Friday, April 22, 2022

Who is Allowed to Think of Themselves as a Writer?

When one reads about publishing one every so often runs into some statistic claiming that there are x number of writers--as in "writers of books for the general market"--in the country.

"How do they decide that?" one may wonder. As a glance at web sites like Inkitt, or even the offerings on Amazon, show, a great deal of activity and a great many people are left out. One may work at their writing, produce something, get it out there. However, even if they put in the hours, produce work of genuine professional quality, and look to their writing for their incomes--and even find paying customers, maybe as much as some of those "in the club" do (if more because of how poorly even they are doing these days)--they are generally not recognized as writers, the label overwhelmingly reserved for the very few whose names appear on the cover of books published by traditional presses, especially big New York presses. The distinction has nothing as such to do with "talent" or "hard work" (many of the most prominent "writers" write nothing at all, not only politicians and celebrities whose books are ghostwritten for them, but those actual "authors" who "somehow" have their names on the covers of six or seven fat new books a year), but rather, no matter how much the sneering, snarling elitists pretend otherwise, access to the small, closed world of Park Avenue and its suburbs to which what their generally public school-educated British counterparts would call "the plebs" simply have no entree.

You can see the exclusivity reflected in the articles and books that claim to be coming from a place of sympathy for writers in this age in which the price of "information" has plummeted even as the price of everything else just keeps going up. When they talk about protecting the interests of writers they don't mean all those people working on their craft, they mean the handful of folks in the club, whether actually writing or only pretending to be writers when hawking their mass-marketable garbage in the media--while everyone else is not merely ignored, but seen as part of the problem. Studiously ignoring all the economic, technological, cultural changes that are making it harder for writers to earn a living (like, you know, the plain and simple fact that the public in the age of the smart phone, streaming and Wi-fi everywhere all the time has so much more access to other kinds of entertainment all the time), they prefer to fixate on those plebs who refuse to "know their place," respect the industry gatekeepers who told them to forget ever having a career without ever even looking at their submissions, and keep their writing in the drawer rather than going the self-publishing route.

Considering the lot of most writers, and how they get treated, not only by the world at large but by their fellow writers, and above all that small "professional" club, I find myself remembering that bit in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-house Five when Billy Pilgrim comes face to face with Vonnegut's longtime recurring character, Kilgore Trout. Billy asks Trout if he is Kilgore Trout "the writer." Trout is honestly, literally, confused by the question about there being a "writer named Kilgore Trout" at all, let alone that writer being him. Vonnegut explains that the reaction was a result of the fact that Trout "did not think of himself as a writer for the simple reason that the world had never allowed him to think of himself in this way."

So it goes for the vast majority of us who have ever put their thoughts to paper, even when what we have put down finds its way to a readership--and it seems to me that there is a great injustice in that.

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