Sometimes people really just have to listen to Stephen King. I mean, the guy’s sold how many books? I think he might know a thing or two about publishing. And even before he became the self-titled brand name he is, King could see that no one really makes money writing horror stories. Edgar Allan Poe died a strangely mysterious death at forty without ever making a solid career out of his writings, and this was a man who was writing Sherlock Holmes stories before there was a Sherlock Holmes. H. P. Lovecraft, commonly cited as a best of the genre, would never thrive financially as a writer. King, himself, would perhaps grow to be the exception to this rule, but I think that what can be said about horror can be said about genre writing in general. Consider Philip K. Dick, a prolific skiffy novelist and short story writer who would hit it big posthumously.
So the other day I’m flipping through the erratically published Cemetery Dance Magazine, and decide to read the interview with Stephen Jones. When I first subscribed to CD for six issues, I had hopes of possibly writing a horror yarn of some sort, but as those dried up, the magazine’s aforementioned lack of timeliness in publishing also took some of the fun away. What I came away with, interestingly enough, was one author whose writings I considered my self quite fond of, by the name of Stephen Graham Jones. This was a man who seemed to actually understand horror and what it was supposed to do, where it succeeded, where it failed. I think it’s quite obvious then, that Stephen Jones is another horror character, but one with an even bigger reputation—Jones is an established British horror anthologist, someone I had heard of through his previous collaboration with Neil Gaiman.
The bone I have to pick with Mr. Jones is that he seems to blame the dwindling amount of book sales on a certain “sub-literacy” as he puts it in the article. This is just outright outrageous, since literacy rates have very little to do with why books don’t sell extremely well. What is funny here is that Jones says that the profession “writer” will become a “quaint historical curiosity” at some point in the future, and neglects to mention how this might actually occur.
While criticizing the illiterate masses for not reading his genre’s books, he maintains that newspapers have essentially dumbed themselves down to this level of sub-literacy and that the public’s attention has been fully stolen by celebrity pop culture.
The only point I really think needs to be made here is that there was a time when writing was considered something that one should not make a profession. Writers were treated as transgressors and disrespected because of their career status. Today the writer is much more respect than in the past, no matter how many people “read.” And to borrow something from Cory Doctorow, I believe, no one has stopped reading, something Jones seems to mesh over as somehow supporting his point, while he is actually stacking up contradictions. With the internet itself, it is quite true that we might lose some respect for the price of literature, since blogs and internet articles are commonly put out freely and supported by advertisements, making themselves quite often cheaper than even the “dumbed down newspapers” of which Jones speaks.
The fact of the matter is that some writers make it big and then become, once again, in the words of Stephen King, “a brand name.” King has tackled this concept well in both non-fiction and fiction, devoting enough side thoughts in Bag of Bones to the topic at hand. For the most part, then, other people cannot find much money from writing, over all. Bret Easton Ellis always appears to be tempting fate with his finances as he spends another seven years or so writing a novel, and even his story is a rare one of success.
For Jones to take such an issue as lack of readership and claim it for the horror genre and then on top of that for the contemporary time period is not only astounding, but plainly wrong. And his reasons for this drudging amount of readers are also easily seen through. It isn’t that people cannot read, but rather that reading becomes a part of school work for students. It is because kids are forced to read people like Aldous Huxley, rather than because they don’t read him, as Jones cites, that they grow up not wanting to reading.
It is due to the fact that students also do not enjoy doing arithmetic in their spare time or creating science projects during the summer, that very few people read an awful lot. What it comes down to is there are alternatives to reading a book: you can watch a tv show or a movie. But the one thing that our boy Stephen seems to have really forgotten is that these things have writers too.
And most people do a lot of reading online these days. Perhaps in short choppy news bites, but this cutting of news stories does not involve dumbing down, but rather cutting to facts and what people consider the main ideas of their article. Look, the world has really sped up since the invention of the automobile, and it isn’t going to slow down, so what people read might become bite sized, but to call these people sub-literate and uncaring towards actual events, is only to alienate your own consumer base, namely people who read.
What Jones really needs to learn is that evolution is a real thing and it exists outside of Darwin's area of study. Just because people who write novels may not get as great a paycheck as they once did, does not show any sort of death to the author, but really only a shift in the way things need to be sold. The entertainment industries are not going to be able to sell ideas to a public for much longer and need to learn some respect when it comes to the inevitable downfall of cover price. What this does not say is that the writer will cease to exist, but quite the opposite, in the brave, new world that you can just be able to see on our future's horizon, the writer is going to be anyone and everyone. As Miranda July might put it, me and you and everyone we know will be out there sharing opinions and ideas in the way that Socrates thought distasteful. Yeah, we're all going to be writers.