Readers wanted

Harsh Judgment.

“Everyone’s a critic,” the saying used to go. Now it should be “Everyone’s an artist.” In this digital age we have millions of Michelangelos on YouTube, Flickr, iTunes, and just about everywhere else.

The real Michelangelo placed a likeness of himself in The Last Judgment. He painted himself among the unredeemed. The man’s achievements were herculean, yet he reportedly felt he never achieved his potential, and disliked his own paintings intensely.

Bach supposedly said, “I just worked hard” to sum up his life. Tolstoy thought he could have done better. Sibelius spent ten years birthing the mythical Symphony No. 8, only to toss it into the fire because in his eyes it wasn’t good enough.

I’m not bringing up these examples to extol the cliché of the self-deprecating artist. Certainly history has had its fill of egomaniacs who were in fact brilliant. But my point is that today there is no shortage of people who think they’re the next genius, ready to lead a creative revolution, almost always via the Internet. There’s just one problem—

There aren’t enough people to be led. When everyone’s producing and promoting, there’s barely anyone left to sit back and consume. Seems nobody thought of that.

Everyone is “creative” these days. It’s not hard to get your web site up, your blog running, your computer-created beats available for download. What’s tough is finding people to consume your art, because today other “artistic types” are all doing this too. And other people, more mainstream sorts, still, whether out of habit or distrust for the Web 2.0 revolution, still go to traditional sources, such as Barnes & Noble, Amazon (yes, Amazon now has to be considered a traditional source, more or less), and the regular television networks and cable.

In brief, there’s no shortage of content, no shortage of artists (“artistes,” a friend of mine would say with disdain) expressing themselves today, multiple times a day, every day, with various intricate site linkages. What there a shortage of is people to consume the output. We have an audience crisis, though few people seem to be talking about this, probably because they’re too busy tweeting pictures of their lunch.

We have such an audience crisis that TV and movie studios, whose product is the most expensive, have largely stopped making fresh content. They are just rehashing old content over and over in remakes, sequels, ripoffs, etc., because it’s easier to demonstrate that the potential audience is already there. This has always been the case to some extent of course, but it’s the norm now.  That’s the difference. It’s considered the regular way of doing business. Same with music, the second most expensive medium for content creation.  Most genres have made minuscule advances in the last decade or two.  ompare music from today and twenty years ago. Then compare music from 1920 and 1940. 1940 and 1960. 1960 and 1980. Get the picture? Duke Ellington once lamented, the late 1930s, that swing music had not advanced significantly in the last two or three years. Duke would be shocked to return to the world of music, or any art, today.

Again, art has gotten in ruts before. But I don’t think you can argue it’s ever been like this. And mostly it has to do with economics, and most of that has to do with the fact that audiences overall are small, getting smaller, and are fragmented into absurdly tiny segments. That’s going to make anyone who has to foot the bill very wary of taking chances. Too much “art” can kill off art as fast as not enough—perhaps faster.

This brings me now to the topic of my last post, and to Laura Miller’s recent Salon.com article. We have both said that National Novel Writing Month is not a good idea, a misguided attempt to spur interest in books by encouraging the creation of more bad ones. And for her trouble, Ms. Miller has received an explosive outpouring of hate mail. (My blog isn’t nearly as widely read, so I’ve been spared the fatwa declared on her.)

Many people, perhaps predictably and sadly, accused Miller of being condescending, an elitist (now that homosexuality is generally accepted, at least outwardly, being branded “elitist” is about as horrible a charge as you can inflict on someone), snide and insecure. The nicer ones merely called her a poopy-pants.

But they missed the point of her column; their letters demonstrate they are not the very sharp, nuanced readers she is calling for. Miller is not looking down on people who aspire to write to a demanding deadline, nor do I detect a sense of bitterness that she cannot do the same thing in her tone. (I don’t know if she can or not, but my point is whenever one criticizes anything in this egalitarian-drenched culture, the reflexive response seems to be, “You think you can do better?” I wonder if they’d say that if a surgeon botched their eye operation, or a pilot landed his plane in a cornfield.) Nor is she trying to be a keeper of the flame, with writing as some sort of calling that only high priests may attempt. She’s just pointing out an ugly truth.

She is saying that the month, while perhaps noble-intentioned, does more harm than good, and that includes harm to the very great writers who yearn to break out and be discovered and appreciated. Because the gifted ones will create anyway; the deluge from everyone else will just dilute great works all the more, shrinking any possible audience and greatly increasing the chances that the great artist will suffer the same fate as the hack—namely, being buried in the pile of garbage, a pile so big no one has the time or inclination to sort through it.

NNWM increases the supply.  But it does nothing to increase the demand— to the contrary, it actually may decrease it. So what’s the point?  The joy of uncritical self-expression, say the angry letter-writers to Miller’s piece. Well, goody, but I hope these people are aware that it will indeed be that—self-expression. From the self, to the self. Hear that sound? Them be crickets chirpin.’

Do we really need National Playing Folk Guitar In A Coffeehouse Month? Would it help folk guitarists playing in coffeeshops? No, what would help them is someone listening to them, instead of sitting there tweeting, texting, writing their own novels or songs or updating their own websites. The first step to being a great writer is being a great reader (and listener, and asker of questions), and judging by what I see, both in terms of spelling and grammar and in terms of being able to discern subtleties in argument and reasoning, the world is sorely lacking such people. NNWM’s own website admits, “You will be writing a lot of crap.” But then it goes on, “And that’s a good thing.  By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.”

I  differ with this point of view. When we’re widdle kids we’re taught by our adoring parents and teachers that our crap is great. Grandma puts that crayon scribbling on the refrigerator and calls it the “most beautiful picture I’ve ever seen” before giving us a kiss and a hot chocolate. That’s fine and wonderful. My grandmother did it too.† But eventually you’re supposed to become more self-critical, and know better. That’s a vital stage of growing into maturity, into learning how to decide and discern. Newsflash for the cultural relativists: everything isn’t equal, and it all isn’t a matter of opinion. Most of what we create isn’t beautiful, brilliant or even good, and that’s just the way it is. Most people’s thoughts and ideas are hackneyed clichés and borrowings that clearly haven’t seen twenty seconds of critical analysis. Think I’m being cruel or “elitist”? Just read the readers’ comments on any newspaper’s website.

God is in the details. What separated Beethoven and Rembrandt and Tolstoy from the pack was their willingness to make—indeed their obsession with making—“endless tweaks and editing.” Ever hear the early drafts of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony? They’re not very good. Fortunately Ludwig never read the guidelines to National Symphony Writing Month, so he did not “give himself permission to make mistakes.” Instead he worked his ass off, revising for five years. We need more bad art in this world like we need more lemons on used car lots.

What we do need are more critical readers. Going through the comments to Miller’s article, I found most people had not read it closely. They pointed out “flaws” in her argument that she in fact had addressed. They accused her of saying things she didn’t say, or implications she didn’t imply. They rephrased her position completely inaccurately. I don’t think most of them were doing this on purpose. I think they just weren’t very careful readers. So many of us seem to think if we just recognize the words on a page “we can read.” But reading is a skill, and the more you do it, and the harder-grade material you read, the more discerning a reader and thinker and debater you become. Rather than turning out hackwork, most of the NNWM participants would do themselves a favor by cozying up with a really challenging book. Not a vampire novel or light romance. Imagine if someone said “It’s National Trumpet Playing Month. Just pick up a trumpet and blow, and don’t worry about mistakes. It’s all about expression.” That’s not going to turn you into Wynton Marsalis, and if you are already Wynton Marsalis, you don’t need National Trumpet Playing Month. What you need is intelligent, perceptive audience members. Any musician will tell you those folks are not in high supply.

Of course this may seem hypocritical. After all, aren’t I worked on my own novel, and don’t I post to my Facebook page to promote blog postings? Yes, but that’s far from all I post. And I read and comment on other people’s material on their pages and web sites, and I exchange ideas with them, and ask for critiques, where appropriate, in return. I’m as much in the audience as I am a writer. Also, the idea for my novel isn’t something that came to me lightly, and I certainly didn’t execute it in a month.  I thought about it before typing a single word for far longer than that.

For many years I’ve toyed with ideas—for a novel, for a screenplay—only to not complete them. I often get ideas that, in the cold reality of “later on,” I dislike. A friend once asked me, “Did you ever finish—?” and I cut him off with “No.”  “You don’t even know what I was going to ask you about,” he protested. “Doesn’t matter,” I said. “Whatever it is, the answer is no.” It was true. What has amazed me about this idea, why I have been slogging on with it for about three years now, is that I still have all the enthusiasm for it that I had the day I thought of it. And even with that, I suffer from periodic doubts, both major and minor, as well as questions about whether the whole concept is naive.

Real artists, I have come to believe, are self-doubters, and that is a good thing, provided it does not overwhelm one. The real fools venture off into battle with the muse brimming with confidence, seeing their names on the NYTimes Bestseller list after one draft. They are stunned and then disillusioned when they get rejection after rejection after rejections. Welcome to showbiz, baby. As Claire Danes once said, “You get so much rejection, it gets boring after a while.”  She was talking about acting, but this is no different. And nobody offers to hang your scribblings on the refrigerator.

I used to think open-source, the lack of gate-keepers, was a good thing about the Internet, and in some ways I still do. But if Sturgeon’s Law applies anywhere, it is in the cyberworld, and in fact Sturgeon was probably an optimist. As Garrison Keillor once said, “Lake Woebegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and all the children are above average.” We need the less narcissistic, more appreciative National Novel Reading Month. We need more intelligent and discerning and critical* consumers of culture, so the caliber of culture that’s demanded and that’s produced rises. Then the supply part will take care of itself.


† Okay, no she didn’t, really.  Maybe I had an early advantage.

* Critical, rather than negative.  There is a difference.

5 responses

  1. Excellent post, John. Thoughtful and very well-done!


    November 8, 2010 at 7:46 am

  2. Thanks for sending this, John. I’m dismayed that you’ve been so bothered by this kerfuffle, perhaps more than I’ve been. While I certainly didn’t like getting nasty/threatening email, this is far from my first experience of such reactions. I guess I’m jaded.

    One of the first things you learn in journalism is that most of your readers have a set script in their heads, with designated good guys and bad guys, (they are invariably the former), and they pay only enough attention to what you’re saying to figure out which pre-established role you fit into before going off. Most of these NaNo people are just responding to the headline, which I didn’t even write (not that they could be expected to know that).

    You are absolutely right that they aren’t careful readers, and in this case I think a lot of them are pretty narcissistic. If their amour propre is injured, they’re not going to be rational. You can restate your case maybe once (a temptation I succumbed to on the Jacket Copy blog), but they aren’t really going to listen to that, either. They’re impervious.

    This is why I haven’t even read the comments on my piece, beyond the first few. I don’t owe them any more attention than they’ve spent on me and what I have to say! Also, reading that stuff makes you despair for civilization. But do remember this: the population of people who post to Internet comments threads is self-selecting. Don’t make the mistake of assuming they speak for all readers. In fact, the more sane and thoughtful a reader is, the less likely they are to bother posting. Bear in mind that as many people have sent me supportive emails as angry ones.


    November 9, 2010 at 10:20 am

  3. Lisa Erwin

    I happen to agree with most of what you write, John. There are so many poor readers out there that I gave up out of despair–not that I writing a novel like you, but I once belonged to book clubs and discussion groups. They only wanted titles that made them feel good about themselves (lots of Jennifer Weiner and Kate Jacobs) and when I mentioned stepping outside Oprah’s comfort zone to one group, there was a silence and then someone said, ‘What’s wrong with Oprah?’ I suggested Sister Carrie and I was voted down. I mentioned Anna Karenina and someone said they’d read it in high school and it was ‘boring.’ I bravely suggested maybe their appreciation would have grown since high school but they said they were sure they had been right and it was dull – otherwise Oprah would have had it on her show! That’s when I quit and haven’t been back. And I live in Berkeley, California, where there are supposedly more literature people than most places. I could weep.

    Good luck to you and good luck finding readers. They really are scarce today.




    November 10, 2010 at 12:43 pm

  4. Pingback: Well I’ll be a Monkey’s uncle, I do have something to be thankful for… «

  5. Elizabeth Walden-Speer

    I too really enjoyed this perceptve post, John, and I’d like to see what you advocate, more critical READING. I too belonged to a book club that seemed to what Oprah to do all their thinking for them, though they didn’t believe they were being that way at all. They want the reward without the effort, and if you try to point this out they grow hissy, personal and finally they start calling you names and accusing you of “superiority”! As though nothing could be more horrible. It’s like Lake Woebegone, as you said. EVERYONE is special.


    April 3, 2014 at 4:30 pm

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