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Sep 26, 2016

Is the Novel Dead? Part One

In this special edition of the show, two writers joined me to opine the death of one of the most influential forms in the history of the written word. I posed the question that many great writers have pondered stretching across the last two centuries …

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Is the novel dead? And maybe a more up-to-date version of that question is, did the Internet kill books?

Of course these are famous — almost cliche — theoretical discussions that writers often chew on over stiff drinks, and they raise hackles for those of us who adore them.

What you won’t find here is a highbrow literary dissertation, or even a very strict definition as to what the novel is or isn’t. But you will find a lively discussion between friends who care about the writing life and its future.

Robert Bruce is a writer, voice actor, and copywriter, as well as the Vice President of Rainmaker Digital and the guy who runs the Rainmaker.FM podcast network.

Adam Skolnick is an award-winning journalist, author, and a returning guest on the show. His first book, One Breath, was published by Crown last January, and his work has appeared in publications including Playboy, The New York Times, and many others.

If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click subscribe to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

In Part One of the file Robert, Adam, and I discuss:

  • How Longer Works of Writing Have Been Forced to Compete with Disposable Culture
  • Why Herman Melville Died Penniless
  • How the Novel has Stood the Test of Time
  • The Role of Podcasting for Modern Writers
  • Author Hugh Howey’s ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ Model of Book Retail

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

Is the Novel Dead? Part One

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I’m still your host, Kelton Reid, here to take you on another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers to learn their secrets. But in this edition of the show, two writers joined me to opine the death of one of the most influential forms in the history of the written word. I posed the question that many great writers have pondered stretching across the last two centuries, Is the novel dead? Maybe a more up to date version of that question is, Did the internet kill books?

Of course, these are famous almost cliché theoretical discussions that writers often chew on over stiff drinks and they raise the hackles for those of us who adore them. What you won’t find here is a highbrow literary dissertation, or even a very strict definition as to what the novel is or isn’t but you will find a lively discussion between friends who care about the writing life and it’s future.

Robert Bruce is a renowned voice actor, poet, fiction author, and copywriter, as well as the vice president of Rainmaker Digital and the guy who runs the Rainmaker FM network. Adam Skolnick is an award-winning journalist, author, and returning guest on this show. His first book One Breath was published by Crown last January and his work has appeared in publications including Playboy, The New York Times, and many others.

In part one of this file Robert, Adam, and I discuss how longer works of writing have been forced to compete with disposable culture, why Herman Melville died penniless, how the novel has stood the test of time, the role of podcasting for modern writers, and author Hugh Howey’s Rock, Paper, Scissors model of book retail. If you are a fan of The Writer Files, please click “subscribe” to automatically see new interviews as soon as they’re published.

This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by Audible. I’ll have more on their special offer later in the show but if you love audio books or you’ve always wanted to give them a try, you can check out over 180 thousand titles right now at Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. This episode of The Writer Files is also brought to you by Digital Commerce Summit. We’ll have more about that unique event for digital entrepreneurs later in the show but you can check out Rainmaker.FM/Summit for all the details on an amazing, educational, and networking event.

And we are rolling today with some very special guests. I have more than one guest today, which is unusual for this show, but I think what we have is a special edition of The Writer Files. We usually call these Writer Porn when I get return guests, but I do have a new guest, Robert Bruce is joining us today. Welcome, Robert.

Robert Bruce: Hey, Kelton, thanks for having me.

Kelton Reid: If you don’t know Robert and his famous voice, he actually runs Rainmaker FM, and by night he files stories to the internet from an undisclosed location near you. Does that mean you’re actually writing stuff somewhere here in my neighborhood, Robert?

Robert Bruce: It could be. It could mean that, Kelton.

Kelton Reid: You’re very mysterious.

Robert Bruce: The fact that you don’t know makes it so much better.

Kelton Reid: We can find your writing and more of your very, very interesting voice over at RobertBruce.com. Robert is a poet, fictionist, copywriter, and a VP of Rainmaker Digital and a close confidant who has nurtured The Writer Files kind of since it’s inception, so welcome to the show.

Robert Bruce: Thanks, man.

Kelton Reid: And Adam Skolnick is back. The award-winning journalist, author, swimmer, I call him a backgammon hound. He’s actually a shark, so don’t play him for money, but he recently walked the marathon length of Sunset Boulevard for a story, is that right?

Adam Skolnick: Yes.

Kelton Reid: Tell us a little bit about that adventure.

Robert Bruce: Where is that story, by the way? Where can we find that?

Adam Skolnick: That story is still in mid-birth. I should be writing it instead of talking to you jokers right now.

Kelton Reid: Sorry.

Robert Bruce: Watch it, man, I might be in an undisclosed location near you.

Kelton Reid: Robert’s also in L.A.

Adam Skolnick: Oh nice, good, you could be in my house right now.

Robert Bruce: Hey, you never know.

Adam Skolnick: No, it’s going to be for Lonely Planet Traveller Magazine which is obviously a big travel guide publishing brand and they’ve got kind of a big magazine in the UK and it’s growing here in the US, and so it will be for both of those editions. I walked Sunset from Union Station in downtown L.A. to the beach seventeen years ago with a friend, right when I was first trying to become a writer. It was the first thing I did. It was the first story I wrote.

Before that, I was kind of just like hiding in dark corners and scribbling down like stream of consciousness rants and occasionally foist them on unsuspecting people at open mic nights. Mostly it was kind of keeping it to myself. Then I started to really take it seriously, trying to write stories and travel stories in particular. A friend of mine said he was going to walk Wilshire, Santa Monica, and Sunset Boulevards from beginning to end and asked me if I was interested and so I tagged along.

Then fast forward to a couple of weeks ago and an editor from the magazine said that they had a photographer on location, shooting Sunset for a feature, and they wondered if I wanted to write the text. And I told them what I did seventeen years ago and how I was thinking about doing it again, because so much has changed here in L.A., especially on the eastern stretch of that street. They went for it and that meant that I had the death march ahead of me and it was cool. It was fun to do it again, this time, I did it with a filmmaker named Tchaiko Omawale, a friend of mine, and she was with me for the first twenty miles and the last six miles I was trudging alone.

Robert Bruce: Wow, so it literally is a marathon, yeah?

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, yeah. It’s just under twenty-six miles and it was like, yeah, and it rained again. The first time around it rained for like the first few miles, or maybe even the first couple of hours straight, and then it was nice. This time, like out of nowhere it rained when we were in East Hollywood. It was great, you know, it’s always interesting to see things at that level, street level. See how much has changed, how the Sunset strip is kind of decaying while Eastside L.A. is booming and, you know, just to be able to think about all of that, what that means. And it’s just a privilege to be able to do it, and to do this for a living, to write stories. It’s always fun when I find one that I resonate with because that’s why we do this. It certainly is not the paycheck.

Kelton Reid: You can see snippets of that story, actually if you pop onto Adam’s Instagram. I think it’s just Adam Skolnick on Instagram. Yeah, I just wanted to mention also that in addition to being a journalist, Adam recently published his first book, One Breath, last January. Published by Crown and he has written for some really big name marquee publications including Playboy, The New York Times and many others. He’s over at AdamSkolnick.com if you want to check out more of his stuff and see some of those great pictures too.

How Longer Works of Writing Have Been Forced to Compete with Disposable Culture

Kelton Reid: You may be wondering why the three of us are chatting today. As we often do, Robert and I, and Adam and I separately gnash our teeth about certain elements of the writer’s life and I thought I’d bring them on together today to do the Is the novel dead? edition of Writer Porn. To start out I think maybe we could talk about what this question actually means because it’s something that famous writers have written about and kvetched about, you know, throughout the ages. Famous writers, Philip Roth and many others have written some great pieces about it. But I think what we’re going to talk about today is maybe a little bit different as opposed to say like the highbrow, literary version of that argument. We’re going to talk maybe more about, well Robert, do you want to help me out on how we’re going to tackle this one?

Robert Bruce: I have no idea how we’re going to tackle this, other than, yeah, I think this is a really interesting question. I think it’s … and it goes into a lot of, maybe a bigger subterranean question of, you know, How do you … what does it mean to get out into the world what you want to get out into the world in 2016 and 2017 rapidly coming up on us? You know, I mean ****, so maybe the novel, we could say, we’re going to talk specifically about the death of the novel, in my opinion. Maybe that, the idea of the novel can be a stand in for, you know, in a lot of ways whatever it is you are doing.

Here’s the deal, here’s my short take on it. The novel is so last century, right? This beautiful form, whether literary or even genre pretty much for, I don’t know, at least a hundred years has stood alone as a piece of, to put it crassly, media, that had very few, for many of those hundred years, very few competitors.

Now you come into a world where we’re still writing these novels which I think is a good thing and obviously there’s many great novels out there and many great novel readers of novels but all of a sudden it’s competing with, you know, the Kardashian’s, and it’s competing with Hillary’s thirty thousand deleted emails, and it’s competing with Adam Skolnick’s stroll down Sunset Boulevard. Not only that, but the entire history of art and media that is now available to us online, you know, the Beatles entire catalog, so on and so forth. It’s this really, to me, interesting problem that I actually don’t think that there’s an answer to it, but I think there are ways, you know, maybe one of the better questions is, How should a writer be thinking today, in the age of the Kardashians?

Kelton Reid: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, that’s a good point. You know, we kind of open it up. It’s not that kind of bleak …

Robert Bruce: Oh, I think it is, Kelton.

Kelton Reid: Sure, but when we’re asking the question, Is the novel dead? I think what we’re … you know, defining the novel as a little bit broader piece, you know, a longer fiction, obviously, including popular fiction, right? Literary fiction.

Adam Skolnick: That’s what I was wondering if you were talking about the form of what a traditional novel is and like a reinvention of a form, or if you are talking about just the idea of releasing books in general, because you could make that same argument for any book, then. If you are saying that.

Robert Bruce: Or any file.

Adam Skolnick: I mean from the beginning of … I think there’s always been intense competition for readers, you know. In the days where there wasn’t the internet and social media, or even movies and TV, there were a million newspapers. There was a newspaper for almost every block of every city, so there’s always been kind of this democratized media. We just don’t really see it because we are so focused on, we’re so myopic with the present, nobody can really analyze it against anything else, especially now because everyone is so obsessed.

I think social media is probably the greatest threat to people’s attention. I think that the Beatles example is really interesting, obviously, yes you can listen to as much music as you want to, so there’s so much media saturating but I think it’s social media that is a big drain on people’s attention spans. That’s a real issue, but there’s always been that issue and before there was the issue of, Is there enough literate people out there to buy the books? I mean, listen, Herman Melville had to get a job at the customs office after he wrote Moby Dick.

Robert Bruce: That’s right, he died broke, penniless.

Adam Skolnick: That is a little bit disconcerting. But I don’t think it’s ever been easy to make your living this way, ever. I think that these are interesting questions but I don’t think they prove the death of any form. I just think that it’s up to publishers and authors to figure out their way around it and to make their book relevant. A lot of that’s just like this having gone through the marketing process of a book in January through til, really, all the way almost til June and to see how it’s such a mystery. There’s really no formula that you can follow that will be 100% foolproof. It’s a real mystery and it takes the audience kind of finding the book in an organic way as much as it takes a publishing house putting all their ammo behind something.

God, it’s kind of a mind bender, you know, for me, it’s interesting being invited to this. I’ve written a novel that didn’t sell and I wrote a nonfiction book that did sell and so what I do know is that it’s harder to sell fiction. That might be because of the shrinking audience or the competing media. That could have something to do with that. I don’t know for a fact, but that could have something to do with it. Or it could just be that, you know, people, publishers rather, make bets on true stories that they know there’s an audience for. Either way, it’s harder to sell fiction. That’s a fact. But, you know, according to my friends at HarperCollins their fiction sales are up. Hardcover fiction sales are up.

Kelton Reid: We will be right back after a very short break. Thanks so much for listening to The Writer Files.

This episode of The Writer Files is brought to you by Audible, offering over 180 thousand audiobook titles to choose from. Audible seamlessly delivers the worlds of both fiction and nonfiction to your iPhone, Android, Kindle, or computer. For Rainmaker FM listeners, Audible is offering a free audiobook download with a thirty-day trial to give you the opportunity to check them out. Grab your free audiobook right now by visiting Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. I just hopped over there to grab Stephen King’s epic novel 11/22/63 about an English teacher who goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. You can download your pick or any other audio book free by heading over to Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker. To download your free audio book today, go to Audibletrial.com/Rainmaker.

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How the Novel has Stood the Test of Time

Robert Bruce: Right, harder to sell, but as you well know, as I think all of us do, and many people listening, it’s like, when fiction hits there’s nothing better, because it’s also then … it’ll last a hundred years, you know, if it’s really great of course.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah.

Robert Bruce: That’s rare, but we point to … and this whole eBook conversation now with Amazon and all these independent publishers going on and self-publishing and making, you know, you hear these grand stories of these people making all this money. I mean, Kelton, you interviewed Andy Weir and an incredible story of the self-publication of The Martian and then it got picked up and the movie and everybody knows that story. Those, we also know, are the rare stories.

I think, what’s his name? Hugh Howey, he talks about he hit with a massive, massive fiction hit. But he makes a really interesting statement that people point to him and say, “Oh yeah, this is the new reality. We can all be like Hugh Howey.” He says, “Of course you can’t, but the thing to remember is, at least in the self-publishing arm of this conversation, is you can make life changing money, which is, to some people $200 a month is going to be life changing.”

The Role of Podcasting for Modern Writers

Robert Bruce: I mean, back to Harper Collins, I totally agree with you, Adam. I would like to talk for at least a minute about this idea of the form itself and its relevance in the culture. This, to me, is endlessly fascinating. Kelton, you and I talked about, well, it came up originally I think we were talking about Bret Easton Ellis. Here is arguably, of our generation, Bret Easton Ellis is maybe one of the last great novelists, you know, Less Than Zero, American Psycho, Glamorama, on and on. Here is, of the last waning glory days of the twentieth century, he pretty much, along with a smaller group of folks, owned the culture, the literary culture we’ll say. But today he’s running one of the greatest podcasts available on the face of the Earth.

Kelton Reid: That’s right.

Robert Bruce: He goes from culture shifting novelist to podcaster and interviewing, you know, incredible people in the culture and it’s this natural thing and he’s incredibly compelling. I’m not arguing that this is the way things should be it just it is what it is, right?

Kelton Reid: Yeah.

Robert Bruce: But here is one of our greats, who is now in this new medium and it’s the same with who you just interviewed …

Kelton Reid: Jay McInerney, yeah, another Brat Packer.

Robert Bruce: Bright Lights, Big City and now he’s a wine writer which I think is ****ing great and hilarious. I don’t think it’s like a loss, this great loss to art. I think these are two, you know, anecdotal stories. I think it’s interesting that, What does the audience want, right? That whole idea. And what do they want from them? McInerney just wrote another novel. It’ll hopefully do really well for him. But, I mean, he was talking pretty excitedly and I mean he’s interested in what he’s doing now, the podcast and the writing the wine stories.

Kelton Reid: For sure.

Robert Bruce: Which is, of course, Adam, right up your alley as well with the non-fiction stuff.

Adam Skolnick: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, but there’s still, you know, there’s younger novelists that come out and wow. I don’t know, I mean, I loved Less Than Zero as much as everybody else. I loved Bret Easton Ellis’ work. I don’t consider him the last great novelist, though. I just don’t … I think that we are putting parameters on things that don’t … See, to me, as a writer, it doesn’t help. So I’m just not one of those people that’s over analytical, I think, in general, in terms of the work and how I do it and also where I put it. I’m just not that guy. I think I follow the story. I do the best I can with the story, find a home for the story, and then that’s it. You know, I could probably be more analytical than I am, but I’m just not that person.

But at the same time, I think it’s dangerous to put parameters on things that we don’t fully understand. Just because someone’s podcasting now, I mean a lot of publishers are telling authors to podcast because they think, I mean, I get stuff from my publisher all the time saying, How to podcast, or How to sell your book. One way is to start a podcast, which is, you know, funny because it’s not like you can start a podcast and get listeners overnight.

But that’s why a lot of people are doing that because they are trying to creatively sell it. That doesn’t mean the novel form itself is dead. It just means now, like everything else, radio is democratized. Now they can just go and get their voice out there, it doesn’t mean they re not writing and if Bret Easton Ellis isn’t writing, I don’t think it’s because he has a podcast.

Robert Bruce: Yeah, no, I’d agree with you there. I think we’re, like in the case of Brett Easton Ellis, what’s interesting to me is that he’s not … I don’t know, obviously, I don’t know him. It appears to me that he’s not doing this to sell books or as a request in a marketing business kind of sense. He’s using it as a medium, an artistic medium in and of itself. I think that’s where a lot of people get offended at the idea.

I’m not some huge, I mean, I am an advocate for podcasting, but in this case, I’m not like Everybody should have one and it’s this great, and you’re right, it’s just a logical extension from the days of radio. But to me, it’s interesting that, and maybe it’s just because I’m old and you know out of the culture in a lot of ways, it’s interesting that his podcast and certain moments of it, him in that medium, is almost more interesting to me and to many others, than any of his work in novels. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. It’s just a fascinating thing to think about.

Kelton Reid: Do you think that’s the Marc Maron effect on podcasting? Just to kind of take a little detour?

Robert Bruce: It probably has to be, I mean, and again, there’s nothing new here. It’s just the way we do it and the way it’s distributed, but it probably has to be. We know that however many billions are online and however many more billions in the next ten, twenty years, you know, I don’t know exactly if you are wanting to go somewhere specific with that, but …

Kelton Reid: I don’t know, I mean, I think kind of just to compare Marc Maron for instance, who is not a novelist, he was like a washed up comedian who started a podcast interviewing his comedian friends in his garage and then a few years later he’s interviewing President Obama. You know, I don’t know, but I think Bret Easton Ellis may have been kind of on the skids and fearing the death of the novel saw a kind of an example of, as Adam puts it, this democratization of getting your voice out there and he probably kind of resurrected his career, both Maron, and Ellis.

Robert Bruce: I think he’s been pretty straightforward in saying that it saved his, you know, career-wise at least, saved him.

Adam Skolnick: Wow. I better start listening to it.

Kelton Reid: To Maron?

Adam Skolnick: No, I listen to Maron every once and awhile.

Kelton Reid: Oh, okay.

Adam Skolnick: To Ellis.

Robert Bruce: Oh no, yeah, I was talking about Maron there, sorry.

Adam Skolnick: Oh, you were? Okay, sorry.

Kelton Reid: I mean I think both guys are …

Robert Bruce: Ellis is definitely worth listening to, for the record, though, Adam.

Kelton Reid: I think they are both fascinating characters. They are both like, kind of like the most interesting man in the room wherever they are. To listen to Ellis talk, you know, he is clearly a genius and I think Maron is too, and I think you know having a place to kind of put your energies that isn’t locked into a paper book is probably pretty good for a writer these days.

Adam Skolnick: Yeah, I mean, I guess it depends on what you are looking for, you know? What I really liked about your interview with Jay McInerney, Kelton, was this idea of talking about writing into the dark, like you had said, and his idea that you know he doesn’t plan it he just shows up and then sees where it goes. Even, I’m someone that does outline but even when I’m writing something that I’ve outlined there’s moments like that where you kind of connect and it’s starting to make sense and all these ideas that have been rattling around in your head come out. I just don’t know that magic exists in podcast and that magic exists, definitely for a writer, and probably actors on stage as well, those are the kind of those magic moments that people … that’s what hooks us, you know?

I think that’s also what comes across in a great novel to a reader and that’s the magic, you know? Everything else, to me, is noise and the rest of it is magic. Can you sell enough to sustain the medium so that, you know, can publishers sell enough to sustain the medium and the machinery so that those magic moments can come through to readers? I hope so, because I think there’s nothing better than quality fiction and even non-fiction and stories like that. As to other writers that are finding success in the podcast arena, I think Malcolm Gladwell’s recent podcast is amazing. I don’t think that mean’s he’s not a writer, he’s not in any way going to give up writing. I don’t see how he would. In fact, his podcast is not an interview podcast. It’s a scripted podcast. So it’s another way for him to write and it’s just as intriguing as his books.

Yeah, so I don’t know, I don’t think the emergence of one form necessarily means the demise of the other. I don’t think TV killed radio, I don’t think film killed TV, I don’t think now this rise of kind of new distribution models for TV and movies which is Netflix and other, Amazon, and all these other ways to watch, Hulu, watch media on your computer, I don’t think that is destroying anything. I just see it as shifting and I think it will always be there.

Author Hugh Howey s Rock, Paper, Scissors Model of Book Retail

Kelton Reid: Absolutely. Okay, well to just kind of throw some fuel on the fire from Publisher’s Weekly, actually via your friend The Passive Voice blog. Robert turned me onto this great blog, Passive Voice. It’s a lawyer? Is that right?

Robert Bruce: Yeah, I think he is a practicing attorney, but yeah, I don’t know where he finds the time to post like he does, but yep.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, well, he posts a lot about publishing and the publishing industry. Anyway, this morning he posted a piece from Publisher’s Weekly. Just a blurb here, bookstore sales in July fell by under 1% compared to last year so according to preliminary estimates, the US census bureau, the decline marks the first month in 2016 of bookstore sales fell compared with last year. But, this is kind of a weird factoid, the drop reflects the fact July 2016 did not have a strong, as strong a selling title as Go Set a Watchmen which was released last July but as we know is not a book from this century, is it?

Adam Skolnick: No, but then why is Amazon setting up showrooms and bookstores if they, you know what I mean, like why are they doing that? They don’t have to do that …

Kelton Reid: I’ll tell you why.

Adam Skolnick: Why?

Kelton Reid: Well, Barnes and Noble is failing and this is something that Hugh Howey talks about. And actually to quickly segue into his Rock, Paper, Scissors theory about kind of the industry, he noted that the big five publishers are declining overall and Barnes and Noble sales are down 6% over the same period last year, also. So they are changing CEOs once again. What he’s saying, in a nutshell, Hugh Howey, on his great blog which you should check out I think he’s calling it Wayfinder … but HughHowey.com. He’s saying that Barnes and Noble will never be able to compete with Amazon on price or selection, right? So basically, Amazon killed Barnes and Noble and that’s why we’re seeing the rise, again, of these indie bookstores, right? Basically, the move of avid readers to digital, you know, less clutter, easier to carry around books like Ulysses, or David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, right?

He’s saying physical books will never go away just like vinyl records will never go away. But there’s a problem of growth, so there’s not going to be any growth in that industry, is what he’s saying, at least in physical books. He’s saying that the future is going to be a mix of these indie bookshops that kind of keep the culture alive and foster community, and then Amazon. If Amazon wants a piece of that community then they are going to have to emulate the indie bookstore to get a piece of that homegrown feel.

Adam Skolnick: Interesting.

Kelton Reid: You know, but Barnes and Noble, essentially what he’s saying, is doomed.

Thanks so much for tuning into this special edition of The Writer Files. For more episodes of the show, or to simply leave us a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM and please subscribe to the show to help other writers find us. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers, see you out there.