THE BLOG
10/09/2014 08:40 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

When Writers Outnumber Readers

Adapted from the forward by Heidi Pitlor from THE BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES 2014. Copyright © 2014 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

Sometimes it seems as if the aspiring--and financially well enough endowed-- writer is offered more than the reader in this country. For the young writer, there are a fast-growing number of MFA programs, fellowships, summer workshops, residencies, creative writing centers, books that teach about writing and traditional publishing. For evidence of the opportunities for and widespread desire to write, note the sheer number of blogs that populate the Internet, Facebook and Twitter (where everyone is a published writer, at least within the confines of a status update or tweet), the army of the self-published and the army of books about how to self-publish.

From my vantage point, there are moments when it seems like more people in this country want to write than read. Many people who read The Best American Short Stories, the annual series that I edit, are in fact writers in training, reading in order to learn how to write better. I myself came to serious reading a little late, halfway through college, and this was in a class where both reading and creative writing were taught.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with wanting to write and seeking help in that endeavor. I am the proud owner of an MFA, a shelf full of books about how to write fiction, how to get published, memoirs by fiction writers, and at least a dozen story anthologies that I bought before I was lucky enough to land my job. But what happens if and when the number of writers begins to outnumber the readers? What happens when writing becomes more appealing to more people than reading? Will we become--or are we already--a nation of attention-seeking performers with no audience?

For the reader, there are book clubs, many informally initiated by friends or neighbors, a smattering of independent bookstores that serve as meeting places for readers and writers, libraries, some websites. Getting books has become easy, thanks to e-readers. But I'm talking about accessible, widespread support for reading as an end in itself. A sense in our country that reading is necessary and, dare I say, a wee bit glamorous. Like writing. Or I should say, like writing once seemed. I went to an office supply store the other day to make a copy of my forthcoming novel, still in manuscript form. The man behind the counter looked at the title, The Daylight Marriage. He cocked his head and said softly, with great pity, "Are we an aspiring novelist? Are we a romance writer?" With the greater supply of writers comes less demand, of course, along with less respect. My book is far from romantic, and I muttered, "No," and slunk away from the counter, only later realizing the many things I should have said to that man on behalf of aspiring romance novelists everywhere.

A happier story: I had the good luck to take part in a reading and trivia night a while ago at a bookstore in Cambridge. This was a fundraiser for 826 Boston, the fabulous organization that offers writing support for kids. Four of us writers were invited to read for a few minutes and then came a rowdy, rambunctious game of literary trivia for the mostly 20-something audience. In order to win, players needed to have read things. There were questions about Mrs. Dalloway and Let the Great World Spin and Frankenstein. The place was packed. Drinks were served, fun was had. Reading became a galvanizing force rather than a solitary chore.  

We--editors, writers, publishers, all of us--need to do whatever we can to help enliven readers, to help create communities for them if we want to continue to have readers at all. Our independent bookstores are the front lines and many booksellers are fighting the good fight. Here, books stimulate conversation. Conversation stimulates a sense of community. Listening happens. Thinking. The exchange of thoughts.

Here's the thing: I am guilty of spending evenings scrolling through my Facebook and Twitter feeds, telling myself that after a day of reading stories, why not give myself a break? Why on earth would I want to read more fiction? I have a list three miles long of books that I want to read. I have twenty-five books on my bedside table. Why not take a few minutes or maybe an hour and see what's going on with all my "friends" and people whom I "follow"? But then I start to feel a little groggy from staring at the screen, a little glum from reading others people's opinions of the day's news, which is so rarely good. I've been trying to spend more time during the evening with books, less online, to keep myself engaged in some novel, some book, at all times. Because really, what I've done all day, whether it's been reading short fiction or writing longer fiction or shepherding children does not matter. We're all tired at night. We are all entitled to some self-indulgence, be that taking a self-test on Buzzfeed or laughing over the tweets from the enormous, perplexing number of writers who watch The Bachelor each week. But we all know the drill: if we only eat candy, if we cultivate our friendships and relationships primarily online, if we forget to walk to town sometimes instead of drive, a crucial part of us will wither. You don't have to read all the books on your list at once. Just pick up the one that grabs you right now, fiction or nonfiction or self-help or whatever. If you don't love it, put it down. Move on.

I'm not going to vow never to dip into Facebook or Twitter, but maybe I'll go online a little less. I'm going to try to keep reading some novel each night. I'm going to start asking people what books they're reading instead of what movies they have seen. I'm going to see if I can't talk a few bookstore people into starting weekly trivia nights at their stores. I will dream up some games or prizes or at the very least booze when I go on book tour for my novel next spring.

What will you do?