I’ve been reading a lot more lately--a thing which I challenged myself to do when I got back from Worldcon last September. Any good writer will tell you that a writer needs to read as much as they write, for it is in this manner that the brain feeds itself so that it can then regurgitate that input into what one hopes will be wholly better output.
It was of course reading during childhood that fueled my interest in writing, so I’m glad to be back going at it whole hog again. Reading is one of the genuine pleasures of life, and it rounds one out in so many ways. Since the new year, I’ve been managing to read about two novels or collections a week, which is a better pace than I’ve ever managed, and I hope to keep it up throughout the year.
One aspect of this ‘great pleasure’ is the discovery of the little bits of insight that an author has woven into their work. Some do this more than others, but there is almost always a little of it there. One of the best writers in this capacity is Kurt Vonnegut. It’s hard to read one of his works without having little delightful ‘ah ha’ moments over and over again. I came across a (for me) particularly good one in the current novel of his that I’m reading: Bluebeard.
It deals with the status of the ‘average quality’ artist and their place now in a world ruled by mass media and global communication. I’ll let Mr. Vonnegut take it from here:
“I was obviously born to draw better than most people, just as the widow Berman and Paul Slazinger were obviously born to tell stories better than most people can. Other people are obviously born to sing and dance or explain the stars in the sky or do magic tricks or be great leaders or athletes, and so on.
I think that could go back to the time when people had to live in small groups of relatives -- maybe fifty or a hundred people at the most. And evolution or God or whatever arranged things genetically to keep the little families going, to cheer them up, so that they could all have somebody to tell stories around the campfire at night, and somebody else to paint pictures on the walls of the caves, and somebody else who wasn't afraid of anything and so on.
That's what I think. And of course a scheme like that doesn't make sense anymore, because simply moderate giftedness has been made worthless by the printing press and radio and television and satellites and all that. A moderately gifted person who would have been a community treasure a thousand years ago has to give up, has to go into some other line of work, since modern communications put him or her into daily competition with nothing but the world's champions. [italics mine]
The entire planet can get along nicely now with maybe a dozen champion performers in each area of human giftedness. A moderately gifted person has to keep his or her gifts all bottled up until, in a manner of speaking, he or she gets drunk at a wedding and tapdances on the coffee table like Fred Astair or Ginger Rogers. We have a name for him or her. We call him or her an 'exhibitionist.'
How do we reward such an exhibitionist? We say to him or her the next morning, 'Wow! Were you ever drunk last night!”
-Kurt Vonnegut, Bluebeard, Page 76
This brought to mind a feeling that I’ve had ever since I first put pen to page many years ago and aspired. There are so many others out there, so many voices in the worldwide fugue of art, all crying out their tales, their songs, their brushstrokes, their unabashed creativity--how will one insignificant little voice be heard? Does it deserve to be heard?
On the surface, that can be a little depressing. But I also find solace in this situation. Yes, for the bulk of the five and a half centuries since the printing press was invented, only the greats have risen to the top. (Well, mostly greats...there is certainly pulp in those bestseller lists as well). But this is a wonderful thing. It’s a wonderful thing for me, as a reader, because I get to be exposed to those works that in any other era of human history I wouldn’t have been. It’s also great for me as a writer, and for the same reason. Having the opportunity to read these ‘champions’ is the best of all possible schools for a writer. One can learn a lot from Mr. Vonnegut, or Mr. Shakespeare, or Misters Hemingway, Steinbeck or Faulkner. If I had been born in the dark ages or earlier, the best I could have hoped for was whatever grade of tales the local village teller was telling, or perhaps the Latinate ramblings of a half-illiterate parishioner. So yes, this is the best of all possible times to be a reader, but also a writer as well. Thank you, printing press. Thank you, mass communication. And yes, thank you, internet.
Ah, the internet. A two-faced beast if there ever was one. In some ways liberating, giving a voice to all, yet in others, perhaps, the death-knell to traditional publishing. This has many writers, both well-established and would-be, shaking in their Birkenstocks.
We are liberated in many ways because we can blog, we can self-publish, we can even give away our hard-fought words for pennies, or even nothing. But this strikes many, including me, as a dismal way to do business. Because writing is one of those strange beasts that is both art and a business, at least if one wants to be a published, working author. Borders is gone. Barnes and Noble is on life support. Mom and Pop booksellers are dropping like flies in a cloud of internet DDT.
But, somehow, the art survives. These things have all happened before. They said television would be the death of movies. They were wrong. They said the VCR would kill the whole industry, but it merely created a new market for the material. So, will the internet and digital publishing kill that wonderful avenue that has existed for centuries for writers to survive and profit from their work? In some ways, it will, and it has. Midlist authors are having trouble making ends meet, and their plans to retire on their back catalogues have gone by the wayside. But I believe books, traditional books, will always survive. I think we are merely in a great transition in this industry, and whatever shakes out will ultimately form itself into something that is sustainable.
So, where does that leave the one little voice crying out into the worldwide fugue? Well, I’ll answer that by stating that I believe that there are more writers working now than at any time in human history. And I chose to believe that this is a good thing. For the writer that works hard and never gives up, there are still many avenues available to success. The important things are, like I just said, to work hard and never give up. And the most important thing is to write. If you truly love doing this--if you truly love putting butt on chair each day and weaving words into something you find beautiful, they you are already a success, for a love of your art is the most essential of all things an artist must possess. The rest will work itself out in the end. It always does.