Book Fight!

Tough love for literature

Writers Ask: Marry Rich


What are the best jobs for writers? What’s with writers who don’t like to read? And why does it make Mike so mad when people talk about literature like it’s a commodity? We also discuss naps, and why Tom lives like an old person. Talking points include: back to school, John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist, Type-A doctors, night watchmen, revolution, and sleeping on planes.

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Author: mikeingram25

writer, editor

6 thoughts on “Writers Ask: Marry Rich

  1. Thanks for your discussion of Tim O’Reilly’s quote and for your defense of the creative endeavors.

    I read him to say that we constantly need to be reevaluating the role played in our society by everything, including specific types of literature. We should not support something out of habit, just because that is how things used to be done, but rather evaluate if something, say classical music or printed maps, still fulfills the function for which we support it. He doesn’t care if literature expresses itself in literary novels or some other form, old or new. What matter is that the art form must stay relevant in order to elicit support. I totally agree with your point about the limitations of capitalism, but I don’t think the support has to come through market actions. It can be philanthropy or voluntarism.

    I am not sure what O’Reilly means by elitist, but one meaning that is in line with the previous point is, again, about relevance.

    Some forms of expression have existed for so long that anything new that is crated needs to define itself against what has come before. Consequently, the new creation takes it meaning, not from reference to contemporary culture which is shared, but from reference to a tradition that only select few have access to. Yet those with access to this understanding make others feel inferior for not knowing this history and think that there is some intrinsic value in the art form itself that is only justified by it having had value in the past and that this fact makes it somehow superior over other forms of expression. I am sure there are a few people who feel that way about literary novel. Maybe O’Reilly needs stop hanging out with them and start to listen to your podcast.

    {I probably gave him more sympathetic reading than he deserves, while pulling things out of my ass, but oh well}

  2. Hey Sylwester,

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I think you’re probably right that what he’s trying to get at is about relevance. And I do think that’s an important discussion to have, so we don’t end up reflexively glorifying old, tired forms. I think about that a lot whenever I have discussions with students about “literature” as a term, and what makes a piece of fiction literary? Is it just that it looks like what we think of as “literature”? And where does that picture of what “literature” looks like come from? What we’ve been taught in English classes? Somewhere else?

    I think what raised my hackles in his answer was mostly that corporate language. As Tom pointed out, that’s probably just how you talk when you’re a tech CEO, but he also seemed to be conflating “popular” with “worthwhile.” Like, classical music was once popular, now it’s not, so by definition it’s no longer relevant. But that argument seems to be undercut by his own example of Moby Dick, which WASN’T widely popular in its time. And I think it also fails a pretty basic common sense test, where we all know the most popular things aren’t necessarily the best things.

    But I think “relevant” is a much better word. Of course, people can argue about which works/genres/etc are relevant, but at least the discussion has then moved beyond basic market economics.


    • Mike,
      Good point about what is popular is not necessary “worthwhile.” But the question who decides what is worthwhile still remains. I guess that one might argue that there is some absolute standard of what is worthwhile, but i don’t think i buy that. Consequently, something that is consider worthwhile at one time, might not be consider so in the future. Therefore, i don’t think the Moby Dick example undercuts the argument.

      As far as commodification of writing, I wonder if you would consider genre fiction a commodity? And how much room is there for literary fiction to still be original and creative while still conforming to the format of a novel? I know that is an unfair question, so no need to answer it now, but if at some point in the future the subject comes up, i would love to hear what you guys think about it (or maybe you already answered when you discussed whoever it was that called for the death of the novel.)

      Anyway, thanks for taking time away from discussing actual practical points that of interest to your listener, to consider the more meta issues related to literature.

  3. Yeah, I don’t buy that there’s any absolute “worthwhileness” standard, either. I guess that’s where you always run into a wall: who decides? While I reacted pretty strongly against the idea that “the market” would magically reward good or interesting or worthwhile art, none of the alternatives are perfect. You’ve got grants from government organizations or private philanthropic interests, whether it’s the NEA or the Guggenheim or those MacArthur Genius awards, all of which are designed to fund artists and writers without too many strings. But in any given year, one could argue over whether the recipients are the best or most worthy (not that I have any particular beef with those organizations, just that there’s no perfect gold standard and any criteria for judging is going to have its shortcomings). I guess if you go back in history, particularly in the world of painting, you had various patronage programs, many of them through the church, which then has an effect on the kind of work that’s being produced.

    I think what I reacted to so strongly is just this overly reverent attitude some people in our country seem to have for “the market,” as if capitalism is some magic force that, left to its own devices, will just make everyone’s life wonderful. Maybe that’s a bit of a sarcastic straw man, but I do think some version of that attitude is pretty pervasive. And to that attitude, government funding of anything–art, science research–would be absurd, because if those things are “worthwhile” the market would reward them. Which attitude is only about half a step removed from all of us being “worth” whatever dollar amount we can produce for ourselves or someone else, which is pretty dehumanizing.

    • I think we have come to an agreement, because i share your feeling that “the market” alone is not how we want to decide value. And i think you would probably agree that “culture” (which pretty much can entail everything, so we are vague enough) could be seen as providing the standards that we use at any given time for evaluating “worthwhileness.”

      As our culture changes, eg the Church and nobility lose influence and consumer culture emerges, what is valued also shifts. The point in which i am very interested is that I see the ongoing digital revolution is a rather massive change in culture, consequently we can expect to see rather massive changes in what we consider valuable for of creative expression. Already, things like this podcast and Tom’s whale tumblr are new ways of being creative that are competing for the limited time that people have to devote to entertainment/enlightenment.

  4. Listening to the part now about the jobs for writers: I think when you look at the history of novelists, journalism is the winner for “best job for novelists.” Too bad there are proportionally so many fewer such jobs out there.

    I can’t help thinking having a legit skill that there was a real demand for would also be good tho. It probably helps you have lots of metaphors and very tactile ways of describing the world.

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