Tim Kreider and the Problem of Too Many Writers

Tim Kreider has a very familiar sounding complaint in the New York Times. It is familiar because his article follows a well-worn template of talking about the Brave New Bad World of Free Content, and because the Times routinely publishes such Op-Eds. Like most screeds put out by what I have termed ‘the whining artist‘ it is incoherent.

This sentence is the heart of the complaint:

[In] our information economy..“paying for things” is a quaint, discredited old 20th-century custom.

You’ve heard it before: writers are being asked to write for free; no one values writing any more; writers won’t write any more if they don’t get ‘paid’. And so on. (Musicians often make similar complaints.)

This sentence though, does not inspire confidence that Krieder has the slightest clue of what he is talking about:

I spent 20 years and wrote thousands of pages learning the trivial craft of putting sentences together. My parents blew tens of thousands of 1980s dollars on tuition at a prestigious institution to train me for this job. They also put my sister the pulmonologist through medical school, and as far as I know nobody ever asks her to perform a quick lobectomy — doesn’t have to be anything fancy, maybe just in her spare time, whatever she can do would be great — because it’ll help get her name out there.

I’m guessing a pulmonologist is not in the business of producing intangible material that can be effortlessly copied and distributed at minimal cost. Furthermore, barriers to the market for pulmonologist are high: years of expensive education, apprenticeships etc. It’s a pity Kreider’s parents blew so much money on training him to be a writer; perhaps they didn’t realize that these days just about everyone and anyone thinks they can be a writer. And too many of them act on this belief.

That brings us to the heart of the matter. I too, would like everything, all the time, for free. I realize quickly enough that some things in this modern world are not free and yet others–depending on their relative scarcity–are almost free.

For instance, once I’ve paid my internet subscriber’s monthly fee, I can read unlimited amounts of political opinion; everyone has one, and everyone wants to share it with me. I can also read unlimited amounts of poetry, short stories, essays, and so on. There are, it seems, many, many writers around these days. What is it that makes the writing profession so attractive, that so many writers, according to Kreider, are giving their work away for free?

The answer, I thought, was obvious: for a while, thanks to a very particularly structured industry that grew up around it, writing made money and fame for some writers. These writers are cultural icons, giants who stalk the land. Their lives beguile us; we want to be like them. Their fame and riches made many people forget that they were exceptions, and that most writers still failed to make a living. Even the writing lifestyle began to seem glamorous: all that drinking and hanging out in cafes. And didn’t Arthur Miller hook up with Marilyn Monroe?

Writing seems easy. Why not just pull up a piece of paper and a pen and write? Or a typewriter? Or now, a word-processor? Perhaps if you get lucky, you could be admitted to a ‘writing program’ and tap into all the contacts your professors have with agents, editors and publishers?

Soon you find that many, many others have the same dream. And everyone is scribbling away furiously. So many tools to write with; so many publishing platforms; so many lives and things to write about. There’s too much to read; how will I get readers to notice me in this sea of well-crafted words?

Perhaps by ‘exposure’? Perhaps by using my writing as a ‘loss-leader‘ so that I can secure that paying gig, that big contract, that advance, that book tour, that glossy jacket photo, that writer’s cabin on a remote island? Or if not, perhaps I can get a job teaching writing at a writer’s program that turns out more writers? Or less glamorously, perhaps I could teach writing at a college to incoming freshmen? That way, my writing will have made some money for me. Not directly, but indirectly. And then I can get to hang out in cafes and call myself a writer.

Written content is not scarce; quality written content still is; writers need to get noticed. The situation that Kreider then complains about–content being asked for, and being given away for free, just to get ‘noticed’–is almost inevitable.

It would help if writers would stop thinking of themselves as God’s Gift to Mankind and instead began regarding themselves as just another species of creative ‘producers’ whose ‘content’ is not very scarce, and lends itself to easy distribution and reproduction. Interestingly enough, I don’t read too many Op-Eds by artists saying that people are asking them to make paintings for free; they never had a content industry grow up around them and hence have no reason to not think that things are just as they have always been: most artists don’t make money from their art.

Perhaps the fame and riches of the writers of days gone by was a blip in normal service, and not the norm?

Fiction, Non-Fiction, “Popularity,” and “Seriousness”

Back in December-January, I wrote a series of posts on fiction and non-fiction writers, in particular, on the relative endurance of their writings in posterity. I wondered whether essayists and non-fiction writers stood less of a chance of having their work read by future generations than did novelists and fiction writers, what the causes for fiction’s greater enduring power might be (if indeed, that was the case), what the “popular-serious” distinction in writing amounted to, how meaningful the distinction between “essayists” and other “non-fiction writers” was, whether traditional reportage-style essays were particularly susceptible to datedness and so on. (There were three posts in all, titled Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essays and Posterity; Essays and Expiry DatesFiction, Non-Fiction, Essays and Posterity.)

With respect to these discussions, the Letters sections of the first two issues of the London Review Books (Vol 1, No. 1, 25 October 1979, and Vol. 2, No. 2, 8 November 1979) provide some interesting reading. In them, the LRB featured replies from readers to a question posed by the journal: What should a literary journal now be doing, and what else would they like to say about the current state of literary journalism and publishing? 

I am reproducing a couple of letters in their entirety–sans commentary. The LRB Letters archive pages are accessible to paid-subscribers only.

From Vol.1, No.1, 25 October 1979.

Brigid Brophy:

My hope is for justice for fiction.

There is a mythical syllogism that goes: Fiction (or at least fiction in hard covers and with artistic ambition) doesn’t sell; its publishers don’t, therefore, advertise it; papers are therefore doing an act of charity if they allot it review space.

That, however, is to ignore the readers (as distinct from buyers) of books. (In Britain those two are very distinct, thanks to the unique size of our public library service.) All papers depend immediately on advertising, but a paper about books must find itself an ultimate constituency among the people who read books. And the books those people read are, predominantly, fiction.

Puritans, who hate and fear fiction, regularly pronounce ‘the novel’ dead, using the singular because they wish there were only one. But champions of fiction often do it no better justice, with their appeals to pity and duty on behalf of the poor, démodé, tottering old thing.

The old thing is in reality a bounding pop art. Some 65 to 70 per cent of adult borrowing from public libraries is borrowing of fiction. In absolute numbers, 365 or so million volumes of fiction-for-adults a year (or one million a day) are given temporary housing in British homes.

It is regrettable for novelists who want to stay alive, and for readers who want them to stay alive to keep up the supply, that British readers borrow rather than buy their fiction. However, they do it for the most sympathetic reasons: namely, that they want such a lot of the stuff. Fiction is perilously addictive. Even though publishers still keep the average price of a fiction book considerably lower than that of a book-in-general, any addict who bought all he wants to read would be quickly bankrupted, not to mention crowded out of his home.

It is probably true that many of the works that addicts borrow in such mass are not imaginative creations but commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review. But so long as there are misapprehensions about fiction’s standing in present-day society, any squeeze on review space squeezes fiction first, with the result that good novels, too, get ignored or slighted, especially the ones that are written within a given form. Snobs who dismiss thrillers, for instance, because they adhere to a set of conventions, should re-examine their attitude to Greek tragedy.

Even the novels that are reviewed are for the most part treated like dirt – that is, swept up in swathes by whoever can be persuaded to take on the chore. Addicts of fiction positively like having their credulity stretched, but even they balk at the straining symphonic bridge-passages (‘From Amsterdam to intellectual agony may seem a big jump’) of round-up reviews.

A more catholic choice of titles for review; more space; and solo space: these are the least that decency demands for what is at the same time the most popular species of books and the one ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed’.

From Vol. 2, No.2, 8 November 1979

N. F. McDowell:

The first issue of the London Review expresses a concern for the public usefulness of literature, and in three of the letters printed in that issue there was evidence of a distinction between ‘serious’ and ‘commercial’ literature. Mr Hamilton asked if anyone wanted a ‘serious reviewing journal’; Mr Rosenthal made a request for ‘serious poetry reviewing’; and Brigid Brophy distinguished between ‘imaginative creations’ and ‘commercial manufactures, which are legitimately considered below the Plimsoll line for review’. I wonder about these hard-and-fast distinctions.

Byron’s works were best-sellers, but they were hardly ‘commercial manufactures’. In a commercially-dominated world, something might be achieved through a critical, ‘serious’ reading of books written specifically for financial gain. Literature is still part of many people’s cultural fodder: it can also be the antennae of a culture. If arbitrary distinctions between ‘commercial’ and ‘imaginative’ are left unquestioned, we might consume our own antennae unawares. Shakespeare’s genius flourished in the commercial environment of the theatre, and as soon as a piece of writing is for sale it is commercial manufacture. The London Review should encourage critical reading over a wider range of literature than seems to be promised in the first issue.

Katha Pollitt, George Orwell, Essayists and Posterity

For a couple of days now, Katha Pollitt’s obit/remembrance of Christopher Hitchens has been making the rounds to near-universal adulation. For good reasons; the piece is well worth a read, especially as it highlights aspects of Hitchens’ writing and personality that few have seen fit to focus on (especially not by his drinking buddies, whose cliche-ridden remembrances will be chuckled over by many for years to come).

But toward the end of the article, Pollitt throws in the following:

Posterity isn’t kind to columnists and essayists and book reviewers, even the best ones. I doubt we’d be reading much of Orwell’s nonfiction now had he not written the indelible novels 1984 and Animal Farm.

Pollitt seems to be trying to establish the following thesis (roughly): Even the best non-fiction writers only get read by future generations if they are lucky enough to have written some quality best-selling fiction. I disagree. (Notice, incidentally, that Pollitt has thrown “essayists” into a group that includes “columnists” and “book reviewers”; I do agree that “columnists” and “book reviewers” are more inclined to be creatures of their age who risk rapid obscurity unless they write more substantive and possibly popular work. I’m also aware that “non-fiction” is too broad a category in my purported thesis above but I think it is clear what Pollitt and I are aiming at.)

The simplest way to refute Pollitt’s assertion is to dredge up examples of essayists whose place in posterity is secure without their being famous through the fiction they wrote: Michel Montaigne, Edmund Burke, Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, Samuel Johnson, Matthew Arnold, Susan Sontag, Jacques Barzun; the list goes on. (Standard caveat: to really settle this dispute check back in a couple of hundred years). We can disagree plentifully about how well posterity is treating every single member on the list we would generate, and about its definitive membership, but when the smoke would clear, we would still list many essayists to whom posterity has been “kind” without requiring that they have written a best-selling novel or two. Indeed, in some cases, it would be clear their literary fame has been achieved not because of the fiction they wrote but in spite of it (I think this is especially true of Sontag, whose fiction I simply could not stand).

But there is another problem in Pollitt’s assertion given its reliance on the case of Orwell. Would Orwell simply have slipped into obscurity had he not written those “indelible” novels? Well, fiction is always more likely to reach a broader market than the non-fiction a writer puts out. And popularity in that genre can have the salutary effect of attracting a broader readership to the rest of a writer’s corpus. And yes, Orwell’s writings became famous only after he wrote his best-selling novels (I’m inclined to think that 1984, incidentally, is a not-very-good novel whose fame was ensured by a particular set of historical contingencies). But is a large readership what Pollitt means by being treated kindly by posterity? Or would posterity still be kind to a writer if critical acclaim for the writer’s non-fiction corpus were to endure through the ages? If the latter, then since Pollitt is trading in hypotheticals, let me do so too. I think anyone that wrote Homage to Catalonia, The Road to Wigan Pier, Decline of the English Murder, How the Poor Die, Shooting An Elephant, Why I Write, or Politics and The English Language would have found enduring critical, even if not popular, fame.

Lastly, slipping a mention of Orwell into a remembrance of Hitchens shows that Pollitt has succumbed to the temptation to lump the two together. Please. Cease and Desist.