Friday, January 25, 2013

Karl the Curmudgeon Worries About Writers

"I despair for our profession, Kid," said my friend, Karl. He was in a rather maudlin mood tonight, which was unusual for him. He was usually more cantankerous, wanting to debate some point of literature or grammar. Instead, he had spent the last 20 minutes staring off into space, occasionally grunting in agreement with whatever I said to him.

I believe the dangling participle was left behind by an alien race, I said. I think Twilight is the Great Gatsby of our time.

"Uh-huh," he mumbled. "He was on Charlie Rose last night."

He finished his beer, and waved at Jean the bartender for two more. We were sitting at a small table in The Burns Unit, a literary bar dedicated to Scottish poet and serial philanderer, Robert Burns. It was Tuesday night, open-mic night, and we were there to make fun of the hipster poets.

What? I said.

"Our profession. I despair for it," he repeated like I was stupid.

I heard you, Yoda. I meant, what are you yammering on about?

"There aren't any professional writers any more," he sighed. "What happened to us?"

Oh man, I groaned. You're not going all golden yesteryear on me, are you? The last time you did this, I had to listen to your drunken ramblings about the time you and Hunter S. Thompson went snipe hunting with an elephant gun and you shot your own car.

"No, I mean there's no money in writing anymore. Back when I was your age, you could be a successful novelist and make enough money to support a family."

Back when you were my age, you built a log cabin on the Indiana frontier and wrote penny dreadfuls.

Karl shot me the finger. "It's not like it used to be," he continued. "These days, a novelist can barely scratch out a couple month's mortgage with what they make from a single book."

That's the state of literature today. There are more authors writing more books, but book sales are declining. The demand has decreased while the supply has increased. So there's less money to be spread among more authors.

"That doesn't make it right. Back in the 60s, when I first started writing, a lot of writers made a full-time salary off their books, and would teach a little on the side. We spent our days writing and our nights going to parties and bars, and hanging out with other writers."

Are you sure that was you? That sounds an awful lot like Hemingway's "A Moveable Feast."

"Shut up, Kid. I remember what the 60s were like. Well, most of them anyway. But those days are long gone. Nowadays, creative writing teachers fight to write books in their spare time. The one skill they were hired for, and they can't even work at it because of their day job."

Well, I suppose they could go into copywriting, I said. Karl drank some beer and belched his response. He was going from maudlin to bitter, which always made him a pain in the ass. The last time he got like this, I had to lead him out of the bar by a fistful of his beard.

"What, and prostitute themselves for filthy lucre?" he bellowed. An emo poet was onstage, reading a poem comparing someone named Rachel to a fried egg. He looked nervously at Karl, worried he was being heckled.

Filthy lucre? You were just grousing about writers not making a living, but when they make it in the private sector, it's filthy lucre?

"Kid, you don't understand. Writing used to be a noble art. Writers were celebrities in Hemingway's day. Now, they're reduced to being teachers or copywriters who tell themselves they still have their artistic integrity."

Hey, there's nothing wrong with being a copywriter. Some highly accomplished writers worked as copywriters and still produced some outstanding work.

"Oh yeah? Name one."

You mean besides me? Karl rolled his eyes.

"You're not a novelist."

Why do we have to be novelists? Why do you assume the only 'real' writers are novelists? What about nonfiction writers? Or marketing writers? Or even journalists? They put just as much time and effort into mastering the language as novelists. Except we make money at it.

"What about poets?" Karl asked, gesturing at the roomful of hipsters reading their Midwest slam poetry.

They make their money serving coffee.

"Hey!" whined a nearby pimply-faced poet.

Karl, the only thing that has changed is the marketplace. The market for novelists may be shrinking, but there's still plenty of work to be had writing. In fact, thanks to today's educational system, more writers are being left behind, so the demand for good writers of any type is going to grow.

He scratched his chin for a minute. "Well, I read your last white paper, so I guess marketing copy could be fiction."

Yeah, and your last book was a great sleeping aid.



The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and my other book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million in October, or for the Kindle or Nook.

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