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I was wrong about the golden age. But we are in a literary boom
I was too hasty in appraising the contemporary literary scene, but there's no doubt we are living through an explosion in activity

Source: The Guardian, by Robert McCrum

From time to time, on this blog, I've used a technical term – "golden age" – to describe the condition of the contemporary Anglo-American literary scene. I've done this partly because I'm generally optimistic, partly to annoy the nattering nabobs of negativity, and partly because I happen to think it's true.

Now, as the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, I'm redefining my terms, and reconsidering the situation. On reflection, I concede that golden age is wrong. Who knows if it's a golden age? Posterity alone can make that judgment. It's a fair bet that among writers living in – approximately – 1605 (Shakespeare; Jonson; Donne), or 1795 (Coleridge; Wordsworth; Jefferson) or 1859 (Dickens; Darwin; George Eliot; Disraeli; Thackeray) very few would readily have recognised any golden age. That appreciation can only come with hindsight.

But if it's not appropriate to speak of a golden age, there's certainly some kind of boom going on. Ben Johncock's recent Guardian blog on contemporary magazines illustrates how vital the print culture remains. Who could have predicted, in the age of the worldwide web, that so many little magazines would be flourishing so vibrantly? This goes to show, I'd say, that we are living through an age of almost unprecedented literary activity. Never before have so many been writing (emails; blogs; texts; tweets; novels; poems, etc) and never before has so much of this transmission been so widely received – globally, in fact. Never mind the quality (that's a later judgment), feel the width.

Consider, too, the explosion of literary activity: from prizes (hardly a week goes by without the announcement of yet another shortlist or the fall-out from some literary prize jury), to festivals (hardly a town in Britain that's not involved in, or affiliated to, some kind of literary programme), to ebooks (annual sales in the US now soaring close to $1,000m). Audiobooks are booming; writing schools are springing up like mushrooms; any amount of excellent self-publishing is happening. The big book chains are in trouble, but several small independent bookshops are defying both gravity and austerity and doing very nicely, thank you. If this – as some commentators like to predict – is the end of civilisation as we know, bring on the Dark Ages.

Finally, on top of all this, the English language guarantees the global English writer of every stripe a global audience. It may not be a golden age, but it's one hell of a boom.