The Crisis of Writing

Trying to make a living writing today is a bit like trying to make a living farming cotton in the 1930s South.

Back then, the bottom fell out of the cotton market, in large part due to overproduction. Farmers, almost to a man, responded to the low price of cotton by doubling down and planting even more, which drove the price even further into the basement, and so farmers, even more desperate than before, tried to increase their cotton acreage—and so on. It was a vicious cycle, broken only by New Deal programs that paid farmers not to plant cotton.

Thus writing. I recall hearing of one scholar who, many years back, produced an extensive analysis of the English language in the sixteenth century by reading every extant text published in English in that century. It was possible. However, it wouldn’t even be possible today to produce an analysis of everything published in the English language yesterday. The ubiquity of media outlets and publishing platforms has made that impossible. Likewise has the availability of so much media driven down the price of media, and thus the payment rendered unto authors. Many writers compensate for the pittance they receive today by writing even more and more, while others produce work for free hoping that it will attract enough notice to land them one of those gigs writing for a pittance. Vicious cycle, meet déjà vu.

So, if we want a viable writing economy, is the solution to do something akin to a New Deal for writers? Pay them not to write? No—because writers will lie to you. It was easy for federal regulators to come by and make sure that farmers weren’t growing cotton on the side, breaking the rules, but much harder to make sure that writers are doing likewise, with how easy it is to hide a laptop or flash drive. And they’ll do it, too. They’ll just write their little hearts out in secret, waiting for the price per word to bounce back and then flood the market with heartfelt bildungsroman or poems about fatherhood. Then we’ll be right back at where we started.

Of course, there was a time when nations colonized other lands to deal with their problems of overproduction. That’s the story of America, of the capitalist need to expand into new markets—conquer some other race and make them by all the stuff we’re churning out, while they can supply us with raw materials. Hell, the British even forced China to open itself to opium. Might we then conquer some distant nation and force them to read all our literary surplus?

A funny thought, that. Imagine some world where English professors have the same political sway as Haliburton, coaxing the federal government into invading some land that they can ratchet up sales for their latest short story collections. Imagine a distant, “uncivilized” people being forced to read surplus erotic fantasy and self-help books produced here, while in return being exploited for such raw materials as existential angst and unresolved mother complexes. Imagine that land groaning under the burden of student-produced literary journals. Imagine that nation rebelling, its leaders dumping the latest shipment of Kindles and Nooks into some harbor to kickstart the revolution.

Imagine… how hard it is not to sit down and write that story right now.


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