The New Quadruple-A Landscape of Writing

One thing I love about writing is that it can demonstrate someone being remarkably perceptive and oblivious all at once. To witness this phenomenon, read Stephen Marche’s latest piece for Esquire, in which he attempts to argue that we live in a “golden age” of writing. I found myself agreeing with a few of its assertions, yet also felt this agreement was negated by how much the author got wrong, chose to ignore, or could not perceive about the modern writing landscape.

In his article, Marche argues that ye olden days had plenty of bad or just plain boring writing, and I agree. He also disdains the “woe is me” attitude so pervasive among writerly types, which I believe is important. Every writer, at some point or another, firmly believed his/her beautiful art and soul were being crushed by a cruel, unfeeling world. One’s ability to produce work worth writing is directly proportional one’s ability to move beyond this narcissistic mindset. Otherwise, you spend the time you should be writing looking in the mirror, admiring your own bruises.

However, Marche’s stated aim was to show our era as a golden age for writing, and in this he fails. This is because the support for his thesis stems from how spectacularly rich authors like J.K Rowling and Tom Wolfe have become. By the same logic, you could point to J.P Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and say the Gilded Age was one of vast prosperity. It all depends on one’s notion of a Golden Age. Does that mean mountains of wealth displayed by the Morgans and Rockefellers of the world, or does it mean everyone is able to pay their bills?

You could argue that the Big Time Authors making huge bank–largely from advances–is evidence of a frightened industry. The big publishing houses want to hang onto authors like Rowling and Wolfe because they provide the security blanket of a sure thing in a literary world that gets less sure each day. And if that’s what the big houses want to do, bully for them. James Patterson can get $12 billion a book for all I care. But unless he’s using his newfound riches to start his own small imprint or give grants to struggling writers, his wealth doesn’t mean anything for the literary world beyond his own house. Would the Renaissance have been the Renaissance if it produced Da Vinci and no one else?

Marche also points to exploding ebook sales as evidence of a literary golden age, noting that ebook readers tend to consume more books faster than print readers. While this fact does provide a sliver of hope, you also have to consider that ebooks not only have smaller price points (and profits) than their print counterpoints, but they are consumed in a completely different way.

Here’s an anecdotal clue. My mom reads more than anyone I know, and she now reads mostly on a Kindle. But when I ask her what she’s currently reading, half the time her response is “I don’t know.” As the music industry found out, once you break the physical connection between consumer and art, it becomes so much harder for the artist to build a relationship with his/her audience. You can watch a video on YouTube and laugh like crazy, or you can listen to a song and really enjoy it, or you can be gripped by an ebook you downloaded, but you can do all of these things and not care the slightest bit about who made your entertainment. Once you don’t care about these people, it becomes that much easier to not care about whether they are adequately compensated for their work or not.

The printing press changed the literature, but just because you know how to print the Bible doesn’t mean you know how to produce something new and original. Here’s the dirty little secret of ebooks: For the most part, big publishers still haven’t the slightest idea how to make new ones, or how to identify which ones will sell and to whom. That’s why the few ebook success stories are crowd sourced things like 50 Shades of Gray. When an ebook like this seemingly comes out of nowhere and explodes, the big houses shrug, sign it up, and make a few quickie copycats. What they don’t do is find (and fund) such writers while they build an audience. Telling unpublished writers to do what 50 Shades did is the literary equivalent of telling a struggling actress to go out hang out at Schwab’s Pharmacy.

The bottom line of ebooks is this: Their lower costs have not yet translated into real opportunities for unknowns. Though it is incredibly inexpensive to make an ebook when compared to print books, publishers are not yet using those lower costs to justify investing in new, interesting writers. Twenty small, compelling novels could have been produced and promoted for the cost of one Lena Dunham advance, but publishers don’t yet adhere to that kind of accounting, if they will ever.

There are still amazing writers who write challenging novels and manage to get published. The thing is, the vast majority of them were first published in the late 1990s or earlier, before the landscape changed. Marche mentions authors like Colson Whitehead and Junot Diaz as evidence of great writers who are still plugging away. I love their work, but has niche talent like theirs broken big in the last 5 years? In the last 10 even? If you can think of more than five writers like them to bust through and publish several novels in that time, you have a better memory than I. It’s hard not to think that Whitehead et al just got in under the wire, called up right before the publishing world reached its quota and shut down recruitment.

Here’s another thing that’s changed in the literary world that Marche failed to notice; an especially ironic oversight, since he writes for Esquire. Once upon a time, a writer could pad his/her CV and wallet with freelance work. Read up on the early careers of Kurt Vonnegut or Stephen King, and how they were able to get their names out there and make a few pennies by penning short stories. That road is now closed. Even the nonfiction world has been plowed over by the largely nonpaying world of the internet, which created infinite avenues for expression but also created a literary consumer who expects to be fed constant content at a cost as close to zero as possible.

I don’t think most writers expect or even want to get rich and famous, at least not more so than anyone else. I think they just want to be able to make a living doing what they love. The world where that was possible is dead. In the literary world, there is now only the mega sellers, the MFA types who were grandfathered in, and the occasional weirdo writer of erotic slashfic who gets to sneak in for a laugh.

In baseball, there are quadruple-A players, athletes a little too good for the minors but whose skills sets make them ill suited for the majors. In all media, this is what we have now: Artists who have to ride the proverbial bus from one podunk town to another. Artists who got to the game too late, when all the money ran out and all the rosters were full. At least in the sports world, players retire and age out, and occasionally these sad sacks get a cup of coffee. In the literary world, it seems, this will never happen.

Not being able to make a living as a writer is a decidedly first world problem (provided you can pay your bills doing something else). It’s always been tough, one way or another, to make a go of it in any art. Painters will paint, singers will sing, and writers will write no matter what. But a world where making art full time is an avenue only open to a very select few and is no longer receiving applicants, that does not meet my definition of a golden age. Its color looks more rust to me.

  • Paul Lindemeyer

    The upshot for those who do make it full time is that they get to lord it over the rest of us creators. They are now the survivors, vetted by luck, hard work and circumstances.