Friday, February 15, 2013

The Marginalization of Writing

by Scott Rhoades

Yesterday as I was chatting with my friend and fellow writer Cliff at a cafe in San Francisco, the subject turned, as it always eventually does, to writing.

Cliff and I met back in ancient times when he was the tech writing manager at Atari and I was an ex-Atarian making some extra cash on the side by contracting for my former employer. We also both write fiction and other fun stuff while working at tech writing gigs for major companies. We were lamenting the current state of computer and software manuals compared to the good old days of thorough (if not always good) printed manuals, when Cliff made the comment that writing--and by extension writers--has become marginalized.

It's true, and not just in the thrill-a-minute world of technical writing.

Being a writer used to really mean something, back when literary writers and popular writers were often the same people, when an author could become a celebrity and writing a book was an accomplishment beyond the dreams of most people.

Of course, we still occasionally see authors become celebrities, but more often we see celebrities become authors. Certainly, people like Stephen King and J.K. Rowling and John Grisham prove that writers can still become Somebody. I also don't want to minimize the effort involved in writing a book. Whether an author pens the Great American Novel or the worst first draft ever or something in between, completing a manuscript is something to be proud of. A number strikingly close to "all" people who at one point or another start writing a book never finish a first draft. Finishing that draft, no matter how bad it is, puts the writer so much closer to a dream shared by millions than the humongous majority who never finish or even start that book they are "going to write someday."

But being a writer doesn't seem to carry the same cachet it once did.

Maybe because technology has made it easier. Word processing software and the relative ease of self-publishing means that anybody with the drive to write (admittedly, as I've shown, a small number of people) can publish a book. I'm trying to be careful here. Please don't take this as a knock against self-publishing. I think, in general, the ability to self-publish is breathing a new different life into the book industry, as it has in music, and that it's one of the great advances of our time, for better and for worse.

More importantly, though, I think the marginalization of writers is tied more closely to the marginalization of books. We have so many more forms of entertainment today than the generation before us did. Take that back two or three generations and it's really astounding. A new book once had the same impact as a new blockbuster. That's not so much the case anymore, with very rare exceptions. Even major newspapers and magazines have reduced or eliminated the space they use to devote to the latest books.

The college student I sat next to on the plane this afternoon, a nice, intelligent kid from Berkeley City College talked to me about how people don't read much anymore, and when they do it's in smaller chunks. That's not news to us who have been around a while, but it was a great revelation to Edwin when it was talked about in class, and something that is increasingly more true all the time.

In a world of instant gratification and realistic sound and graphics, where computer graphics can bombard our minds without requiring a lot of effort or imagination on our part, working through a book for a couple weeks appeals to an ever-decreasing audience.

I don't think this marginalization signals the downfall of Society. It's just the way things go. We seldom crawl into hard-to-access caves to paint pictures of animals and hunters these days. And when was the last time you read a hand-copied illuminated vellum manuscript? We've already witnessed the demise of poetry and short stories as profitable enterprises. Magazine and newspaper markets are drying up. Technical manuals are almost non-existent. The novel is likely to follow some day. When I was younger, everyone wanted to write a novel. Then it was a screenplay. Now that it's easy to work out our writing fantasies and our need to express ourselves online and through self-publishing, anybody can say they write, even many who shouldn't but do. There is, ironically, probably more public writing happening now than ever in our history. When anybody can do it, and when much that is produced is somewhat lacking in quality, there is very little mystique left to being a writer. And so we are sent to the margins.

I'm just glad that those of us who participate in this blog, as writers or readers, are actively involved in bucking the trend. We write and we read and we value words. We enjoy the patience required to page through a thick book to find out what happens in the end. We love the pictures words form in our heads, and how deeply involved we ca become in characters' lives when we live with them for the time it takes to read a book.

We also understand that being in the margins isn't all that bad. In fact, the margins are where many of the great writers in history, like other kinds of artists, come from. Artists, and that includes writers, have rarely come from the center of humanity. It takes a special kind of weirdness to bring our subconscious to consciousness and to share our waking dreams with others. Whether writing continues to be marginalized until it is no longer valued, or it makes a comeback somewhere down the road, we will always have storytellers, even if the means of delivering the stories changes.

So bring on the margins. Anybody who has ever worked with an editor knows that the margins are where many of the best ideas take form.

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