There’s no debate over what makes one a real architect, real attorney, or real baker, because they’re viewed as real as long as they get paid for what they do. However, writing doesn’t quite work like that. It’s a craft, one of the most fundamental forms of sentient expression in which humans are capable. So one can get paid to write and certainly be a real writer, but if one doesn’t get paid, that doesn’t mean they’re not a real writer, does it?
I love this lack of hard, fast rules. Plus, I find it a middle finger to the more concrete occupations and professions that settle for the standard of “real” as degree on the wall and paycheck deposited into account every two weeks. Does this mean that real architects, attorneys, and bakers have less self-respect? Not at all; it’s just that their path is conveniently laid out for them. These occupations are externally dependant in one way or another. Writing itself—the nuclear craft of writing—is internally dependant because there are no rules of your self-expression because there are no dictates upon your identity. Your content is the effect and you are the primary cause.
Now, there are of course “rules” like syntax and grammar, or else any form of literary self-expression would look like “;lks qpoiu aj xm,n.” My criticism of is merely another way of advocating originality of voice and perspective. Your voice, your style, your content. I realize that many writers will agree with me, however, how many books like Twilight came out after it was released? What about 50 Shades? And Harry Potter? I don’t believe that a windfall of writers was simultaneously inspired to write these types of books. Write what you want, but be honest about your intentions, motivations, goals. There’s just a big difference between a bandwagon and a rickshaw.
I’ve pointed out the YA craze to my wife many times, perplexed. She responds as she usually does: “Adults write material for young adults because they some way want to be young adults, or they actually think like young adults.” I don’t think this is an insult to these writers, I find it insightful—If I primarily wrote fiction from the perspective of a 1950’s housewife, then it would be accurate to describe me as one whose headspace is similar (though not identical, or authentic, of course) to that of a 1950’s housewife. Nonfiction is different because there’s a built-in distance, an attempt at objectivity, even if it’s just cataloging events and such. But fiction requires an immersion into the story, the characters, the plot. If one continuously chooses to write within a certain literary world then it’s pretty clear that that content fuels and satisfies the writer. It gives them a sense of solace, a sense of home. As writers, we need to be honest about what gives us a sense of home.
What I find troubling about the current state of writing though, on top of how much of it is written to and for younglings, is that so many people’s sense of home is the same. Since writing fiction has become cool, this prevalence is rewarded. Hell, upon learning I’m a writer, even Energy Auditors who serviced my house asked if I’d written anything they’d know, “You know, like Harry Potter?” When I told them I’m a nonfiction writer who focuses on the status and decay of culture, their eyes glazed over and they continued sealing around the windows.
Even the completely ridiculous novel Don Quixote focused on real, adult issues; know who your true enemy is (don’t fight windmills), listen to your more rational, though often softer inner voice (Sancho Panza), and be careful what you wish for (Quixote promised Sancho governership upon meeting his fair maiden, which led to him being abandoned by his voice of reason). Sure, we can draw lofty metaphors from Harry Potter, and there will always be a place for challenging though relatable fiction for teens, but if a staggering amount of adults do this, and it becomes cool, how will the writing world be able to detect the next Woolf? Or Orwell? Or Hemingway? This is my apprehension.
Making fun of Chinese education by calling it draconian has become quite cliché, however, at least they’re learning to be mentally disciplined. I’m well aware of the consequence of overloading young people with studies—aside from the obvious consequence of becoming more educated—in that they have to learn how to decompress, however, the rigorous affirmation-free discipline is a marvelous way of building the thick hide that people need in order to be…adults. I’m not unique nor am I “mean” for arguing that the modern people’s hide has become a little thin for their own good.
To be clear, one can’t build a thick hide when they immerse themselves in support groups, affirmative memes, and entitlements. Did you know Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime? And that it was shortly before he died? “Oh my goodness, how did he push on and suffer through that?” Someone like Karl Marx, who also financially struggled all his life and released only one work deemed influential during his lifetime—and late in his life at that—would remark that Van Gogh painted because he loved painting, and that the craft alone fed his internal engine. On occasion my mentor reminds me that Marx chose to write on his honeymoon instead of spending the time with his new wife, because the muse had struck him, and he wouldn’t oppress it. And his wife listened because she knew he had a voice, and that a honeymoon was merely a social tradition that by no means determines the success of the marriage. Just like respect seeds a successful marriage, it seeds a successful lifestyle (and possibly, career) as a writer. Are we respecting our craft? Better yet, are we respecting ourselves by being courageous enough to be authentic?
This is why I find myself looking backward in time to understand “real” writing, because it had grit. Our culture has become so extroverted and so affirmation-dependant that even though great writers exist (of course Rowling is a great writer), writing has become much more emotional and socially-dependant than it needs to be. Writing is not a group activity, nor it is about convenience. Sure, a variety of books are published that are widely read, but how is it that Bill O’Reilly is a household name but Thomas Sowell isn’t? I’m not going to demean Sowell by Reader’s Digest-ing him; his work speaks for itself.
I don’t blame social media for the current affirmation-addiction any more than I blame McDonald’s for the current obesity plague, because social media doesn’t force people to be emotionally and mentally dependent any more than McDonald’s forces poison down people’s throats. Both social media and McDonald’s are businesses, but it’s easy to forget that since the latter produces a physical product that temporarily satiates a physical hunger, and the former produces a nonphysical product that temporarily satiates a nonphysical hunger—an emotional desire. If you’re not aware that a dopamine high is what drives people to constantly check and strive for retweets, likes, and added followers, then there’s a problem. Again, I don’t blame social media. But we should at least know that what makes social media so appealing to so many people is the chemical cascade caused by other people’s likes and retweets. Van Gogh lacked that externally fed chemical cascade; he produced his own. It was authentic, “real.”
In our past, writers and artists had to suffer in order to be a “real.” George Orwell pointed out in an essay that traditionally, writers held part-time jobs doing non-literary tasks to preserve both their literary energy and integrity. Do you think living on the wages of a part-time job was easy? This is why real writers of the past suffered; they chose part-time side jobs over full-time jobs, to preserve energy to write fully and openly, uninfluenced by money.
Essentially, Orwell argues one’s literary compass can only be accurately calibrated if external rewards or affirmations are absent. Accurate according to what, though? To one’s authentic voice. Of course Orwell was occasionally paid a pittance for doing book reviews and newspaper articles, but they were one of the many side jobs he took to put food on the table, and long after he’d already produced a whole lot of fantastic essays that calibrated his compass. Regardless, he jumped around from employer to employer when his writings were deemed unfavorable, because he refused to conform to what was popular or acceptable. Mind you, George Orwell wasn’t the George Orwell he’s popularly associated with being, because he produced Animal Farm and 1984 shortly before he died. During most of his life he was a nonfiction essayist who pointed things out on paper that when published, the masses found either annoying, unnecessary, and occasionally insightful.
Does the modern writer engage this type of deliberate solitary sufferance? Of course not: writing, especially fiction writing, is now cool. Everywhere you go, be it online or at the bookstore, people will pat you on the back just for being a scribbler! And there are so many resources and literary groups and affirmation syringes around. If a writer is going to truly suffer, to truly take the heart-wrenching, long-term path of individuality to discover their authentic voice, they have to choose to dissociate from the ubiquitous convenient, peer-affirmed alternatives, because those alternatives have become the standard. The writing world has done a 180 from the times when writers were starving artists just like painters, because even though it’s still challenging to break through and make money writing, our culture venerates those who claim to be writers, despite the only way of distinguishing good writing from bad writing is book sales.