Wednesday, September 26, 2007

New Issue Review: Creative Nonfiction no. 31, "Imagining the Future"

"It requires neither imagination nor acumen to predict that our current conglomerating, lowest-common-denominator, demographically targeted publishing industry will soon achieve its streamlined apotheosis--a single, worldwide, Exxon Mobil-owned literary empire offering a list of seven books twice a year."
-from "The Writers in the Silos" by Heidi Julavitis, editor of
The Believer

It is hardly an opinion to say that the future of book publishing is uncertain, what with Apple's recent iPhone release, Google's continual digitization of American libraries, and talk from more and more publishers about serious consideration of print-on-demand technology. Certainly books themselves will be around for some time, but their locations and the amount of use they receive is in question. It seems possible for them to disappear from our everyday lives, to be replaced by electronic paper, or to have their value negated by the next phase of Google's information empire takeover, the physical texts then relegated permanently to some Library of Congress vault forty feet below street level. That this hypothesising increasingly goes on today asserts what we all intuitively or consciously realize: our relationship with printed matter is changing rapidly.

This is the subject Creative Nonfiction tackles in their latest issue, number 31, which became available this past summer (see cover image above). Looking at the issue's unassuming cover and graphic-lite content, a reader may not readily assume the issue contains a wealth of intellectually dexterous and engaging writing about the future of book publishing by some of the most interesting minds in the business, including Heidi Julavitis (The Uses of Enchantment; co-editor of The Believer), C. Michael Curtis (fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly), Amy Stolls (literature specialist for the National Endowment for the Arts), Philip Lopate (Art of the Personal Essay), Dinty W. Moore (editor of Brevity), and many more. If, say, Tin House or Zoetrope: All Story did an issue on the same theme, the cover would have a futuristic image adorning it, the text, a heavy techo-typography (possibly even embossed), and the inside would be laden with graphics depicting the wild and exuberant world of the near future of books. Something attention getting, to say the least. Creative Nonfiction, on the other hand, has always been more reserved in their public image (and less well funded, obviously, than Mr. Coppola's or Mr. McCormack's magazines). The only thematically revealing aspects of Creative Nonfiction's cover are the two subtitles: "Writing and Publishing in 2025 and Beyond" and "Imagining the Future," which are hopefully enough for readers to locate this find among the mass of newsstand possibilities.

Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, asked the issue's contributors to imagine the future of book publishing in the year 2025. Though the writers each at least refer to the year at least once in their essays, the content and predictions of the essays are refreshingly all over the map (something always nice to discover in themed issues). The essays could easily have all discussed the usual suspects of book future--the fear of literary digitization, downloadable e-books replacing print books, the distractions of new media eliminating new readers or "real" books, etcetera--but the writers in this issue are able to push down different tracks and explore new possibilities to seek out publishing's future. (Image at left was done by creative studio Little Kelpie; it is one of the many graphics about the future of books the studio created for this issue of Creative Nonfiction.)

Take Heidi Julavitis's essay, "The Writers in the Silos" (recently republished in Harper's readings section). In a subtle high-irony, Julavitis takes us from an Exxon Mobil (yes, the oil company) global takeover of literature, through an elimination of all the world's books, to a final resurgence of literature in an Adam-and-Eve-grassroots like rebirth of reading at--of all things--your local farmers market. "Soon a slogan will attach itself to the phenomenon--'Read Locally,'" Julavitis writes, "and the new AgriCultural movement will begin." In less than three pages Julavitis takes literature from its pessimistic free market destruction to a warm recreation within local communities--a future which, though obviously somewhat comic, contains a nice element of hope.

The rest of the issue ranges from explorations of the possible necessity of gatekeepers in the literary world to cities where digital books are accessible from anywhere 24/7. And the complete issue feels not like an off-the-cuff prediction of an unknown future, but instead like glimpses into publishing's crystal ball explained by the sort of people you think might know a thing or two about the field. The result is both an eye-opening look at the many diverse possible futures of the book world as well as a reaffirming assertion that, no matter where the future takes us, writing is something we will have to deal with--even if, as Lopate amusingly imagines, its "a book-lozenge which dissolved novella-sized works on the tongue, or the book-shot, devised for cultivated diabetics who requested a literary dose with their daily injections."

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