Here’s a scenario: It’s 2025, and you want a book—you being a senior who still fondly remembers books and a book being a non-voice-activated, tangible, artfully designed, paper-and ink-scented collection of human-generated original prose. Times are rough. An MP3 of the SparkNotes for “The Da Vinci Code” has replaced the Bible in every hotel in America, and Harry Potter is a middle-aged couch potato on welfare. You know this about Harry because you put him there in the videogame, “Write the Next Harry Potter Sequel.” Paper, pens, rubber erasers—they no longer exist. The last of the book critics wrote the last book review of a Post-it note from Pynchon while Pynchon was in the other room surfing YouTube. “What we’ve got here,” you say in your best prison-warden accent, “is a failure to communicate.” Nobody laughs. Nobody remembers how to spell communicate.
Here’s another: It’s 2025, and in the latest census, 87% of the population claimed “writer” as an occupation. The universal library of all human verbiage shows 1.4 million genres, with 230,000 subcategories labeled “For Dummies.” You narrow your search for a good read to fantasy novels with three-figure page counts and polysyllabic vocabularies, which helps, but you still face a choice of 547 sub genres. Do you want fairies or ogres? To fly or to kill? With quick plot twists or snappy dialogue? You arrive at the Lengthy Polysyllabic Flying Fast-Talking Ogre Literary Fantasy section and you settle in to read the 12,468 opinions of the titles you might like. You choose a title and click the link to buy it. You don’t know how you chose it because you failed to notice the subliminal ads that popped up and whispered breathy directives while massaging your neck and temples, all from the sole remaining New York-based, foreign-owned publishing conglomerate in America, which paid the author an advance equal to the national debt. The book, which the author claims is nonfiction, is about an ogre who writes a book. The author’s already sold the rights for his next book, “What I Would Have Written Had I Written a Book,” which he claims is fiction. You don’t care; your neck feels good. You’re sure you’re going to love it.
What will the literary landscape look like in the future, for real? I don’t think it’ll be drastically different, frankly, despite new technologies. But that doesn’t mean 1 don’t worry about certain trends or how, if we become complacent, those trends might push us toward one of the aforementioned scenarios.
Consider the literary trifecta: What will be written, what will be published and distributed, and what will be read? I don’t lose sleep over the first question. I would if funding sources for non-mainstream writers dried up, if civil liberties were curtailed or if we returned to a time when only privileged white men felt they had something to say. But I’d like to think we’ve come too far to silence the plentitude of perspectives. We might change how we tell our stories—through hyperlinked graphic novels, for example—but the novel, the poem, the short story and the play have all survived this long. Perhaps the larger concern will be the decline of books that are well-written, but the gems are always out there. It’s just a matter of finding them.
Thus the latter two questions are what get my attention. The trend toward fewer gatekeepers, which is driven purely by profit, will surely make for less diversity, more schlock. By gatekeepers, I mean the publishers and booksellers who decide what to make available and how manipulative marketing tactics will be. It’s a rough system for risky and mid-list writers, poets and foreign authors, who require the added expense of a translator. I am mostly heartened by the accessibility provided by online booksellers and, in theory, the gate-crashing rebellion of bloggers and self-publishers. But the answer to too few gates shouldn’t be none at all, so that we get lost in a stampede of mediocrity.
It’s enough to make readers give up the struggle—and they have. Fewer than half of American adults now read literature, according to a study my agency—the National Endowment for the Arts—published in 2004. The rate of decline is steepest among the young, and
countrywide cutbacks in arts education are getting worse. Those who do read are often too beleaguered to look past the old standbys or the hype of the latest newcomer with a TV-ready personality. I worry, too, that the Internet, while it taught us to make complex, spiderweb connections and think fast under pressure, has also diminished our ability to think quietly and deeply, to make time for the longer works that give us a nuanced understanding of the human condition.
But here’s what gives me hope: parents who read to their kids; writers who visit schools and prisons and homeless shelters; teachers and librarians who quote texts with closed eyes and quickened breaths; book clubs; editors and agents who got into the business because they love to read and haven’t forgotten that; journals and small, presses that publish exceptional literature not judged on commercial viability; arts organizations that support writers and build audiences for literature through festivals, readings, workshops and awards; Oprah, yes, Oprah, who gives me hope that there may be more influential booklovers in our future; and most of all, lest you’ve forgotten where I work, the National Endowment for the Arts. We are the largest funder of literature in the country, helping to arrest the downward spirals both with support to writers, translators, nonprofit publishers and arts organizations, and with larger programs like The Big Read, a nationwide effort to encourage Americans to read and discuss books within their communities. I wish there were many more funders building a stronger infrastructure for the writing and publishing and reading of fine literature. But as long as the NEA sticks around, doing what it’s been doing for the last 40 years, î think literature in America has a chance.
Me, on the other hand … I have this dang kink in my neck.