by Katy Munger, 2016 Piedmont Laureate

Part 1

This is the first in a series of blog posts adapted from a keynote speech I made at the Cameron Village Library on April 26th as part of their Backyard Authors event. Over the next two weeks, I will publish additional posts addressing the future of libraries, readers, and writers.

For the last twenty years, I have lived on the very frontline of traditional and social media and been a firsthand witness to a volatile information landscape. At the same time, I have been living the life of a writer and experiencing firsthand the challenges that publishers, bookstores, and libraries face in this dramatically changing environment.

As I have watched these worlds from a birds-eye view, I have grown increasingly fascinated with the question of exactly what role books will play in our society in the years ahead. And even as I have come to believe that authors, books, and libraries have never been needed more than they are needed now, I have also had to reluctantly acknowledge that the future of books is far from assured. I believe it is time for an epic and national conversation about how we can build a future for ourselves as writers and readers and not simply take what comes. I hope that you will be a part of it by commenting on this blog series in the weeks to come.

Let me begin by saying that we live in an absolutely transformational time for the written word. The very way we communicate with one another, entertain ourselves, absorb information, and process it in our brains is undergoing an amazing overhaul. Take a look at some of the forces emerging in the last 20 years:

  • People raised on television and motion pictures have come of age and replaced older generations of readers, bringing with them attention spans and expectations for plotting, pacing, structure, and characterization that are very different from days gone by. As a writer, if you ignore these changes, you risk failing to attract reader attention at all.
  • Media outlets and publishing companies have consolidated into worldwide behemoths that can no longer afford to put taste, quality, or vision before profits. With these big publishers, it’s all about sales now, period. Literally, and literarily, nothing else matters. Sure, commercial concerns have always dominated publishing and it’s never been easy to be a writer. But today is different. Is a book well written? It doesn’t matter. Does it have something new to say or does it say it in a different way? It doesn’t matter. What matters when it comes to big publishers is if it has a celebrity or television/movie tie-in, or if it can be built into a franchise that sells no matter what is between the covers. Thank god for small publishers.
  • The rise of social media—and the commercial or partisan information sources that thrive on social media by masquerading as objective—have encouraged a disingenuous, anonymous, narcissistic mindset among many people, leading to a disregard for accuracy, a belief that the truth is a matter of opinion, and frightening polarization between people, all while creating a platform where fear is the motivating factor and ridicule of others accepted. How can we expect our society to respect different voices under such circumstances—and isn’t the world of writing fundamentally based on an acknowledgement of and respect of different voices? Isn’t that what writing is? This is not a situation that writers should simply accept if you want a future. It’s time to start calling out inaccurate, self-interested news sources. Stop sharing them on social media, and educate others on how to spot them.
  • The rise of new outlets like blogs, ebooks, print-on-demand, and other technologies now allow anyone to be a writer and publish a book or be heard. In many ways, these tools could become our best friends. They could form the foundation for saving the world of writers and books. But right now: they are contributing to massive information overload and creating reader fatigue that threatens us all. For example, how in the world can readers find good books, well-written books, original books, in the mountain of ebooks published every day? This is a question we must address or else more and more readers (and critics) will simply give up. If you want a future for books, we must all police quality and help the good ones come to the attention of readers—even if it’s not yourbook.
  • Knowledge and intellect have become reclassified by politicians as something to ridicule, as a wedge to drive between people, and as an excuse to justify cutting funding to libraries—the last public bastion of civilization and intellect for our communities beyond our universities. No, our country should not take pride in being stubbornly illiterate, anti-intellectual, and sometimes downright stupid. We must protect the knowledge that books represent by protecting the role libraries play in our communities.
  • The messages we receive in this kind of information environment have become so black-and-white, so invested with self-interest, and so crisis-oriented that satire, irony, and nuance are dead—people are literally incapable of recognizing it. Yet satire, irony, and nuance have all been fundamental tools of writers for centuries. If they no longer work with the majority of people in our society today, what tools can we use to force people to look at themselves in the mirror? Writers must answer this question or risk irrelevance.

As I look at these and other forces, and see people’s fundamental cognitive behavior changing in response to them, I find myself wondering:

  • What is going to happen to our libraries in the years ahead?
  • Will our world even have the attention span and desire to support books in the future?
  • How will writers fit into this new world order? How can we protect our power and our rightful role in modern society?

My next post will be about the future of libraries, coming later this week. In the meantime, please post your thoughts on these questions below!