Le Poisson Rouge’s Book Report is a monthly reading of book reports (a la third grade) by assorted literary guests. This week included a feminist reading of Shrunk and White’s The Elements of Style by Hilary Leichter, a pop quiz on Go Ask Alice by Melissa Broder, and a baseball-announcer-style recap of Lolita by a hilarious guy whose name neither you nor your friend can remember despite the fact that maybe you totally used him to introduce you to Adam Wilson. Oh yeah, Adam Wilson sang a country song about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
And now a (very hypothetical) attempt at literary schmoozing with Adam Wilson:
Editorial assistant friend will wave his arms around in frantic praise, you will echo said praise with lots-o-sheepish grinning. You will remember that you have not actually read Flatscreen (YET, YET, YET) but that it’s in that teetering stack of Stuff You Should Read in Between Meeting People for Drinks and Being Late to Everything. As you pick your blanking brain for discreet-enough references to Infinite Jest (so that Adam Wilson will think you’re cool, okay?), maybe you’ll mention that you know his “marketing people.” You will lose at literary schmoozing because your editorial assistant friend has read David Foster Wallace’s undergraduate philosophy thesis. Wilson will nod, squint, nod and scan the room for girlfriend, other people.
In 2009, a year after the worst financial crisis since 1929 took a bite out of America’s income, the landscape of employment for young people and recent graduates looked a lot like a set-piece from a late-90’s disaster movie. On Craigslist, Idealist and other popular job boards, employers who posted open positions got hundreds of responses, many of them from people with decades of experience on their résumés. The climate turned the act of finding a job into something like auditioning for a musical. No matter how polished your cover letter or your credentials, the chances of standing out in the crowd of hopefuls were slim. So many people moved home as the months went by that it became a rite of passage. And if you wanted to work in publishing, as I did, you wondered if the downturn was permanent.
The rise of new media platforms played a big role in stoking this fear. In the years leading up to the crisis, a great number of people had slowed down their reading, in part because of the ease of downloading new albums and TV shows. The problems already faced by publishers took on a newfound urgency, compelling them to explore their options. They tackled difficult questions in lectures, meetings and other forums, ironing out the copyright laws for e-books and other innovations. They wondered if readers with iPads wanted videos embedded in text. They spoke with authors to find out which genres still thrive in an age of distraction. And they talked about what to do on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr, where the world was spending much of its day.
When they did log on to social media networks, they discovered that readers were spreading word about the books they enjoyed. On Wordpress, Tumblr and other blog sites, they were posting lengthy articles. They were holding informal polls, some amongst their friends, some amongst many more people, to determine what to add to their reading lists. On the pages of new magazines and websites, they were publishing the writers they admired. They were making clear, in short, that literature as we know it is evolving, not dying. For publishers, they lit the way forward.
It’s a gift to be working with HarperCollins at a time when these changes are happening. Though it’s true that the industry still faces difficulties – not the least of which is the economy, which is still a long way from full employment – it’s also true that our era is bringing about some wonderful changes. In large part thanks to social media, we can talk with our readers like we never could before – and we can do it, to boot, with a speed unprecedented in history.