Writing for Readers

Between the immovable publishing industry, and the irresistible internet

Once, during a campus visit for an academic job, I said (out loud!) to an interviewer, “publishing books isn’t really on the menu, for me.” Weirdly enough, I got that job, and I earned tenure. And I have still not published a book.

But I have reassessed my ambitions.

Since before I was born, publishing books has been considered “the thing to do” if you’re a writer, and apparently there are some people, to this day, who make a living at it — mostly people who aren’t “writers” so much as “public figures.” There are also writers who make a living writing by sheer volume — genre writers who crank out book after book of formula-fulfilling variations on tried-and-trusted themes — or by sheer luck: the first-time novelist whose debut is adapted into Major Motion Picture starring Hot New Star. But with those exceptions aside, most of the very well known writers I’ve met either teach for a living, or they roam the country, bindle-over-shoulder, hopping freights and hitching rides from writer’s retreat to writer’s workshop to book fair signing to lecture hall speech, cobbling together a living out of honoraria and “speaking fees,” and still struggling to “find time” to write.

Publishing books is, in other words, the aspect of the art form that attempts to turn the cries of the heart and the wonder of the soul into rent, into ramen, or gas money or a dentist bill, debt payments and parking fines, a new pair of shoes. It is, therefore, the proper provence for formula-fulfilling genre writers and “public figures” — less so the artist whose medium is words, and whose concern is the truth, and who feels quite separate from the ways of the world, even as she stays afloat in it.

I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the world. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.

-William Bronk

So by the time I had published a few short stories in a few small journals, met a few authors, and figured out how things seem to go, I understood both 1) “who I am as an artist,” and 2) that I am totally unwilling to spend my one precious life banging my head against any wall, but especially this one.

So what of readers?

No one wants to write words never read.

The promise of the internet was that every writer (or artist, or performer) would find their audience, just as every person could find their “community.” Flash-forward to a dystopically addictive, engagement-driven-algorithm curated, warscape of tribalized and weaponized online echo-bubbles for profit. Many have foregone reading entirely in favor of signaling — signaling status, signaling allegience, signaling membership.

Group-identity will always confine the truth of the individual, even as group-identity shapes the truth of the individual. Group identity is like foot-binding. It affects the individual — it breaks her bones, it changes her stride, it opens doors to certain exquisite footclothes and forecloses dreams of sport, mountain ascention, or even relaxing strolls through shopping districts. Social surroundings interact with it in unpredicatable ways, conferring status for one historical moment, then making one outcast the next. But the truth of the woman is not her feet. Up, up, keep going up, the truth of the woman is centered far above her broken arch and folded toes, and her broken heart and folded dreams are just the beginning of her.

Art comes in many flavors. One strong and persistant flavor (the licorice of art, let’s say) is a little anti-social, and a lot anti-authority. When art appeared on the early internet — that dot-commy hypermash of nerdspeak, idealism, and the military-industrial complex — simply the presence of art, being as it was without a market agenda, without a hegemonic agenda, without any agenda beyond the very human will to be human in a way scrutible to other humans who might thereby feel more human: that was a revolution!

When “social” took over (aka “Web 2.0”), everything become monetized, even if the creators were shut out of the money. Art became “content” and content became “data” and data became the unfathomable billions that let gleeful little rich men make excusions off-planet, build more 60,000 square foot mansions, and for good measure drop a small donation to (now) Zuckerberg-San Francisco General Hospital. The “promise” of the internet fell to the imperitives of an extremely lucrative attention economy. In the attention economy, attention is not like money; in the attention economy, money is money, and attention is sweet crude.

Suddenly everyone wants to be famous, and the only revolution is getting paid for the gusher you dug up under your garden shed. The “influencer” movement’s rallying cry is FUCK YOU PAY ME. Si, se puede.

Like any red-blooded working person, I resent independently wealthy artists. Of course I do. But I also see that because they are not led by the nose for their basic needs, they have easier access to wisdom, when it comes to “worth.”

Eulogizing born-rich James Merrill in the New Yorker, J.D. McClatchy wrote:

[Merrill] knew his worth, and disdained the lust for celebrity. "Think what one has to do," he noted wryly, "to get a mass audience. I'd rather have one perfect reader. Why dynamite the pond in order to catch that single silver carp? Better to find the bait that only the carp will take."

The social web is made of dynamite. It’s a vast series of dry tinder gender reveals, face-scarring pyrotechnic malfunctions, and ill-conceived 9/11 recreations: escalating explosions of manic, desperate gambits for attention. Relationships are devalued in favor of numbers of relationships and status of relationships and exclusivity of relationships. Why have warmth, when you can make it KA-BOOM?

Writers who want their writing read risk wandering into this demented hellscape and catching the madness. Insanity is contagious. Crazy goes viral. You need to be exceptionally grounded to escape social media with eyebrows unsinged and your eardrums intact. And if you’re consumed by the attention bomb, what do you gain? “Celebrity” in the 21st century is embarrassing. Paid well or not, “influencers” are the human equivalent of a couture dress hem stuck in stained underwear, a tail of toilet paper trailing behind. No one wants to be, as Charlie Warzel puts it, “twitter’s main character for the day”: the dehumanized figure exposed to global threat and ridicule. We used to say, “don’t read the comments,” but now everything is the comments. Youtube beef is made of spam. Tiktok might be the purest social left, and it is routinely conquered by basements full of hirelings, paid by the swipe.

I asked my students recently why anyone would want to be internet famous? They had no idea. They just knew that all their lives they felt like it was what they were “supposed to do.” Go to school; get internet famous; mate; spawn; spend; vote; die.

You have to admire “Stokes Prickett,” the pseudonominous author who’s been sending a few hundred people photocopied installments of a novel called Foodie. When Adam Dalva, writing for the New Yorker, finds the mystery writer, he discovers the he is someone actually pretty well published in the conventional way: books! One of them from a “Big Five imprint”! So why, Dalva asks, did this author assume a fake name and send unsolicited chapters to a near-random list of people he just happened to like? (His mailing list includes Weird Al Yankovic.) Here’s what “Prickett” had to say:

The worst thing about writing is how long you spend working on something before you get to show it to people. It’s a very lonely way to work. You spend three or four years on a book and then it takes months to find an agent, months for the agent to find a publisher, and then it’s another year or more before the book comes out… the literary industry is just not much fun.

What’s kind of amazing is that this author is doing this despite the internet. The internet is a practically-free information distribution network with access to billions of human minds, and he’s making photocopies, stapling them, finding people’s home addresses so he can address them, paying for stamps and stamping them one by one…

What an indictment of both the contemporary publishing industry and the contemporary social web, that the labor-intensive methods of 1990’s ‘zine distribution are preferable to working by the rules of either of them.

Yes, I write. And I want what I write to be read. But not by everyone in the world, maybe just some other people who, like me, feel isolated, maligned and misunderstood by masses of fellow humans. I mean, as far as I can tell, that’s a fair number of us, right? And perhaps, to narrow it further, people who, like me, experience daily wonder and joy at the small miracles of the physical world? Or who wish to?

What if we each have a “single silver carp” who has been beside us all the while, unappreciated, unacknowledged? What if it’s you? Tell me. Don’t be koi.