One of the questions commonly asked of a novelist is: Who is the audience for your novel? The realistic answer is: I don’t know but I guess I’ll find out. But you’ll rarely see that answer. Every novelist believes there is a huge audience on the horizon and with some hand waiving they will notice the object called a book and wish to own, read, and share it. J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown and Stephen King audiences are their windmills. Like Miguel de Cervantes in the Man of La Mancha we charge ahead.
Novelists are dreamers. We know the lyrics to The Impossible Dream by heart. Big audiences are part of the dream for word weavers. Big personal libraries are as important as the air we breathe. We dream and we read, merging two activities into one, and before long we are ready to set pen to paper (in a manner of speaking). Something has been in the wind. A Thomas Pynchon-like screaming through the sky and then a deadly silence.
The prospect of a direct hit and crawling out of the rubble with a professional career as a novelist is a low-odds bet.
Novelists are also old school creators. Like weavers, potters and scribes we have a talent to marshal creative forces to build, strand by strand, a finished work of art for readers to enjoy, learn from, discuss, and share with others. Novelists record and communicate the central preoccupations, ideas and emotions of their time and place.
This week I had lunch with an 82 year-old writer who wants to find a publisher for his novels. He’s written more than one. To have reached that age and still wish to enter the current publishing scene is a testament to true grit. At the same time his desire reinforces my theory that there are likely more 82 year-olds writing books than there are 32 year-olds who have moved on to means of expression that don’t include book writing.
I have been reading Facebook feeds from a recent mystery convention in the USA, as well as photos of audiences at author readings. One inconvenient truth stands out—fiction authors and readers are old. Like Miguel de Cervantes most of us are nearing our expiry dates. We might have a debate of what age marks one as ‘old’ as there is a large cultural component in that assessment. In Thailand, the retirement age is 60 years old. Upon reaching that age, Thai police and army generals, civil servants, university professors, school teachers and others are put out to pasture.
In the world of novelists, that pasture is well stocked. In a recent New York Times Bestseller’s list for hardcover fiction, we find: Sue Grafton born 24 April 1940 age 73, Clive Cussler born 15 July 1931 age 82, Thomas Perry born 1947 age 66, J. A. Jance born 27 October 1944 age 69, Alice McDermott born 27 June 1953 age 60, James B. Patterson born 22 March 1947 age 66, Margaret Atwood born 18 November 1939 age 73. Other internationally famous authors such as John le Carré is 82, Martin Amis is 64, and Salman Rushie is 66.
The youngster on the New York Times Bestseller list is Gillian Flynn born 1971 age 42.
Alice Munro and Philip Roth, both authors who are in their 80s, have announced they’ve retired from writing. In contrast, Robertson Davies, Graham Greene and Saul Bellows also in their 80s writing right up to the time of Grim Reaper snatched their pen and paper.
The take away is: Writers of fiction don’t have a mandatory retirement age. If they retire, it is voluntary withdrawal.
Are old writers being read mainly by people of their generation? Or does their audience include the younger generations? I don’t have an empirical answer to this question though I suspect publishers must have some idea of the demography distribution for their bestselling authors. When I look at photographs from readings and book signings by leading authors, I see an audience that in terms of age is a mirror image of the author. The same is true of photographs from mystery writers conventions.
It is likely that authors who are older than 60 can maintain a mass cross-generational audience has peaked and in the digital age such novelists will become increasingly rare. There are a couple of reasons for this trend. Younger people, as a group (of course there are always exceptions), aren’t willing to pay the time price to read a novel, or the undistracted attention requirement that is required to enter the world found inside the novel. I am not suggesting that the novel is dead or that novels won’t continue to be written and read. Just as artisans weave baskets by hand will have a market even though machine woven baskets are much cheaper to buy. The originality of the weave becomes less meaningful as machine weavers can mimic any pattern with fidelity.
The disruption of novel writing by the new technology will be another casualty as cheaper (read free), more efficient, with embedded video, images, music, interactive interfaces and games become the preferred way to tell and experience a story. This leaves novel writing and reading locked inside the enclave of senior citizens. A kind of extended bingo night for old intellectuals who haven’t shed their view that literature has intrinsic value.
Novelists will become a novelty from another time and place. Fiction authors will become a curio like medieval scribes whose devotion to writing a text, line by line, word by word, seems strange, wasteful and limited. We will join the ranks of the painters of cave walls in France 30,000 years ago. Or a few may follow Banksy example and go into the street to find the metaphoric walls where provocative images become the medium to spread a message. The world as it is experienced and understood in terms of words is receding.
The next time you attend a reading or book signing, ask the person next to you why their children or grandchildren haven’t come along? And also ask what books their children and/or grandchildren read? I’d like to hear the answer to those questions.
Meanwhile if in the new digital age, competition for a publishing spot requires an author to meet the standards of beauty and youthfulness set by Gillian Flynn, 99% of writers are doomed.
You will excuse me, as I’ve spotted what looks like a windmill…Sancho, prepare my lance for that four-armed giant over there…and there is that unreachable star.