Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The Literary Elite

A few days ago, in an Op Ed piece, Garrison Keillor offered up yet one more lament for the demise of the publishing industry, in an age when kids communicate through Facebook and blogs, and can publish their own books relatively cheaply and sell them on Amazon. Never more, he fretted, will publishers and editors nurture relationships with budding authors, eventually ushering the best of them into the pantheon of literary greats. Garrison holds great writers in awe (he says) and began his piece with a description of a party he went to in Manhattan where many “names” were present. Such literary elites will soon be a thing of the past, he remarks, “And if you want to write a book, you just write it, send it to or BookSurge at Amazon or PubIt or ExLibris and you’ve got yourself an e-book. And that is the future of publishing: 18 million authors in America, each with an average of 14 readers, eight of whom are blood relatives. Average annual earnings: $1.75.”

These remarks merely go to show that Keillor is nostalgic by nature, which everyone knew already, and (somewhat more surprising, perhaps) that he knows nothing about the publishing industry, which is larger than the music or the film industry and grew by a healthy 7% last year while many other industries were gasping for air. It also seems to suggest that he knows nothing about youth culture, which has its own heroes and demigods among the vampire romance-writers and graphic novelists.

Keillor can be forgiven his curmudgeony screed, I guess; it’s obvious he cares about books and reveres those who’ve written them well. But imagine how much more interesting it would have been for him to relate a few of the things he picked up in conversation with the Olympians. (He mentions spotting Scott Turow, David Remnick, Erica Jong, Jeffrey Toobin, and Judy Blume in the crowd.)

Do successful writers say interesting things? I’ll bet they do. But not necessarily to fans, who are likely to approach them with starry eyes and expect them, in a few snatches of conversation, to “live up to” the remarkable worlds they’ve created on paper at such great effort. More often, successful authors say interesting things to other successful authors whom they’ve already gotten to know at other parties.

I’ve had interesting conversations with a few famous writers—James Salter and Robert Bly come to mind—conversations that were conversations and added dimension to my understanding of them. On the other hand, I ran into Evan S. Connell in the plaza in Santa Fe one morning at dawn, and though he was polite, he seemed very eager to be off; at the time he was hard at work on Deus Lo Volt!, or so he told me. He signed a postcard that I happened to have with me, and when I went into the lobby of La Fonda to get another one, I said, “Hey! I just ran into Evan S. Connell in the plaza.” The old lady behind the counter replied, in a purring voice, “He comes in here often. Isn’t he a nice man.”

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