It’s a rainy day today. The river is gray, the air is dense and foggy and the drenched people huddled under their umbrellas also seem bereft of colour. It all reminds me of a line from O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi when the young woman saw a “grey cat walking a grey fence in a grey backyard.”
Likewise, my foggy thoughts have condensed with the rain today around the rather gray topic of the difficulties of the writing profession in the present age.
How do writers keep themselves motivated to write nowadays? I wonder. Firstly, there are so few rewards, if any at all. You wonder how some writers are still around. The world of writers is a world where there is no middle class both in terms of material rewards and in terms of other accolades. You’re either at the very top or you are nowhere.
Most writers you know might eke out a living at 9-5 jobs but their heart is somewhere else. Yet, these are the lucky few. Others are probably hanging by their fingernails in desperate jobs on the periphery of the market scribbling when they can.
There are indeed people who don’t need to worry about a living but they are cultivating their craft like an accomplishment as Victorian heroines did at playing the piano or embroidery, as one of the finer pursuits of life with little real value or power to change anything except accessorize more important things like a pretty bonnet or a handbag. Rarely are such accomplishments cultivated with the kind of drive and discipline required of a professional career. Others do it as a hobby, when they have time after retirement.
Whereas this is how a large amount of writing is churned out by amateurs, who, ironically have the most freedom to be free-thinking and original, anything longer than a blog post or a small article in an online magazine needs to be shelved for a long time since such writers neither have the time nor contacts to do more. Sometimes, such writing is published amateurishly as an ebook.
Plenty of good ideas get wasted this way.
Yet, writing is after all a profession. A novel idea that might be new today might get dated three years from now just like in another discipline. A form of producing content new today might change a few months from now. The best time to act is now but now might not be a time when the amateurs have enough time.
So what are the professionals up to? Ironically, those who are in the profession, “literary” writers, genre writers, critics, feature writers or publishers will protect their profession like a super insular guild with elaborate, almost impermeable structural hierarchies for an outsider. It might take years, perhaps decades to get a word in. Hard work, in such a culture, becomes synonymous with professionalization, not specialization, eating away at the time and potential of a lot of new hopefuls.
The result is that the originality of such professional writers is defined by sameness, their success is reinforced by exclusion of outsiders, their subject matter defined by cultural norms that are necessarily insular and nebulous ensuring no objective method of evaluation is possible. As a result, there are very few clear, genuine pointers towards success for the aspiring writer beyond the very basics.
Besides, a lot of writers might be introverted as people. Networking does not come easily to them. So the only writers who are able to penetrate this gray fog of structural hierarchies are exceptionally social people who could be excellent marketing professionals but sadly often not the best or most versatile or deep writers. Or they are already born into a network by a stroke of luck (as someone’s niece or classmate) so their visibility is higher though for the reader their talent might seem mediocre.
Since writing is necessarily a human activity in that it deals with people, what kind of authors, subject matter, perspectives and characterizations are we most likely to encounter as readers in such a scenario? Most likely, these will be writers who are very social, in real life and online who produce formulaic work having been trained by their guild and advised by agents. Many will be independently wealthy, well-informed people with the right social sympathies who have only known the good life having never needed to go out there and do “real” work. Their heart might be in the right place but their experience of the world skewed or limited.
What has been the result of this situation on the works we get to read? Are most of the complex characters in fiction also relatively socially privileged? Are the stereotypical characters also their social Others? Are we only getting sporadically produced good writing by the amateurs while the vast majority of trained professionals are producing mediocre writing? Are the professionals obsessively focusing on the craft of writing because they are the mediocre people who have little original things to say?
I sincerely hope it’s only this gray day talking and not the real condition of writers in the present day.