With all the traditional filtering systems of the past that help determine the quality of a book diminishing at an accelerating pace, I have been thinking a lot about how a serious writer of non-genre fiction, meaning novels and short stories, will gain a loyal audience.
By serious novels, I mean those stand alone novels that told stories about characters that offered insight into the human condition, and broadened our knowledge of the times we live in and the world around us, and introduced us to authors who thrilled us with the richness of their imagination and the skill of their prose.
Would we have discovered the works of authors like Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, Maugham, O'Hara, Fitzgerald, Roth and many other modern masters if we had to come across them through the fragmentation and puzzling pathways of cyberspace? My references you will notice are personal and arbitrary. Undoubtedly, readers of my generation have their own personal favorites.
Academia, of course, was an essential part of the filtering system, but even academic picks are becoming fragmented in strange ways by the biases of the tenured and the lock step and untrustworthy uniformity of political opinion.
In the old filtering system professional book critics, publishers, librarians, politically neutral academics and respected authors would weigh in through newspapers, magazines and book clubs to offer their subjective assessments of the current crop of novels published by a finite number of publishers. Their judgments, of course, were always subjective, often biased one way or another, but they did reflect a more balanced view not based on any agenda but their honest take on the value of the book. Not all books were "reviewed" but the process often came up with a consensus that helped the reader make an educated choice.
It was an imperfect system, but it did offer some semblance of logic and for years sustained that publishing area devoted to serious novels. The genre novel was considered outside the realm of serious recognition and never included on bestseller lists. Not that best seller lists, then and now, ever reflected quality literary output, but they did offer a path of recognition for the serious novelist that occasionally struck the gold of universal acceptance and acclaim.
Today the bestseller lists recognize the genre novel and have spawned an industry that, in many ways, has made it more and more difficult for the serious novelist to reach a wide public. Of course, one wonders if the bestseller lists are even relevant in these days of scattershot marketing in a landscape in which millions are self-publishing and using every ploy they can think of to gain recognition.
Marketing for authors has become an ever-widening cottage industry with entrepreneurs offering the promise of recognition for serious authors that rarely, if ever, attain their stated goals. Novelists today often pay for their reviews produced by self-appointed reviewers, and e-book sites offer review opportunities to readers to register their critiques of a writers work, a process frequently abused and unreliable.
There are, of course, serious writers out there both published by reputable publishers or by the authors themselves. Finding those novels worthy of one's time and effort is becoming, to say the least, challenging. Reading a novel is a big commitment of time although the sampling process of purchasing is helpful but not conclusive.
One must remember that writers who write what they consider to be mainstream stand alone novels believe mightily in their talent and the integrity of their work. Why then devote so much time and effort to their production if they thought otherwise? Many of them think of themselves as unsung literary heroes and some very well may be.
As a dedicated reader of serious novels, at least by my own definition, I am finding it increasingly difficult to find the signposts and detours that will lead me to such work. Unfortunately there is no GPS system and I find I am still relying on what is left of the old filtering system to find my target reading. And I am often disappointed.
Then again there are always the classics. Time is the most reliable filter of all.