How will writers make a living in the future?

Paul Raven @ 12-07-2011

That’s Damien G Walter’s question:

It’s very likely, in fact I would argue almost certain, that the freedoms unleashed by the internet will bring almost unimaginable benefits to every person alive today and every person that comes after us. The society that emerges from today’s information revolution will be as far advanced from our society today, as our society is from the Dark Ages.

In that future society, it won’t be possible to make a living from writing. Even the idea of making a living from writing will seem strange. In much the same way we might think making a living from talking a little odd…although it seemed perfectly natural to the priest who read from the bible only he could translate to his Dark Ages congregation. But then, if we make it down the rocky road of change that leads there, the idea of making a living itself will seem a little odd…

I can see where Walter is going here, but the flaw in his logic is easy enough to spot… even more so now that I’ve underlined it, I hope. (*ahem*) I can think of loads of people who still make a living from talking and reading: lecturers, lawyers, performance poets and actors, to name but a few.

And as such I suspect that there will still be people making a living from writing for as long as we still have alphabets to write with. While I can imagine a post-text future for humanity, I think it’s a very long way off from now, and until the day when we all communicate in hyperdense ideoplasts that can compress entire schools of thought into a small yet intricate 4-dimensional shape, people who make widgets are still going to need to hire people with the skill to explain to potential customers why their widgets are (supposedly) better than all the other widgets available.

I’m being a little disingenuous here, of course, as Walter is more specifically thinking about the demise of the writer of fictions rather than the churners-out of ad copy. [The difference between most ad copy and ‘proper’ fiction is left as an exercise of the reader’s cynicism.] But as much as the novel or short story forms we know today may become impossible to monetise in a fully-digital cultural sphere, I still hold that the human desire for story will not vanish until the human itself vanishes… and even then, our posthuman descendents will probably want to tell tales about their simian meatbag forebears in order to understand (or mythologise, or both) themselves, and their place and purpose in the universe.

Walter’s distress – like that of many other writers, my own included – is understandable, but it is also rooted in the very limiting conception of story being something that is printed on thin sheets of compressed and dried wood pulp… which rather overlooks cinema, television, machinima and computer games as storyable media, not to mention the spoken word form that he mentions, and the media we still have yet to discover, invent or adopt. That said, my callously future-focussed big-picture attitude here probably isn’t very comforting for folk trying to pay the rent with the one skill they’ve honed over a lifelong career, and I wish there was a magic wand I could wave that would sort that particular problem out.

But it’s equally disingenuous to wring hands over the Sad and Inevitable Fate of Story: to be led, limping, out to the barn like Old Yeller. That’s a little like lamenting the demise of the buggy whip while completely overlooking the opportunities opening up for whip-makers to redeploy their leatherworking skills on luxurious car interiors… storytelling ain’t going nowhere soon. While there are still people with the drive to tell stories, there’ll be new ways of making the talent pay. Mark my words.

Looking a little less deeply into the future of fiction, however, here’s a piece from The Guardian‘s Robert McCrum in which he looks at the way publishing houses are finally getting to grips with the digital age… and not so much in terms of new technologies or platforms, but in terms of the sort of books they’re printing. The internet and social media may have their faults, but there’s no denying they’ve made it easier to find out what your audience wants… or at least what it thinks it wants, which – as the saying goes – is close enough for government work, though the government don’t seem very keen on using it. Naturally enough, McCrum arrives in closing at the same question as Walter above, but with notably less angst – how’s the economics gonna work out?

I don’t have the answer, more’s the pity, or I’d be raking in big bucks from publishers as a futures consultant (in which capacity, I might add, I am most certainly available for hire at this moment in time – all enquiries and downpayments to the usual address, KTHXBAI). But it’s certainly an important question, and – if you ask me – one best addressed with positivity.

Although, of course, End Times storm clouds on the horizon do make for a more dramatic hook for a story… 😉


Criticism self-selects its audience, or: has spoiler culture changed the way writers write?

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2011

Here’s an interesting essay from Chuck Klosterman in which he discusses the effects of the internet closing a short feedback loop between the writers and consumers of story. He’s talking predominantly about screenplays, but I think there’s a lot here that’s applicable to written fictions, too.

Here, Damon Lindelof ‘fesses up that responding to fan feedback during the creation of Lost was a mistake, and something he’s trying hard to avoid doing again:

But what about Lindelof’s unconscious relationship with his fan base? Even if he locks himself in a hatch, he knows his personal brand will attract the type of person who hunts for clues and twists; he knows his audience is populated by people who want to express their opinions in public and define the collective perception of the show, and he knows that any crumb of information leaked about his projects will be proliferated instantly. Even if he chooses to ignore these truths, he will still know they’re true. And that’s going to have a consequence on what he ultimately writes. He’ll unconsciously attempt to negate those problems before they even happen.

“On a personal level, this has absolutely affected me,” Lindelof says. “I’m in the process of thinking about whatever my next TV show will be, and I’m constantly thinking about this very question. I know whatever I make will carry the scent of Lost — it’s like I’ve just left a strip club. There will always be this belief that what I make will not be what it seems. I’ve become such an unreliable narrator. So as I think about my next project, I want to create a feeling that immediately says to the audience, I Am Exactly What I Appear To Be. Sometimes I wish we were in the old Alfred Hitchcock days, when I could just sit in a recliner at the start of the program and say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there are no shenanigans here.’ But of course, in this era, that would have the total opposite effect. In the olden days — and by olden, I mean like four years ago — I would be inclined to just try anything. I would just write whatever interested me. But now, if I thought of a major twist, I wouldn’t do it unless it was a home run. Because at this point, a base hit is not acceptable. And once you decide to do something like that, you’re faced with the question of, `What am I willing to do to hide this?’ Am I willing to lie to pretty much everyone I know? Is it worth lying to the crew and to everyone I work with? Because that’s the only way you can pull it off.”

Obviously the writer of novels is a little safer from this phenomenon; the predominantly isolated nature of the creation process means that leaking is easier to control. But the same problem will raise its head with series of books, and the slowness of the book production cycle will allow for plenty of feedback to mass up in between instalments; short of sealing oneself off from the internet and other media almost entirely, it’ll be hard to avoid that looming mass of expectation. In the long run, my guess would be that the expectations we have of story will, perforce, mutate to accommodate the effects of the feedback channel; not quite the pick-your-own-adventure interactive movies that have been mooted for years (and will probably never take off – the gaming market has that side of things sewn up already, because it’s not suited to a mass simultaneous audience experience like cinema), but a certain – and possibly wryly knowing – degree of fanservice to reward a loyal fanbase might become de rigeur. Balancing that fanservice with the risk of spoilers will be a new tightrope for writers to walk, but I don’t think it’ll be as difficult a transition as all that; fandoms will learn to be more forgiving and less demanding, or they’ll lose the things they love – much lie any other relationship, it should be about give and take if you want it to last. (This remission of privilege may well be accelerated by new business models that involve direct financial interaction between creators and fans, which will likely be the next feedback loop to slip into place.)

Before I sign off on this one, I just want to pull out some of Klosterman’s more general points about spoilers, because – as a critic – they’re an issue that interests me, and Klosterman actually fingers the critical apparatus for being a problematic part of the loop described above:

Every so often, a random contrarian will publish an essay titled, “In defense of spoilers” (or something along those lines). The writer inevitably explains why the concept of media outlets (or rogue bloggers, or quasi-celebrity Twitter accounts) preemptively ruining movies or books or TV shows is an infantile complaint and a minor nuisance. Not surprisingly, almost no non-critic takes this argument seriously. It comes from a purely egotistical point of view; the writer believes his or her thoughts about a piece of art are more valuable than the art itself (and therefore can’t be constrained by the collective experience of the audience).

Now, I’ve written defences of spoilers myself – here’s one, in fact – and while I’ll admit there’s an element of ego involved, I don’t believe my thoughts about a work to be more valuable than the work itself at all, though I do believe that the onus for avoiding spoilers lies upon those who are worried about encountering them. (Again, things are different in the world of books when compared to the world of film and TV; discussion of the latter is going to be harder to avoid than in-depth criticism of a novel, if only because the field of critics is larger and more widely-read.) Klosterman concedes the necessity of this pragmatic attitude – indeed, it’s his route into the discussion of feedback loops above:

But complaining about spoilers is like complaining about bed bugs — they’re always going to exist, they’re only going to become harder to avoid, and worry merely amplifies the displeasure. Everyone is aware that this is how the modern media works. Everyone, including the very people generating the art that’s being spoiled.

And one of his footnote/sidebars raises the core question: what’s the statute of limitations on spoilers, anyway? How long would be a fair grace period before one is permitted to talk about a book or movie in detail?

If you’re writing an analysis of Old Yeller, it’s totally fine to discuss the hound’s demise. In fact, anytime a writer is doing a deep criticism of a commodity that has (assumedly) been experienced by the overwhelming bulk of those interested in reading about a given subject, there aren’t any boundaries or limitations. But things are different when (a) the art is still functioning in the present tense, and/or (b) an uninformed, uninvested reader has no way of gauging how central the element of surprise is to the enjoyment of the work. That second factor is especially important. For example, this article starts with several references to The Sixth Sense, which I mention is 12 years old. In cinema, 12 years is a long time. So if the title of this essay had been, “I See Famous People (and Maybe Donnie Wahlberg): A Inverted Deconstruction of The Sixth Sense” — I could write whatever I please. I could elucidate every single twist because nobody would consume my article unless they were already well-informed about its subject. Criticism self-selects its audience; you wouldn’t read the essay if you hadn’t seen the film.

That final sentence is the important one for me, because I think it places the onus back on the reader to be aware of what sort of venue a review or discussion is appearing in, and to be aware that a critical venue is more likely to feature reviews with spoilers, and to act accordingly. (It’s a rather libertarian attitude on my part, perhaps, but to my mind someone wandering into the comments thread at a venue like Strange Horizons and calling reviewers out for spoilers is a little like wandering around a nudist colony and demanding that people to cover themselves to spare your embarrassment.)

A popular counter-suggestion goes along the lines of “well, why not just put a warning at the top of reviews that might have spoilery content in them?” Again, I feel that’s an unwarranted shifting of responsibility from consumer to critic; perhaps it’s pure ego, as Klosterman suggests, but I don’t see why a group of people should be forbidden from discussing the detail of a work just because there are some folk who haven’t gotten round to seeing it yet. Klosterman admits that spoilers are impossible to police… so perhaps part of the mutation of fandom attitudes I postulated further up would include a sense that avoiding spoilers was their own responsibility.

Though, I’ll admit, I don’t find that very likely. 😉


Justin Pickard’s Project Cascadia: a bi(bli)ography

Paul Raven @ 10-06-2011

Futurismic veterans will probably remember the name of Justin Pickard, who became a friend back in the halcyon days of the Friday Flash Fiction crew, and has been a source of challenging new ideas and frameworks ever since (not to mention a good buddy who’ll listen to me waffle my elliptical way to my own standpoints on a variety of seemingly disparate topics). Shorter version: he’s mad smart, and interested in almost all the topics that crop up on this here blog.

Why bring this up? Because Pickard has a plan: Project Cascadia, a trip to the Pacific Northwest which will turn into a book of speculative gonzo travel journalism and ethnography. He’s hustling for the the up-front funds using Ulule, which is basically a Kickstarter analog; if you’re interested in smart folk thinking orthogonal thoughts and setting them down using interesting juxtapositions of words, you might think about promising the dude a bit of cash in return for a copy (be it digital, dead-tree or both) of the end result. I’ve stumped up £25, because I’m confident that the end result will be the sort of book I’d pay similar money to buy. Go take a look at his pitch, if nothing else; the sight of his slightly manic disembodied face superimposed on a mountain range will haunt you for the rest of the day.

As a supplement to that pitch, Justin has blogged a “bi(bli)ography”: a best-of list of the texts that he’s used to baste his brain-meat over the last half-decade. I’ve read maybe a third of it myself, and know of another third by repute; I expect a lot of you will be in a similar boat. So what might be useful for Justin (and certainly for me) would be for y’all to look through this list and shout out in the comments with any articles, books or other media that you think need adding to it. If it helps, you can think of it as a crowdsourced curriculum for a self-taught pseudoMasters in a discipline yet to be named… or alternatively as “a list of interesting stuff”.

So, the list:

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Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983)

Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (1996)

Spectral housing and urban cleansing: notes on millennial Mumbai‘, Public Culture 12:3 (2000)

Marc Augé, Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992)

J. G. Ballard, Vermillion Sands (1971)

My Dream of Flying to Wake Island‘ (Guardian podcast)

Richard Barbrook, Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village (2007)

Nigel Barley, The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes From a Mud Hut (1983)

Jean Baudrillard, The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1991)

America (1986)

Lauren Beukes, Zoo City (2010)

Moxyland (2008)

Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1991)

Gray Brechin, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin (2006)

John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar (1968)

Jamais Cascio, ‘Legacy Futures, Open the Future (2008)

Three Possible Economic Models‘, Fast Company (2009)

Three Possible Economic Models, Part 2‘, Fast Company (2009)

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975)

Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends (2008)

Jean and John Comaroff, ‘Alien-Nation: Zombies, Immigrants and Millennial Capitalism’, South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002)

Millennial Capitalism: First Thoughts on a Second Coming‘, Public Culture 12:2 (2000)

‘Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: notes from the South African postcolony’, American Ethnologist 26:2 (1999)

Douglas Coupland, ‘A radical pessimist’s guide to the next 10 years‘, Globe and Mail (2010)

Generation A (2009)

JPod (2006)

Erik Davis, TechGnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information (2004)

Mike Davis, City of Quartz (1990)

Cory Doctorow, Makers (2009)

Keller Easterling, Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades (2005)

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010)

Warren Ellis, Shivering Sands (2009)

Matthew Gandy, ‘Cyborg Urbanization: Complexity and Monstrosity in the Contemporary City‘, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 29:1 (2005)

Bradley L. Garrett, ‘Urban explorers: quests for myth, mystery and meaning’, Geography Compass (2010) [video]

Place Hacking (2008-present)

William Gibson, ‘The Gernsback Continuum’, Burning Chrome (1986)

Zero History (2010)

Spook Country (2007)

Pattern Recognition (2003)

David Graeber, Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (2007)

Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004)

Adam Greenfield, ‘Thoughts for an eleventh September: Alvin Toffler, Hirohito, Sarah Palin‘, Speedbird (2008)

Richard Grusin, Premediation: Affect and Mediality After 9/11 (2010)

Charlie Hailey, Camps: A Guide to 21st-Century Space (2009)

Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (2007)

Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse™ (1997)

Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1990)

Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (2009)

Dan Hill, ‘The Street as Platform‘, City of Sound (2008)

Drew Jacob, ‘How to be ExPoMod‘, Most Interesting People in the Room

Sarah Kember, ‘Media, Mars and Metamorphosis‘, Culture Machine (2010)

Naomi Klein, Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Debate (2002)

Alan Klima, ‘Spirits of ‘Dark Finance’: A Local Hazard for the International Moral Fund’, Cultural Dynamics (2006)

Thai Love Thai: Financing Emotion in Post-crash Thailand‘, Ethnos (2004)

Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1991)

Ursula Le Guin, Changing Planes (2003)

The Disposessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974)

Charles MacKay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)

Geoff Manaugh, The BLDGBLOG Book (2009)

Ian McDonald, The Dervish House (2010)

Brasyl (2007)

River of Gods (2004)

Suketu Mehta, Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found (2004)

China Mieville, The City & the City (2009)

Covehithe‘, The Guardian (2011)

M.R. James and the Quantum Vampire – Weird; Hauntological: Versus and/or and and/or or?‘, Collapse IV (2008)

Floating Utopias‘, In These Times (2007)

Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity (2002)

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)

Keith Roberts, Pavane (1968)

Jim Rossignol, This Gaming Life: Travels in Three Cities (2008)

Geoff Ryman, Air (2005)

Stephen Shaviro, Post-Cinematic Affect (2010)

Gary Shtenyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (2010)

Francis Spufford, Red Plenty (2010)

Bruce Sterling, The Caryatids (2009)

Designer Futurescape‘, Make 18 (2009)

Dispatches from the Hyperlocal Future‘, Wired (2007)

Holy Fire (1996)

Islands in the Net (1988)

State of the World, 20––‘, The Well (2001-present)

Michael Taussig, What Color is the Sacred? (2009)

Zoology, Magic, and Surrealism in the War on Terror‘, Critical Inquiry 34:S2 (2008)

Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973)

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

#

So, what ya got?


Emergency writing motivation techniques

Luc Reid @ 08-06-2011

Help is on the way!If you want to write right now but just don’t feel motivated, here are some immediate ways to get fired up. Any one of them might do the trick: pick whichever seems most likely or appealing and give it a try. If it doesn’t get you right on track, try another one. No self-motivation trick is sure-fire, and we often tend to feel that if we’re not motivated now, there’s no way to get motivated, but there’s strong evidence in psychological and neurological research that we can change our moods, focus, and motivation–in fact, our emotional and motivational states can change very quickly, given the right setup. [image by gruntzooki] Continue reading “Emergency writing motivation techniques”


#whalerape and the undeath of the author: separating the art from the artist

Paul Raven @ 06-06-2011

It’s a perennial problem: artists and writers, just like everyone else, can be appalling buttheads with deeply unpleasant ideas and attitudes. But do those attitudes poison their creations by association?

It’s all down to personal responses, of course. Here’s a post at ThisRecording that takes a look at the misogyny, racism and antiSemitism of beloved children’s author Roald Dahl; I was raised on Dahl’s books and loved them dearly, and I’m pretty sure my mother and my aunt – the main vectors by which Dahl’s output arrived in my world – would be just as appalled by Dahl-the-man as I am after reading that piece. But because I knew the work before I knew the man (and possibly because the work was edited to remove some of the more unpleasant subtexts), I find myself still able to draw a line between the two… though I suspect were I to re-read Dahl now, in light of the above, I’d be looking out for clues and signs of his sublimated nastiness. It’s hard to read with clean-slate innocence with that sort of knowledge hanging at the back of your brain.

Interestingly, though, this doesn’t seem to work the other way. Regular readers will know of my antipathy to archbigot and homophobe Orson Scott Card. I discovered Card’s reputation before ever reading any of his books, and as a result have read none of them (though I have read a few short stories since, which seemed only to confirm my opinions). And speaking of Mormons, habitués of the genre fandom Twittersphere may have noticed the #whalerape hashtag over the weekend, as a bunch of people (re)read this year’s Nebula winning novelette, “That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made” by Eric James Stone. As the body and comments of the Locus Roundtable blog post about it demonstrate, opinions differ wildly as to its merits (or lack thereof), and the point of fracture seems to be along lines of attitude to religious missionary work in general, and Mormon proselytising in particular. Having seen the running commentary – not to mention discovering that Stone’s attitudes to homosexuality are in the same retrograde camp as Card’s – I’m finding myself deeply prejudiced against the guy’s work.

To be clear, I don’t think this sort of prejudice is dependent on the nature of the offence caused: I imagine that a conservative reader might be just as shocked and put off an artist by finding out they were a closet Troskyite, for instance. But I do wonder if the problem isn’t exacerbated by the new-found publicness (?) of the artist lifestyle. With writers in particular, the old model – communicating with your public primarily through one’s work, and the occasional public appearance or bit of journalism if one were of sufficient stature to get the gigs – has given way to a much more performative presence: the author as celebrity, as pundit. It’s never been easier to find out what the most minor of authors thinks about sports, politics or other ethical quandaries… though, to be fair, the same applies to people in all walks of life. We’re all celebrities now; it’s merely a matter of audience magnitude.

This all ties in with my ongoing fascination with what literature critics call the intentional fallacy, which suggests you can only judge a text on its own merits; critiquing a text on the basis of knowledge about the author’s philosophies and actions beyond those admitted of in the text itself is an act of biography rather than criticism. Part of me finds the poststructuralist undertones of the intentional fallacy appealing – the author is dead, and we can find whatever meanings we like in every text! – but I’m increasingly convinced that, as noble and high-minded a critical ideal as it may be, it simply isn’t compatible with the world we now live in. Call it “the undeath of the author”, maybe; they may not be alive within the text itself, but something of them shambles around outside its perimeter fences. Perhaps in the post-war years it was easy to assume a text could be hermetically sealed off from the world in which it was created and in which it will be read; in the hyperlinked and searchable world we now live in, the outer membrane of every text has become permeable to a lesser or greater degree – no firewall is completely hack-proof, right? – and one of the first and easiest conflations to make is that of the author’s publicly-held opinions and the meaning of their text.

All of which may seem like academic noodling (guilty as charged), but I think there’s a real issue here, too. In light of recent discussions about the comparative invisibility of women or people of colour in anthology TOCs, best-of-the-genre lists and prize nominations, this difficulty in separating art from artist becomes a more problematic thing, and damages the credibility of editors or anthologists who claim to be colour-, creed- or gender-blind when reading submissions. To flip the issue around (and demostrate the prejudices do point both ways): say I was editing an anthology, and an Eric James Stone story came over the submissions transom; I like to think I’d read it and give it as fair a chance to succeed on its own merits as anyone else’s, but I can’t in all honesty say I’d truly manage to do so. And that’s an example of a conscious prejudice, one of which I am aware and can – to a lesser or greater extent – work to minimise; what about the subconscious culturally-encoded prejudices against women, LGBTQ people and people of colour, the ones that we almost all believe we don’t have, but which we almost all do have?

(I fully count myself among that “almost all”, by the way; I’m not entirely sure I believe any of us can entirely free ourselves from culturally-encoded prejudices, but we can at least work to mitigate them once we’ve become aware of them, a process which becomes – albeit very gradually – easier over time. Much as in AA’s twelve-step program, the first step is to admit that you have a problem; that’s also the hardest step of all.)

As is probably plain (and certainly in keeping with local tradition) I don’t have any answers to this dilemma; I’m just throwing out a collection of ideas to see what other folk think about them. So, whatcha got, huh?


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