The Future of Fiction- Alan Cheuse and Joshua Kendall

It was a full house last night at the Science Museum of Virginia as the James River Writers gathered to hear author and NPR book reviewer Alan Cheuse and Viking/Penguin Editor Joshua Kendall discuss the future of fiction. Despite gloomy news from the publishing industry, both speakers seemed optimistic about the quality of books they are seeing.

I took a few sketchy notes– here are excerpts.

AC on time allocation: He divides his day into thirds. The first third is for his own writing; the second third is writing for others– articles, reviews, etc.; the final third is spent watching movies. The highest priority comes first.

JK on one major trend he’s seeing: Books coming out in trade paper only, rather than in hardback first. AC noted that over 100 years ago, Herman Melville advocated that all books be published in paper, and move to hardback only if found worthy.

JK on how he chooses books: He sees 15-20 reasonably good books every week. After reading the first 40 pages or so, he’s able to tell whether the book is a good fit for his publisher. He often finds books that are “worthy of publication, but not by [Viking].” AC commented that in the 400 or so books that come across his desk every month, there are many worthy of review, but also, not by him. (He reviews one book a week for NPR, and has less than three minutes to talk about it.)

Both speakers repeatedly affirmed that publishing and reviewing are subjective, and have much to do with individual taste. They advised that writers not take it personally when they hear, “I like it, but it’s not something I can [review, publish] at this time.”

On choosing to write commercial or literary fiction: Authors should know why they write. JK- An author with literary tastes who cynically chooses to write something commercial will find it hard to go to work each day, and will likely be disappointed with what he or she writes. On the other hand, a writer of commercially popular fiction (Elmore Leonard was cited as an example) who writes with obvious enjoyment can produce very good genre works.

JK on the connection between reading and literature: Remember why you’re writing, and don’t lose the connection with literature. Read critically and analytically and observe why good books work well.

On the place of reading in the culture:

AC- We’re in a war. To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, we have “a republic [of letters], if we can keep it.” The population is growing, but reader numbers are holding steady, which means that the percentage of readers in the population is declining. Readers and writers must proselytize.

JK- We must try to maintain the essential kernel of people who read, who buy books, who read newspapers, and who engage with reading and writing on a daily basis. AC paraphrased Samuel Johnson’s remark, commenting that people who read the news online deserve to read the news online!

On audiobooks: Both speakers use audiobooks occasionally, but AC noted that they are like an art form, but are not art. They don’t allow the pacing or meditation of reading.

JK on getting work ready for submission: Surround yourself with rings of readers: spouse, writers’ group, writers’ conferences, workshops, and finally, an agent. Don’t submit your manuscript before it’s fully ready– you don’t get a second chance with an agent, so be sure that what you are sending in is the best work you can possibly produce.

In response to a question from a teen: AC advised young writers¬† to “read as much as you can, write as much as you can, live as much as you can. You can’t be a good writer without reading.”

A final word from AC: “A good book will eventually find its way.


You may also enjoy a related article, “Hot Off the Press” by Colleen Curran, previewing this Writing Show.

Don’t forget the 3-question survey for writer and editors at It’s open through the end of January.


This post was included in”The Business of Freelance Writing Carnival, Edition 53,” which contains other interesting posts for writers and editors. Enjoy!

5 thoughts on “The Future of Fiction- Alan Cheuse and Joshua Kendall

  1. Thanks for the notes Janice. There are some thought provoking ideas here. I’m going to send a link to this to my daughters. Blessings, Phyllis

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