I read an opinion piece
magazine the other day about how publishing is going to change — become bigger, dirtier, more democratic. Basically, because of the Internet. Because people's tastes are going to get "cheap and promiscuous."
Reading this I had a strong sense of deja vu. I was suddenly back in 1999, at the height of the Internet Bubble, when people were making similarly enormous claims about the power of the Internet (to end wars, end poverty, spread democracy). Now, in 2009, I think we can all agree that the Internet is pretty awesome, but for all practical purposes we have the same problems we did ten years ago. Maybe more of them.
Thinking more about this piece in Time, I flashed back a little further, to a postmodern fiction class I took in 1997 as an undergraduate at Cornell. The professor was insisting the same things back then that the author of the Time piece suggests today — fiction is going to become Internet-ed and hyperlinked, the idea of an "author" will be changed — we will all become authors.
Despite the admiration I felt for this professor, this struck me as a poor development. I'd taken a lot of creative writing classes, and while sure that my own fiction was brilliant, I also knew exactly how bad my classmates' fiction was. I would never have read any of it by choice. The fact that it was free didn't change anything.
Soon after, I would force my first novel on various friends, just to discover that only those who truly loved me made it past page ten (of 500). A few years later, most of those same friends actually managed to finish my somewhat better second novel, which thankfully didn't garner any interest from agents or publishers.
Of course, it's possible that I'm a bad example. I'm willing to accept that what came so hard to me might come more easily to others. I was twenty-one when I decided I was a novelist, but it's taken thirteen years for the world at large to agree with me. Which, frankly, I am thankful for.
Malcolm Gladwell recently decided that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to acquire mastery. I have no idea if that's true, but it feels right, at least on a gut level. Ten thousand hours is five years of working forty hours a week.
Which is not exactly news to anyone who's ever read fiction or poetry for a contest or graduate school application pool. 90% of those carefully wrought writing samples are terrible. Terrible in the sense that you can barely stand to read them. As someone who's spent most of his writing life in that lower 90%, I can admit that.
So while we can all write, writing for oneself and writing for an audience are completely different. I can run, but that doesn't make me fast enough even for a middle school cross country team. I drive my car safely, but that isn't the same as racing Formula One. I can do my taxes but not well enough to be an accountant. Obviously, the list of analogies is infinite. The Internet might make it easier to get my writing into the public sphere, but it doesn't mean anyone will judge it differently.
Most of us read (or consume other entertainment) only in our spare time, which is limited. Whenever we pick up a book, turn on a movie, read something online, or queue up a song, we are entering into an implicit contract with the creator of the work — don't waste my time. As soon as we sense the author has broken that contract, we turn to something else.
The world needs more writers and more artists. Every time I read something masterful, I can feel my life getting better. It's hard to write good literary fiction, it's hard to write good detective fiction, it's hard to write period — the hang-up has never been about technology. We keep writing, keep creating, because we hope we'll get good enough to make something that another human will decide to read of their own free will. That bar won't ever get lower, no matter what format we use to consume the art.