A perilous predicament: As we worry that our written language is being degraded by fractured modes of digital communication, there has never been a time when more people thought of themselves as writers. Journalism schools and MFA programs are full to the gills; self-publishing tools have made every retired person with a memory an autobiographer; and while kids these days can’t diagram a sentence, they rely on strings of letters lined up end to end to communicate their innermost feelings in real time.
Has the Internet imperiled the English language, doomed journalism to automation, killed the intimacy of personal communication, and cheapened the notion of the professional storyteller? Or are we in the midst of the type of media revolution (printing press, telephone, television) that comes with cultural casualties but results in a great leap forward?
At the end of my interview with John Grisham for this week’s cover story, we briefly discussed the future of the publishing industry, something he says he can talk about for hours. Grisham’s success predated the Internet and his laser focus on navigating the book business—understanding its ins and outs, personalities, and economics—has left him with an incredible vantage point from which to witness its molting process.
Barnes & Noble was the baby-snatching Grendel of the literary world when it emerged on the scene, destroying margins and dooming the mom and pop bookstores. Now Amazon’s digital publishing model is squeezing the lifeblood out of the big box books and mortar economy like a giant anaconda. The age of the paperback writer is over. Done and dusted. Only five major publishing houses remain. There are fewer marquee writers than ever. And yet, everyone dreams of becoming the next Rowling, Brown, or Grisham.
Do you believe in the past or the future? Do humans perfect culture or drift like flotsam along a cycle of growth and decay? Not questions for your local newspaper man to answer, surely. I’ll say a prayer to Charles Dickens, patron saint of ex-reporters, serial story-tellers, and blockbusting bestsellers, and believe there are still big stories swimming in the deep blue seas of our collective imagination.