Kevin Smokler, for one, is tired of hearing that his generation doesn't appreciate books and that books are becoming less relevant to modern culture. In response, the San Francisco writer, speaker, and (as his business card has it) "maker of mischief" has edited a new anthology called Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times, a strong (and surprisingly consistent) collection of original essays by young authors. Many of the contributors cover how they came to writing and how they pursue their craft, but they also discuss what books mean to them, how the modern world with its many distractions affects their work, and why they bother stringing words together at all.
Smokler's first contract was for a volume called Generation Text, in which he planned to offer proof that, yes, the kids do still read. But the authors he approached to contribute -- big names like Nick Hornby, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and Zadie Smith -- weren't interested, and his editor was dubious about selling a book with "generation" in the title (good instinct). With the help of his agent and some contributors who had already signed on, Smokler refocused the collection on the relevance of books in what Bookmark's cover calls "the age of information overload." The final lineup includes some people whose work Smokler didn't know but who came recommended, and some (about 60 percent) whom he knew personally. Among them are a handful of names you may recognize -- Neal Pollack, Nell Freudenberger, Meghan Daum -- and many you won't. But they delivered what Smokler calls "fantastic work" (I agree).
As Smokler was rewriting his introduction to the newly reformulated collection, the National Endowment for the Arts released a report called "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," one of the most talked-about events in the book world last year. Based on a comparison of Census Bureau data from 2002 to similar data from 1982 and 1992, the survey concluded that "literary reading" (defined as "novels, short stories, poetry or plays") was on the decline (a drop of "10 percentage points in literary readers from 1982 to 2002, representing a loss of 20 million potential readers") while TV, video game, and online media consumption was rising.
It wasn't the report itself that ticked Smokler off -- he doesn't deny the data or the NEA's conclusion -- but rather the response to it: a collective sigh and shrug. First, while everyone seemed to agree that reading was at risk, no one looked at the huge numbers of young people still interested in it, or offered any ideas to combat what Smokler sees as reading's "enormous image problem." What "stunk up the joint," he wrote in his introduction, was "double-talk that proclaimed us to be living in a new kind of nightmare for American literacy while blaming the same old bogeymen."
The final straw was when his mother sent him a link to a Miami radio talk show on which retirement-age listeners were lamenting how young people don't appreciate books. "If I closed my eyes," he says, "I could see myself at my parents' age hearing [the same talk] about rock 'n' roll. 'It's Elvis Presley and his damned hips.'" The report was just the catalyst he and the book needed.
I met Smokler at the Reverie Cafe in Cole Valley last week to talk about Bookmark, his ideas about culture, and his unlikely career as a literary evangelist. (He's an avid book lover, but like everyone, he's got holes in his reading background that he hopes to plug someday: He's never read Jane Austen or Hamlet, for example.) To his credit, the 31-year-old doesn't look like anyone's definition of a hipster, nor is he a book dork: He's just an average Joe type -- short and stocky, with unfashionably oversized glasses and a new-looking black leather jacket. When he speaks, it's clear that he has led many public discussions and that he's passionate about his subject; his message is honed without being slick, and his clear voice cuts through the noise of the street traffic.
"We sing this song once every generation," he says, talking about the NEA report and its conclusion. "'It's the end of the world as we know it.'" But he doesn't agree that young people aren't reading and writing. As he understands it, there's a "disconnect between what people in the book business see as a literate public and what today's version of a literate public actually is." He doesn't think that old ideas of intellectual conversation suffice: "It's not just, 'Can I quote Camus?'" Rather, young people are engaged in a lot of literary "subconversations" that the book biz -- and the "lit is dead" doomsayers -- are ignoring. As Bookmark outlines, there are more and more ways for our generation to read and relate to words than just "novels, short stories, poetry or plays": in hip hop and spoken word performances, in online diaries and book-focused Web sites, in "the McSweeney's factor" and its concentric circles of publishing, in the "culture of story" that touches everything from TV shows to This American Life on National Public Radio.
One big change, he points out, is writers' increasing ability -- and increasing need -- to connect personally with their readers. After all, we expect DVD commentary from filmmakers, liner notes from musicians, and soul-baring on Inside the Actors Studio; where can we find a similar transparency when it comes to writers? On his own tour -- which starts June 1 with a launch party at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books at 7 p.m. and continues the next day at 7:30 p.m. at Cody's in Berkeley -- reading out loud will be only a small part: Smokler also plans a grand entrance ("This is the closest I'm ever going to get to being a rock star"), photographs, an interactive diversion with audience members, and other ways of showing that "literary culture is fun; it's not dull."
Bookmark supports his theory admirably. There's not a dog in the collection, which is an extraordinary accomplishment (most anthologies are mixed bags). A majority of the pieces defend writing against one argument or another. Pamela Ribon, one of the first bloggers, makes the case in "Look the Part" for the Internet's positive influence: "How it works now is that if you're writing something someone else is reading, for better or worse, you're a writer." That doesn't mean all 5 million blogs are good (that's just the initial rush of excitement at a new technology, Smokler says), but rather that they open up the world of writing. As Nicola Griffith explains in "As We Mean to Go On" (written with her life and work partner, Kelley Eskridge), "[T]he writer is becoming less separate from the writing: The edges of public and private identity are blurring. As we have more access to the world, it has more access to us." Translation: Many authors now share their personal stories as well as their published ones, in a two-way online conversation that can be like sitting down at a pub with a smart group of readers. This, she thinks, is a positive development.
Picking up on Smokler's notion that writing needn't be furtive, Adam Johnson demystifies the process with a funny piece titled "A Call for Collaboration": "What's less romantic than staring alone at a blank screen? ... I've changed the cat litter because I didn't know what my characters were going to say next." He's not saying that "there should be two names on every book," but rather that some titles might benefit if writers popped their heads out of their hidy-holes once in a while and talked to someone.
The case against the decline of reading and writing in modern culture is made admirably by Tom Bissell in "Distractions": "I do not really believe that anything, other than rank stupidity, is in itself antithetical to literature." He goes on, "Probably every writer comes of age believing that, at least in terms of distraction, writing is harder for her generation than for all those that came before. Every writer has been correct in that belief." But so what? Bissell, the author of three books, admits to an obsession with video games, but then, "Every literary generation has had its distractions, some far more toxic than video games -- often literally so. Hemingway, for instance, had booze, broads, and big-game hunting. Fitzgerald had booze, screenwriting, and his wife's insanity. Surely Hemingway's and Fitzgerald's distractions brought them a little more wisdom and worldly engagement than getting past the eleventh board of The Getaway, but it would be hard to argue that it made them more productive writers."
Smokler is cognizant of the history of new cultural modes supplanting old ones, and the resistance that gives rise to: Remember, he points out, that 200 years ago the consensus was that novels themselves were "the frivolous diversion of a well-kept woman," not the cornerstone of an intellectual society. Now he senses that the book business is starting to wake up, like the collective masters of music, radio, and the arts in general. He considers Bookmark Now "an invitation to think big," a chance to break away from the dire predictions of "Reading at Risk" and other cultural doom-and-gloomers. As he puts it, "From uncertain times come brilliant ideas."