~ There is only one journey: going inside yourself. ~
- Rainer Maria Rilke


Death of the Professional Writer Greatly Exaggerated? ~ Saturday, March 14, 2009

My mum forwarded me this sad little eulogy to the era of the professional writer. The argument would appear to be that as we move from print culture to other forms of entertainment, the place for professional writers will be swept aside in the democratizing freedom of the internet (which democratization itself, the article concedes, is a good thing). Suddenly, with blogs and other venues, where people are willing to do for free what others were once paid to do, writing as a profession will soon be gone in the way of the dodo or the typesetter.

There's a lot of truth to this observation, I agree. I've been thinking such thoughts and wondering about such questions myself over the last while as I agonize over my next steps.

Moreover, there's a lot of this going around these days--downturns and cutbacks have meant that a flagging industry will be streamlining further, and will possibly begin to initiate whatever transformations it will require, to survive and meet drastically changing demands, all the sooner.

In addition, there has been a profound shift in our culture. For one thing, people have less use for paper. It's bulky, it feels wasteful when employed for single use purposes and it is starting to feel less relevant to us as we transition to other formats. Similarly, reading is a slower undertaking, and given the choice, many will choose to play video games, watch t.v. or avail themselves of all the other entertaiments available to us.

And yet, this eulogizing reminds me a little of the outcry that came about when printing first emerged as a new technology. People denounced the new medium, feeling that it took the personality out of books, made them cheap and valueless, and also represented a death knell to all the copyists who had previously been surviving on their skill in creating beautifully-penned and illuminated manuscripts.

Admittedly, some of those copyists--those who didn't take to typesetting, one might speculate--might not have done too well in the new environment. But yet, the printing press ushered in a period of rising literacy, as books became affordable and the needs of society changed to accommodate the new, widespread availability of information.

It's not a perfect parallel, but there are similarities. The situation now is more complex, which is also why I would argue that it's not as hopeless as some claim. It's about adaptation and change. Society and individuals will adapt to the new circumstances. Things will shift around. And when the dust settles, a new situation will emerge--one that is not necessarily devoid of hope for the professional writer. As I say, it's about adaptation. After all, could those denouncing the printing press have ever anticipated bound and printed books in the grocery store, or the fact that almost anyone walking by said books could read their covers at a glance? It ushered in a change, but the full repercussions of that change could never have been anticipated. And admittedly, the copyists lost their jobs, and yet, the era of typesetters began. Those copyist able to put their literacy to good use and learn to typset no doubt did well enough by the transition, as the demand for books grew and printing presses began churning them out.

So, here are some of my reasons for thinking that reports of the professional writer's death may be exaggerated:

--I would guess that with the internet, people might actually be reading more now than they have been in recent years. Articles, ideas, information, are all just a few clicks away--and available on the go, via laptops, phones and pagers. Much of it, at this point, is admittedly supplied by enthusiastic hobbyists (*ahem*) who don't expect remuneration, but are, instead, glad to share their meticulously acquired knowledge with others. Still, I suspect that as thing settle, there will be a growing demand for gatekeepers--people who ensure some baseline quality control and levels of accuracy, particularly in the case of non-fiction. This was previously the role of the publisher. The new gatekeepers might be different--and the information might be regulated in other ways. But it's likely that people will start requiring accuracy and things like small subscriptions to wiki-based knowledge databases, in which the facts are actually verified, will become valid (it's a model that's already in place--and people are willing to pay for the time saved in having ready-made, reliable information compiled for them). At that point, it becomes worth it to pay people to write those entries and check those facts.

--We have always loved story. Good, well-told narrative has compelled us. Sure, people are watching t.v. and playing games more these days. But multi-level, narrative-based video games and award-winning, compelling films and t.v. shows don't write themselves. People talk about lax standards--even the article linked above mentioned something about intellectual entropy. Hey--just because something is different and adapted to the period in which it is created, doesn't make it worse. Try renting a season of Dexter, or any of the other well-made shows out there. It's tightly-written and amazingly well done. Play through Okami. Pick up some graphic novels. These are all story. They are ways of engaging with narrative. And not a one of them sprang, fully-formed from the brow of Zeus. They were all written by people. People who were paid to do it.

--There is still demand for books, even if they are in e-format. Having discovered how uneven the quality of free e-books can be very quickly made me ready to pay money for ones that had been selected and vetted by editors, from e publishers I trust. I don't imagine I'm alone in my willingness to do that. As an aside, I will admit to being annoyed when the ebook is priced the same as the print copy (any good arguments for that, anyone?), considering it costs a fraction of the price to sell as it does to print, bind, distribute etc. the print versions. I do feel that e books should be considerably cheaper--and can be. The margins can remain the same for the publishers and the royalties the same for writers (or can even go up a little) and the reader can still get a deal out of it, with a cheaper cover price for the eformat. The epublishers get this, while the print publishers who are starting to offer eformat books are slower to catch on. But the demand is there--and with good ereaders like Stanza and devices like the Kindle, I can only see it increasing. I have over a hundred books on my ipod. I can whip it out anytime and read it--even in low light, because the screen is lit. I like print books better, but find myself turning to my ipod for reading more and more often these days instead of lugging around print copies.

I suspect there are many other ways in which the role of the professional writer will morph to suit the changing demands of readers--ways I could not begin to anticipate. But, I have little doubt that the roles of fact-gatherer, ready to compile and distribute accurate information; of discerning, skillful observer who is able to phrase things in precisely the way we wish we could and who thereby expands our perception of the world; of storysmith and insightful visionary, whose narratives are impossible to abandon once we begin them--all these roles will still be required by society, as they always have been in the past.

The professional writer is dead. Long live the professional writer, say I.

::Posted by Anduril Elessar @ 2:16 PM::::


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Anduril Elessar
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