A golden age for writing, and writers?

Jessica Allen
Scale Weighing Money and Education Evenly
Christopher Badzioch/Getty

A recent column in Esquire claims that a golden age of writing is upon us, despite rumblings during the past 100 years from literary circles that the novel is dead.

Canadian author Stephen Marche argues that the number of “big books published by major writers,” including Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, is indicative of the literary boom. Moreover, writers are more prosperous today than any other age in history. Billionaire J.K. Rowling, Marche points out, is richer that the queen of England, and Tom Wolfe recently received a $7 million paycheque for his latest book.

And it’s not just the novel that is alive and well: “The essay–long or short, literary or plain–has never been stronger.” You won’t find Marche pining away over old New Yorkers routinely dotted with prose by the likes of Lillian Ross, A.J. Liebling or Calvin Trillin. “Go back and look at those old magazines,” he says, “and you will discover something shocking: They’re mostly boring…” With only a few exceptions, “almost every magazine in the world is in its best shape ever, right now.”

Publishers are making money, too. Revenues for both hard cover and paperbacks are up from 2011, not to mention the 17 per cent increase in net publisher sales of adult fiction e-books from 2010 to 2011. Plus, “people with e-readers,” Marche says, “read more books than those without.” In fact, adult Americans are reading more all around: On average, they read 17 books in 2011, “a number that hasn’t been that high since Gallup and Pew began tracking the figure in 1990.” And they’re not just reading Fifty Shades of Grey (although, over 16 million copies of the series have been sold in America.) “The percentage of Americans who told the National Endowment for the Arts that they read literature rose in 2008 (their most recent survey) by 3.5 percentage points to more than half the population — the first gain in twenty-six years,” writes Marche.

“And for writers starting out,” he says, “there are more options, more means of access to the marketplace, than ever before.” In Canada, writers do get plenty of help: The Writers’ Trust of Canada provides this country’s authors with nine literary awards, a writer’s retreat and roughly $400,000 annually in financial support.  And many authors of both fiction and non-fiction have sought refuge at the Banff Centre to take part in their series of programs, all of which offer financial aid in some part and are eligible for grants.

Still, the Canadian publishing industry might argue that Marche’s golden age may be a little patinated. The 40-year-old Canadian publishing house Douglas & McIntyre filed for bankruptcy in October, despite being behind recent award-winning books, like this year’s Weston Prize winner A Geography of Blood by Candace Savage and Johanna Skibsrud’s 2010 Scotiabank Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists. As for our authors, none of whom are billionaires, well, prize money from awards–and the inevitable increase in book sales, often means the difference between having a day job and surviving off their craft. But even after winning $25,000 for this year’s Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, Tamas Dobozy, isn’t quitting his day job teaching at Wilfrid Laurier University. “I would if I could write on my own terms,” he told the Toronto Star after winning the award, “but that’s a luxury most short story writers can never afford, except for Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, and very few others.”