University Park, Pa. -- Kevin Boon, associate professor of English at Penn State Mont Alto, is an author. He writes poetry, short stories, novels, non-fiction books, plays and screenplays. Boon said he wrote since he was a child, but really began his writing career in his 20s.
“I love writing and I read voraciously, which all real writers do,” he said. “They love books and they love ideas so you put those two loves together and you write.”
November is National Novel Writing Month. In celebration, Boon discusses the history of publishing, the difficulty of being published and why we should read novels in the first place.
When did book writing and publishing take off and how has it changed?
Boon: Well, I’m not a scholar in publishing, but in general, publishing began with hand-written and hand-illustrated books. Someone would spend his entire life transcribing one book. When the invention of the Gutenberg press [in the 1400s] made mass reproduction of books possible, literacy grew. The books that were published were those thought to be important, often religious or philosophical texts. As the British Empire spread throughout the world, so did compulsory education, which resulted in more people with minimal levels of literacy. To fulfill the new demand, more books were written and published.
The 20th century brought a shift in the setting of most novels. Previously, upper class people wrote books about upper class people. But once the working class was reading and writing, the level and subject matter of novels became more diverse. More works by and about the working class appeared in print. As technology developed further, publishing houses grew in number and the number of novels available grew. In the early half of the 20th century, significant writers like Allen Ginsberg, writers who may not have hit best-selling levels, were nevertheless considered important writers by their publishing houses. However, when publishing companies started focusing more on the bottom line, the face of fiction changed. Popular, profitable fiction was preferred. The public’s lack of interest in literary novels motivated publishers to seek out more popular, better-selling authors.
In your opinion, is it easier or harder to be an author today?
Boon: It’s harder today than it was before. Kurt Vonnegut, who was writing short stories in the 1950s, got about $800 for his first short story and $900 for his second. Today if you got $800 dollars for a short story, it would be incredible. Sixty years ago, short story magazines were mainstream. Now only a smattering of short-story magazines remain. Since the advent of television, the number of markets has declined, while the number of writers has increased. New authors have to compete with major, established authors like Joyce Carol Oates, for space in the few markets left.
What do you think about self-publishing?
Boon: There are very few success stories of a self-publishing author getting picked up by a big publishing house. It’s not a good idea, for a number of reasons. First, you shouldn’t have to pay for your work to be published. Second, self-published authors have to do their own editing and marketing, so chances are their work will suffer from the lack of attention. Third, when others say a book is good and invest their money into its production and publication, that shows they have confidence in the quality of the work. Self-publishing means the only person who said the author’s work was worth publishing is the author. The problem is that 99.9 percent of people who write a book think it’s good, but 99.9 percent of books written are not good. If someone wrote a family history and wanted to pay $600-800 to self-publish it for family members, then self-publishing might makes sense. Otherwise self-publishing is the equivalent of writing a play, hiring the actors and renting a theater for the performance, then giving away all the tickets. You may have put on a play, but you have trouble legitimately calling yourself a playwright.
Why is it important to read novels, instead of non-fiction?
Boon: There is an idea that runs through western culture, particularly American culture, that everything should be practical, and that you need to read just facts. But history is where we’ve been; imagination is the future. If we don’t read fiction, we’re just looking back. Novels aren’t irrelevant to life. A lot of things that happen in novels actually happened, and some things that are published as non-fiction are merely products of someone’s imagination… Reading novels is critical to our understanding of the world, as are all the arts – writing, painting, music, sculpture.
How do those of us who like to read find good books that are important?
Boon: Good novels and important novels are two different things. Reviewers and the literate community decide on “important” novels. Finding “good” books is simply a matter of personal taste. If you’re reading in your comfort zone, find an author you like, and then look for authors who have been compared to that author. If you want to span out and try new fiction, pick a genre you’re not used to reading -- westerns, romance, literary, mysteries – and then read the classics. For example, if you want to try mysteries, first read novels by Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie, or another classic author in that genre, because those are the authors whose works have influenced new writers. Their works have staying power, because they are good, and because they are good, they have inspired decades of new writers. Their works form the foundation upon which the entire genre rests. Once you’ve read some of the classics, then branch out to contemporary writers who have been heavily influenced by the authors you most enjoyed. And always remember that just because you read one novel of a certain genre and didn’t like it, that doesn’t mean you don’t like that genre; it just means you didn’t like that particular novel. Seek the best work and that will give you a good sense of a particular genre.