What’s happening to Writing?

What’s the future got in store for writers? How are they going to survive this internet age of abundant, free information?

I’m interested in this subject not just because I have the habit of writing and, like many who do, have dreamt of someday making a living at it. I’m interested because I have the more sustained habit of reading, and I worry about a potential world in which only the independently wealthy can afford to write.

Straight away someone will say, as people always do when these debates break out on newspaper comment threads, “what’s wrong with that potential world, anyway?” The argument goes that the period of the printing press overlapping with mass literacy was a historical blip, temporarily allowing certain writers to make money, and that now things are reverting to their natural order – where people write as amateurs or under commission from wealthy patrons. Stuff will still get written, they say, because enthusiastic amateurs will always make time to do the thing they love and wealthy people will always want to be entertained.

I’m not entirely averse to that argument. A lot of my favourite writing was done in feudal times by people writing from their own castle, like Montaigne. But I’m not sure the fact that Montaigne and several other great writers existed in the sixteenth century is evidence that the sixteenth century was a great boom time for literature that we ought to be enthusiastic about returning to. Because you basically had to be Montaigne – ie. have your own castle and personal library – in order to do it, otherwise you were likely to be too poor, sick, and illiterate. Who knows how many potentially interesting and valuable human voices were never heard or committed to posterity because of the enormous social inequalities of the time – we’ve undoubtedly missed out on a lot of great stuff.

And it’s very easy – in a way reminiscent of what Americans might call Monday morning quaterbacking – to sit at a computer screen and say “not to worry, enthusiastic amateurs will always find time” and “art shouldn’t be about money anyway.” People love to be complacent on other people’s behalf like this. But if you notice the developments in our modern world, it seems to be getting harder to find free time around work to pursue creative hobbies. The always-on, always-connected culture is making it harder to not be at work, because people are expected to always be checking emails and answering queries. The steady erosion of traditional jobs by automation and outsourcing adds to the air of desperate competitiveness where people are willing to do months of unpaid work just for a sniff of a permanent position and employers want your soul as well as your body – you can be fired for airing the wrong opinions on Facebook.

I don’t care how many stories people dredge up of great writers writing around a job and getting up at 5am to get a thousand words in before work. A lot of those people would’ve worked in the sedate 9-5 office culture of yesteryear. I sincerely doubt Anthony Trollope’s Post Office job or Wallace Stevens’s insurance career or TS Eliot’s time in banking would’ve much resembled equivalent positions in today’s world. No team-building days, no touching base or thought showers (which surely would’ve driven literary men insane), no checking emails on the weekends and no diversity and equality training. Today’s work environment provides so much more stress and bullshit, and is so much harder to leave behind at the end of the day, I doubt any of them could have written in the same way with equivalent jobs in the 21st Century.

And even if they could, those who couldn’t aren’t necessarily just weak-willed losers lacking sufficient motivation. Blog and comment thread blowhards love to say that. The internet is full of self-satisfied keyboard Randians who like to say “if you want it enough, you’ll make time. If you don’t, quit your bitching.” But surprisingly enough, some of the people who’ve produced some of the most sensitive and insightful and moving work in literature have been – shock, horror – sensitive people. According to her biographer Claire Tomalin, Jane Austen got depressed when her father retired and the family left their beloved home for a move to Bath, and it stopped her writing for years. And I think Jane was pretty tough compared to a lot of writers.

People who produce interesting writing are more likely than the general population to be eccentric, fragile and emotionally vulnerable. For some of these people it’s a miracle if they ever have a consistent enough period of stability in their lives to allow them to write – but if they do, it can be immensely rewarding for the rest of humanity. Although it is no doubt thrilling to the egos of a certain kind of self-righteous keyboard warrior to berate these people for their weakness and hail their downfall in the ruthlessly Darwinian game of life, I think most of us readers would root for such people. We would want them, if they show talent, to be able to find a way to support themselves with it, so that they can go on producing more things. We would want to protect them from having their will sapped and their heart crushed in the rat race.

And incidentally, I think it’s these people that Jonathan Franzen is speaking up for when he criticizes Twitter. In an interview with the new online magazine about writing and money, Scratch, he said this:

I have a particular animus to that social-media world because I feel as if the kinds of writers I care about are just temperamentally not very good at that. Hard to see Kafka tweeting, hard to see Charlotte Bronte self-promoting. If we don’t maintain other avenues for establishing a literary reputation and finding some kind of readership—things like traditional publishers and reviewing, where the writer could just be a writer and not have to wear the flak hat, the salesman hat, the editor hat, the publisher hat—if we don’t maintain those, then we hand over the literary world to the personality types who are, I would say, less suited for the kind of work I care about.

It could be that my model of literature is simply outmoded, but I feel closer to Joyce with his “silence, cunning, and exile.” I worry that the ease and incessancy of communication with electronic media short-circuits the process whereby you go into deep isolation with yourself, you withdraw from the world so as to be able to hear the world better and know yourself better, and you produce something unique which you send out into the world and let communicate in a non-discursive way for you.

That is a perfect articulation of my feelings about Twitter. And every time Franzen says something like this he gets a hail of abuse for being a “troll” and for not appreciating how amazing Twitter is. He gets accused of ignorance and lack of understanding because he hasn’t taken the time to join Twitter and experience all its amazing social and intellectual applications. But understanding is exactly what Franzen has, and what his opponents lack. They know Twitter, but he understands it. He’s able to look at it in context and see that, whatever value it may have for “networking” and “sharing” and “connecting” – a writer, especially a certain kind of writer, doesn’t network or share or connect. Writing is not a social activity. Journalism may be, but not writing.

Franzen puts his finger on it when he calls it a “coercive development” – writers are nowadays told that if they want to make it, tweeting and promoting yourself as a “brand” is essential. People must recognise that this is anathema to a lot of people with a writer’s disposition. Twitter has been compared, by people praising it, to a kind of never ending cocktail party with all manner of wits and raconteurs in attendance. Some writers, like the late Gore Vidal, may thrive at cocktail parties, but a lot of them would be wallflowers, listening and watching and waiting to go home. And to suggest that they liven up and start making cracks and mingling – as Franzen says, to suggest Kafka and Charlotte Bronte (I might add Philip Larkin and Emily Dickinson) go round making small talk to raise their profiles – is to demonstrate a catastrophic ignorance and insensitivity to who they are as people and as writers.

You won’t make people like that into online socialisers and self-promoters. And if you succeed in making that the only way to have writing noticed, you’ll eliminate these voices from our literature.

As Franzen suggests, the old way of doing things in publishing, despite Silicon Valley’s portrayal of it as some terrible feudal time where publishers ruled as fascistic “gatekeepers” keeping us all out, was actually a pretty good system for bringing the work of introverted, unsocial writers into the public domain, and of allowing them to develop a career. An editor could take a writer under their wing, the marketing of the books would be done by professionals in that field, and the financials meant that the writer might have a realistic chance to focus on writing full time. In the new system, the writer – the humble, sensitive, insecure, retiring, inward-looking, withdrawn writer – is supposed to do it all themselves. They’re supposed to get out there and participate in the chaotic scramble for ever diminishing scraps of attention – saying, essentially, “look at me, look at me, look at me” thirty times a day.

Never going to happen. The loudmouths and the narcissists will dominate the cocktail party and the wallflowers will be ignored.

A little further on in the Scratch magazine interview, Franzen also perfectly expresses the other, even bigger, overarching problem when he asks, “Where’s the pay model?” In his collection of essays, Cultural Amnesia, Clive James has a short piece on Edgar Quinet who he quotes as asking, “But this success, where is it?” in relation to the claims of absolutists that their desirable ends justified violent, terrorist means. James has Quinet, therefore, as the precursor of Orwell’s asking “Where’s the omelette?” to Communist fellow travellers who insisted that you couldn’t make one without breaking a few eggs. For me, the tech moguls assuring writers and journalists and publishers that the present situation is just a painful transition towards a new, better model provokes the question again – where’s the omelette? Where’s the new model?

I’ve followed the debate online for years now and for at least a decade people have been saying “we need to find a new payment model” for writing and nobody has come up with one. Every year the media and technology conferences and pretentious talk circuit have paraded assorted experts on stage to spout positive buzzwords like evolution, adaptation, new possibilities, new paradigms, new models – but on top of all these mountains of bullshit sits a shining little ball of nothing. If such a model was ever going to exist, it seems like it should’ve been invented by now.

Instead, it looks in hindsight like all the talk of new models and exciting new eras for those who are willing to adapt was just the stalling chatter that tech people used to distract media and publishing people with while they made off with their livelihoods. And actually having the gall to convince all writers and artists that they need to start the adaptation process as soon as possible and get on Twitter and Facebook and start giving everything away for free? Well, that seems a lot like the people who are burgling your house asking you to give them a hand carrying some of the heavier items out to the van.

And I think it’s one of those problems that can get confused and complicated if you get up too close to it. If you’re heavily involved in the media industry and your current livelihood is dependent on it, then a combination of denial and inertia and regular exposure to self-deluding platitudes might make you swallow and regurgitate all this stuff about “journalism isn’t dying it’s just evolving”, “change is good”, “adapt and thrive”, “we just need a new payment model.” Yeah. Keep talking about that payment model, I’m sure it’ll be here any minute now. The cheque’s in the post, and the taxi’s just turning onto your street, et cetera…

If you actually step back from it and look at the big picture, you can’t reach any other conclusion than that the publishing industry is completely and utterly fucked. How can it not be? Information used to be scarce and now it is terrifyingly, overwhelmingly abundant. And it’s being churned out at an ever increasing rate, by everyone, with no cost to access. The dam has burst and the water is surging over us and you’re never going to be able to bail it all back over the other side.

People say, “Yeah, but – quality. Most of what’s on the internet is bullshit and eventually people will need quality stuff that doesn’t waste their time, so they’ll have to pay again.” Okay, I follow the reasoning. But quality isn’t a black and white, all or nothing thing is it? It’s on a sliding scale. Some things are mind-bendingly, atrociously shit, some things are brilliant, a lot of stuff lies somewhere in-between. Everything I know about human nature and all the evidence of how people behave in the internet age suggests that if something of quality costs money, people will crowd towards whichever free thing is nearest in quality, and patronise that instead. When there are so many options, there’s always a free alternative that’s acceptable enough to people so that the non-free thing can’t viably compete.

There is just no way to get people to pay to read things anymore. You can’t close those flood gates. Even if you were an old-fashioned author these days and you decided to only publish in paper form, the technology is there for people to scan your book into a computer, turn it into real text rather than an image, format it for e-reader and seed it to everyone for free within hours. And for every seeding site that gets busted, another three spring up, hosts get mirrored, traffic is rerouted through proxies, the anonymous, open, sharing, cooperative mass of net users functions in the only way it can. Your “content” will be assimilated into the collective – resistance is futile.

It seems like the future for writers breaks down into a stark choice between two alternatives. Get a job, write as a hobby, for the love of it, and perhaps pray for either a rich benefactor or a sizeable enough community of generous-spirited readers to decide they want to sponsor your work for X number of years. Or, sign yourself up for digital serfdom producing “content” for a “farm” or “mill”, typing thousands of words per day on a variety of banal subjects to agreed specifications, incorporating key words and search terms – essentially a kind of meaningless, mechanized code designed to be returned by a search engine algorithm and thereby elicit the smallest of micropayments – for minimum wage. Eventually even this second option will probably be replaced by software.

It seems astounding that all over the world young people are still choosing to study Journalism and Creative Writing and dreaming of careers as professional writers. I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising when our popular culture is dominated by parables of individual ambition and boundless possibility. The movies all say follow your dreams no matter what other people say, if you want it enough it will happen, and well-meaning teachers and parents now even repeat it in real life contexts. But it seems cruel. Because no matter how determined and dedicated you are and no matter how much you believe, you aren’t going to get a job in an industry that doesn’t exist. You can’t make a living selling something that society has determined to have no value.

On the internet, words are abundant and free. Anyone who tells professional writers that they can survive that fact, exist despite it, must be bullshitting. I honestly think that in ten or fifteen years time people will have the conversation, “Hey, remember when if you wanted to read something you actually had to go to a book shop or a newsagent and actually pay money for, like, a physical object? What were they called – books and…newspapers? Yeah, so weird, when you think about it. And people actually made a living from writing stuff – that was their job, like, just writing stuff. So weird, man….”

A collection of links that prompted these thoughts:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/christina-patterson/on-the-death-of-journalis_b_3885494.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/opinion/sunday/slaves-of-the-internet-unite.html?_r=0

http://www.aeonmagazine.com/living-together/james-somers-web-developer-money/

http://thebillfold.com/2013/11/im-a-hack-writer-who-writes-5000-wordsday-for-20hour/

http://www.theawl.com/2010/11/my-summer-on-the-content-farm

http://www.theawl.com/2013/06/dox-dox-dox

http://natethayer.wordpress.com/2013/03/04/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-freelance-journalist-2013/

http://scratchmag.net/free-preview-issue/the-scratch-interview-franzen/

http://scratchmag.net/free-preview-issue/web-editors-roundtable/

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