On Writing

American Culture Becomes Amateur Hour

My last column dealt with the Japanese literary phenomenon of cell phone novels [Rob Note – I’ll post this column next – it’s fascinating!]– novels written on cell phones and distributed directly to other cell phone users. While the cell phone novel is an interesting art form for a number of reasons, I’m concerned that it will open the floodgates, allowing a ton of amateur authors to glut the market with bad writing.

Yeah! Edit that bitch, yo!

This is a poor attitude, I know. Not everybody who wants to write needs to be a “trained professional” such as myself (a journalism degree and two decades working as a writer/editor – thank you, thank you very much). Everybody should be encouraged to put their thoughts and feelings into words, regardless of their skill level. Writing can be a powerful and therapeutic tool for personal growth and development. That’s all good.

It’s the sharing that I have problem with. It’s too easy to share stuff in this modern, techno-funky society, and people are too quick to do it. But this is only a symptom of a bigger problem in today’s world —  the abolishment of the tier system, the idea that you have to earn your way through certain levels of achievement before you can be considered “good” at something.

The 10,000 Hours

Since we’re talking about writing I’ll stick to that medium as an example. Back in the day, a writer would write something (on a typewriter or longhand) and show it to an editor or agent. If the editor/agent thought it was good they’d shop it around to a publisher. If the publisher liked it they’d print it and distribute it. And if the public liked it (and bought enough to make the publisher some money) then the writer would get a chance to publish another story.

The point is that a writer had to show their work to other people – people who knew the business of writing – and get their approval before their work saw print. In editorial terms it’s called, weeding through the “slush pile,” the stack of unsolicited manuscripts submitted by new writers. Only one of every ten manuscripts will be good enough to read to completion; only one in a hundred will be something worth publishing.

But now, thanks to blogs and self-publishing houses and cell phone novels, anybody can write anything and share it with everybody instantly. It’s all become one giant slush pile and it’s every man for himself (or herself) sifting out the good writing from bad.

Bad writing overwhelms us and, as a result, we start excepting sub-par compositions as the norm. Average becomes the new good and our standards slip to a point where…well, to a point where recycled “teen confessional” trash tapped out on a cell phone can become a bestseller (in Japan, at least). A novel that was a “decent read” 50 years ago would be hailed as a “literary achievement” by today’s diminished standards.

Great … good …  good enough 

The same goes for the music business. Once upon a time, musicians had to tour extensively and get a record label to back them in order to get their music out to people. Now you can record a professional sounding album in your living room with a laptop and distribute it directly through the Internet using the same web services that big acts like U2 and Madonna use. The playing field has been leveled for artists everywhere.

While this freedom to easily distribute your work is liberating as an artist, it’s also resulting it a lot of really lousy product flooding the marketplace. Would Pablo Picasso be as passionate about his art if he knew his work would sit on the same shelf alongside every other knucklehead who ever picked up a paintbrush? Would the genius of his work even be recognized there among the mediocre masses?

This erosion of quality goes across the board in arts and entertainment but it doesn’t stop there. Standards have dropped in manufacturing and service industries, too. Are customer service people (receptionists, repair staff, sales clerks) nicer than they used to be? Are the products you buy built better and more durable? No and no.

So, in today amateur hour world, who is going to elevate the good stuff and toss out the bad? Ultimately, the decision lies in your hands. Hopefully you’ll decide you still want a skilled professional to help you wade through the slush pile of product. You’ll seek out the opinion of critical journalists. You’ll demand better writing and support the work of talented wordsmiths.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed and hope you won’t see my last two columns for what they really are – a thinly veiled plea to keep my job.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, March 2009.

[Update August 2013 : I bought myself a little time, but not enough. I was laid off, along with half -a-dozen other magazine employees, back in November 2012. Now I’m a self-pubber, blogger, and certified asshole.]

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