By Kevin Guilfoile
It was an admission so honest and unexpected that the collective gasp in response should have made your ears pop.
I was scheduled to be on a panel at a large literary conference/festival with four other writers. Before it started, I was making small talk with one of the other authors, a fellow I had heard of but whose books I had never read. He was giving me a pretty frank assessment of his career. His first novel had been an international blockbuster with millions of copies sold around the world. His second book had sold not quite as well. His third novel had sold even fewer copies. He was now on his seventh or eighth book and although his residual readership was still considerably larger than mine, his career had continued on the wrong trajectory. With each book he was losing readers, not adding them. His agent couldn't figure out why. His publisher couldn't figure out why. He couldn't figure out why.
We had a lively, hour-long discussion in front of maybe 200 people. Then somebody asked what books each of us were reading. We went down the line giving brief assessments of our latest good reads. When it was this guy's turn he said,
"I don't read. I haven't read a book since my first novel was published 10 years ago."
As I said, there was a gasp.
He said, "I don't have time to read. Whatever time I have to read I would rather spend it writing."
Remembering our earlier conversation, I thought, "Well there's your answer."
As I've thought about it over the years, I've realized there's more to be learned from that comment than just the reasons for one author's declining sales. All writers have felt the same tension--the occasional guilty feeling when you are reading that this is an indulgence keeping you away from your work. Most writers would never admit to having given up the enjoyment of books altogether, although I often suspect, when reading a particularly cliched or unimaginative novel, that this fellow isn't the only one.
But it gets to the heart of the biggest problem facing the publishing industry. All readers have increased demands on their time and reading eats up hours at a pretty good clip. There are no doubt millions of people who find sitcoms less satisfying than books, but television and internet are both cheap and provide immediate gratification and TV at least comes in a little capsule of time that fits confidently into the daily budget of waking hours. For all the discussion about how to save publishing, this is a problem no one can answer and it's only going to get worse.
Time is the writer's ultimate foe. It puts insurmountable obstacles between readers and his work and then one day, often without warning, it rudely ends his career.
Still there is something especially arrogant about a writer who doesn't read. About an author who expects people to digest his words by the tens of thousands when he has no time for anyone else's.
For the last month I've been furiously reading through the nominees for this year's Tournament of Books (an event for which I serve as both commissioner and color analyst and about which I will have much more to say later). I'm trying to read 16 books, some of them substantial, in about eight weeks, which has basically forced me to about double the amount of time I usually spend reading each day. I thought it would be difficult, but I've found it to be the opposite. It's been liberating. It's forced be to reassess how much of my time is wasted each day on stuff less important and less enjoyable than reading. Its caused me to re-prioritize my leisure time. To ask myself why I am still watching Heroes when, honestly, I no longer have the slightest idea what's going on anymore.
Sometimes a little forced labor will set you free.