Writers are over-examined and over-discussed. Not exactly an audacious thesis statement for the first number of a biweekly column about writers and writing, and yet, here we all are.
Writers are under such close scrutiny thanks to writers—writers write about themselves, about one another, about their feelings, their goals, their ever-declining place in society. There was a sweet spot of seventy years when the novel, in particular, was of significant cultural importance. Widespread literacy and cheap printing made the written word accessible to millions, and there was little other competition for one’s leisure time until first the radio and then television landed their punches. Magazines and newspapers were huge as well, but the World Wide Web took care of that in under a decade. Now the writer is adrift, underpaid, underread, but certainly over-contemplated.
And oh, what writers have to say about themselves! Literary novelists so concerned about their place in society now that they are no longer a great part of the public conversation. Why write if nobody is reading, or worse, being persuaded by the great moral lessons of the day, such as “Racism is bad, so be a white savior”? Writers of young adult fiction are looking to inspire children to save the world while also disparaging “redemption narratives”, because forgiveness only undermines victory these days. Crime and noir writers pat themselves on the back for exposing the underbelly of society to the middle-class reader, as if reading isn’t just a slow theme-park ride of the mind for slummers who don’t wish to leave the house. Then there are the science fiction authors who want us to evacuate the Earth and head out to the stars—so far they have mostly inspired billionaires to waste their money on public relations stunts while the rest of us choke on the smoke of state-sized fires or drown in the poisoned salt water of the rising oceans.
Don’t even get me started on horror writers, who confidently announce that if they were not writing, the demons in their head would make them do terrible, terrible things. Things even worse than publishing those awful novels!
And those are the writers who are attempting to engage the public on some social or political level. What of those who write in order to help readers “escape” from their lives, or who only wish to “entertain”? The nightmare reality is this: TV and video games, which engage multiple senses simultaneously and require relatively little cogitation to consume, are much better at helping people escape, and are a far sight more entertaining than “escapist literature” in most cases. This is an implicit truth acknowledged by how we measure the success of a work of popular or populist fiction: has a movie studio optioned it? Is it under development by Netflix or Hulu or Syfy as a series? The book itself is only the seed that, with luck and care, grows into a fruit tree full of the sweetest audio-visual spectacles.
A subset of this last group scoff and say that they write for money—which is a good reason, surely, though hardly worth the essays and tweets and late-night bull sessions at the literary conference or sci-fi convention. Imagine the janitor buffing the lobby’s tiled floor of the conference hotel and telling everyone in earshot that they do it for the money. Of course they do, and if that janitor is in a labor union they probably have more money in the bank and better health insurance than any of the writers who’ll have to lift their feet for the industrial buffer.
While ultimately unimportant to the world at large, the question of why writers write is important to writers for some obvious reasons. One, it often pays about as well as a janitorial position, though the job is much harder to get, can vanish at any time, involves haphazard cash flow instead of weekly or biweekly checks, and everyone on Earth gets to have an opinion about how terrible you are at your job, if they even notice that you exist and are doing it. One has to tell one’s self a story about being a writer just to keep going—not only are writers naturally storytellers, but there is so little positive feedback from the world that without some greater mission it is very easy to simply give up.
Or is there?
Personally, I stopped worrying about the question of why I write, years ago, on a trip to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. There I saw on display a facsimile of the Divje Babe Flute, purportedly made by Neanderthals or early modern humans from the femur of a cave bear. Neanderthal life was probably fairly difficult, despite the fact that they lived along the banks of the Riviera and ate lots of tasty shellfish—there’s ten grand a week in today’s money!—given the absence of modern medicine and a very limited tool kit. Neanderthals were hyper evolved physically into their niche; they were not as adaptable as us moderns. Their lives were cold, and short, and far more precarious than any of us could imagine, much less survive. For example, they had another sentient subspecies to compete with. Picture human life today if bonobos were plentiful and owned machine guns. And yet, the Neanderthals came up with a flute and played it anyway. Art-making is an inevitable artifact of having a lot of crosswired neurons. We, as a species, cannot help it. I don’t worry about social inevitabilities that seem to come from the dawn of our subspecies.
I’m aware that my appeal to neurobiology only explains why people write (or paint, or string beads, or sing and dance) and not why I write, but regardless, I have liberated myself from the need to tell myself a story. People ask me to write, and it is at least fairly pleasant to write, so I do. (It’s inside work and you get to sit, anyway.) For me that is enough.
Which brings us to this column: every few weeks I’ll write eleven hundred words on a book, or a writer, or some political issue or controversy, or a bit of personal experience that may include something my silly six-year-old son told me, or perhaps an encounter with a customer at the bookstore where I currently work. (Remember what I said about writing and haphazard cash flow? I sure do.)
My remit is to contemplate the already over-contemplated, but perhaps tell you something about writers and writing that you’ve not heard before. See you in two weeks and we’ll see how I do!