spacer image
spacer image

Welcome! You're looking at an archived Snarkmarket entry. We've got a fresh look—and more new ideas every day—on the front page.

June 29, 2009

<< Melting Like Hot Candle Wax (Now With Links) | In Water >>

The Death of the End, the Birth of the Beginning

I don’t have any answers just yet, but I like Rex’s well-titled “The Death of Writing, The Rebirth of Words.”

(See Roland Barthes’s “The Death of the Author is the Birth of the Reader” and Jacques Derrida’s “The End of the Book, The Beginning of Writing”)

Posted June 29, 2009 at 10:48 | Comments (10) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Briefly Noted, Learnin'


Over at Rex's blog, Brian Van commented: "It is not a bad thing for the art of writing. It is, however, a terrible thing for people who cannot function in another profession."

The ability to put words together in order, even in an elegant way, is not particularly valuable anymore. But if you can couple it w/ intrepid reportage; with deep knowledge; with unique sources; with powerful narrative; with a sense for marketing; or with any of a number of other mixins -- I think all of those are still pretty viable.

Especially -- this is kinda what Brian Van's getting at? -- if you think of writing as a component of other professions: The academic who can function as a lucid, appealing public intellectual; the actor who can narrativize her life off-camera in an interesting way; the auto mechanic who can write a solid email newsletter to his customers.

There's a lot to be said for writing as a loss leader - folks who like the way you write will pay to read what you read, will follow your recommendations, will pay you to talk to them and teach them things...

In my forthcoming forum essay for the Chronicle, I imagine a future where academic presses make their authors blog for their web sites as part of their contracts, to pay for the costs of printing - and the profs then use those blogs to sell their own services as digital lecturers through iTunes...

What is valuable is what is scarce. In the past, people who could write clearly and had interesting ideas would get paid to write newspaper columns. I remember following certain columnists in high school, like Cal Thomas -- but now I follow certain bloggers instead, and I don't have to pay for their websites. Opinion writing is no longer scarce.

Similarly, I've paid in the past for subscriptions to science or computer game magazines, like PC Gamer or Scientific American. Now I visit or These forms of expertise are no longer scarce.

But I still buy roleplaying game books. There's a lot of game material available online, but none of it is the same quality as the professional books, especially the artwork -- and it's harder to read a PDF in bed, or bring it to the game table. And I've paid for classes, ranging from university instruction to yoga to a running club. These things are scarce; they still involve writing and knowledge work, but there's another component, something that's difficult to distribute as a commodity.

Finally, I've never been paid for writing a comment on Snarkmarket, but I get paid regularly for writing a nonprofit's newsletter and for writing its website.

Still thinking about this, but I think Rex is on to something important here - call it the future of knowledge work or what you like.

Posted by: Matt on June 29, 2009 at 11:57 AM

"it's harder to read a PDF in bed, or bring it to the game table" - omg, I am imagining the nerdiest ad for the Kindle DX EVER.

"Take that PDF to bed!"

I think the other thing is that while it's not at all impossible to get paid for your writing, it's increasingly harder to get paid a salary to write -- to be a "kept writer," whether it's for a magazine, a newspaper, a publisher, a university.

We're going to see more and more weird amalgams - folks who pay their bills through a combination of adjunct teaching, ad revenue from their blog, freelancing, trickling money from their self-published books, scattered paid contributions and appearances.

In fact, if we can get this universal single-payer health care off the ground, that kind of writing life doesn't sound so bad.

Actually, I think plenty of people are getting paid a salary to write -- it's just not the creative kinds of writing that we associate with the liberal arts. Press releases, advertising copy, sitcom scripts, legislation, white papers, financial disclosures: we may not consider these as "writing" in the artistic sense, but they still represents careers in which one gets paid a salary to string words together.

I'd rather live the freelancer lifestyle, though.

Posted by: Matt on June 29, 2009 at 01:33 PM

Great point, Matt. I love that counter-argument (which I'll ratchet up a bit): Actually, it's a golden age for writing. More people are getting paid to write -- and to write well -- than ever before. It's just that a lot of it is embedded in other work, or done without a byline. If we can put our outdated assumptions (fantasies) aside, we'll find it's a richer world for those who love words than ever before.

In the morning, having seen that I have no viable career options, I gave up on my plans to read and started watching one of those Futurama movies. But this notion of a kind of writerly multidisciplinarity gives me a bit of hope.

Still, it hurts - literally, in the gut - to hear that stringing words together elegantly isn't of much value of any more. I'm not sure I'm *entirely* on board with that idea, but I certainly don't disagree. There's so much good stuff out there and it's all so easily accessible that 'being a good writer' has ceased to mean very much at all. It's now a bit like being a good cook - you might be the only one in a group of five friends, but everyone knows far more than just you.

Nonetheless, one optimistic suggestion I got on Twitter today (from @ivortossell, a professional writer) is that when there is so much good writing out there, the bar will be raised such that professional writers will be working at a higher level still. It's a more hopeful idea, I think, than it initially sounds - imagine if, in 50 years from now, the kinds of discussion that happens on smart blogs like this one were far more commonplace than we could imagine today, and that a very tiny number of professional publications talked about ideas (in lucid, clear language) currently reserved for the academic world. It's utopian, I admit, but I think I need a bit of naive optimism today.

It's also worth considering if the very glut of opinion would provide an economic base for something like a economy for writers - i.e. the 'curating is the new business model' idea that's been floating around recently. I wonder if the kind of circular relationship between the material and cultural capital of something like the NYT will find an analog in the web-world where it's precisely the institutional nature of an organization that makes it worth trusting as a source i.e. this was recommended by curating service x and they have all those crazy smart people working and writing there etc etc.

But let's go back to those interns at publishing houses and agencies.

If the economic structure of writing changes - who's getting paid, how much, and for what - then the writing is highly likely to change too.

Opinion is cheap. This is good for opinion writing. The Washington Post and New York Times should get rid of some of their highly paid opinion writers - there are folks who do it better. (And you should read them, instead of folks who suck. ) Political opinion writing will become like sportswriting. Anyone can do it - so the pros will have to be the best.

But it will get harder to do other kinds of reporting. At least, so the argument goes. And a lot of bad stuff will be unfairly rewarded. Just like now!

@Robin: That is a very good point and is separate from the one I am trying to make. High-level communication skills are now almost a requirement for any sort of career success. I suppose this is a good thing!

What I was saying is that a lot of types of professional staff writing positions are going to be eliminated permanently. The Internet has removed almost all the inefficiencies of written communication. The profession is not going away, but payrolls are shrinking and salaries/benefits are rapidly deflating. It's the same thing that's happening to the auto industry workforce. There's nothing writers can really do about it. The tragedy is that it's happening so fast, it's catching career professionals in a vortex of economic death before they can figure out what the new plan is.

spacer image
spacer image