A couple of days ago, I posted a bloggery What is the Price of Creativity, where I lamented the devaluation of books. What everyone believes they can do, no one values, and so readers today expect to get ebooks for a nominal sum, or even free. Mickey Hoffman, author of School of Lies and Deadly Traffic, wrote such an insightful rebuttal to that article that I thought it deserved to be featured here (though truthfully, everyone made important points). Mickey wrote:
Rembrandt died poor. He’s now regarded as one of the creative geniuses of the art world. This stuff has been going on forever. In ancient times the people who carved the famous statues in Greece didn’t even put their names on their work. Creativity has never been as useful to humans or held as high a value as the ability to make money, to manipulate others, to convince the masses that one is a god, etc.
The ability to write used to be admired only because for centuries most people could not even read or write their own names. And only the Bible was deemed worthy of reading. When reading no longer was such a mysterious process done only by a monk or priest and people realized it wasn’t so difficult to learn to do it for themselves, then they began to read, but still mostly religious tomes. If you look at many countries today, the kids are taught to read only for the purpose of reading the Koran. So it still happens.
In the West, as the ability to read became more common, writing became more common. Letter writing was the rage and those who could write creatively were held in high esteem. But were they actually paid well for it? Not often. Rich people had books but didn’t read them, they used them like trophies to show they were cultured. Writers still struggled to make a living and always have. Only a few have been able to support themselves that way. There have always been trashy publications and well written ones. Just more of both now.
You could argue against public libraries too, and make an argument that the ability to read for free would devalue writing. I don’t think the availablity has much to do with it. What’s changed are two things. One is the cultural idea that’s infected education: Everyone’s a winner. No one can be told they’re not good at something for fear of damaging their self-esteem. Kids aren’t reading well-written books in elementary or high school anymore so they have no means of comparison. They don’t have to learn how to write well either unless it’s on a test. College professors are getting essays with abbreviated text messaging words in them. My brother, a professor, used to read me some of the stuff his students wrote. These things were so unintelligible I didn’t know whether to cry or laugh. Somehow they made it into college anyway.
Second, television and films. Need I say more? I think we’ve all noticed that best sellers read like they’ve been written to be made into an action/thriller movie. And if they are, then they’re actually composed with different elements in mind than a writer puts into a story made for reading only.
So how is the public to know they’re reading garbage? Just throw in a vampire or a ghost or a serial killer or a few sex scenes and that’s enough to find an audience. And the agents and publishers know this. Don’t blame Amazon or anyone else, blame US.
April 14, 2012 at 12:49 pm
Very interesting article, Pat. A disturbing thing is that kids are not taught how to write simple sentences properly anymore, or it seems that way. I recently received a note from my 15 year old grandson and I was shocked at his use of “text speak” and that his sentences weren’t complete. He’s a good student, too. What are kids learning in English classes? Do they even have English classes anymore? I feel like a dinosaur. Well, I guess I AM a dinosaur. I’m worried!
April 14, 2012 at 12:58 pm
Thank you for stopping by, Coco. It makes me wonder if there is a future for books. Right now, everyone thinks they can write, and everyone can publish, so books are flooding the market to the tune of 3,000,000 a year. But what will happen when the new generations come of age? Will writing become devalued not because everyone can do it but because no one can? Perhaps what we are experiencing is not a renaissance in writing as people seem to believe, but the beginning of the end. And maybe I’m just a jaded and cynical dinosaur.
April 14, 2012 at 1:58 pm
Pat, I am a firm believer in Chris Hitchesen’s statement about everyone having a book inside them – and that most of us should leave them there. I reconciled myself a long time ago to the fact that I am a creativity consumer, not a producer. The literary market has become so overwhelmed with bad books that I am exhausted by trying to find the good stuff. I blame that as much on people like James Patterson and Dan Brown as I do on all the misguided self- publishers who are flooding the world with bad books. As for vampires, wizards, werewolves, and the like…don’t get me started.
April 15, 2012 at 9:32 pm
Sam, you make a good point about James Patterson and Dan Brown. Just their names make me cringe! I have to remember, that long before the current book situation, I took up writing because I could no longer find the kind of books I enjoyed reading.
April 14, 2012 at 6:19 pm
It is true that writing and reading were once limited to special people in society. The various plagues
that struck Europe in the Middle Ages changed this. During one particular nasty bout of plague, more than half the priests and monks of England were wiped out. Prayers and services in many parts of the country couldn’t be sais in Latin, the official language of the Church, because no one understood Latin. Thus prayers and services had to be said and done in the common language of the people, English. This led to the question of why the Bible shouldn’t be translated into the common tongue so that everyone could read it. The Gutenberg Bible was the first printed Bible. In Germany this led to the Lutheran uprising. When the Bible was first printed in English there was a great effort made by the king to see that it was not only banned but that the people who had it in their possession were cruely dealt with. Eventually there was an official state approved English Bible. Four hundred or so years ago the first book we would recognize as a novel in English was created. At this time the middle class was growing literate and so writing that was not based on the poem could be financially supported. Books and book reading became popular. There were the 19th Century Penny Dreadfuls with their romance, vampires and werewolves. At the beginning of the 20th Century there was a revolution in the print process allowing for cheaper print runs. And so pulp fiction was born. All Stories magazine was one of the first in the USA and featured Tarzan. Today we are facing new technology in the reading/writing process. I would not, however, want to go back to the bad old days where reading and writing was for the minority. Democracy today is strongly based on everyone having the opportunity to read and write.
April 15, 2012 at 9:33 pm
You make a good point about the penny dreadfuls and pulp fiction. What is going on today is just another version of that. So, nothing new.
April 14, 2012 at 6:31 pm
Maybe it’s true that our kids won’t write like in the past, maybe its true that our whole language will change. But isn’t that life? We can’t expect our kids to hold on to the way we write or speak. They create their own form of communication that will work for them in a very different world than the one I grew up in and I think it’s unfair to presume that it will all be crap. Every generation has looked askance at how the next generation is changing and prophesized doom.
Personally I don’t think it’s the beginning of the end but rather simply change. I think there will always be a place for stories be it via book, movies, and whatever else is to come.
April 14, 2012 at 7:34 pm
Leesis, you make some good points here.
April 15, 2012 at 9:29 pm
Actually, I’m being selfish, thinking just of me, not future generations. Somehow, if textese becomes the written language of choice, I don’t see myself finding any enjoyment in reading. But who knows — my life might take another direction, and none of this will matter.