Check out Is The Net Good For Writers?, compiled by RU Sirius. Thoughtful, but I think it ignores part of the landscape. This via Nick Carr’s The word on the net, which has me seriously irritated; I look forward with venom to reviewing his book, which just arrived in the mail. [Warning: this fragment is appallingly self-centred.]
[Update: Awww... Prof. Carr has updated. While this makes me happy, I can’t pass up the opportunity to make a serious point: has any previous medium supported the publication of serious ideas to the whole world in a form which allows for real-time revision and partakes of conversation? If we can just sort out the economics, this has the potential to be a Golden Age for writers.]
The Is The Net Good For Writers? writers are to a one professional full-timers, and their feelings about the issue are at best mixed, because whatever your feelings, it’s obvious the Net is blowing up the existing economic models for professional communicators and it’s far from clear what will replace them. I’m part of whatever the new thing is, I think, but I feel genuine sympathy for people who’ve been relying on the existing model.
The problem with the collection, if I may be egregiously egocentric, is that it ignores me. Or rather, the class of which I’m a member: people who have found success in writing online, success which would have been unlikely in the ancien régime. The words you are now reading aren’t the entirety of my job, but they’re a large and essential part of it.
There are lots like me who’ve combined niche knowledge and writing to build a decent career. We don’t make as much as Stephen King, but I bet we do well compared to the non-superstar writers. The #1 lesson in Creative Writing has always been “Write What You Know”; if you believe this, the advent of a large number of people with specialized knowledge who earn their living writing about it should be unsurprising.
Only one thing has changed: Now there’s no scarcity of access to the means of publication. But that’s a big thing, and we’re still far from understanding the implications. For example, blogger culture values short-form writing, high update rate, and a transparent/unedited personal voice. Are these things ephemeral, or essential to the form?
Nicholas Carr, not afraid to draw broad-brush conclusions, considers the collection and concludes:
It seems to turn on how you view writing. If you see it as a utilitarian information-delivery vehicle, then the net's boffo. If you see it as a craft that's as much an end as a means, then the net's a curse.
Which seems pretty much bullshit to me. I don’t know a single successful blogger who doesn’t obsess about writing, and re-write and re-write and tinker and fiddle, and then do it some more after hitting the “publish” button. Like most reasonably-successful bloggers, I’ve pumped hundreds of thousands of words into this space over the years, and you’re just not gonna do that unless you care.
Actually I’m a fanatic about the written language; I feel no stress in liking both Vikram Seth and Barry Lopez on dead trees, and Paul Ford and Mark Pilgrim on my screen; and William Gibson both places. Anyone who maintains there’s an absolute quality delta between what was and what is, between what’s on paper and what’s on screen, isn’t looking where I am.
I’m trying hard to read Carr’s remark as anything but a nasty direct attack on what I do for a living, but I think that’s what it is. Fortunately I have an outlet for my spleen; the Professor’s new book The Big Switch just arrived in the mail, and at the moment I’m really predisposed to dislike it. So if you read nothing more about it in this space, that means it’s probably pretty good and I couldn’t indulge in the mean-spirited flame that I’d like to. If I say something positive, you’d better all run out and buy it right away.