Literary Legacy Bankrupt?
Bookshops, libraries, authors and ideas struggle to survive.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
STEINBECK, MILLER, STEVENSON, JEFFERS and others have deep roots in the soil of Monterey County. But they flourished many seasons ago. Is this soil still fertile enough to grow a new era of writers? Local authorities have mixed feelings.
Magnus Toren, director of the Henry Miller Library, says, “We at the library are focused on the historical contributions of dead white guys, which is an endless source of beauty and inspiration. Unfortunately I don’t have the energy to give [new writers] the attention they deserve.”
Garland Thompson is synonymous with Monterey slam poetry and theater. He believes the local poetry and literature scene is stunted by a lack of recent “literary beacons” like Steinbeck, Miller and others who cast a light so commanding that it attracts other writers, artists and patrons to the area. Another issue, he says, is the lack of issues.
“The area is so beautiful,” says Thompson, “that it just doesn’t stress people out. Big cities have the urban, political and social issues. It’s more intense. Here there’re a lot of golf courses, but not a lot of protests.”
Some blame Monterey’s listless literary scene, fading independent bookstores and scarcity of local literary journals, on the prevalence of the Internet and “big box” stores like Borders. Guy Rodriguez, owner of Luminata Books & Gifts for 15 years, says, “Our older customers are slowing down their reading and the younger people are buying books on the Internet. It’s not good, it’s not bad – it’s evolution.”
He spoke of May Waldrop, whose Thunderbird Bookstore was a fabled gathering spot for writers and readers, saying that people were sad when she closed. “They liked the idea of an independent bookstore, but they didn’t actually go and buy a book,” he says. Ideas don’t pay the rent. You would have to go to Borders for the newer, more popular books. We sell the enduring stuff. Is it working? Hey, we’re open. A lot of other stores are not here.”
Gail Larsen, the local interest buyer at the Sand City Borders bookstore, is in charge of the local authors section, book signings and events including a local authors showcase on the second Friday of each month.
She says her store has the fifth largest “locals’ section” of Borders’ US stores, with titles that include Big Sur Inn: The Deetjen Legacy, The Art of Jazz, recently released by the Monterey Jazz Festival, A Treatise: A Call for Action by Seaside’s Bedford B. Vaughn, the acclaimed Images of America series on Monterey County, Ric Masten poems, and many more.
When asked about the future prospects for local writers and poets, she says simply: “Publishing. On. Demand.”
Formerly know as vanity publishing, authors pay POD publishers to print their books upon order, while the author takes on the marketing, packaging and distribution tasks that publishers traditionally handled.
The small printings of POD means local authors don’t get the exposure to wider audiences, but is not without its advantages. Local author Ruth Paget, who publishes through POD giant Universe, quips, “I’m not J.K. Rowling, but there’s a satisfaction in getting my stories out.”
Jim McGillen, an entertainment executive, believes POD publishing puts more onus on writers to become salespeople as much as artists. “It’s difficult to become successful, even with talent,” says McGillen, “if your community doesn’t get behind you. That’s what’s happening here. There’s been an enormous void for years. We have people with talent lying dormant.”
He and his wife Cindy are providing a tremendous boost to the local literary profile by organizing the upcoming Carmel Authors & Ideas Festival featuring heavyweight authors like Frank McCourt (Angela’s Ashes), Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and John Grogan (Marley and Me).
Taking place at the Sunset Center, Sept. 28-30, the momentous and pricey event is patterned after Idaho’s Sun Valley Writer’s Conference with the hope that it will inspire Monterey County.
“It’s part of the writer’s job to come to festivals like this one, to network with each other, meet successful authors and learn from their experiences. Itís a tough business.”