The Cortland Review


DeWayne Rail
Muffy Bolding interviews Fresno poet DeWayne Rail.

John Kinsella
Access Visit/s - The next chapter in John Kinsella's autobiography series at TCR.

Bruce Canwell
The final installment of Writers on Writing.

Bruce Canwell


Writers On Writing
Installment # 6: "The Dickens Of It "

As our ship sails over the horizon, these thoughts from the observation deck:

For writers, these are truly the best and worst of times. If you’re the sort of writer whose primary interest is freedom of expression and getting your material out there somewhere for someone to read, the current state of affairs must look pretty good to you; certainly it’s better than it was, say, a decade ago. The printed literary magazines have more visibility now than during the 1970s and ’80s and a few –– the revived Story, for instance –– are relative newcomers to the dance. Additionally, the Internet has generated scores of sites like Our Own Worthy Trefftpunkt, many of which boast an audience as large or larger than their hard-copy cousins.

If your goal is simply to appear in print, your number of potential outlets has grown and continues to grow. On the other hand, for those whose goal is to be paid for their work, perhaps even to make a living from the words they create, these are indeed tough times. This is not solely the opinion of your Uncle Brucie –– the publishers, writers, retailers, editors, and agents who will tell you the same thing number into the hundreds, if not the thousands. Who has caused the situation to erode during this past decade? Here are just a few of the culprits:


THE SUPERSTORE BOOKSELLERS. I know you’re thinking, "How can a store stocking over 100,000 titles be a villain?" Let me answer the question with a question: "How many of those 100,000 titles are poetry, novels, or story collections?" Not many, not compared to their number of "non-books" –– the interminable "For Dummies" and "Idiot’s Guide" series... the rows upon rows of titles that tell you how to beat the current hot video games... the coffee table books that are long on pictures, short on text. The Superstores care little about writing as art; their primary concern is the bottom line.

Further, Superstores have driven up publishers’ order quantities. Editors once would buy a first novel with projected sales of 10,000 copies. No more. The minimum satisfactory sales projection is closer to 25,000. Why has that number grown? Because publishers are now shoveling product into the Superstores’ rapacious maws. Through their ordering patterns, Superstore managers have effectively become The New Editors, a classic case of the tail wagging the dog.

Finally, the Superstores have an unfortunate habit of crippling or killing independently-run bookstores, the places that are typically the writer’s best friend.

Though superstores have their uses, in many ways we’d be better off without them.


THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MIDLIST.  Historically there is a long list of fictioneers who built solid reputations as "midlist authors," producing paperback originals that were never less than competent and occasionally scaled the heights of greatness. Some writers moved from the midlist to best-sellerdom (John D. MacDonald immediately springs to mind), some spent their lives there, doing respectable, journeyman work (Richard Matheson, John Brunner). Most important, this was the cradle for new talent, a fertile birthing-ground for many a career.

In 1999 we find the midlist shriveled into a shadow of its former self. As a result, the opportunities for writers –– especially first-time novelists –– dwindle.

Certain writers and editors (and writer/editors) have claimed the withering of the midlist does not bother them: "It was in trouble for years," they claim with a sniff. "Even if that’s true," my Writers On Writing co-author Doug Thornsjo observed, "how come no one bothered to ask why it was in trouble, or how it could be fixed? They rushed to toss away the baby with the bathwater."

Somewhere out there right now is a writer who should be the next John D. MacDonald or Richard Matheson –– except his career will never be launched because the midlist is no longer strong enough to nurture and sustain him until he realizes his full potential... and those of us who would have loved his fiction are diminished as a result.


THE DYING OF THE WORD. As a form of entertainment, the word is old news. The novel’s peak of popularity was late in the 19th Century, the short story’s was the magazine explosion of the 1930s. Since then the new kids on the popular entertainment block have combined audio and video (movies) in individual homes (television) and allowed the audience an increasing level of participation (video games, computers). The changes that lie ahead in the 21st Century seem more likely to promote the cause of interactivity rather than the pleasures of the written word.

Unless we are careful, there is a possibility writers will become as quaint and old-fashioned –– and about as numerous –– as blacksmiths or barrel-wrights are today.


LOOK AROUND YOU. The final group of villains is the scariest of all, because they are Ourselves. Or at least that portion of Ourselves that buy movie and TV novelizations or the latest John Grisham and Danielle Steel piffery while the superior output of lesser-known authors languishes unread. They are the ones who take root inside a literary niche and then blind themselves to the dozens of types of material they would enjoy just as much –– if only they could be convinced to try something new. They are the ones who assume "bigger" is automatically "better" and abandon their independently-run bookstore the moment a Superstore opens in the nearest strip-mall. They are the writers who believe their job is done once the manuscript is turned in, who never invest a moment to try growing the audience or promoting the fun and value of reading for pleasure.

There is no shortage of threats to the future of imaginative written fiction, and in recent years the battle has become even more difficult. It is not over yet, however. If you are like me you believe in the worth of the scrawl and you feel writing is the noblest of callings. You are prepared to do what must be done to preserve not only our livelihoods, but the livelihoods of generations to follow.

So what have you done today. . .?


This is the final installment of Writers On Writing for The Cortland Review by Douglas Thornsjo and Bruce Canwell. We both thank you for sampling our opinions, anecdotes, and predictions. We consider the time we spent producing this past year of columns to be well spent; we only hope you feel the same way about the time you spent reading them.


2002 The Cortland Review