SAID HANRAHAN "We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan, In accents most forlorn, Outside the church, ere Mass began, One frosty Sunday morn. The congregation stood about, Coat-collars to the ears, And talked of stock, and crops, and drought, As it had done for years. "It's looking crook," said Daniel Croke; "Bedad, it's cruke, me lad, For never since the banks went broke Has seasons been so bad." "It's dry, all right," said young O'Neil, With which astute remark He squatted down upon his heel And chewed a piece of bark. And so around the chorus ran "It's keepin' dry, no doubt." "We'll all be rooned," said Hanrahan, "Before the year is out."
The above is an excerpt from ‘Said Hanrahan’, by Australian poet John O’Brien. You can find the whole thing (and the rest of the book it came from, Around the Boree Log and other Verses) here.
So why am I quoting poetry, you ask? Well, you see last weekend, I was flipping through the paper and I came across a piece in which the writer was bemoaning the agony of leaving books in bookstores. Just like puppies at the pet store, he wanted to take them all home and he worried that the rejected ones would feel sad and abandoned once he left.
So far so good. I’m sure we’ve all felt like that.
But then he went on to talk about the vast quantities of books, both e-books and paper, flooding the market now and how it was impossible to keep up with them and to choose from so many and people were self-publishing and you couldn’t tell whether they were any good and… stuff like that. My eyes started to glaze over and I lost the will to keep reading. I may have even made a rude noise.
Because I’m tired of hearing it.
Not just this particular piece of doom and gloom about publishing, but all of it. It seems, no matter where I look these days, blogs, papers, online columns, wherever, if the subject is books or publishing, someone wants to tell me the sky is falling. Bookshops are closing, publishing is dead, quality is history, the gatekeepers are lost, physical books will soon be no more, art is pandering to the lowest common denominator, literature is going to hell in a handbasket, yada, yada, yada.
You know what?
I DON’T BELIEVE IT.
Yes, it’s true that we are in a period of great change. And yes, some of that change is painful and hard to take. I don’t know anyone who loves books who wants to see bookshops close. This game is changing for everyone, writers, publishers, reviewers, booksellers and readers alike, and change can be scary.
But I am going to go out on a limb here and say it has been ever so.
I’m pretty certain, when they invented the printing press, there were people who bemoaned the loss of illuminated manuscripts as the dominant form of the printed word. And I reckon some people lost jobs and that must have hurt too. Probably many more gained them, but some might have said that those jobs were poor and nasty and dirty (compared to the glory of illuminating sacred texts) and they would only turn out rubbish that would decay and be lost and serve no useful purpose.
Does that not sound a little like those who lament the loss of the ‘gatekeepers’ and the rash of ‘poor quality’ self-published titles on the market? I can hear echoes.
And you know what? They might have been right. Many of those early printed books probably did disappear. But stories didn’t. Nor did sacred texts, for that matter. And today, those books from the days of Gutenberg are valued as much, although for different reasons, as the illuminated manuscripts that preceded them. That change, that caused so much upheaval at the time, was the beginning of great things.
And similar things could probably be said about the decline of the circulating subscription libraries, or the periodicals in which Dickens published his serialised novels. I’m sure people bemoaned those losses as well. And yet just yesterday, I saw that Momentum, an Australian digital publisher, is going to be putting out a – wait for it – serialised novel in the near future.
So yes, change is upon us. It’s scary and sometimes hard, but I don’t think it is the end of all things. I believe, in a few years, all this will have settled down and things will feel quite normal again. Because if there is one thing that has remained constant, since we first came down from the trees, or up from the primordial ooze and invented language, it’s our love of stories. I have been writing fiction for maybe 6 years. But I have been a storyteller in the oral tradition for closer to 26. I know and have told stories that have been handed down from times long before the advent of writing, much less books. It kind of puts this current brouhaha in perspective.
We have always found a way to share stories and we always will. In this I have faith.
Of course, I could be wrong. But if it’s true and it turns that we are going to hell in a handbasket, don’t despair. Look me up. We’ll throw our baskets on the fire, settle in and I’ll take your mind off things. How?
I’ll tell you a story.