September 28th, 2015
In 2008, Heidi Julavits published a marvelous short piece, The Writers in the Silos, a satirical glance at where writing and publishing is headed in “our current conglomerating, lowest-common-denominator, demographically targeted publishing industry.” I fell in love with it and bought the rights to reproduce the article on The Future of Publishing. As it’s buried somewhere at the back of my site, I like to pull it out on occasion for a new group of readers. Here you go:
The Writers in the Silos
By Heidi Julavits. First published in Creative Nonfiction: 31
as part of its forum “Writing and Publishing in 2025 and Beyond.”
It requires neither imagination nor acumen to predict that our current conglomerating, lowest-common-denominator, demographically targeted publishing industry will soon achieve its streamlined apotheosis—a single, worldwide, ExxonMobil-owned literary empire offering a list of seven books twice per year. The lists for these two seasons—Holiday Gifts and Beach—will each include one of the following: a Dickensianly sprawling Antarctic thriller; a faux-intellectual, faux-experimental novel packaged with enticingly gimmicky swag (such as a French Existentialist pashmina); a World War II historical novel wherein one or more ex-Nazis, in the flash-forward sections, live as kindly sausage-makers or residually evil schoolteachers; a winningly bitchy PTA tell-all, written by an overeducated mother of multiple-birth ADD children living in a suburb of eco-friendly prefabs; a spiritual-conversion-after-brush-with-Ebola memoir; an inspiring life-lesson book, written by a long-shot gay pro-life female minority ex-Klan presidential hopeful; and a “quick fire” cookbook for people with intimidatingly professional kitchens and no time, inclination, or skills to cook in them. Books will be compiled by a team of content providers; “the author” will be represented in photos and on tour by genuinely attractive people. Blurbs will be supplied by eBay sellers with the highest approval ratings.
This, we all know, is the inevitable future.
But while many have doomily predicted the death of literary culture as a byproduct of this future, few have wrestled with the possibility that deaths—actual human fatalities—will result. Indeed, in this not so distant and inevitable future, people will begin to sicken, and the weaker among them will perish. Initially, a batch of E. coli-tainted produce will be fingered as the culprit, but the contagion will eventually be determined to have emanated from a most innocuous source: books. The sick and the deceased, the investigation will show, each read two or more books published during the ExxonMobil Holiday Gifts ’25 season. A team of crack scientists in hazmat suits will convene in Houston’s Astrodome with box upon box of ExxonMobil text product. While their tests will prove inconclusive—Was the literary DNA of books so tampered with that a viral mutation was unwittingly released? Have terrorists finally perfected the Text Bioweapon, thereby rendering all acts of reading potentially fatal?—the consumer panic will result in a conclusive cultural shift. ExxonMobil’s book sales will drop to nearly nothing. In a public-relations recovery attempt, ExxonMobil will assemble the hundreds of content providers who constitute its “authors” for an Inquisition-style trial. But because all work is emailed from afar and hybridized in a central editing location, it will prove impossible to track the source of the contagion, and the content providers will be released without so much as a scapegoat to justify their travel costs.
Suddenly, there will be no new books. Shockingly, this will sadden people and make them yearn for a golden literary era none of them experienced. The actual writers, those few still kicking around, will alight from their surprisingly swank hovels (not writing will have served them well). At first, these writers—mostly buffed, androgynous sorts—will be spotted at farmers’-market stalls, selling clipped sheaves of laser printouts beside the cider-doughnut lady. They will shake your hand, these writers. They will promise that their literary wares are the product of a single, careful mind, unmutated by mass production and untainted by viral collaboration, and since these writers are plain-looking people, even downright unattractive and badly dressed, they will seem instantly more believable and less evil than the glossy actor-authors of recent memory. Soon a slogan will attach itself to this phenomenon—“Read Locally”—and the new AgriCultural movement will emerge. Writers will begin to form allegiances with small farmers, and soon, every small farm will have its own writer. The farmer and the writer will decide that mutual dependency and market diversification are the keys to survival: When the writer produces a less-than-stellar product, he will be buttressed by egg sales; when the farmer has a poor strawberry yield, he will be buttressed by the writer’s pure and homey creative output.
Of course, the success of this system will lead farms to merge, and writers will begin to work in greater numbers on larger farms, and eventually people from afar will want to read the works of writers whose hands they cannot personally shake, and so the inevitable human impulse to slake all desires and improve efficiency (and thus profit) will mean that by the dawn of the next millennium, we’ll be right back where we are today. But for a few decades at least, just before the seas rise above the writers’ silos and drown us—oh, what a golden age of literature there will be.
Published also in Harper’s Magazine / September 2007
About Heidi Julavits
A founding editor of The Believer magazine, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and winner of the PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence in Fiction, Heidi Julavits is also the author of four critically acclaimed novels: The Uses of Enchantment, The Effect of Living Backwards,The Mineral Palace and The Vanishers. Her most recent book is The Folded Clock: A Diary.