One of the
questions commonly asked of a novelist is: Who is the audience for your novel?
The realistic answer is: I donít know but I guess Iíll find out. But youíll
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.
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
The prospect of a
direct hit and crawling out of the rubble with a professional career as a
novelist is a low-odds bet.
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.
Heís 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
donít 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
outófiction 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
Ďoldí 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.
John le Carré The
In the world of
novelists, that pasture is well stocked. In a recent New York Times
Bestsellerís 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
The youngster on
the New York Times Bestseller list is Gillian Flynn born 1971 age
Alice Munro The Craft
Alice Munro and
Philip Roth, both authors who are in their 80s, have announced theyíve 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 donít have a mandatory retirement age. If they retire, it is
Philip Roth The
Are old writers
being read mainly by people of their generation? Or does their audience
include the younger generations? I donít 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), arenít 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 wonít 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
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 havenít
shed their view that literature has intrinsic value.
Susan Grafton The
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 havenít come along? And also ask what books their
children and/or grandchildren read? Iíd like to hear the answer to those
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.
Gillian Flynn The Daily
You will excuse
me, as Iíve spotted what looks like a windmillÖSancho, prepare my lance for
that four-armed giant over thereÖand there is that unreachable