By JOHN Y. COLE
How to broaden the audience for serious literature in America is the subject of a newly released conference report.
"Bridging Art & Commerce," a symposium hosted at the Library by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Library's Center for the Book, was held in March. Thirty invited participants from foundations; publishing firms; and literary, arts and library organizations spent the day discussing three topics: trends in authorship, publishing and book selling and their impact on literature; the role of philanthropies in literature; and possible ways for the National Endowment for the Arts to address the key issues and support literature.
The meeting profited from careful preparation and interviews conducted by the Conservation Company of Philadelphia. After welcoming remarks from this writer; Bill Ivey, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts; and Cliff Becker, director of the NEA's Literature Program, facilitators Paul Connolly and Marcelle Hinand of the Conservation Company presented their interview findings and critical questions for discussion.
Current Trends and Their Impact on Literature
Interview findings (audiences): The audience for serious literature is relatively small compared to the size of the audience for other books; it is unclear whether the audience for literature is growing or shrinking; and we still have insufficient data about on the audience for literature. Critical questions: What are the size and characteristics of the audience for literature? Is the audience growing or shrinking? Why? How do we know? What do we want to know about the readership of literature and how can we improve the way we obtain this information?
Interview findings (writers): The number of writers and poets appears to be growing; there are differing opinions about whether or not the population of writers reflects the diversity of American society; and it is unclear whether the overall quality of writing in the United States is rising or declining.
Interview findings (publishers): The consolidation of commercial publishing, the restructuring of the industry and technological advances have made this an age of rapid change. Critical questions: Has the consolidation of commercial publishing led to more or fewer opportunities for publishing certain types of literature? How have nonprofit publishers' roles shifted as a result of the industry's restructuring? Is some literature falling through the cracks and going unpublished?
Interview findings (distributors and booksellers): The trend toward consolidation is dominated by the rise of the book-selling chains and affects book sellers and distributors alike; the growth of online book selling and the shifting role of public libraries are important trends that need to be tracked. Critical questions: How has the consolidation of book selling and distribution affected access to serious literature? How will the expansion of online book selling alter how people obtain literature? How have changes in the library community affected access to literature?
Philanthropies and Government
Interview findings: There is relatively little funding for literature available from national foundations. Critical questions: Why is there so little philanthropic support for literature and how can it be increased? How can federal agencies create and improve partnerships to support literature?
The Role of the NEA: Current Role, Resources and Constraints, Possible Strategies
General strategies to support literature: Attract more private foundation support, increase efforts to coordinate and build on the efforts of other organizations that support literature.
Strategies to build the audience for literature: Improve efforts to fight illiteracy and promote literacy; support audience development initiatives; conduct or support research on audiences for literature.
Strategies to support the creation of writing and to increase access to literature: fund and honor writers; support literary presses and distributors; facilitate commercial and nonprofit interaction in the literature field; and promote literature.
In the discussion, this writer provided historical perspective on the issues under consideration. In particular he noted the acceleration of the trends toward industry consolidation since a similar conference in 1986, "Book Distribution and Literary Publishing," sponsored by the Center for the Book and NEA's Literature Program at the Library of Congress in 1986.
NEA has recently initiated several projects aimed at providing literature with a broader audience, additional foundation support and research about its audience.
It has awarded a chairman's grant to the American Library Association (ALA) to support the planning phase of a Millennium Leadership Project that will help promote libraries as cultural centers in all 50 states. The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress and other organizations will join ALA in sponsoring "Live at the Library 2000: Linking Libraries, Communities and Culture," a yearlong celebration of the arts. Grants will be awarded to 500 libraries, representing every state, to develop partnerships and host programs during National Library Week, April 9-15, and throughout the year with writers, actors, musicians and other artists. Applications for grant funds will be posted on the ALA Web site: www.ala.org/publicprograms.
The NEA also is hosting a roundtable for foundation professionals at this year's Grantmakers in the Arts Conference in San Francisco to discuss the benefits of supporting literary activity. It also is updating the NEA's 1989 study, Who Reads Literature? Finally, the NEA will become, along with the Center for the Book, a nonfinancial co-sponsor of the Book Industry Study Group's 1999/2000 Reading Research Study.
Mr. Cole is director of the Center for the Book.