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An Open Letter to Fiction Writers

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Fellow fiction writers,

Let's be frank: we're not the healthiest-minded bunch. If we were we'd spend our days doing something more pleasant than writing fiction. But lately we seem to have taken a turn for the worse. We look out at the shifting landscape of publishing - e-books rising, big publishers quaking - and obsessively ask, both publicly and privately, Is the novel dead? Is it all Fifty Shades of Twilight from here on out? Are we going the way of the poets, soon to be read by only each other?

The fear is palpable in any group of fiction writers larger than zero. (Non-rhetorical question: how often do you come away from a literary gathering without some new tidbit of doom? The famous writer who couldn't sell her new novel. The legendary editor who's been canned.) The effects of this fear can be seen in our bad behavior. Take, for example, the embarrassing overreaction to the e-library LendInk, when the Twitter-fueled confusion of several dozen novelists brought down a site that was actually making them money. (It has since gone back up.) In 2010 The Guardian observed that in the United States, "Declaring the death of the novel is now almost as much of a literary tradition as the novel itself," and since then I'd say the balance has shifted.

Irritable. Pessimistic. Beset by feelings of worthlessness. There's a term for this pattern of emotions. It's called "depression." We, as fiction writers, are collectively depressed. We might not be depressed as individuals; but we have become depressed as a group.

How did we get here? According to a dominant theory in psychology, it was probably through a process called "learned helplessness." Faced with our seeming inability to prevent an undesirable outcome (to wit: the death of our chosen profession), we turned to despair. But we can prevent this undesirable outcome. And we should. In the face of learned helplessness, doing something is everything.

There are those who already are. Novelist Steven Elliot launched an indie book club through his online culture magazine, The Rumpus. Like a handful of other indie book clubs -Emily Books, The Nervous Breakdown - his club tries to fill the gap left by neighborhood bookstores by hand-selling the kind of literary gems that tend to get overlooked in the blockbuster culture of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Ann Patchett has thrown herself bodily against fate by opening one of those brick and mortar bookshops that are so endangered and so missed. Novelists such as Jess Walter, Nicole Krauss, and even Margaret Atwood are experimenting with new forms through the creative digital publisher Byliner. And there are countless more examples.

Me, I've paired up with former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee to found a company called Plympton, which is reviving serialized fiction as a popular medium. I have many reasons to think this is a good idea: television shows such as Breaking Bad and Mad Men have gotten us in the habit of ingesting our big stories in bite-sized chunks; the serial is a form that demands compelling plot; and digital serials have the potential to add a social element to both reading and writing.

Others seem to think it's a good idea as well. Byliner just launched their serial imprint with Margaret Atwood's Positron. In October, St. Martin's and Movable Type will be jointly rolling out Jamie Brenner's serialized novel The Gin Lovers. And Amazon has just unveiled their new Kindle Serials program, which sends new installments of a serial novel directly to your e-reading device. (Full disclosure: three of the initial eight Kindle Serial titles are products of Plympton.)

But whether reviving the serial is a good idea isn't really the point. Nor is the point whether any one of these literary experiments succeeds or fails. The point is that doing something is an antidote to learned helplessness. It feels good to do something. Far better, certainly, than watching and waiting in existential dread.

And the point is also: we owe it to readers to pull ourselves out of learned helplessness. A little bit of depression may come with the territory of being a writer; but too much, and paralysis sets in. At the extreme, some of us might find ourselves unable to write at all. In our pessimism we might give up on fiction, like poor Thomas Hardy whose despairing decision never to write another novel impoverished all readers to come. But even for those of us who keep on going, bogged down by fear and helplessness our writing is apt to sag - to become less inventive, less playful, less exuberant. We owe it to everyone who loves books not to let that happen.

Creation is what fiction writers are good at. We create psyches, able to draw readers in to seeing the world in entirely new ways. Hell, we invent worlds. We try to reinvent language every time we lay our fingers on the keyboard. Surely we can invent new ways to get our stories into the hands of an appreciative audience.

Innovation has never been easier to implement, and hundreds of thousands of book-lovers are on the other side of your laptop. Reader networking sites such as Goodreads can lend new power to word of mouth. Lean companies such as Plympton can take the risks big publishing houses are increasingly shunning - on heady novels, experimental novels, novels not easily classified in traditional marketing terms. This is an exciting time to be a fiction writer. But only if you're willing to let it be.

Hopefully,
Yael Goldstein Love