Golden age

>> Saturday, May 01, 2010

What the internet is creating is a class of literate, gifted amateur writers, in an old tradition. Like Trollope, who was a British Post official all his working life, they write for love and because they must. Like Rohinton Mistry, a banking executive, or Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, or Edmund Wilson, who spent his most productive years sitting in his big stone house in upstate New York and writing about what he damned well pleased. Samuel Pepys, who wrote the greatest diary in the language, was a high officials in the British Admiralty. Many people can write well and yearn to, but they are not content, like Pepys, for their work to go unread. A blog on the internet gives them a place to publish. Maybe they don't get a lot of visits, but it's out there.

-Roger Ebert, "The golden age of movie critics,"
Roger Ebert's Journal (Chicago Sun-Times), April 30th, 2010

Sure, I was respectfully disagreeing with Ebert last week about games and art, but when he's right, man he nails it (and even when he's wrong, he's smart and interesting, which is why Roger Ebert is awesome). It's possible we're in the most remarkable age for writing since the late-19th Century.

Which doesn't bode well for writing as a profession; it's the same thing that's happening in music and eventually it's going to happen in film: technology removes barriers to entry and changes the function of filters (possibly even making them obsolete).

Of course there will be a lot of handwringing over this. Some of it will be from artists who, unless they find new ways to monetize their work, will need to get proverbial day jobs (and that might not suck just for them--there are certainly people I hope will be able to devote every waking hour to creating things for others to enjoy). Quite a lot of it will be from the corporations whose existence may become completely gratuitous when there's no longer any need for physical packaging and distribution of art. Some of it will be from critics with less foresight than Ebert, who overvalue the corporations' roles as filters and arbiters of taste.

There's a special point to be made as far as that last group is concerned: the common complaint is that most of the people who are producing writing and film and music independently of publishers, studios and labels are terrible at it. Which is true. The thing is, it always has been: Sturgeon's Law is as dead-on as ever--90% of everything is crap; if it seems the Internet is producing more crap than ever, it's only because there's more everything and the lack of a gatekeeper means you might have to do a little more digging on your own for the perfect ten percent.

And as far as "gatekeepers" go, have the corporations done that good a job in recent years? Yesterday I thought I might see a movie in the evening or sometime today, and what's opening in my area? A remake of Nightmare On Elm Street with a meh trailer and mediocre reviews. A movie called Furry Vengeance that, sadly, does not appear to be about people who dress as animals as a sexual fetish going on a Death Wish style killing spree (that would be a film I would go see, actually--who wouldn't?). Do you know, I'd sooner see a festival of low-budget, handmade films made by nobodies and distributed by mailing or hand-delivering self-burned DVDs to the screener? Okay--and here's what might be our one out of three (33% having to stand in for 10% because of the small available sample): The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was mentioned to me last week by a film-making film-buff friend who knows movies--so we have one possibility--or does the fact it's an independently-distributed foreign film being screened at a local arthouse theatre actually prove my point, ironically enough?

Whatever; getting back to the original point: 90% of a bigger number means more crap, but likewise a bigger 10% means more awesome stuff. So I think Ebert's right: this is a golden age, and not just for writing. Go take a look at the piece and let me know what you think.


Janiece Saturday, May 1, 2010 at 1:23:00 PM EDT  

I read his blog, too, and you're right - even when I don't agree with him, he's still smart and interesting. Which is pretty much the benchmark I use with all the blogs I read.

To the point -

I think the democratization of writing via the Internet is a mixed blessing, to a certain extent. You make a good point that if 90% of everything is crap, then the logarithmic increase in content just means there's more crap to wade through in order to get to the gems. But there's only so many hours in the day, and I'm already viscous about how many feeds I have in my reader - I simply don't have TIME to read more than about fifty. Which means, of course, there's probably some smart and interesting bloggers I'm missing.

The other issue is that attracting an audience isn't exactly a passive exercise. My readership will probably never grow higher than its current level, because I have no interest in self-promotion, and I write purely for my own pleasure. Others may have the will or the desire to do the necessary work to increase their readership, but how many smart, interesting blogs am I missing because the author lacks that will and desire?

Eric Sunday, May 2, 2010 at 2:15:00 PM EDT  

Janice: you have a good point about gathering an audience, and it's possible the role of publishers, studios, labels, and the lot will become one of promotion instead of production and distribution, although they're clearly too big and unwieldy for that role right now (that is, they have departments dedicated to production, but stripping the big content companies down to their promotional arms would be a drastic reduction in size.)

That said, one of the virtues of the Internet is the way it allows for a certain amount of passive promotion. One of the most-read pages I've had, for instance, was a tribute to Philip K. Dick I wrote a while back that got picked up by an SF aggregator site. I've also had hits by way of Google to the Pink Floyd "Oh By The Way" series that's now on more-or-less permanent hiatus. True, it's not the massive numbers I might be getting if I really pimpled myself out; then again, I'm not sure how much I want bigger numbers--with great numbers comes great responsibility (heh), and I fret enough about entertaining and amusing coupla-dozen regulars who I sort of know without the pressure of keeping up-to-snuff for hundreds, much less thousands, of strangers.

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