The end of cultural authority. That's something we talk about a lot at FSG. Reviews don't have the same impact that they used to. The one thing that really horrifies me and that seems to have happened within the last few years is that you can get a first novel on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, a long review in The New Yorker, a big profile somewhere, and it still doesn't translate into sales.Gee. It's almost like we don't want to believe the people who have put themselves in charge of information. But maybe that's because they are no longer in charge of it. Whether that's a good thing or not is up for debate.
Information, and opinions based on good information, has always translated into power. Since the earliest recorded times, people have sought information, even to the point of spying and dying for it. Egyptian hieroglyphics record espionage activity as early as 1000 BC. Never before have so many people had such informatation--hense: power--at their fingertips. There's so much information out there that information has lost a lot of its market value.
Newspapers are dying from lack of readership. People have a myriad of other reliable (and not so reliable) ways to find out what they want to know. No longer must we depend on columnists to help us form our opinions; we have blogs and Facebook and Twitter! And if we disagree, we digitize our own opinions, saddled with links and references that would do our lit teachers proud, in a format previously reserved for journalists and columnists. But these essays are submerged in open bias. We may have more information than ever; we also have more opinions. The Information Age is over. We have now entered the Opinion Age.
How do these trends affect fiction? Up until the last century, a lot of fiction was written with an omniscient POV. Authors frequently intruded on their own narrative. Here, dear reader, is what you should take from this, they told us. We heard everyone's thoughts, knew all the characters' deepest fears from an omniscient firsthand account. For centuries, when Homer or Shakespeare or Austen told us to think a certain way, we got busy and thunk it.
Now the trend is to tell stories from one person's point of view--or at least separate different ones in a consistent manner. We like our fiction viewed through a particular character's filter, and that's the ONLY way we like it, if one believes the POV Nazi. The writer's job is now to create a likable, sympathetic, but mostly, believable protagonist, so much so that clever writers created an entire device called the Unreliable Narrator.
Why, some not-so-clever writers lament, is Nora Roberts the only one who gets to head-hop?
Wrong question, especially after examining the influence of the Opinion Age. What too few authors are asking is Why should they take my narrator's word for it? It's becoming more and more of a pertinent question, because the savvy culture hack's trust is not easily won. More and more, the only opinion we care for is our own. Look at the debate over this. Whatever side in the debate you rest on, the cartoonist's cultural authority no longer carries any weight. He can protest all he likes that it was a play on the chimp attack earlier in the week; pundits and "the rest of us" know better.
Anyone can Write A Book, non-writers claim with abandon, even me. But almost no one says Anyone Can Write A Good Book. It's almost an insult to suggest it, what with the myriad of Opinion surrounding "good". It's a crapshoot--even agents and editors claim that, and they're supposed to be the cultural authority for this realm.
So, how do we identify and define "good" in the Opinion Age?