AWP: What about Readers?

It has been a lively week at AWP in Boston.  It struck me this morning that for all the discussion and support for writers, there was almost no conversation about supporting literary culture through reading.

As an English professor this worries me a great deal. The number of students enrolling in English programs is declining, in part in response to the economic downturn.  More troubling are the studies that show startling declines in how often and how well Americans read.

Then today this article by Laura Miller came across my newsfeed from Salon.com:

Supply and demand — those are concepts you’d expect a mogul to understand almost instinctively, so what to make of the recent donation by the Zell Family Foundation (set up by financier Sam Zell and his wife, Helen) of $50 million to the creative writing program at the University of Michigan? Helen Zell told the Associated Press, “The ability of fiction to develop creativity, to analyze the human psyche, help you understand people — it’s critical. It’s as important as vitamins or anything else. To me, it’s the core of the intellectual health of human beings.”

Of course, creative writing programs are not a bad thing, but their role in our current culture can make even those who work within them uneasy. The programs provide promising young writers with the opportunity to concentrate on their work in an (ideally) supportive community of writers. But the programs have difficulty imparting to their students a central truth of most authors’ lives: Nobody cares about your work. When it comes to books, the supply is much larger than the demand.

This, too is a common refrain at AWP: how great novels and books might sell only a few hundred copies.  The publishing world is highly selective, but the number of readers is limited, and apparently getting ever smaller.  I have to agree with Miller’s conclusions:

I’m for supporting young writers, but wouldn’t all writers benefit more from initiatives that encouraged more people to read books? What’s the point of helping a first-time author to finish that novel, if you’re just going to usher them into a world where they can’t get anyone to read it, let alone buy it?

We need a Literature Foundation to mirror that of the Poetry Foundation, with the mission to “discover and celebrate the best [literature] and to place it before the largest possible audience.”

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