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Musings on the Future of Books

Pub Date: Oct 1, 2016 | Columnist: Warren Adler

Musings on the Future of Books

by Warren Adler @WarrenAdler

In my imaginative life as a writer of fiction, I have always strived to come up with some idea that might invest my novels with something so unique, original and insightful that it could plant the seeds of durability and ensure that my books attract readers beyond my lifetime.

Like all inventors, the works of fiction writers are measured by their uniqueness and the benefits to those who consume them. Broadly defined, those benefits can be insight, elucidation, pleasure, a new path to assess motivation, character, destiny, death, luck, love, hate, evil, greed, cruelty, empathy, sacrifice, pain, war, sexuality and, as Hamlet put it, “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”

In the general summing up of a lifetime immersed in imaginative writing or, for that matter, any art form, one must confront the question of “why” such an activity seems to the practitioner like a requirement of one’s existence, like food or oxygen.

In my experience, all fiction writers, including those who toil in the vineyards of formulaic genre, believe that their work merits durability. They most likely harbor secret ambitions that their writings will live beyond their lifetimes. There have been noted examples of such survival, one being the Sherlock Holmes inventions of Arthur Conan Doyle consisting of a mere four novels and numerous popular short stories. But then he did invent the detective story genre.

One can spend a lifetime reaching for the sublime, the truly original and the transcendent. Even in what might be characterized as a long lifetime, perhaps eight or nine decades of awareness and activity on life’s stage in my case, one ascertains how quickly memory can demolish today’s celebrated, glorified, and lauded authors. The illusive nature of notoriety has less lasting life than a grain of dust viewed from a speeding train.

Case in point might be the movie Genius, just released to tepid reviews, about the brilliant editor Maxwell Perkins and his relationship with the author Thomas Wolfe. Perkins was the acknowledged editor of Hemingway and Fitzgerald who was credited with paring down the long and explosively brilliant manuscripts of Wolfe who had his mini moment of glory in the late thirties and forties.

For a budding teenage writer at the time, Wolfe was for me the ultimate example and inspiration of what it meant to be a great novelist. Indeed, there was absolutely no question in my mind and in the literary circles I attended in those days that Wolfe was the enduring example to be followed and worshiped, a sure winner in the sweepstakes of immortality.  Alas, despite even this small movie, a mere outburst of the forgotten past, it was apparent that Wolfe’s flame had flickered, sputtered and died along with my adulation.

And yet, a piece of me still clings to the brilliant invention of the title of his first novel You Can’t Go Home Again, which is an especially profound statement of the truth that deserves everlasting memory.

The irony in this example is that while Wolfe was alleged to harbor illusions of endurance beyond his death, he died at the age of thirty-nine and apparently was consigned to the literary rubbish heap long before the average lifespan of the men in his generation.

With the luxury of long term memory, I have a rather intimidating and arguably unpopular habit of bringing up once hallowed literary names to those as much as two or three generations behind me.

Mention John O’Hara, for example, an extraordinary writer who penned nearly two hundred stories for the prestigious New Yorker in its heyday and the reaction to the name is a blank stare. Worse, even more recent literary celebrities with hallowed names like Updike, Roth, Cheever, Faulkner, the other Wolfe and scores of others fail recognition tests in that generational category. I’ve worked through this group with classics as well with even more shocking results.

Of course, these reactions are specific perhaps to my ever-narrowing world, but I am happy to report that for some reason Hemingway and Fitzgerald still have name recognition in this group which offers some hope that there might still be readers around who continue to worship the art form of my choice. There are surely perhaps thousands of similar examples of lost traction and disappearing interest in writers who had once reached the heights of popularity in their times.  But then, one wonders if the road ahead will provide any traction at all for those of us who cling to the idea that reading books has any future at all.

For those of us who spend our lives creating written works of the imagination, the prospect of a robust future for these efforts remind me of the old saw about the boy whistling in the cemetery. We cannot fail to wonder whether there will be time enough left in people’s lives, filled with infinite distractions that eat away the precious minutes of our lives with games, films, spectacles and the endless merry-go-round of entertaining diversions to carve out the quiet time of deep reflection and concentration required to read a worthy book.

Then again, such dire speculations betray a penchant for nostalgia, dwelling too much in the familiar comforts of the lost “home”. Perhaps this is the moment to pay tribute to Thomas Wolfe’s great title “You Can’t Go Home Again.” He hit that nail on its head.

Warren Adler is best known for The War of the Roses, his masterpiece fictionalization of a macabre divorce turned into the Golden Globe and BAFTA-nominated dark comedy hit starring Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito. In addition to the success of the stage adaption of his iconic novel on the perils of divorce, Adler has optioned and sold film rights to more than a dozen of his novels and short stories to Hollywood and major television networks. Warren Adler has just launched Writers of the World, an online community for writers to share their stories about why they began writing. Warren Adler’s latest novel, Torture Man, which explores Jihadist terrorism, is available now. His Film/TV projects currently in development include the Hollywood sequel to The War of the Roses – The Children of the Roses, along with other projects including Capitol Crimes, a television series based on Warren Adler’s Fiona Fitzgerald mystery novels, as well as a feature film based on Warren Adler and James Humes’ WWII thriller, Target Churchill. Explore more at www.warrenadler.com and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.