the 1940s, W. Somerset Maugham offered a word of advice
to aspiring writers: "Dont." And if there
was reason not to then, surely theres twice the
reason not to now: slipping book sales, failing bookstores,
dwindling books coverage, the death of the novel, the
dearth of poetry, the sound-byte, the music video, reality
TV, "whatever." But apparently none of that
is reason enough.
If the ballooning market for literary instruction is any
indication, popular interest in writing is at an all-time
high. Todays amateur novelists, screenwriters, essayists
and poets support steady sales of more than 3,000 books
available on the craft and commerce of creative writing.
They subscribe to over 100 periodicals devoted to the
subject. The largest of these, Writers Digest,
by itself enjoys a circulation of 220,000or roughly
seven times that of the prestigious Paris Review,
where many of the former publications readers hope
one day to see their work published. More than 240 U.S.
universities now offer MFA programs in creative writing
(up from just six in the mid-1980s), and its harder
to get into the best of these programs than into Harvard
Medical School. For those who dont make the cut,
some 1,200 open-enrollment writers workshops and
conferences are held yearly. Even as fewer and fewer Americans
incline to read serious literature, evidently more and
more of us aspire to write it.
There are, in fact, good reasons why record numbers are
picking up their pens. For one thing, technology and affluence
have made the writing impulse easier than ever to indulge.
Thanks to the word processor, the once laborious task
of setting thought to paper (and the doubly laborious
task of later revising it) is now essentially painless.
And thanks to the Internet, the one-time drudgery of research
is now both cheap and largely hassle-free. In the wake
of a twenty-year economic expansion, more Americans than
ever have the time and money to take up a writing hobby.
And more of their children have the luxury of a parental
safety net while exploring career options, like creative
writing, whose rewards may be more intellectual than financial.
For another thing, the difficult literary arts have come
to appear less intimidating than ever. Among the reams
of unfiltered content online, amateur authors now have
little trouble finding a public outlet for their workor
concluding that their work deserves a public outlet. And
among the books, newsletters, websites, and workshops
of the new writing-for-publication genre, anyone with
an interest can now find ample encouragement. The titles
of popular how-to manuals say it all: How to Write
a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method, Fast Fiction:
Creative Fiction in Five Minutes, You Can Write a Novel.
Advises one popular guide, "All you need is the willingness
to be labeled writer, and with that one word,
you are a writer." You are? I guess I am.
Still, its hard to believe so many would brave the
blank page if it werent for the potential payoff.
Not all writers hope to turn a profit from their labors.
But in an industry not unknown to pay seven-figure sums
for first efforts, the lure of fame and fortune has no
doubt attracted many.
And success can seem so easy. Last year saw the publication
of a record-setting 135,000 new book titles, with more
of them written by first-time authors than during any
other year in history. "Debut Fiction" has become
its own highly successful genre, given publicity through
Barnes & Nobles "Discover Great New Writers"
series and special issues of periodicals ranging from
The New Yorker to The Village Voice. Elizabeth
Wurtzel, Irvine Welsh, Helen Fielding, Will Self, Zadie
Smithliterary celebrities have become a dime a dozen
over the last ten years. One of this springs most
widely praised novelsJonathan Safran Foers
Everything Is Illuminatedwas the first work
of a 24-year-old. One of this summers most highly
anticipated debutsNick McDonells Twelvewas
authored by a high school student not yet 18. Some of
the best-selling books of the past decade (Angelas
Ashes, The Liars Club, A Heartbreaking
Work of Staggering Genius) have been memoirs crafted
from the fabric of largely unremarkable lives (an impoverished
childhood in Ireland, a dysfunctional family in Texas,
a little brother and a lot of irony in San Francisco).
Never, it might appear, have the prospects for an aspiring
author looked so bright.
In truth, theyve probably never looked dimmer. Total
adult book sales fell 6.4 percent last year, with further
declines predicted. Behind publishings occasional
high-profile success story lurk thousands of good books
that navigate the long and fraught road to publication
every year only to vanish in obscurity. And even laying
aside the oft-cited woes of the book business, America
today is hardly a country conducive to the literary enterprise.
Inactivity (what most writing looks like from a distance)
doesnt sit well with the Protestant work ethic.
Solitary reflection (one of the few things in our society
thats still entirely free) doesnt mesh with
the spirit of capitalism. In a culture defined by its
athletes and film stars and entrepreneurs, a culture where
the SUV and the cappuccino can masquerade as self-improvement,
where income is the ultimate yardstick of achievement
and the bottom line is usually just thatin such
a culture, writing can be a hard path to walk. Anyone
to purchase a ticket in the literary lotto, I suspect,
secretly owns up to these hard truths. But in todays
America, celebrity and wealth can feel like the only dreams
worth having. And its always nice to dream.
Not that financial disappointment will discourage many
of todays literary hopefuls, though, for the same
reason Maughams advice didnt discourage many
60 years ago: The writing bug, when it bites, passes on
an infectious logic of its own. For those bitten, making
sense of the world (what all writing, regardless of form,
in some manner attempts) comes to be its own compensation.
And turning ones gaze away from immediate economic
necessity, real or imagined, (what all writing, regardless
of motivation, to some degree demands) comes to contain
its own reward. Myself, Ill confess Im not
above the occasional fantasy about my soon-to-be-written
blockbuster. But more often, I value my writing precisely
as an escape from such exhausting fantasies. They tend
to be as much about the bitterness of failure, Ive
found, as about the anticipated pleasures of success.
Will Americas swelling ranks of amateur authors
produce work of any value? Does it really matter? Among
our attempts, Id like to think, lies evidence of
a certain maturation of the American psyche: a turn to
intellectual life by a country that recently seemed more
intent on making millions than finding meaning. And surely
we could do worse than to encourage it.