Friday, November 30, 2012

Golden Age for Writers?

Stephen Marche writes a column for Esquire entitled A Thousand Words. Marche gives us his somewhat jaundiced but usually insightful take on "American culture" -- e.g., movies, music, television, and this month (December issue), books, writers, and publishing. The columns entertain and inform, which says a lot, seeing as how they appear in a glossy periodical that consciously saturates itself with bling that passes for entertainment. I check out the column each month if for nothing more than to gauge just how far behind I am in keeping up with the latest trends, fads, ideas, and, I admit it, the generation (not mine, for sure) that rules the pop cultural landscape.

Marche's topic is "The Best of Times: The Golden Age for Writers Is Right Now." If you keep track of these kinds of things you know that the title expresses a concept at odds with the prevailing wisdom. His opening line: "Writers have always been whiners." He continues in the same vein. "For nearly a hundred years, since at least the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the death of the novel has been presaged. And now, egged on by BuzzFeed and video games and just general hypercaffeinated, e-mail-all-the-time ADHD, the book is apparently, finally, about to die."

Of course, that's not where Marche ends up. "Literary circles have been so full of pity for so long that they can't accept the optimistic truth: We're living in a golden age for writers and writing." He backs his conclusion with statistics. More on those later, but, FYI, I don't have hard statistics. I do have writer friends. I read books. I try to read many books about many things. I buy books. I attend book events. I write books. I even have a collection of photographs of book stores.


Now, I admit I can be as self-pitiful as anyone. Woe is me. I'm a writer and so that has to mean I suffer existential guilt and some paranoia and a smidgen of a persecution complex. Not to mention that I'm sixty-four years old, so there goes any chance for a "career" as a writer. I doubt I'll ever be listed as "trending." It's easy to get caught up in the "death-of-the-novel" zeitgeist. Familiar distractions abound. The multitasking, hectic pace of twenty-first century life provides a handy excuse for the attitude that there is little time for the focus and patience required to read a book, much less write one. Plus, and here is the key ingredient for much of my teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching, insomnia-inducing tension, because I am a male Latino writer who indulges a penchant for crime fiction and noir atmospheric capers, my suffering just has to be that much more intense than, say, the suburban barista who, in her "me time," self-publishes a young adult vampire romance that earns her beau coup bucks each month from Amazon. I know, I'm petty.

We (Latino writers) not only have to deal with the malaise that so many writers have glorified, but don't we also suffer from publisher indifference (some would say racism), reader apathy (some would say Latino illiteracy), and marketing naivete (some would point out the technological divide endemic to Latinos)? However, those thoughts are early-morning wisps that float around the cool house at the tail end of a frigid and depressing November night.  After a cup or two of my famous homemade espresso, I slap myself and realize that, hey, what I have, writing-wise, is a lot more than I ever expected. I am about to publish my eighth novel. I've won awards, been shortlisted for the most prestigious prize in my particular genre, been given a starred review by Publishers Weekly, and have most of my books still in print. I've met and enjoyed the company of numerous writers I admire and respect, established new friendships, traveled to places I never would have visited but for the fact that I published a novel. I've been asked to blurb books that I thought were great (and, of course, some not so great.) I've written stories that people actually want to read. All in all, do I really have a legitimate reason to wallow in the deep pit of writer angst? Well, there is that thing about making real money as a writer - but let's gloss over that for now.

That's my experience. I may be in my own private golden age. But, assuming Marche is correct, is this also the best of times for Latino writers in general? Where do we (escritores de la gente) fit in with all this?

Marche points out a few salient facts. As I read these, I asked, Do any of the numbers attach to Latino writers? Are they relevant to our experience?

1.  "Writers are prospering as never before, on all levels." Two of  Marche's examples:  "J.K. Rowling is a billionaire. Tom Wolfe was paid $7 million for his last novel." He mentions other well-paid writers who have no legitimate claim to whining. Latino examples: Well, we know all about Junot Díaz. The man has published one novel and two collections of short stories but he snatched up a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship. His sales are off the charts. Sandra Cisneros has published a handful of poetry and short story collections, one major novel, and a classic (masterpiece) novella. Is any writer (Chicana or otherwise) more famous or sought-after as a speaker? But these examples, if anything, may prove to be the exceptions that define the rule. Are these the only superstars of Latino Literature?

2.  "Small presses have never produced more or had an easier time getting their product into the hands of readers. In 2010 the National Book Award and the Pulitzer for fiction both went to books from small presses." Small presses are the backbone of Latino literature. If anything, Latina/o writers have thrived precisely because of the numerous small or university presses that have been willing and eager to publish our works. And we have a special tradition in this regard. Probably beginning with the legendary small press Quinto Sol, Latinos have not been shy about creating our own presses to showcase our literary product: Arte Público Press, Aztlan Libre Press, Chusma House, Calaca Press -- to name only a few. Not all survive. Publishing is a harsh, unforgiving world. But new small presses continue to open.

2.  "It's not just the novel, either. The essay -- long or short, literary or plain -- has never been stronger. Practically every week, some truly fantastic piece of long-form nonfiction appears." I have to point out that almost every week La Bloga features at least one excellent opinion piece. La Bloga contributors write about everything from education to politics; from health care issues to recipes. In terms of more formal publication, the signs are encouraging, none more so than the recent release of Sergio Troncoso's essay collection, Crossing Borders, or that the well-known fiction author and poet Lucha Corpi is working on her own book of personal essays.

3. "With a few notable exceptions, almost every magazine in the world is in its best shape ever, right now." Marche points out that the magazines that have survived the recent economic crises are excellent because of the highly competitive nature of the magazine business. "Good old-fashioned competition -- from the Internet and the expanding marketplace -- has forced [magazines] to improve." Latino magazines tend to come and go. There are some bright lights, however, I think the question is not whether we have any Latino magazines but whether a traditional hard copy magazine makes sense these days.

Marche's next three points are different ways of saying the same thing -- more people are reading more books.

4.  "Revenue for adult hardcover books is up 8.3 percent from 2011, and paperback sales are up 5.2 percent. Book sales for young adults and children grew by 12 percent last year. E-books accounted for 30 percent of net publisher sales in the adult fiction category in 2011 -- compared with 13 percent in 2010 -- but there's little evidence that those numbers represent anything other than a shift in format.The e-reader is creating a new market, not destroying an old one."

5.  On average, adult Americans "read seventeen books in 2011 -- a number that hasn't been higher since Gallup and Pew began tracking the figure in 1990."

6.  "The percentage of Americans who told the National Endowment for the Arts that they read literature rose in 2008 (their most recent survey) by 3.5 percentage points to more than half the population -- the first gain in twenty-six years."

The nine regular contributors to La Bloga are a prolific lot. In 2012, new books, poems, or stories were published by Rudy Garcia, Ernest Hogan, René Colato Laínez, Daniel Olivas, Melinda Palacio, and Manuel Ramos (hope I didn't leave anyone out - please correct me if I did.) These were in a wide variety of genres and formats. Everything from a tug-at-the-heartstrings immigration saga to an outrageous speculative fantasy. Lydia Gil continues to write reviews and literary articles for international outlets. Amelia ML Montes continues to teach English and Ethnic Studies and write scholarly articles about, of all things, Latina writers. And, in his own inimitable fashion, Em Sedano contributes mightily to the dissemination and propagation of Latino literature with his untiring work on behalf of new writers, Poets Responding to SB 1070, Flor y Canto, La Bloga, y más. Surely this is a golden age for La Bloga's writers?

In addition to our regulars, La Bloga has always featured guest contributors. We actively seek out and encourage contributors to write on anything that is remotely relevant to what La Bloga is all about. If this is a golden age for Latino writers, La Bloga, in our own small way, has helped create it.

Take a quick look around. Latino writers are everywhere, in every genre. Self-published bestsellers. Young adult and children's books (read any of Rene's columns for La Bloga.) Graphic novel trend-setters (the Hernandez Bros continue to amaze but they are only the tip of the illustrated novel iceberg.) Poets by the proverbial truckload - with numerous readings and performances across the country. (Juan Felipe Herrera is the California poet laureate.) And so many younger and new authors continuously publish outstanding short story collections, novels, chapbooks, memoirs. Instead of Paris in the 1920s, we have Tia Chucha's almost daily events, crowded readings at La Casa Azul, Su Teatro's Annual Neruda Poetry Festival and Barrio Slam, and so on, so on.

I remember when I could carry a list of all the Chicana/o writers in the world who had published a book. I remember when I personally knew all the Chicana/o writers who published crime fiction. I remember when I was the only published Chicano novelist in Denver. Those days, thankfully, are gone forever.

And yet ... 

Here comes my whiny self again.  Okay, we have more Latina/o authors writing more books, and publishing in a variety of formats and genres. All good. But, where are the readers? Who buys the books? The few studies I have seen (NEA, Kiser and Associates, Institute for Public Relations, University of North Carolina,) although dated, repeat familiar depressing facts:  excessive high school dropout rates for Latino and immigrant students; lack of reading materials in Latino households, especially low-income Latino households; disproportion between Latino percentages of the population and percentages of Latinos who buy books. Most of us don't need university studies to know that these conditions exist in our communities. The contradictions continue between writers and readers. So many writers, not enough readers, yet. On especially difficult days, we might even say that these are the dark ages for readers.

And yet ...

These facts are but one side of the coin. I think the magic word is potential. No one other than an unreformed Tea Party idiot will deny that Latinos significantly influenced the recent U.S. presidential election. We see the changes happening everywhere, in politics, all types of businesses, artistic endeavors, education projects, science, technology - we are living the so-called browning of the U.S. Pick a topic and sooner or later one has to talk about how Latinos are involved, or why they should be, or when they will be the deciding factor. As the TV teaches us, "We are the future, and the future is now."

Yin and yang, no?  I'm not ready yet to say that this is the golden age for Latina/o writers. I think that time is coming, and soon. But the present is pretty good. It could be better, it has to improve, there's a lot of work to do, but it's a relief that we can throw away the old cliches about "a sleeping giant" or an "invisible minority." No one -- publishers, editors, readers -- can ignore Latina/o writers anymore.

It seems to me that the best I can do is to continue to write - it's what I do. Golden Age -- sounds good.




Guao . . . talk about a whole lot to think about. And it's where I live. Too much for me to do in quick comment, so my next Chicanonautica will have to cover my reaction. I just hope it doesn't get out of control and turn into a book or something . . .

msedano said...

Now that time is dragging me into my own golden ages where the canas are the dark ones, Ever since the naissance of literatura called "chicano" in 1969, increasing numbers of gente are getting their work published. For many, the fact doesn't bring the long green, but no one's pulling a long brown face. The art is out there and more and more of us are joining the ranks.

Cast down your buckets where you are! Look at La Bloga's readers. Almost a million sets of eyes have visited La Bloga since we started it. OK, 856,000.

Manuel Ramos said...

By the way, La Bloga is 8 years old this month, and counting, stronger than ever.

Anonymous said...

Gracias, gracias, gracias, Manuel. Sometimes, in my dungeon-calabozo-study, where I'm attempting to write personal essay (the hardest kind of writing I've ever done), for days and sometimes weeks unaware of what goes on in that great literary and otherwise outhere,I can only hope that someone reads our literature (especially Chicana-o lit) but in truth I often despair. This evening I read your marvelous piece in La Bloga, and my faith is renewed,I am renewed. Thanks, Manolo. Lucha

Manuel Ramos said...

Lucha - Thank you, mil gracias for everything. We all eagerly await your essays.


Anonymous said...

My comments posted in Saturday's La Bloga:

LaBloguero RudyG

ggwritespoetry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ggwritespoetry said...

Pos WOW...que padre...que Dios te oiga! I really do believe our Latino writing group is growing and our readers are gearing up, raising their heads, looking around, asking for more...we just have to produce and encourage others to produce. It's coming...I can see it. It's a chicharra, waking from a long, 17 year slumber, slipping out of its skin, and looking up beyond the tall oak tree to the bright blue sky that waits for her. It's going to take patience and time and determination, but we'll get there

Adrian said...

What a great piece. Thanks for sharing. I am new to reading La Bloga, and I am deeply appreciative that it exists. I have been trying to break into the world of literature as a writer and contributor for some time now, and it has been a lonely venture for certain. I sometimes have even wondered if I had actually been alone. Your piece talks directly to me, which tells me that so many must also be in the same boat as me. I was surely not about to give up, but you, and this online place, have given me inspiration to continue with my work just the same. Thanks again, sincerely, Adrian.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you, ggwritespoetry and Adrian - great comments. As a friend of mine recently told me: "persist." Keep on writing.

Teresa Funke said...

If the future of reading in the Latino community depends on young readers, and it does, then we need to reach out more, as authors and writers, to engage those students. I created a literacy program for our local Boys & Girls club, which has many Latino members, and we give copies of my children's books away for free. I also do a book giveaway at Christmas where we team with local organizations who work with at-risk, low-income and Hispanic kids to give them copies of my books for Christmas. Many of these kids come up and tell me they don't own a single book. Others will ask when they need to return the book (even after I have signed their name in it) and when we tell them the books are theirs to keep, they are in awe. In many cases, the parents speak little English, but since my books are kids' books, they can have the children read the story to them or tell it to them, hence they can show an interest in what their kids are reading. And since one of the main characters in my book is Mexican-American, the parents are proud to see a Latino hero. These are sponsored programs that I run, which means my sponsors help cover the costs. As writers, we need to keep reaching and thinking outside the box to help spread a love of reading in kids and to engage parents as well. I run into these kids at other events and they tell me they have read the book, partly because it was given to them by a "famous" author (they think we are all famous) so we can be great influencers! We need to get into the schools and the organizations where these kids live and learn.

Manuel Ramos said...

Teresa - congratulations to you on all the good work you do; sounds like you are making a difference and have created some models that others can use. Thanks for the comments.