The Brownsville native and longtime Austinite has spent most of his adult life contemplating the future: A progenitor of the scruffy cyberpunk fiction movement (he edited the short-story anthology Mirrorshades and co-authored The Difference Engine with William Gibson), he has penned ten sci-fi novels and several works of nonfiction, including 2002’s Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next 50 Years. These days the 53-year-old, who writes and consults as a sort of visionary-for-hire, is focused on technology and green design. He offered some thoughts on the fate of books and writing via e-mail from Turin, Italy (the 2008 World Design Capital), where he currently lives and lectures.
The paper-and-ink book has been pronounced dead more times than God. Will the digital book ascend in our lifetime?
I find it a little hard to believe that there is truly such a thing as a “digital book.” There are books that have been digitized, but online and digital composition methods don’t much suit “books.” I mean, a linear, 60,000-word narrative with words in a row and chapter divisions, page numbers, maybe an index—that structure makes little sense in a network.
Will the audience for long-form writing be lost to instant-gratification media and the short attention span (read: the Internet)?
It’s worse than that. People on the Internet have tons of attention. They’ll sit there staring into a screen for ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day. I think that the Net has its own native means of “writing,” and it involves far-out, poorly explored notions, like [what I’d call] “insidious flows of particularized creole media.” Like, you know, a heads-up e-mail about somebody else’s YouTube video about a funny prank to pull with SMS on an iPhone—the kind of “writing” that involves using eight different media at once. And the native Net user can’t tell the difference; he has no reason to care.
Does this bastardized form of writing bode ill for literature?
I’d like to call it hybridized or creolized rather than bastardized, which implies that some literary priest should have blessed the arrangement beforehand. I’m not such a hypocrite as to say that everybody else oughta become a magisterial man of letters when I spend so much of my own time hacking search engines and online translators. Real literature doesn’t have a whiny, victimized attitude. Yes, ink-on-paper technology has serious problems. Distribution stinks, there’s media consolidation by moguls, and the USA has a civil cold war going on. Library catalogs no longer make much sense, the copyright and intellectual-property systems look like something out of the Hapsburg Empire, and the best novelist working right now is probably Orhan Pamuk, who had to scram out of Turkey before the local fascists shot him. But you know, people read Orhan Pamuk. He won the Nobel. He’s really got something to say.
The line between nonfiction and narrative fiction seems thinner and grayer every year. Will “truth in print” become an even more malleable concept than it is now?
Sure, truth in print is plenty malleable. But fiction isn’t the problem. You can’t write books that are blatantly factual on certain subjects—evolution, global warming—without blistering culture-war attacks. And stuff gets peddled all the time as objective reportage that’s blatant partisan puffery. I wouldn’t blame novelists for that. I’d blame Rupert Murdoch.
Can there be regional literature in the twenty-first century with New York, London, and Tokyo ruling the publishing scene?
Well, there are certainly regional literatures in languages other than English. The American regional scenes pretty much imploded as soon as the book distribution system was nationalized, mostly by Wal-Mart. The idea that you could write a book about Seattle and a bunch of Seattle-ites would treasure it—that’s pretty much over now. The publishing system we have now annihilates the midlist titles and goes for global-scale blockbusters.
Is the midlist writer doomed, or does the long-tail sales model—smaller sales of a broad inventory of titles over time—offer new hope for scratching out a career?
I rather imagine there are writers who can make money doing various long-tailish things: teaching, speaking, doing scripts, writing copy. A minor writer who is published in several countries can do pretty well as a global microbrand. I’ve noticed that everybody in the long tail wants to exploit the long tail in order to get into the big fat head, but that tail isn’t called long for nothing. It’s really, really long. These are turbulent times for all lines of work. At least authors haven’t been offshored to China—not many of ’em, anyhow.
Any Texas writers on the horizon that excite you?
I’d get plenty interested if I saw some really young guy write a folksy, rootsy, down-home, Southern Gothic, regional Texas novel all about the planet earth.
Cormac McCarthy reeled in the 2007 Pulitzer for his postapocalyptic novel The Road. In ten years, will the barriers be completely gone between literary and genre fiction?
People have been saying that for ages. I think genre barriers are a sign of creative health and would be thrilled to see some new ones appear.
How about graphic novels and manga? What place will they occupy circa 2018?
Manga have Japan to nurture them, and graphic novels have a fanatical fandom, but I worry plenty about newspaper strips. Why are so many of these “comic strips” written by the elderly and the dead? A medium with no young practitioners has no future.
Given a selection of Texas writers—Lawrence Wright, Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Ana Marie Cox, Cormac McCarthy, Amanda Eyre Ward, Dagoberto Gilb, Mylène Dressler, Terry Moore, Ben Fountain—who do you think will be on our radar screen going forward?
I don’t like to outguess the vagaries of literary fame, but that’s an encouraging roll call. I’d have to say that McCarthy is an extraordinary figure. He’s bound to have at least a cult following for the foreseeable future—assuming that we have a future better than the one he so deftly limns in that postapocalypse book.
What will Bruce Sterling be writing in, say, ten years?
History. As futurists go, I’ve always written a lot of history, but the more I personally get under my belt, the more interesting history seems to me.
What is the most pessimistic statement you can make about the future of books, and what is the most optimistic?
I think those two statements are the same statement: We’ll get the kind of artistry that our culture deserves.
Ringraziamenti ancora. Goda l’Italia. Il dio benedice il Babel Fish.
Now, that’s a new kind of reading: the kind carried out by machines.