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Too Many Writers? No Way!

Dan Green summarizes some laments about writing in the Antioch Review. A sample quote from Daniel Harris’s “The Writing Life: Envy and Editing”:

The unsettling new power of PR has delivered a crippling blow to the writer’s very sense of himself as an artist, since what he treasures most, his talent, his skill, can be credibly simulated by clever packagers and agressive salesmen capable of presenting oatmeal as caviar. Mixed with our envy of the genius du jour is a terrible despair, despair that the game is rigged, the dice loaded, that there is no causal connection between the quality of one’s work and the degree of one’s success, that editors, who would have us believe that they pass their hours indefatigably vetting the manuscipts they read, choose their lists according to standards that, if the results are any indication, are as exacting and scientific as eeny-meeny-miney-moe. Envy is the result of this radical subversion of the bourgeois work ethic–indeed, of the American dream, of the conviction that, if we do good work, we will be justly rewarded, that we achieve success by dint of talent and industriousness, not through the Machiavellian finesse of our handlers who manipulate public opinion by means of buzz, spin, and hype.

This is because we direct much of the animosity generated by this crisis away from our colleagues and onto our audience, which we assume is not only shrinking but becoming less tolerant of ideas, more illiterate, more addicted to chat rooms and listservs. In order to prevent ourselves from declaring war on each other, we sublimate our envy into our habitual denigration of our readership whose laziness and unintelligence preserve us from the fatal knowledge that, as the character in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure put it just before he hanged his two siblings from coat hooks in a closet, “we are too menny.”

Well, these sort of tirades are pleasant to read (and I particularly liked the 2nd quote about envy).

A few rather obvious points:

  1. the web makes publishing free. Who would ever dreamt that would even be possible to reach cyberreaders from other countries 10 or 15 years ago? Let’s first appreciate the feast before we start to whine.
  2. Despite the claptrap about MFA programs/too many writers, the amount of stories needing to be told and people eager to tell them hasn’t varied much over time. What has changed is the types of rewards (both financial and spiritual) available to those who do it well.
  3. genres come and go according to the institutional structures that provide financial support to them. Example: plays were really big hundreds of years ago. Nowadays, they just cost too damn much to perform. (BTW, I worry less these days about the novel than about the TV sitcom, which is in danger of being swallowed up the nation’s unquenchable thirst for low budget reality shows).
  4. I’ve been writing a longish book review of a book called Digital Aborigines. I plan to make the point that creative people should not align themselves too closely to genres but instead give themselves broad “statements of purpose.” A novelist may have a hard time making a living; a “storyteller” is capable of doing many things.

I’m not sure I can offer an antidote to the problem of authorial obscurity (although my forthcoming literary community project is my best attempt at this). Society needs better mechanisms for learning about new forms of entertainment. I’m not talking about artsy types who know about off-off-Broadway venues and avante-garde websites; I’m talking about ordinary citizens who enjoy good stories and movies but don’t have the time or energy to hunt quality down. These kind of people turn too quickly to big media (and pay through the nose for the privilege of owning DVD box sets, $30 hardcovers of the latest Dan Brown bestseller or the latest Norah Jones release). Blogging is one kind of recommendation network, although it too tends to give undue focus to works sponsored by big media.

I don’t want to sound anti-commercial, but when you read weblogs like Maud or Moorish Girl or wood s lot (which on the whole give a good idea of what is getting published and what is good) it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that so much good writing and storytelling already exist for free on the web that one literally would never need to buy another book again. I wish more time were spent trying to identify great creative works already on the web and less time spent expressing amazement at Neil Pollack’s or Stephen King’s latest advance royalties.

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