Wednesday, March 13, 2013

On the future of writing

A piece worthy of comment in the The New Yorker, looking forward to the future of writing in the US in the context of Philip Roth's retirement:
The future of writing in America—or, at least, the future of making a living by writing—seems in doubt as rarely before. Thanks to the Internet, the disproportion between writerly supply and demand, always tricky, has tipped: anyone can write, and everyone does, and beginners are expected to be the last pure philanthropists, giving it all away for the naches. It has never been easier to be a writer; and it has never been harder to be a professional writer. The strange anatomy of the new literary manners has yet to be anatomized: the vast schools of tweets feeding on the giant whales of a few big books, the literary ecology of the very big, the very small, and the sudden vertiginous whoosh; the blog that becomes a book; the writer torn to pieces by his former Internet fans, which makes one the other.
It is certainly true, though perhaps not absolutely news, that writing has become a profession with very little renumeration. Few writers of literature make a living thereby: some make their living in communication, editing, or professional and technical writing, or as teachers of creative writing, but this always feels like a kind of hack-work, selling skill at loss of the creative output that is a writer's true mission and satisfaction. It seems that technology has multiplied the channels for writing (although there are never enough good publishers) and yet diluted thereby the commercial value of writing.

By the same token, the article notes, 'it is a matchless time to be a reader. The same forces that have hampered writing as a profession have empowered reading as a pastime: everything ever written, it seems, is now easily available to be read, and everything is.' I argued something of this availability of works from all periods in my post on E-books and the classics. Bookstores, online and offline, libraries, digital and otherwise, offer an ever growing archive for readers. And yet, in the flood of new and old works, where are those books that really change, thrill or divert us? Are they easier or harder to find?

There are no clear answers to these questions, not while we are in the middle of the revolution that spurs them. Like most writers, it's paradigmatic that I write and publish where I can, but in my career I've never heard from anyone that this business is getting easier. As a reader, I'm only looking for more time to discover and relish the books that are out there. But as Philip Roth departs the stage, maybe the idea of one great book or one great author to definitively witness our era is also, necessarily, about to fade.