Success in the Digital Age

by Salvatore Pane

One of the many perennial essays that gets handed out to would-be writers is Ted Solotarff’s “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years”. It’s a harsh look at what even talented apprentice writers have to endure: toiling away in obscurity clinging to the desperate hope that their stories will get published (with no payment) in some small, yet respected, journal. That maybe one day if they work hard enough, and they’re lucky enough, that some agent will contact them, ready to take a risk. And above all, they have to hope that their writing is worth a damn, that when the call comes they’ll have something substantial to show even when a million voices (internal and external) tell the writer to give up, that they are of inferior stock, garbage, an abomination.

Writers have been rethinking this essay ever since Solotarff’s death back in 2008. In the LA Times, Dani Shapiro grappled with the essay and how the publishing industry has undergone a sea change since its original publication back in the early ’80’s. Shapiro writes:

The creative writing industry of the mid-1980s now seems like a few mom-and-pop shops scattered on a highway lined with strip malls and mega-stores. Today’s young writers don’t peruse the dusty shelves of previous generations. Instead, they are besotted with the latest success stories: The 18-year-old who receives a million dollars for his first novel; the blogger who stumbles into a book deal; the graduate student who sets out to write a bestselling thriller — and did. The 5,000 students graduating each year from creative writing programs (not to mention the thousands more who attend literary festivals and conferences) do not include insecurity, rejection and disappointment in their plans. I see it in their faces: the almost evangelical belief in the possibility of the instant score. And why not? They are, after all, the product of a moment that doesn’t reward persistence, that doesn’t see the value in delaying recognition, that doesn’t trust in the process but only the outcome. As an acquaintance recently said to me: “So many crappy novels get published. Why not mine?” The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry — always the nerdy distant cousin of the rest of media — has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years.(Shapiro)

There’s a lot of mine fields to be navigated here, the chief of which in my mind is Shapiro’s complete disregard of the literary brat pack of the 1980’s. Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, these were writers who seemingly appeared overnight with novel publications in their early twenties. I still remember a mentor of mine, Tom Bailey, discussing in class how he read Less Than Zero when it came out and seethed with jealousy and rage for weeks on end. Writers getting published at a young age doesn’t seem like a particularly new aspect of the literary industry, and in fact, seems to happen less and less because the major publishers can no longer spend the time developing a writer. If Andre Dubus emerged today with The Lieutenant, you can almost be sure he wouldn’t have gone on to become the celebrated master he’s seen as now. He would’ve been dropped from the majors into the world of the University Presses or be permanently saddled as a mid list writer (as an aside, check out this great article in Kirkus Reviews about the plight of the mid lister).

What I do find to be of particular interest in Shapiro’s essay is her speculation that this latest generation of writers is fundamentally different from those who came before. I’ll leave that one to the historians, but it may be relevant to take a look at some of the premiere literary upstarts of the last few years. Many of these journals (I’m talking smaller places like The Collagist, New York Tyrant, Annalemma, Dogzplot, etc. etc.) seem to have become the new training grounds for young writers. These journals publish work from established writers, but their stable of contributors is mostly comprised of the up-and-comers. And with comments enabled on the online stories, these writers are building communities and networks that are bubbling over and just beginning to get notice from the New York majors. Perhaps this is the writing in the cold Shapiro thinks is missing from the current literary community. It’s just not being done in places like The New England Review, it’s happening in online upstarts independent from the university.

However, there’s one more element crucial to this issue. Has the  definition of what success means for a writer changed in the ensuing years between “Writing in the Cold” and today? Joe Coscarelli recently wrote this piece in Gawker. Coscarelli writes:

Aspiring novelists are archaic. I know this because in four years of higher education, no one ever offered to show me a manuscript, but I’ve seen more blogs than bongs. The bearded, bespectacled Pavement fans… are unemployed or out of touch. Or dead. No one in their early twenties wants to be a music journalist—that would be absurd. These English majors want to be some super genius bloggers. (Coscarelli)

He goes onto discuss how that in a world obsessed with fame, those souls who in any other time would be drawn to the method of cultural production that is the modern novel (or even the music journalism of the 1990’s) are now obsessed with becoming bloggers or nebulous media personalities. Coscarelli thinks that our priorities have shifted, and on that account, I don’t think many people can argue. What is success for writers in the digital age? Is it publishing a book of stories with a small Midwestern press that only a sliver of the public will actually read, or is it maintaining a popular blog with a loyal readership in the upper-thousands (or maybe success means being Maud Newton who has an awesome blog AND a forthcoming novel)? I can’t really say, but what I take comfort in is that for some of us, the definition of writerly success is the same as it’s always been: publishing a superior novel of critical acclaim. Just look at the aforementioned literary journals and the Rise of the MFA Program. There are more people writing than ever before, and this is cause for celebration (even if the reading public is dwindling by the day).

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