Friday, November 13, 2020

On Medium: Should Writers Want Huge Audiences?

Following my satirical advice on how to be a very popular writer on Medium, here's an article about the upside and downside of popularity for writers.


  1. "Yet the point is that here’s a telltale sign of a genuine writer: if he or she keeps writing a lot with zero or relatively few actual readers, that’s a writer — not a successful one, to be sure, but a real one, a writer that’s likely fuelled by a creative vision."

    Thanks for making me feel like a real writer instead of a sufferer of hypergraphia!

    I think the only way for a writer to become successful without loosing their integrity would be to find a wealthy patron. Notice that most of the 'classics' are not classics because they appeal to a wide audience, they are classics because they appealed to a small but influential minority whom the masses felt compelled to imitate in every way -- including reading what their idols read.

    However, this may not be a viable strategy at present. The classes are at war. No working class Joe Sixpack wants to be caught dead reading something from NYT Review of Books or Encyclopaedia Britannica's 'Great Books' collection even if he secretly enjoys that kind of material. The social incentives to imitate the upper classes no longer exist.

    1. Intriguing points, as always. I recently watched a movie I hadn’t seen in years, “Impromptu,” the 1991 film starring Judy Davis and Hugh Grant, which deals humorously with the relation between artists and patrons. The wealthy patrons are depicted as spoiled dilettantes who exploit artists almost like vampires. The artists, in turn, are depicted as mentally unstable parasites.

      There’s certainly a culture war in the US that vilifies all the social classes. I think art itself is frowned on in blue-collar circles (along with wine, cheese and other symbols of the upper class), not just the wealthy would-be patrons. That doesn’t mean art can’t be secretly patronized or financially supported, though. Artists either support themselves or are supported by someone else (or they die off). Once the work is funded by someone, the work can live on and the audience may never know how it was originally funded. It’s not like artists would have to wear advertisement stickers on their jackets like racecar drivers.

      There’s an interesting history of art, as I understand it, which might be worth exploring in a related article. Currently we’re dealing with the aftermath of the split between artists and craftsmen. In Europe, artists used to be craftsmen that served the Church. More universally, artists had a religious function, expressing their inner vision as prophets or shamans. Then came Protestantism, the Scientific Revolution, and the death of God, and artists recoiled at the prospect of turning art purely into a business, a craft that lacks divine inspiration. That was the Romantic backlash, which turned artists into lone geniuses and social critics. Art was romanticized and mystified, because the sophistical alternative, of seeing art as a cynical business was intolerable and possibly unsustainable.

      Now we may have reached not just the death of God but the death of art. At least, art is fundamentally worthless because it’s been democratized by the internet and social media. It’s not just a question of the lack of patrons; we have also an overabundance of would-be artists. The Romantics thought that art is a calling; you need to find your inner voice (daemon or muse, which Christians called your “guardian spirit”) to be worthy of learning the artistic discipline. Everyone and their grandmother can produce art now, because of technological advances.

      You can see this vividly on where many thousands of people post poetry, including me. Most of the poems there strike me as dreadful—but that’s what you’d expect if everyone tried to write poetry and found it so easy to “publish” it. This shows clearly how democracy is the opposite of a meritocracy, which is supposed to be the point of aristocracy (rule of the best). As we know from natural power dynamics, although the aristocrats may have the best upbringing, their power tends to corrupt them so they degenerate in turn, parallel to the vulgar masses. Where, then, do we find the best?

    2. We're moving a little back in the direction of Patrons as creators struggle to find an alternative to 'ad' supported media. I personally have a Patreon account to support a couple artists/writers I'm interested in, though I'm certainly no Duke with an in-house playwright. Capitalism finds a way - as Ben says the inundation of content is so high it's rare that you can even hope the good rises to the top. It's not so different my getting a Medium account in some small attempt to support this.

      Has socialism worked for artists in any great sense? Hasn't it always shown that the writing would have to serve the politics to continue being supported? That's true for capitalism too of course, it's just more insidious. I serve the market or I serve the State. The only way to make peace is to make the authentic choice, you choose to write because you must or you've decided to think out loud as it were. Most people probably stop because they don't find their audience and they must split their energies between it and making a living. Also, those around you can attempt to kill your enthusiasm for it, suggesting you move on to something more 'productive".

      It's hard to be supported by the crowd if you're trafficking in uncomfortable truths. Some are, I can think of several examples and then there are those who make a fetish of their negativism too. I don't think that's the case with your work at all, but I've had others read it who felt their optimism attacked. There are many pieces where you discuss that phenomenon.

    3. Yes, self-publishing has certainly brought down the tone of art & literature. Though, considering that most publisher's nowadays are floundering & consequently value marketability over merit, the real culprit may be mass quasi-literacy. In the past, those who had the leisure, money, & ability to read were raised on the best fare & so their standards were high. But in a society where most people are only quasi-literate, standards are lower because most of those people were never exposed to quality books. Eckhart Tolle might seem profound to someone who's never read Sartre or Nietzsche.

      I share your disdain for modern poetry. And while I'll concede that not everyone can be a Sappho, I think quite a few could be a Dorothy Parker. The problem is that American schools don't teach poetry anymore. The discipline of metre has been replaced by 'free form' & concrete, sensual imagery has been dropped in favor of wordy abstraction. Every poet must find her own voice; but that only happens after listening to those who have gone before. Modern poets seem to have skipped that first step.

    4. Guthrie, Patreon and Kickstarter are certainly interesting developments. Hopefully a new system will develop from the internet, because socialism and capitalism degenerate in the familiar ways. I've just written another article on this, on the religious background of art and on the facets of modernity that trivialize art. So that will come out maybe in a couple of weeks.

      The overabundance of art is a First World problem. In the coming decades, we may be focused more on surviving with dwindling resources than on whether there's too much crappy art.

      I've certainly criticized optimists as deluded, extroverted and so forth. I've criticized the most extreme pessimists too, the antinatalists and eliminativists, because I point to some redemptive aspects of life, such as the aesthetic outlook. I don't focus on negative things as an end in itself, but to be realistic and philosophical, to deal honourably with harsh truths as a prelude to finding a way to live well.

    5. Sybok, insufficient demand must indeed be part of the problem. The new technologies make it easier both to produce and to consume content, but the technologies make the content disposable and therefore not worth consuming or at least not worth paying much for.

      Surely the publishers are floundering because there's an overabundance of free content on the internet that's roughly as good as the stuff behind a paywall. I wrote a satire about this some years ago, about the miracle of how anyone can have a good-paying writing job as an editorialist at a newspaper or magazine, when so many writers are willing to work for free, because it's so easy to "publish" with no intermediaries.

      This is why content is pirated, too: we expect content to be free, because lots of producers are willing to put it out there for free. There's no alternative, since we're not buying CDs or paperback novels or comic books much anymore. Once content goes digital to reach a greater audience, the content is implicitly trivialized because it's copied over and over again. (I wrote about that trivialization back in 2013, in "Horror for the Codes of Creation.")

      Allpoetry is for amateurs (since it, too, is for free), so I don't know if the quality there speaks to the nature of professional modern poetry. I don't read much recent poetry but I enjoy the challenge of writing it. I recently wrote a longish one on religion I'm happy with, which will appear in my upcoming anthology on religion on Amazon. The poem's called "The Demolished Cathedral."

  2. That is the thing, which kept me reading your philosophical writings and articles, creative commitment to your art, and that commitment in itself is prominent and inspiring. So, thank you for that genuine inspiration. I may disagree with your general mood and worldview, instead I'm trying to form my own, consistent with my own experience, but there is genuine sound of truth in your writings, which is universal and all-applicable, I think, so it is valuable.

    I dream of a world where attention would not distributed in hierarchical pyramidal system, where “best” takes it all, but more holistic, balanced, and some-what equally distributed, not forcedly, but rather appropriately. I wish popular culture would slowly dissolve “best” mentality, searching for “the best” in everything, but rather to notice and value variations, differences of styles, perspectives, approaches, etc. I consider “the best” mentality is wrong and lazy thinking, especially in art.

    I don't know what is that with social psychology, where are recognized persons have most attention, probably it frees individual from critical thinking and judgement, to accept someone on his fame and already formed acceptance of others. There is always avalanche, snowball effect of popularity, after some critical point, but that aftereffect usually formed from uncritical mass of consumers, which you're committedly criticizing. So, I don't know how it will plays out, will it melt down instantly?! It will self-destruct its impulse and attraction, and move on instantly on the “next new big best thing”, in your case, I assume.

    From a reader standpoint, I argue with myself, should I continue reading individual writers or focus on forming my own thoughts, and reading more saturated, directed, and canonical knowledge. Isolation might be just another extreme from omnivorous consumption.

    1. You can see that commercial, competitive overlay on art in gameshows like Ink Master and Face Off, in which artists compete for prizes. The capitalistic overlay is so extraneous, in that it’s irrelevant to the Romantic conception of art which helped distinguish arts from crafts. But even in the ancient world there was the religious sense of inspiration, as in prophecy or shamanism.

      Artists take on that mantle, but because God is dead in our world, artists are corralled into the marketplace and treated like producers and consumers, businessmen/entrepreneurs and labourers. Then the internet comes along, oversaturates the market with content, and makes various kinds of art essentially worthless. But because socialism was demonized and defeated in the Cold War, there’s no solution on the horizon, so artists have to look within to find the motivation to keep creating their art, even at the cost of starving or at least of realizing the absurdity of their situation.

      I appreciate my readers. Mind you, I’ve had other regular readers over the years, and most of them moved on. Think of how rare it is to read the same author’s daily or weekly output for years on end. Eventually, you understand where that writer’s coming from and you need to broaden your horizons. I understand completely. As I say in the article, I’ve written a lot even when I had no readers, and I’ll keep writing as long as I have something to say. I write mainly for me, to express my ideas and to figure out what I really believe and should believe.