What happens when there are more writers than readers?

Author Jane Hamilton ask a rather probing question toward the end of her radio interview on To the Best of Our Knowledge (you can listen here with your Real player, interview starts at 43:25). The question evolves from a conversation about the crowds of people who want to be writers, but who aren’t well read — and the loss of filters to discover and celebrate the true visionaries among them.

The leading character in Hamilton’s most recent book, Laura Rider’s Masterpiece, longs to write a romance novel but doesn’t care to read. Says Hamilton in the interview:

I think it’s kind of an angry book about this idea that we’re all artists. So, what happens when there are more writers than there are readers? And how will the really talented young writers’ voices bubble up through the gaseous murk of the blogosphere? How will they be heard? …they probably will. I’m banking that they will. But I think it’s going to be more difficult for those real writers to find their place.

There are glorious, democratizing forces at work when almost anyone can publish their thoughts to the world. But to me, the challenging byproduct of those benefits are what Hamilton describes. How do we make space in this instant publishing world for the truly remarkable voices — in words, in song, in composition, in performance, in whatever? Particularly, how do we nurture those exceptional voices that need time and attention to grow?

This isn’t a defense of the gatekeepers or editors/curators who ran the filters before the Internet, as that system had its flaws and foibles as well. But it’s a call for the nonprofit and public arts to consider their part in answering that question.


  1. says

    This post makes me wonder not about the voices emerging but about the other side of the balance – the concern that there will be “more writers than readers.”
    I have two thoughts on this.
    First, it’s not going to happen. Creators still represent a tiny fraction of the cultural landscape, and they are almost all consumers as well. Also, people create for different reasons. There are plenty of people who create but don’t have any interest in becoming professionals.
    Second, it freaks me out. When I was starting out as a poet, I was told that I should make sure I was spending five hours reading for every one I spent writing. The presumption there was that writers (and creators of all kinds) who want to really hone their craft have a lot to learn from others, and that the learning is often the most important part of the creating. So to me, the question is: what happens when people spend more time expounding than learning? What happens when we can’t listen because we talk too much?
    I think these questions are web-agnostic.

  2. says

    Thanks for the great comment. I’m also of mixed feelings about the issue and the question. I’d agree that any dogmatic approach to who gets to create and how they have to do it is problematic. Our arts history is littered with exclusion and requirements that choked more than one creative opportunity. But I am seeing a continuing need to focus on the ‘slow growth’ opportunities in a fast-production world, and wondering if part of the ‘public trust’ efforts of some arts organizations might relate to that effort.
    Didn’t mean to freak you out…but I’m glad the post encouraged a comment. It felt like a conversation worth having out loud.

  3. says

    Nice post, Andrew. It calls to mind this Wall Street Journal article about the demise of the slush pile: http://tinyurl.com/ykm5x5p
    As one of the authors in the article says:
    “These days, you need to deliver not just the manuscript but the audience,” says Mr. Levine. “More and more, the mantra in publishing is ‘Ask not what your publisher can do for you, ask what you can do for your publisher.'”
    So even though there are more channels available for people to publish, a writer has to have more than writing talent… they have to have marketing acumen and create an audience even before you publish. Most writers don’t have the time or skills for that, so that’s a major filter.

  4. says

    I recently heard Mitali Perkins, an author of fiction for young readers, talk about the emerging landscape of publishing. She used the term ‘trusted curator’ to talk about the function that online writers can have as reference points for both learning and book recommendation. Cream always rises to the top. I believe that the generation of creators that are not web savvy (and may not wish to be) will be, to their detriment, caught in between the old model of writer>agent>publisher and today’s emerging model of artist-generated publicity and prepared audience. Those that are actively using online resources and social media as a matter of course will adapt and excel in this new landscape.

  5. says

    So being a shill is more important than working on what one writes. Gawd, what a bore. If writing isn’t a compulsion and you’re not driven to do it regardless all else, then don’t waste your time. Most people aren’t any good at it, just as most people aren’t good musicians. Have you heard some of the self-published music around these days? Absolute dreck.