Is this the worst time in history to be a writer?
Dr. Lewis Birdseye, former professor at Columbia University, suggested so in his talk on the meaning of literature for Bandon Library on 20 April 2015.
Although he amended his comment to refer to “traditional writing,” his premise stood:
Pages printed with black type are on their way out. Image-dense digital material – or, as he suggests, some new form of graphic novel – will be the reading choice of future generations.
Is he right?
Of course not.
First, a little history on Dr. Birdseye.
He was a few years behind Kerouac and Ginsberg at Columbia University. He’s in his 70s and has seen a great deal of change. He does use an e-reader while traveling for convenience, and he is a meticulous writer who believes in the power of words to transform the reader. The writer, he says, creates a world from nothing and shares it with us. If it has the ring of truth, then we can never see our own world the same again.
Beautiful, powerful ideas.
He isn’t afraid to be provocative. He dismisses the importance of studying grammar. That’s what editors are for, he says: to shape up unruly prose. The writer needs only concern him/herself with creation.
He also claims, bluntly, that writing is more important than work: “Work prevents us from doing what we really need to do.” By exchanging our labor for the material needs of life, we’re wasting our precious span of life. “The business of being a creative person is to be fully alive,” he says. If work keeps you from writing, ditch the work.
At this point, perhaps, I should mention that Dr. Birdseye is white, male, and has been in academia for most of his life, both at the secondary and college level.
He has a lens through which he views the world, and what he is sharing with us is a view of the world as seen through this lens.
And this is where I begin to understand why he might think it is the worst time in history to be a writer.
Dr. Birdseye spoke of a friend of his who wrote beautiful epic poetry. Took it to a publisher, all 150 pages worth, and was shown the door. Was treated like he had some contagious disease.
Because, of course, who would take a risk on publishing epic poetry, when poetry should come in bite-sized chunks? Who indeed…
Ah, back in the days when publishers would offer contracts, an advance, and a marketing budget. Back in the days when publishers did the leg-work, even provided an editor to clean up that pesky grammar.
Perhaps one could be nostalgic for a time when the great publishing houses held all the power, academics were courted with book contracts, and all a writer had to do was sit at his typewriter and dream.
But it was also a time when educated white males held most of the control over what was published and what wasn’t. The cost of books was prohibitive; homes were lucky to have a shelf of treasured hardbacks.
Let me show you what the world looks like through my eyes.
Through my lens, this is the best time in history to be a writer.
Never have so many voices been heard, thanks to the internet and on-demand self-publishing.
You don’t have to be white, male or an academic to get heard. You can be any age, any color, any orientation.
And you don’t even need a publishing contract. You can simply write a blog post that goes viral. Use a webcam to record performance poetry that gets a hundred thousand hits on YouTube. Self-publish a paperback that you sell out of the trunk of your car at festivals.
You can be ANYBODY and still be a writer.
You don’t even have to give up your job. There are very few people on this earth who can choose writing over work … who have the OPTION of saying, “I don’t need a place to live or food in my mouth, because the Muses sing through me.”
But you have to take responsibility.
You have to learn good grammar so that you can become your own editor. You can’t count on a publishing house to whip your manuscript into shape for you. If you don’t have basic language skills, you’ll need to pay for an editor yourself – which won’t come cheap – so better to learn to do it yourself.
You have to promote your own book. You can’t expect anyone else to do it for you. You have to learn marketing, how to build an effective online presence, and how to sell your story.
You have to do much more than just write. You have to interact with your readers, build a following, answer their questions, feed their interest.
And all these extra hats you wear make you a much better writer. You are a writer IN THE WORLD, rather than a writer inside your head.
Dr. Birdseye suggested that anyone under the age of 13 will grow up to see books as antiquated dinosaurs. Instead, they’ll seek multimedia experiences, which he believes will take the form of an enhanced graphic novel. A lot more images, in short, and less words.
I just have to look at my daughter. She’s three years old, and she’s being raised on books. Ordinary books, normal books, with nothing more than colorful pages she has to turn.
She’s already got a ton of books of her own. She’s been given free books by the library and her school, thanks to programs to encourage literacy and early reading.
Books are so cheap these days. Local library book sales offer children’s book for 10 cents or a quarter; you can even buy a bag for a dollar. My daughter will never run out of books. And, if she does, there’s always the library. There’s a library in every town, and it’s free. It’s a welcoming place where she feels happy and abundant. She can have anything in there as long as she brings it back.
Life hasn’t always been like this. Today’s parents are encouraged on every level to read to their children, and it shows. The Harry Potter phenomenon made it very clear that kids haven’t outgrown books. Books are cool – even big, fat ones.
This is the best time in history to be a writer, because the demand for books is there.
It may be the worst time in history to be a publisher, but isn’t it time we got rid of the middleman and delivered our writing straight to readers without someone else making a fat profit?
Older generations are always nostalgic for the world left behind, but the newer generations know that the world to come will be even better. And that’s what I see.