It's one thing to turn out a novel, another to land a press to publish it, and a whole other enchilada to find a readership. For the nervous-nelly, big-five publishers, risk averse to the core and all eyes on profit, the question of who will receive the work––literature consumers in their view––is calculated before a work is ever even considered. For more venturesome Indie and self publishers, however, the issue of what comes after a book drops is a matter of open discussion.
When you consider that only half of Americans read a book a year, and that of the ones that do they're far from prolific; moreover that only a small fraction of the "reading half" bothers with novels (nonfiction is vastly more popular); it's nothing short of astonishing to think that anyone bothers to write fiction at all.
And the picture is bleaker still. Anyone paying attention to the tea leaves knows that literature departments are disappearing, and career choices are reduced more and more to the cold calculus of future profitability. Colleges and universities have become so expensive that only the rich can freely contemplate a major as "frivolous" as literature, or anything in the humanities generally. At least that's what we're told, never mind the untold thousands of students who are far from well-heeled who incur debt anyway, simply because their passion for a good read prompts them to it.
I was one of them. I left school with several tens of thousands owed––those were the good old days; the figure is generally well over a hundred grand today––because the world of letters captivated me deeply. It was a risk then, and it's even more of a risk now, especially in the U.S. with its national religion of hard core, red-meat capitalism: Profit, profit, profit.
Of the small group out there that reads novels, most are devotees of generic fiction, gothic or horror; science or speculative; fantasy or adventure––a stroll through any bookstore will tell you that. Last on the list for most people is literary fiction, works that are designed to make a reader think and use her brain, namely through a turn of phrase, as much or even more than what happens in the realm of plot. Who in the world wants to do that?
In one respect I couldn't have chosen a worse time to write, for all the reasons I've said––I didn't bother mentioning the obvious, that the rise of technology, that and the pandemic, have altered people's patience levels and put them off book-reading. And yet I know there's an audience out there. Decades of teaching young people have made me optimistic about up-and-coming generations. Their sensitivity to language and nuance, their perception about the value of history, makes them ideal candidates for reading literary works, perhaps even more than my own generation, many of whom have been complaining that they just can't read the way they used to.
But there are smart, close readers in every generation. People who can handle serious literature. Even if the percentage in the U.S. is dismally small, say one percent––I have no idea what the actual number is––even if the figure is that lackluster, and in a way embarrassing, we're still talking about millions of people, and that doesn't begin to take into account readers in other countries, many of which are more literature-friendly and whose citizens welcome a reading challenge.
I'm not picky. I'll take them where I can find them. Young, middle aged, or old; domestic or foreign; rich or poor––I only know that having spent over a decade and a half turning out a work of literary fiction my goal is to locate readers capable of appreciating it, finding inspiration in it, and perhaps being moved by it, which is the goal of literature after all.
Readers are out there, I'm sure. I've received too much thoughtful, insightful feedback to convince me otherwise––they're there despite the dismal statistics, the cultural-historical drumbeat of gloom and doom. Even if it seems sometimes as though we're descending into another dark ages, the very analogy begs a kind of reckoning: How did literature survive during the thousand-year, real Dark Ages? It made it because in every age, no matter the conditions, there are always sensitive, aware, savvy individuals with the ability to appreciate ideas in their literary form, a capability separate from the need for a smoking plot, although there's an argument to be made for that as well––or better yet a marriage of the two. How else did Homer and all the ancients survive until today?
It's those readers I'm in search of, cousins to their bookish forebears over the ages. I know they're out there still, in much larger numbers than ever before, in book clubs and reading groups, in college classrooms, but far more likely in individual homes like mine with its packed shelves and stacks of works still to be explored. I only have to locate them, or my novel does, because a work worth its salt will inevitably find people, or they'll find it.