Countdown to Muse 2015: Micro-Interview 9 (Roxana Robinson)

The Muse and the Marketplace kicks off on May 1st at the Park Plaza Hotel in Boston. In anticipation of the conference, we collected micro-interviews written by authors, agents and editors who will be attending the event. This is the ninth in the series.


Micro-Interview with Roxana Robinson, author of Sparta


1. What do you think is the future of digital vs. printed media for the publishing industry?

I think the publishing industry will certainly continue to publish books in both forms, digital and print. But there may be a kind of parting of the ways: sales of e-books seem to be leveling off, and it looks now as though there is an audience committed to print, and an audience committed to E-books. It turns out that we retain information better if we read it on a real tangible page, instead of a screen. This may mean that non-fiction and literary fiction readers will buy print versions of their books, and genre readers will buy ebooks. But the big question for the publishing industry is: are people reading fewer books? Is the internet too distracting for us to sit down and make that deep, solitary commitment that a good book requires?


2. What is the future of brick and mortar bookstores?

These bookstores have an odd presence in the literary landscape. On the one hand, compared to the streamlined, instant gratification-based culture of ecommerce, they seem old-fashioned and cumbersome. All those physical books! And shelving, and lighting, and waiting for someone to help you, and waiting for the book to arrive, if they have to order it. So some people claim that bricks-and-mortar stores are on the road to obsolescence. However: even the e-commerce giants (Amazon) recognize that customers like to see the actual book. They like to hold it in their hands, look at the jacket copy, see the author’s photograph, look at the quotes, read a page or two. The tangible presence of the book is very different from the screen version. So Amazon urged customers to go to bookstores, look at the merchandise, and then order it more cheaply from Amazon. Can I say something here? That’s legal, but not ethical. That’s Amazon using the bookstores as free showrooms. It’s asking the stores to pay salaries, taxes, utilities and benefits, while Amazon makes the sale. It kills bookstores. But I think, in the long term, bookstores will survive: readers love them, and even the e-giants know they need them. Bookstores are the real connection between the publisher and the customer: booksellers know the books and they understand what books are for and what they do. Booksellers have read the books themselves, and they know the customers. Bookstores are part of the great web of literary culture.    


3. Is it a good idea for a writer to write an article pro bono in exchange for “exposure"?

Here’s the thing: you must be wary of giving your work away. All that writers have as a source of income and respect is their work, and they are increasingly asked to give it away for nothing.  HuffPo and Goodreads, for example, are both founded on the premise that writers will write for free. Both of them amassed a huge amount of content (ie, writing) and then the sites were sold for huge profits, none of which went to the creators of that content. Why should writers give their work away for nothing? Writers of software don’t write for nothing, so why should writers of essays? It’s an insidious notion, the idea that a writer should “in her spare time” produce a thoughtful, or hard-hitting, or hilarious piece of work, and give it for free to someone who will make money on it. As a model of commerce, this bodes very poorly for writers. Writers should be paid for their work, just like carpenters, lawyers and software writers. And join the Authors’ Guild! We’ve got your back.


4. Activism in literature: Should a work of literature serve as a platform for changing the world, or is it better to not mix politics and literature?

If you feel strongly about an issue, you should write about it. Writers have always done that, and great works of literature and of protest have emerged as a result. Anna Karenina was written, in part, because Tolstoy believed that the Russian divorce laws were too strict. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, had perhaps the most profound effect on our culture of any novel ever written. Stowe wrote it because she couldn’t tolerate the institution of slavery, and felt the need to speak out against it. Novels play a deeply important part in our culture, and they are powerful engines of social change. Novels reflect the culture around them, and if you want to draw attention to an issue that confounds or offends you, you should write about it. Your task, as a writer, is to write about what is most important to you. That way you will make it important to us.   


For more of Roxana's insight, check out her Muse session, "What is Great Fiction?" on Saturday, May 2nd, 9:00 AM, at the Muse. But don't wait -- these great sessions are filling up fast! For all the latest Muse news, follow #Muse15


Roxana Robinson is the author of nine books, most recently, the novel, Sparta. This  was named one of the Ten Best Books of the Year by the BBC, was named a Notable Book of the Year by the Washington Post and received the James Webb Award from the USMC Heritage Foundation. Robinson has also written the novels Summer Light, This is My Daughter; Sweetwater and Cost; three collections, A Glimpse of Scarlet, Asking for Love and A Perfect Stranger; and the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s, Tin House, Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. Four of her books have been named Notable Books of the Year by The New York Times, and Cost was named one of the five best fiction books of the year by The Washington Post. Robinson has twice received the Maine Publishers and Writers Alliance Award for Fiction. She was a finalist for the NBCC Nona Balakian Award and was named a Literary Lion by the NYPL. She has received fellowships from the NEA, the MacDowell Colony, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her books have been published in England, Holland, Spain, France and Germany. She has served on the Board of PEN and the National Humanities Center, and is currently a Trustee of the Maine Coast Heritage Trust and the Northeast Harbor Library. She is the President of the Authors Guild, and teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College. Robinson lives in New York.       


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