More Readers Means More Buzzfeed and How Work-for-Free is Inegalitarian
Writer says writing is dying–or maybe it’s just really hard to make a living doing it–or something like that.
I apologize if I appeared short in some of the comments on my post yesterday. I think a lack of clarity in my post, combined with a subject matter which most of us have already thought a lot about, and have developed certain opinions about, led to some confusion about where I stand on writing for free and the general economics of digital journalism, essayism, and blogging.
In noting Philip Roth’s eightieth birthday, Gopnick writes of the author that, “He was ‘serious in the fifties,’ to use his own coinage, satiric in the sixties, sober in the seventies, sane in the eighties, and became—with the amazing sequence of big late novels that commenced with ‘Sabbath’s Theater’—a kind of sage in the nineties and right into our confused new century.”
But from there Gopnick pivots to, “Happy as the birthday promises to be, it is hard not to worry that it doubles as a bon voyage party for the American writer’s occupation itself.” Having thus declared Philip Roth the last employed or employable American writer, Gopnick remarks ponderously, “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 extremely curious here, and indeed stupendously important to note, how easily Gopnick is willing to conflate “writing in America” with “making a living writing in America.” He stops himself before the fusion can be completed, but in such a lazy and half-hearted way as to make the manuever appear less a sincere belief than an attempt at insulating what follows from accusations of over sentimentality and good-old-daysism.
Of course, Gopnick is certainly guilty of being late to the party, or at least sounding that way. Yes, a surplus of writing has made writing cheap. Yes, the Internet makes old revenue models difficult or completely unmanageable. But it’s the present, it will probably be the future, so best to get on with things; the sooner people like Gopnick stop getting paid to utter unoriginal and stale thoughts on the matter at the New Yorker, the better.
Yet when he notes the explosion in reading, and its necessary vulgarization as a result, I think he touches on an understated aspect of the writing market.
“Count the Proust groups out there, looking at one another, suspiciously eying the others’ translations. Consider the David Foster Wallace-ites, with their enormous, personally annotated texts and inextinguishable passion for their poet. Every novelist needs a circle—the Browning Society, the Austenites, the Dickens Fellowship—and nothing is better than social media for building one. The Brits protest the vulgarity and the hype of the Man Booker Prize, but that a literary prize—given, on the whole, to good books, including Roth’s, in 2011—can still command enough attention to become vulgar is itself a thing to marvel at.”
As far as I can tell the Internet has done two big things for writing, (1) erase the physical barriers to creation and distribution, shoving aside slowly but forcefully the old-guard and established gatekeepers, and (2) diminished, proportionally, the total available money for funding such projects (given how many of them there are).
This means dramatically more competition, which is fine, but also dramatically fewer financial resources. More money than ever is spent on trying to find out HOW to make money in publishing, even as less of it is available for the writing itself. I don’t think this hypermarketization for writing is “good” (relativists, please hold your questions till the end!)
In fact, I think it’s bad in so far as it encourages everyone to iterate on the Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Drudge Repot models. I think it’s bad in so far as publishers search for the next Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey rather than taking chances on lots of different kinds of books, experimental and traditiona, genre and “literature,” and so on. I think it’s bad in so far as there are less resources for original reporting, even original blogging, than there are for aggregation and combing Reddit. I think it’s bad in so far as it excludes those from impoverished backgrounds, especially many minorities, from taking part.
However, I don’t think any single code of ethics or business pratice will fix that. My criticism yesterday was more of the individuals involved, and the ethos that pervaded their reactions and rebuttals, than the inevitablity that none of them have an answer in the end; a solution to the problem of how to pay for BOTH important writing and fun writing, serious writing and entertaining writing (rather than 90% GIFs and “Girls” recaps, and only 10%0 James Fallows cover stories).
And in so far as the Atlantic and other websites’ practices are exploitative, the issue isn’t one of getting paid but of equalizing the risk and the costs. The League is a social endeavor. We write for (I think in many cases) ourselves, one another, and anyone interested in good conversation and
sulpherous stimulating debate. The Atlantic publishes to make money, not just to sustain itself and its quality, but to turn a profit (sometimes to the detriment of quality), the rewards of which are given to some people, and the costs extracted from others, without complete overlap between those two groups. That’s what is devious.
Imagine, for example, the Atlantic takes a chance on some young writer, for no pay (read minimum downside), and her piece explodes–100k page views and so on–and the Atlantic sees that upside. Clearly in that instance the company, if they did not let the young writer share in that upside, would be similar to investment firms which all too often realize large profits even as the risk involved is carried by public citizens. But in those scenarios the biggest losers tend not to always be the general taxpayer, but the smaller banks in competition with the larger ones. They are not bailed out and never will be.
I don’t think the Atlantic and other institutions should pay everyone who writes for them–I think they shouldn’t have people write for them (willing or not) who they can’t pay. Buzz might be good for the individual but working for only that makes everyone involved worse off in the long run; the work for
free prestige model might help a few people, but it hurts many, many more.