What Has Changed

“There is nothing new under the sun.”

I’ve used the line a hundred times in as many different contexts when talking about books. It casts an aura of learning over whatever position I choose to adopt. Nothing puts an opponent’s argument away faster than pointing out that you’ve heard it all before. Got a thing about today’s hotshot celebrity authors? Well, what about Byron? Can’t understand why poetry is so despised? My friend, poetry has been despised for centuries. Don’t like books being written as sequels? Check out Henry IV Part Two. And so it goes. There is nothing new under the sun; you can be sure we’ve heard it all before.

Nevertheless, I often find myself thinking that there are some things that have changed. Books today are marked by a spirit of the age as certain as that which previously marked a novel “Victorian” or a poem “Romantic.” Without getting into a narrow, fruitless discussion of what makes a book “postmodern” I came up with my own list of what I see as the three things that most define literary expression since, to draw a rough line in the sand, the 1970s.

Of course the seeds of the change I describe can be easily located at some earlier point by literary historians. “There is nothing new under the sun,” they will say. And to some extent they will be right. Still, I hope to show that it is only in the last decades of the twentieth century that the shift I am describing came to full flower, and became a dominant and controlling part of the literary landscape, ushering in what are profoundly new ways of thinking about the form and function of writing in our time.

The Movies

The fact, and it is a fact, that movies control the writing of fiction today is one that I have adverted to a number of times already in my reviews. And how could it be otherwise? Who would argue against movies being the dominant art form of the twentieth century? Even a movie that bombs has ten times the audience of a successful book. Even the most lowly of screenwriters makes more money than all but the most wildly successful novelist. Why is it that so many academics with degrees in English are trying to re-position themselves as authorities on “film”? Movies today are our culture. Everything else is an offshoot, a by-product or a wannabe.

Including books. Novels today exist in a sort of middle ground. Of course they are written with one eye on selling the screen rights, the hope being that they will be turned into movies, but to say that this is the author’s entire intention would be unfair. The reason so many new novels seem as though they were written for the movies is because so many of them were written by the movies. This is the important point. Even a writer intent on resisting the siren call of Hollywood can do nothing to escape the influence it has. The old adage that books are written out of other books no longer holds true. By and large, novels today are the products of imaginations molded and raised on the vernacular of film (a point Gore Vidal made as far back as 1975).

Movies, as countless interviews with living authors will attest, are the art that taught today’s generation of story-tellers how to tell stories. I remember a conversation I had with an elderly author some years ago where she described the writing process as “trying to imagine everything happening as though in a movie.” Nothing more needed to be said. And what was true for her is even more true today. The influence is simply inescapable, and entirely one way. Earlier in this century film had to borrow its traditions from stage and page, but that pattern has now been totally reversed. I can’t imagine we’ll ever be going back.

Why would we? After all, the movies are indifferent to writing. As one of the better commentators on the film business recently put it, the screenplay simply doesn’t matter anymore. About the “best” original examples of the screenwriter’s art – The Usual Suspects, L. A. Confidential, Good Will Hunting, American Beauty – the less said the better. What strange alchemy, J. G. Ballard wondered, turns writing so bad as to be laughable when read on the page into something that works on screen? It’s hard to say, but one thing’s for sure: It has nothing to do with the writer’s skill. That is only responsible for the crap on the page. And in any event, these scripts are so tweaked and tinkered, cut and revised, re-shot, ad-libbed and interpreted, that by the time they end up being filmed there is often no relation to anything that was written at all. What is left is the idea for a movie, which is all that is necessary in today’s market.

The point about influence that I am making is so obvious it scarcely needs evidence for support. For what it is worth, I recently reviewed two books that helped drive the point home.

The first, and most typical was Robert Bingham’s Lightning on the Sun. I didn’t like this book for a number of reasons, but in the back of my mind I’m sure I was seeing in it a wannabe screenplay. Every component was there: the three part structure (Cambodia, New York, Cambodia); the freakish supporting characters (a dwarf gangster with a gigantically fat black sidekick, kickboxing flunkies with flat-top haircuts); the emphasis on physical action in exotic settings; the smart-ass dialogue; the conclusion ending in violent death. Today they have software that will turn this stuff out. The next Joseph Conrad? The last Graham Greene? Somebody get Hollywood on the phone.

But Bingham’s book, for all its earnestly derivative fumbling, is only typical. Far more upsetting was the second book: Joseph Heller’s posthumous Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man.

Heller’s Portrait is an autobiographical fiction about a 76-year-old author trying to write a last novel that will put a triumphant cap on his career. Now as an author one would have thought Heller had nothing to prove. Catch-22 was one of the most popular American novels ever written (it was even made into a movie!), and Heller has always enjoyed a good reputation and respectable sales. And yet, as he nears the end, his end, he is not satisfied. In particular, he is unhappy about having failed to make the crossover into film. It obsesses him. Thinking over the list of books he might write he considers “doing a novel the motion picture industry might want.” Unfortunately, that kind of book involves intricate plots propelled by swift-paced action, which aren’t exactly Heller’s strongest suit. “It’s a reason we’ve not done so well with sales to the movies.”

I can’t guess why this would have been a source of concern for an author in Heller’s position, but there’s no denying that it was. His meeting with a literary agent is heartbreaking. The aging author pitches his idea for a new version of the Iliad story, “told from the inside, maybe less a work of literary art, but if so, a story that might be more interesting to moviemakers or even as a TV miniseries or soap opera. Don’t you want to see me famous again?”

What, I had to ask myself, was going on? The idea that an elderly, well-respected, successful novelist would feel so in need of the validation of a Hollywood film deal and the flash of fame that a screenwriting credit would bring depressed me beyond words. Isn’t there some stage where a writer, especially an older established writer, is happy simply to work in his chosen field, secure in the fact that his is an art belonging to the ages?

The answer is No. And if you’ll bear with me I’ll explain why.

The Biz

Never underestimate the power of entertainment. It is, after all, America’s number one export. And one consequence of its dominance has been the extension of its values, the values of the entertainment industry, into the field of print. This new industrialization carries with it three main corollaries.

(1) The book itself becomes nothing more than product. Studies show that only a small percentage (and maybe even a very, very small percentage) of books being bought are actually read. Maybe one out of every five books published today. Frankly I think the number is closer to one in ten, but we’ll let that slide. The point is that reading is no longer what books are being made for. Their function, as product, is merely to be bought.

(2) As with any corporate effort, management and administration become bloated both in number and in their (terribly deluded) sense of their own importance. A class of middlemen clogs the works, requiring more middlemen (agents, etc.) to help the author navigate the bureaucracy. Testimonials to this fine state of affairs can be found in the Prefaces and Acknowledgments to many new works (yes, even including fiction!) where the author has to thank the legion of go-betweens who made his work possible. One must, I suppose, kiss the hand that feeds. But for the record I would like to state that any book that “would never have been written” without the assistance of an editor or agent should never have been written at all.

Where did this bureaucracy come from? If writing itself is such a poor-paying profession, how does it manage to support so many others so comfortably? A recent report in Salon magazine described how entry-level editorial assistants in the publishing industry, a.k.a. coffee-fetchers, are now getting raises to make their salaries more competitive. In response, the peons admit to feeling a little more appreciated.

Question: Am I supposed to feel sorry for them? In all but the most successful cases the authors themselves aren’t making a living from their books! The average income of a professional writer in Canada in 1998 was under $12,000. Why in heaven’s name should the flunkies whose job it is to grab coffee and donuts for their corporate masters be making three times that much? Where are our priorities? Is it expensive living in Manhattan? Get an apartment in Newark and take the bus. You may end up becoming the next Philip Roth.

(3) The essence of the entertainment industry is the promotion of style and surface over substance. Indeed, in many cases there simply is no substance. The majority of the effort and expense is directed toward promotion and advertising.

The importance of deal-making as opposed to substance (or, for that matter, even product) can be seen any day in the entertainment news. Film rights to many novels, for example, are sold before the novel is even published, sometimes even before the novel is finished, and sometimes, in very special cases, even before the novel is begun!

The deal is all. Reports of huge advances for first novels fill the industry papers, but the names of the authors and their works quickly disappear with the buzz surrounding the news of their contracts. For those of you keeping a list, here’s another one of Alex Good’s home truths: Any author who receives a six-figure advance for his or her first novel will never be the Next Big Thing. He (or she) is already shot, so much a part of the present corporate system they can hardly be expected to create something new. This isn’t due to the catastrophe of success so much as it is a restatement of what is one of the enduring truths of writing: that the writer is always an outsider. Which is also why big signings, with all of their attendant buzz about “risk” and the art of the deal, flop more often than big budgets in Hollywood, and are a total mystery to anyone outside the loop. A couple of years ago the rights to a manuscript for a novel titled The Lazarus Child sold at the Frankfurt book fair for nearly $5 million. Why? The author was a hack whose only previous novel had disappeared without a trace. The manuscript itself wasn’t even finished. When the book finally did come out – a kitschy sentimental tale about a couple caring for a child in a coma – it was totally ignored both by the public and the critics.

How then did it get so much for an advance? That’s Hollywood, baby. Only the agents know for sure.

Is any of this a bad thing? After all, if it draws attention to the books and makes writers some money on the side, what harm can it do? Who wouldn’t want to be a rich and famous author? Isn’t it only fair, Alex?

Perfectly fair. But it’s been done. In the 1980s we saw the art world – mainly meaning Manhattan – replaced by ArtWorld: a glitzy, overhyped, personality-driven culture of excess. Underlying all of this, however, was the depressing reality that the last two or three decades of art in the ArtWorld were pretty unimpressive. Who were our great painters, sculptors, and photographers during that time? It may be that with hindsight some genius will be revealed, but I have my doubts. What then, are we to expect from the transformation of the book world into BookWorld? Does history lead us to believe that anything good will come from this? Should we not cringe at the thought of a business setting out to slavishly imitate the entertainment industry – an industry whose most popular figures go by the generic name of “star” or “celebrity” since they are unable to act, sing, or in any other way be creative? An industry that can only produce work of any value by accident? At least in a field as downtrodden and neglected as literature there is still some chance for the odd bit of greenery and colour to push its head up through the cracks in the pavement. While the top ten bestsellers any given year are every bit as bad – nay, sometimes much worse! – than the top ten movies or albums, there is still room for action on the side. In the publishing world the label “indie” doesn’t indicate a marginal area so much as it does the norm.

That is, it used to. Maybe it still does. But for how much longer?

Disposability

Pop culture is disposable culture. Its purpose is simple: To provide entertainment that will kill time. It is a constant stream of supply meeting a constant demand.

The truth is, we love disposability. Fame is fleeting, as we feel it should be. And it is disposability that makes way for the new. As a technology, the Internet leads the way by providing the ultimate medium of ephemerality, where the average lifespan of a web-site (that is the whole site, not just any part of its content) is only 18 months,

But the Internet is only a symptom, simply the latest development in the damage wrought by our collectively abbreviated attention span. A hit movie today may suffer a second week drop-off of up to 70% at the box office, and still be considered a hit. The studios plan their biggest releases to open on the holiday weekends, knowing that after two weeks they are going to be yesterday’s news. Videos that cover whole walls in Blockbuster when they are a Hot Release are so much landfill in a couple of months. The movies that we are told we will “be talking about 50 years from now” are forgotten within weeks.

It would be absurd to think that the situation is any different for books, especially since the whole idea of disposability is the cornerstone of the consumer culture that the entertainment industry both promotes and embodies. Can anyone name a winner of the Booker/Pulitzer/Governor-General’s Prize from just two years ago? I know I can’t. Like the best movies of the 1980s or the best albums of the 1990s these things have come and gone as though they had never been.

Is this disposability new? After all, surely 90% of what has ever been considered culturally important has now disappeared. But while literary history is littered with the wrecks of vanished reputations and fallen idols – there is nothing new under the sun! – I think the consciousness of disposability is something new. In my opinion it is the most profound change that has taken place in writing in the past century, and cannot be overestimated.

In Shakespeare’s day, even if you weren’t Shakespeare, you might still think that your sonnets would last forever. For Keats the desire to be counted “among the English poets” may have been a dreamy notion, but it was also a perfectly valid goal. It meant that you were intent upon entering a pantheon of immortals. And even in the first half of the twentieth century there was still a firm belief that art was, in some meaningful way, eternal. Ezra Pound could rail against what “the age demanded,” but only because he had confidence that his work would be among what remained. That was part of what being a classic meant.

That has all been lost. Put simply, and without any qualification, no author writing today has any belief that their work will survive. I’m not saying that no literary work will survive: that is a determination hinging on various factors outside of this survey. I don’t even know if the planet is going to survive. What I am saying is that no writer, however noble their intentions or committed their aims, has any belief that what they are creating is going to last.

It’s possible that there may be some writers, some very earnest, serious types, who think that their work may enjoy some life within the universities by being canonized in reading lists and content requirements. I wouldn’t bet on it. Academics understand disposability. The explosion in interest in literary “theory” in the 1980s was based on it. Forced to publish in order to keep their jobs but totally unable to think of anything new to say about the canon, the routine solution of throwing disposable theories on texts like so many coats of paint came as nothing short of a godsend. Need to give a conference paper on Milton that’s on the “cutting edge?” Do a feminist reading. That’s been done? Try some deconstruction. Deconstruction’s out? Here’s some New Historicism that hasn’t expired. Just make sure to check the “best before.”

And so it went. Articles were routinely accepted by leading journals only to be two years out of date by the time they were finally in print. But none of that mattered. Only the manufacture of product mattered, and that was what was being provided by theory.

Recently, however, theory itself has fallen out of vogue, quite wonderfully hoist on its own petard! Alas, what has replaced it is the growth of “culture criticism.” Ever wonder what English professors are up to now? Well, if a brief review of some recent conferences is any indication they seem to be talking a lot about such things as slasher films, The Simpsons, Julia Roberts movies and the Star Wars saga.

Talk about product! And the great thing is, it just keeps coming! Rain or shine, next school year brings another slate of teen comedies, cop dramas, and game shows for our academics to analyze and explicate. Of course a book like The Hermeneutics of Buffy: Vampire (S)Laying as Menstrual Metaphor is crap, but that’s really beside the point. The important thing is that Buffy keeps the assembly line going. Garbage in, garbage out. Just make sure we keep getting new garbage to write about and everybody’s happy.

No, if I was an author hoping to find a little slice of immortality in the halls of academe I wouldn’t be feeling any too confident these days.

Conclusion

You’re right, this essay is a hatchet job. Unfortunately (for me), I tend to take these things too seriously. And the upshot is a gloomy prognosis. In describing what has changed I have also been considering what is changing. And the trends I see are not an advance. Books and writers are increasingly being promoted as products by an entertainment industry interested only in the quick turnover realized by retailing glitz and personality. Aware of the limited shelf-life of their art (not to mention their often bubbly reputations), most writers happily allow themselves to be marketed by the professionals, writing novels on spec for agents in the hope of achieving a quick celebrity and instant pay-off. The more ambitious may go for “brand name” status, but few indeed will reach this level. Meanwhile, as has already happened with the movies, the question of whether the product itself is any good will not even need to be ignored – it will have simply become irrelevant.

Make no mistake: This is not a plea for any kind of a return to critical standards. “Whose standards?” is still the only response to that. My point is that there are no standards of evaluation or judgment that can be applied to many of these products. They simply are, like a stick of deodorant or a box of baking soda, and it is up to the people in promotion and advertising to convince you that you “need” them.

Finally, and this is something I want to stress, to call any of this selling out on the artist’s part would be totally unfair. Writers today have no real choice but to play the game. The vast majority of them are not well paid and have no control over the current media environment they have to swim in to survive. In the new, over-managed, corporate entertainment industry that is BookWorld it is clear that sexiness is all.

Yes there is something new under the sun. But the sun itself is sinking now, and will not have to observe these changes for long.

Notes:
Essay first published online July 19, 2000.

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