Oct 3, 2016
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.
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.
If you missed the first half of this show you can find it right here.
In Part Two of the file Robert, Adam, and I discuss:
Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...
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. In part two of 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’ve 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 very stiff drinks and they raise hackles for those of us who adore them, of course.
What you won’t find here is a high-brow 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 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 a returning guest of the show. His first book One Breath was published by Crown last January. His work has appeared in publications including Playboy, The New York Times, and many others.
In part two of the file, Robert, Adam, and I discuss how digital culture has exploded traditional forms of writing, on the millennial generation’s preference for paper books, why it’s so hard to define the novel in the internet age, how clickbait is killing journalism, and why the novel will never die. If you’re a fan of The Writer Files, please click “subscribe” to automatically see new interviews as soon as they are published. If you missed the first half of this show, go find it in the archives on iTunes, on WriterFiles.FM, and in the show notes.
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 Audiobooks or you’ve always wanted to give them a try, you can check out over 180,000 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.
Robert Bruce: Let me just say for the record, there’s nothing, I think you guys would agree, there’s almost nothing as beautiful and more desirous to hold in this world than a book, right? As an object, right? Or to own, and to have a bookshelf and to have it filled with books and to go to a bookstore. But the thing, like the comparison to vinyl, is interesting in that it’s hardly a blip in terms of actual sales. These are serious collectors, not all of them, but for somebody to go out and get vinyl, and yes it’s growing, but it will never be what it once was, right? Who knows, but maybe that’s where books are going, I don’t know. I hope not. I only want more and more and more bookstores.
It’s funny, I went through a phase a couple of years ago of buying Kindle books and it was fine and it was convenient and it was all these things. It was all these kind of sterile reasons for doing so, and just in the last, I don’t know, year, I’ve been restocking the old bookshelf with physical books. Again, I’m older, I’m not 22, so maybe that generation is going to respond differently to these things and whatever. And maybe they who knows? There’s a lot of book readers in every generation, but I myself, I’m going back to physical books. I don’t know if you guys ever …
Adam Skolnick: No, that’s the trend and it’s just going to be buoyed because you know, the big five publishers, I think you mentioned, you kind of alluded to it before, but we didn’t really say it, the big five publishers have all signed price and deals with Amazon. And so this deeply discounted era of eBooks is over. It’s not happening anymore. So eBook prices are up. They are more comparable to what a paperback would cost and hardcovers are still discounted on Amazon. You could get, for instance, my book, which the publisher prices at like $26.99 for a hardcover book, which is expensive for a book. You could get it for $17.99 on Amazon, which is only $5 more than the eBook. And so I think that’s part of the reason.
Like you said, it is an Amazon world but it’s not necessarily an eBook world and what happened with LPs is other mediums took over so completely and wholly that other technology came in, that we all abandoned LPs. But that has not happened with books. It could happen, yeah, but I don’t know that it will because we haven’t totally given up on it, ever.
I think, what is it, about 50% of the market now is eBooks, which is, you know that’s a lot, but it’s certainly not enough to totally make them irrelevant. And like you said, you’re coming back to it. I’m the same way. I’m on the road a lot. For eight months a year for the last eight years, nine years I was on the road. I got into Kindle because it’s just an easier way to keep reading. Now when I’m home, I like to have a hard cover. I like to have a hard copy whether it’s a paperback or a hardcover.
Robert Bruce: Shut off the ****ing phone and the laptop and open a book.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, but you are competing with the internet for your own attention, always. I mean, I think when you go back to like, just Google, Is the novel dead? One of the more recent articles that people talk about from The Guardian, which is going through its own issues as we speak, Will Self, this novelist, most recently I think, for obvious reasons, to promote the launch of one of his more recent books, wrote this piece for The Guardian, “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).” Don’t we see these every couple years? Someone tries to tackle it and kill it.
Robert Bruce: Right, right.
Kelton Reid: It happens in every industry. Does it not?
Robert Bruce: Yeah, and then it comes back around, and certainly the title of this episode of The Writer Files is meant to engender discussion and clicking and getting to listen which is part of the problem, and the very thing that we’re talking about, right? But it’s not completely disingenuous in my mind, because I really do think as a form and as a sell-able object, whether we like it or not and I do not like it, the culture is moving on. I mean, have either of you guys read David Shields, he’s probably most well known for his book, Reality Hunger?
Adam Skolnick: Yeah, that’s a good one.
Robert Bruce: I highly recommend anybody listening to this, actually Brian Clark gave it to me a couple of years ago and I think it rewired my brain. I, for so long, I can’t remember, it had been years since I d ever picked up a novel. I tried a couple of times, recommendations people had given me and this I guess maybe switch for a moment at least into the idea of the novel as form instead of object. It had been years since I had picked up a novel and been able to get past three or four pages or two or three chapters. It just falls from my hand, right?
That is, whatever, I’m a victim of the culture that we live in, the internet age, everything flashing constantly at all times toward us and into my eyes and brains. He makes this case in Reality Hunger, David Shields, and it’s really, really compelling about the furtherance of art. In every art, every form, it evolves, right, over time. We know this, this is the most basic of ideas. But the novel, generally, one of the points that he makes in this is that we’re still trying to write Jane Eyre. This is not wholly true, of course that’s not, and you know there’s all kinds of experimentation going on and all that.
As a whole, in terms of the big industry, in terms of what people buy and what people are reading, it’s like we’re stuck still in the 19th century. For some reason, this one form has evolved very little. You could argue that he s not completely right. I think he would probably agree. But it is interesting when you compare that to things like television, music, art, fine art, where there is evolution. There’s evidence of it, but not in the sense, it doesn’t seem to me anyway, not in the sense that we see in other forms.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, a couple of points come up, and I do love Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields, it’s a good one. It’s one that I keep around and crack open every once in awhile just for fun. It’s little bite size pieces and it s all very compelling. But there’s something about, just to come back to the medium is the message, the idea of the book conveying the empathy of the storytelling and the fiction obviously gives you a freedom, as Adam says, kind of that magic piece of the writing. But a couple of things:
Science says literary readers understand emotions better than commercial fiction readers. Interesting. Something that we’ve talked about at least Michael Grybko and I, the neuroscientist, a study saying that literary fiction helps readers empathize. Coming back to the, medium is the message idea, there was a recent study that concluded, this was in The Wild Detectives, John Bradley wrote a piece called, “The Medium is the Message: How We Read and How It Affects Us.” I guess the idea that a recent study showed that college students prefer paper to eBooks at an alarming rate, almost 9 to 1.
I think it has something to do with comprehension and maybe that empathy piece. But they’re asking the question, Does our preference for paper spell the death of eBooks or vice versa? Isn’t that a question we’re always going to have as hybrid readers, all three of us? I love the feel of a book. I feel like I do understand or empathize better with fiction and or nonfiction if I’m reading a paper book, but I love the convenience of having you know, to being able to …
Robert Bruce: We’re going to get a lot of hate from the self-published Kindle crowd here, man. Watch your words.
Adam Skolnick: I think that there s this it’s hard to separate, it’s hard to know. I think part of us because we grew up loving books and there was no eBooks, I think that we might have this idea that we get lost in the world deeper and more entrenched in the world if we’re reading it and we’re holding it and it becomes this physical thing. I don’t know if that’s true, though. When I was first transitioning from taking all notes on every story that I was doing in a Moleskine to typing them into my iPhone. At first it felt very foreign and it felt like I wasn’t really getting all the thoughts I wanted out, that there were some organic piece of the hand to the brain that I was losing, that used to come right out of the pen. I realized that was an illusion. So I don’t know if that’s necessarily true.
But I think with millennials choosing to hold books instead of e-readers, that could be just more of the entire throwback vintage clothing, like the throwback grassroots lifestyle that they’ve embraced, which I think is great and I admire a lot. And so I think that it might have more to do with that than have to do with I mean, unless there’s been studies that I’m not aware of. I think that it’s, whether you’re reading on a computer, an eBook or a book, I don’t know that it matters that much but as long as you’re reading. I do think it’s interesting if people are embracing hard cover books just because I think that’s more of a … I’m totally spacing on the word, but more of just like that it’s a choice. It’s just something they like, an aesthetic choice.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, absolutely. To defend myself I wasn’t the one saying, “Does our preference for paper sound the death knell of eBooks?” That’s something that John Bradley, he posed the question. My feeling is simply that there’s a place in the world for both. I know there are a lot of myths about the millennial generation and how they prefer to do things. They are just like everybody else. I think everybody’s just going to have their preferences. That generation in particular, though, grew up with the internet. And the internet, you’ve got all the answers to every question you could possibly have all at your fingertips all at the same time.
It’s hard not to click around, right? So we know that attention spans are shrinking because of the internet. To go back to the idea of, the medium is the message, I think when you’re on the internet and you’re reading stories on the internet, that’s why you’re clicking around so much is because it will spur an idea. You’ll type something into Google. It will answer another question that leads to another question. All of the sudden you’re getting all the answers you need. When that’s not something you could do 20, 25 years ago, right? Was Ask Jeeves around 25 years ago?
Adam Skolnick: Yeah, he would knock on your door and it would take longer.
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 180,000 audiobook titles to choose from. Audible seamlessly delivers the world’s both fiction and nonfiction to your iPhone, Android, Kindle or computer. For Rainmaker FM listeners, Audible is offering a free audiobook download with a 30-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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Kelton Reid: But seriously, I mean you had to sit with a book, you had to sit with a book and if you had a question or you found something on the footnotes, you couldn t click around suddenly to another book. You had to actually stand up and go type it into a computer or ask a librarian where to find it or go to a shelf, physically take it off the shelf, and then you had to actually read the book. You couldn t just click to the page in the book that had the answer you wanted, which you could now.
Robert Bruce: One of Shields’ chapter headings is, Books for people who find television too slow.” I think it s obviously where we re at in a lot of ways in the culture. But I don t know if he ever said it, if he didn t, I m just going to make it up in the sense that he said it anyway. I think a lot about the, I mean websites in general, but one that keeps coming up for me is the Drudge Report. Whatever you think of it, I m not talking politically but just in terms of the design, the style, and everything you ve been talking about, Kelton.
At one point he was asked somewhere in an interview and he said, he made the quote somewhere that, This is my novel, this page, this single web page with all of these links spiraling out into the world. To your point, Kelton, This is my novel, and that s, I m not going to say mind blowing, but it s certainly, if you buy it, which many, many billions of people every year do, in his case, is culture shifting, right? In one sense you can t say that, because that s just not a novel. Okay, right? We get that. But it is interesting, again, to your point, Kelton, that, what does it mean? I mean that s the most interesting part …
Adam Skolnick: I think he’s just misappropriating the word novel to make himself sound awesome.
Robert Bruce: I think that s exactly right and he is a master of, he s one of these masters of framing, which this whole thing, is it s a matter of …
Adam Skolnick: He s just marketing. He s figured out how to sell a novel. Just call something else a novel.
Robert Bruce: That s right, that s right.
Kelton Reid: We need to get David Shields on the show, that would be a fun one.
Robert Bruce: Yeah, it would be. And he himself, Shields even rejects the The publishing world kind of rose up and blamed him for this idea kind of being popularized in the last few years, the death of the novel again. But he rejects that. He loves the novel. He loves the form.
Adam Skolnick: You know, for me as a journalist it s interesting because what we re talking about is you guys could be foreshadowing something down the line that becomes real. The death of newspaper is something that is real. And that is something that the internet has, and digital has, not destroyed, but it s completely shifted, and in many ways destroyed, if you re a mid city paper it has destroyed you. Even The LA Times is a shadow of what it used to be and that was one of the great papers. And do they have good stories, still? Yes, they have some great stories still, but it s still a shell of what it once was.
Some of that is mismanagement by the newspaper themselves that allowed digital to take over, some of it is not. I think I read something, not too long ago, like 50% of the journalists that were working 10,15 years ago are out of work. 50%, that s a big number, 50%. How that affects me as a freelance journalist, always being freelance and never working on staff somewhere, is interesting because a lot of those people that used to work in newspapers, they don t actually don t know how or don t care to have to sell their stories so they re not really pitching. So I m not really competing against all of sudden this big robust group of people. A lot of them have left the industry completely. Some are still freelancing, so that s greater competition for less dollars.
Because at the same time what s happening is you have places like Huffington Post and Vice and BuzzFeed who a lot of readers celebrate, but are absolute sweat shops for bloggers. They are digital sweatshops and they are making billions of dollars. Arianna Huffington is supposedly a liberal progressive but what she has done for journalism, I think, is a net loss and a negative. I think the same thing for BuzzFeed, although they have great stories, and they have writers out there researching and breaking stories, no doubt, and they have people on staff that I m sure they pay well. In reality, what they re doing is clickbait and they re bringing in, and freelancers are getting paid very, very low rates and Vice freelance rates are abysmal.
These are all true and Slate, Salon, all these down the line, they re all doing that. That s a real thing, we re talking about death of a form, that s a real thing. What I would like to see in those cases, isn t that I m anti-BuzzFeed or Vice or Huffington Post, some of them they publish stories that couldn t get published elsewhere and I recognize that. But if you have CEOs making billions of dollars and buying $25 million houses in Brentwood, I think you need to pay your writers more. There has to be a place for the middle class journalist to work and do their thing.
It s only going to help your business and actually it helps the world because then you have more people out there working and calling out people like calling out industries, calling out individuals that are affecting culture in a negative way. And I think we need that, that s what journalist are there for, we re watchdogs, we re entertainers, we re all sorts of things all at once. That s something that I think is extremely real and happening right now that I think we need to pay attention to and I would love to see journalist rates on web based platforms go way up because they need to and there s money out there.
Robert Bruce: Adam, let me ask you something. Why is it, this is a constant question that comes back to me, why is it, do you think, that a lot of these displaced journalist do not just triple down? They have the education. They have, in many cases, the great reputation from the places they ve been and the work they ve done. Why don t they triple down on their own site and their own whatever? Obviously there s an issue of economics and budget and all of that, but even just putting their own name down …
Adam Skolnick: For me, I need to make a living. If I decided to instead of try to sell a story to Playboy, which will pay me in the print a very, very good rate. They re still paying great rates. That s an institution that, hey listen, they re wrestling with the same economic realities everybody else and they re still paying their writers, so I respect that tremendously. I can go to them and I can make a living selling stories. If I put it on my website, I might not see income for a year, two years. For me to be able to put a story that I invest that much time and energy in, and expenses, and then expect to recoup that on my website …
That s not going to happen for me. That s why the people that have done well with websites are bloggers because they are not putting expenses in. They re not going out chasing down stories. They re not doing what I do when I go on to a story, they re not. They re sitting in their office and they re basically curating news and they re finding stuff and they re commenting on it and some of it is entertaining and cool. I m not denigrating it, it s just not what a journalist does.
Robert Bruce: Yeah, you then instantly become journalist plus business person.
Adam Skolnick: Which is fine and I know journalists that have kind of come together in collectives and try to put their own app together of stories and it s hard to sell that stuff, man. To get that out in this big It s like white noise, you put it out to the abyss and hopefully someone gets it. It s a lot easier if we re looking at something
Kelton Reid: Look at Dave Pell, Robert.
Robert Bruce: Yeah, right.
Kelton Reid: That s kind of an interesting aside. But I think we re veering off course here.
Robert Bruce: Yeah.
Kelton Reid: As much I hate to say it.
Adam Skolnick: Bring us back, bring us back.
Kelton Reid: I just want to say that I think it puts a premium on quality and I think that s all it’s going to come down to. It s that we re always going to have these great novels, right, those aren t going anywhere that will just stand the test of time. We re always going to have great journalism that will stand the test of time and there s always going to be clickbait, you know? How that affects the novel is a good question. So just to kind of bring us back to the original question and kind of that … I ll just quote Will Self’s question to bring us back on track.
Will Self is an English novelist, I thought it was interesting, Adam, that he wrote a book called Walking to Hollywood. If you look at the title, if you look it up on Amazon, you ll see that it’s got this Ralph Steadman-esque kind of Hunter S. Thompson cover. But I guess it was a satirical novel about a British writer named Will Self who goes on a quest through LA and some other places, but the kind of interesting idea behind the book was the question, Who killed the movies? This is all very meta, I know, but here s his question or at least I ll just quote the Will Self piece The novel is dead, (this time it s real).
There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. And that s the question, If you accept that by the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? He goes on to pose his own questions and answers and I think we partially answered that. Got to turn off the internet sometimes if you want to enjoy a book. Sometimes you just want answers quickly and you re not going to be able to turn off that high speed internet.
Robert Bruce: Sometimes you re living in the Panopticon and you can t ever turn off the internet and we re all screwed forever eternally.
Adam Skolnick: That s why I go ocean swimming.
Robert Bruce: That s right.
Adam Skolnick: There s no internet there yet.
Kelton Reid: If you re listening to this in the future in the Panopticon, as Robert puts it, we re all dead and good luck to you.
Adam Skolnick: Hey, we re all dead. Hey, everybody dies.
Robert Bruce: That s it. That s it.
Kelton Reid: Wow, this is really …
Robert Bruce: I think going back to Adam s original Herman Melville anecdote is the way forward for novelists. You do it because you love it. You do it because you got to do it. You ve got no choice. This is true of any artist in any art ever and you never expect, and again, the Kindle people, the Kindle self-publishers, are going to come after me with pitchforks, but you don t expect to make a dime. There are ways to do that, absolutely. There s no question. But again, depending on what we re talking about here, if we re talking about art and we re talking about the forwarding of the literary form, I think that s the way to approach it.
I mean, for hundreds of years this has been the way it is, you know? I mean they used to take actors out to the crossroads of town and burn them and execute them. After they reveal the truths about the society they were living in, they couldn t handle it. What do we or what does the modern novelist think? It can happen, you can end up in the nice big place up in the Hollywood hills sipping champagne out of somebody s navel.
Adam Skolnick: Yeah, but are those people really happy?
Robert Bruce: Good point. Good point. My guess would be, yes, but I get your point.
Adam Skolnick: No, they are extremely happy.
Kelton Reid: It went from an Orwellian turn to a skewering of Hollywood culture.
Robert Bruce: I love Hollywood. I ll always love Hollywood. You can t ever get it out of your blood. Let me close my part of this, anyway, by saying the last book I bought was just a few days ago it s a hardback. This is Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way. I don t know what that means but this is where I leave you gentlemen.
Robert Bruce: Thanks. Yeah, no, I have that on Kindle, it s actually very good. It s a good quick read. Adam, do you want to have any, take any parting shots?
Adam Skolnick: Well, I hope the novel is not dead because my next book is fiction, so … Don t tell my agent, he s going to have to sell it.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, I think I ll leave it there and I won t try to make it nice and neat. I think there s a case to be made that the novel is alive and well. There s a case to be made that eBooks aren t going anywhere anytime soon. Obviously, we all read them. We all love them. They have their place and the internet is not going anywhere anytime soon. So I guess we just have to wait and see.
Adam Skolnick: Actually my serious parting shot would be: The key is that people are still seeking stories, we will always need stories. There are more forms to find than ever before. The novel is still a viable place for deep, deep, kind of rooted down story that can take over your mind and take over your life for a short period of time and hopefully shed some light on where you are or just entertain the hell out of you. I think it s still it s own form and it s deeper than you get in a movie or television show. It goes when it s done well and I m always going to love it and I think it s here. I think it s here to stay. I think it ll always be here.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, agreed. Great stories aren t going anywhere as long as we have language and we share stories and that s how we connect on a human level, right? I do find it interesting that the best way to get a movie made would be to write the book, write the novel first, because aren t most Hollywood stories adapted from …
Robert Bruce: Or do a deal with the devil at the crossroads.
Adam Skolnick: Yes, that s what s happening, for sure.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, to become a screenwriter is a very treacherous road but if you want to make a movie, write the book first.
Adam Skolnick: There you go.
Robert Bruce: And write a short story, right? Isn t it true most movie scripts come from short stories?
Kelton Reid: Yeah, short stories or longer pieces.
Robert Bruce: All those Philip K. Dick movies, they re all short stories anyway.
Kelton Reid: Sure, but for instance, what is it, The Girl on the Train which is coming out soon.
Adam Skolnick: It s a mix.
Kelton Reid: Runaway novel.
Adam Skolnick: It s magazine stories, newspaper stories, short stories.
Robert Bruce: Yeah, all the nonfiction stuff is great.
Adam Skolnick: Nonfiction and fiction, long form, all of it.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, but anyway, keep writing.
Adam Skolnick: Cool, gentlemen. Hey, thank you so much for including me. It was great to talk to both of you.
Robert Bruce: Thanks for coming on, man.
Kelton Reid: Yeah, awesome to have you both. I hope to have you back again on another edition of Writer Porn, so watch your inbox.
Robert Bruce: Yes.
Kelton Reid: Thanks, guys.
Robert Bruce: See you guys somewhere in the hellscape.
Kelton Reid: Appreciate it.
Adam Skolnick: See you out there.
Kelton Reid: 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 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.