For some critics, this is precisely the apocalypse of mediocrity that doomsayers have spent the last few decades predicting. For others, though – and I number myself among them – it’s more of a wake-up-call than a last trumpet. The economics of traditional publishing may be in dire straits. But the incentive for writers themselves to be interesting – and to try to be interesting on every page – has never been sharper.
Shorn of its covers, even the word “book” is beginning to look a little shaky. Substantial, ambitious texts are one thing; but dressing them up as permanent, premium objects is quite another. Who’s to say that subscribing directly to your favourite author’s output is not a better bet than waiting for it to appear in hefty chunks; or that an audience should have no input into what gets written next, rather than simply waiting to be told?
Consider how digital media have already affected journalism. Economically, the results have often been disastrous; and the related cuts in resources have done great damage to journalism as an institution. Stylistically, though, the digital deluge has compelled the profession and its practitioners at the “quality” end of the market to shed a good deal of complacency, self-indulgence, and general lack of interest in their audience.
In any case, the competition on our screens is only going to get more intense. And when it comes to winning the next century of serious readers, there’s only one certainty: the moment someone can simply switch you off, being boring is the last thing you can afford.