh International Book Festival last week, then republished in The Guardian, and is being widely circulated among despairing writers. It’s the most pessimistic vision so far of a world of digitized reading material, titled “Are books dead, and can authors survive?”

Morrison’s answer to these questions is yes and no respectively: He unambiguously states, “E-books and e-publishing will mean the end of ‘the writer’ as a profession.” He argues that every information stream that has become digitized has inexorably slid toward no-charge access: We’ve seen it happen with music, we’re seeing it happen with movies and even with long-distance telephone calls. The public now expects and demands its media to be free. Digital books will be easily pirated and shared. We’re already seeing a decline in advances to authors from publishers, which in turn leads to less production of challenging books. The trend toward self-publishing and promotion, claims Morrison, only accelerates the drift toward free content.

This essay is depressingly bolstered with research and statistics, and offers no concrete solution or advice.

It’s a coincidence that I was in the process of gathering more self-deprecating stories from Canadian writers about public failure. It must be admitted that long before the digital convulsion, authors loved these stories. There is something inherently comic about the juxtaposition of the deadly seriousness of Art, the hours of study and work, and the jaded response of the general public; that chasm has existed for a hundred years and is always a humorous antidote to the possibility of an overinflated ego in a critically praised writer. There is also a natural tendency among writers to expect that their first book will be a massive surprise success, so stories of first-book fizzles are among the most popular.

Douglas Cooper, the author of Milrose Munce and the Den of Professional Help, recalls that when his first novel, Amnesia, was published in the United States, “… the largest Barnes & Noble in Chicago was to be the site of a triumphant solo reading. The store was prepared: Thousands of chairs had been set out, stretching to infinity like the Terracotta Army. And … literally no one. Not a person.” Cooper went on to become a much-published writer in U.S. magazines and was compared to D.M. Thomas and Vladimir Nabokov by Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, which goes to show the strange gulf I am describing between the world of print and actual meatspace.

The poet Paul Vermeersch, author of The Reinvention of the Human Hand, describes launching his book at a popular Ontario outdoor literary festival called Eden Mills: “I followed Guy Vanderhaeghe … I was reading from my first book. There were about five hundred people sitting on the side of a hill listening to him read. When he was finished reading, and I was getting up to take the stage, about 250 people, half the audience, stood up and left.” This experience must be a bit like that of a rookie playing his first shift in the National Hockey League and being booed. But this enforced humility cannot but be good for anyone who wants to be listened to.

And here is one more of my own, a story I still cannot tell without closing my eyes, putting my hands over my ears and shouting as if someone has stepped on my toe. In Vancouver, I appeared on Breakfast Television as a style expert. I was to demonstrate tying a tie. My lapel mike became entangled with the leg of my chair and I spent two of my allotted four live minutes bent over, ass to camera, untangling it. I then delivered my performance to the wrong camera. And I screwed up the knot.

All this has little to do with the decline of publishing, though: We will continue to make fools of ourselves in every possible digital format.

* * * * *

As a follow up to last week’s column, thanks for the very many suggestions I received about help in reading for the visually impaired. My own vision is slowly improving after my surgery and I have every hope of being able to read again soon.

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