As we wind down the “aughts” decade, the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays,interviews and free-range opining. The topic: How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade? This response is from Katharine Weber, a former NBCC board member, novelist and short story writer (her new novel True Confections, is due out in January 2010).
Before looking ahead, first I want to look back. I have seen book culture evolve incredibly in the span of time between 1995, the year I published my first novel, and the present moment, when my fifth novel has just been published. I think it would be fair to say that in 1995, when all communications with my publisher took place on the telephone, by mail, or by fax, and when my reviews (which appeared in numerous newspaper book sections across the country — remember book sections?) were gathered by a clipping service (remember clipping services?), the nature of book culture was more similar to the book culture of 1965 or even 1935, than it is to the present moment. Authors would write books, publishers would put them out into the world, and then professional book critics would comment. The only significant manifestation of reader response was sales. And for most of the 20th century, just about everybody bought books new, in bookstores.
The internet has made book culture into a great big roaring conversation. Everyone with an internet connection can offer an opinion and it is the obvious thing to do every time a book has been read. Every opinion typed somewhere in cyberspace where other people can read it becomes, for better or worse, an element in the conversation. Blog posts and tweets are where some of the most engaged and immediate parts of the conversation take place.
Books are now sold and re-sold online, so an infinity of cheap books are available to all, even as new book sales drop significantly.
We are accustomed to reading and writing text on eletronic devices, and more people are reading books in electronic text form every day, which further blurs the edges between text that is communication as opposed to text that is a literary work.
So where does it go from here in the decade ahead? Everywhere. Every text will be that much more porous, that much more available, that much more potentially integrated into every other text. These boundaries between communication and literary work will blur more and more. For better or worse, I believe that literary work will continue to lose value as it is seen even more as just another form of communication, rather than as a work of art with its own integrity. The conversation is going to get louder and louder, and book culture is going to need to figure out a way to define new boundaries if it is going to preserve any distinction between where the conversation about books ends and the book itself begins.