The curse of the writer today is one of circumstance.
I can guarantee those standing at the bottom of the mountain have felt what I feel: A grinding, crushing force as the world moves, time continues and yet one feels like they are still standing, motionless. To me, there seems to be three clear cut challenges to the writer today which plunge them, as they have plunged me, into crisis.
How can I compete with the greats?
One wishes to break out of the consumer state. To produce, to build and to create. One must make, not devour, to begin to construct permanence, a legacy and have some sort of impact on the world that can last longer than your life. I cannot read through every book, every poem and every article. The entire Western cannon is out of reach. At some point, just learning is not going to cut it, you have to begin to produce. The question is: When?
I think of a line or a description, a name for a character, a great simile and so on. But then I will come across that very same idea in someone else’s work. In an instant my plans are torn and I am back to square one. To counter this, as well as to learn, I feel I need to discover more, but as mentioned before I could spend a lifetime in a library and never finish all the pages.
I am not Tolkien; I cannot invent several languages on the fly. I cannot fill my work to the brim with neologisms that the reader may or may not understand. How do I stand on the shoulders of giants and not cut off their faces and wear it like a mask? Even then I would just be like Hannibal Lector, once again copying someone somewhere, saying words that have already been said.
How can I compete with the honest to God geniuses, professors, engineers and travellers? People who knew published poets, writers and editors or those who had a gift of language, their own and others?
It seems too much to compete.
How can books compete?
How can one compete with the myriad of entertainment which, on the surface, particularly to the lowest common denominator, is more appealing and interest grabbing? The sheer proliferation of ways to spend free time leaves less and less room for reading. Furthermore, while reading can be superior in ways to its competitors, on the face of it, it is boring compared to gaming and watching TV which provides far more instant hooks; hits more senses at once and is often more passive, thus requiring less effort. The path of least resistance is a common trend in nature and not one we are exempt from. So, given the choice, many if not most will choose the easier, leaving the book – your book – in the dust.
One can look at the succession of amazing writers and think: “It is still possible” and that is true. However, most of the writers you look up to and most of the great books out there were written in the last century, before the supremacy of mobile devices, the internet and short attention spans. In the past children would be buying many different magazines full of short stories. This high demand provided a good environment for writers to begin gaining notoriety, earn a living off writing and, crucially, gain feedback to improve to then be able to produce their more well-known works without having to invest in all the time and effort into a novel. All the while their biggest competitor was the television which has nothing to the scale of apps and streaming services available to the media consumer today.
Writers, established or aspiring are being squeezed out and the struggle to become successful is becoming that much harder.
What is left to write about?
All ground has been trodden. It’s much harder to be original. People need something new to consume and day by day it is harder to do so as space runs out. One day I worry, there will be nothing but tropes.
What new races are left to create? The Xenomorphs, the Predators, the Prador, the Borg, the Primes. And what if I used a jagged fashion of anger and frustration in my writing, then I would be channelling Harassment Architecture. The descent into chaos of a madman in society, well then, I would copy American Psycho. Or what about drug fuelled violent youth gangs? Well pick up a copy of A Clockwork Orange.
What is there to say about war which Storm of Steel, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Forever War and Starship Troopers has not covered, not to mention countless others, so extensively? I want virgin land, that is free, new and open with fresh pastures of text, far away from tropes, cliché and cringe. Great quests – Tolkien. Amazing worlds – Asher. Weaving plots and winding epics – Winslow and Martin. What ways are left to address the lessons such as ‘war is bad’, ‘freedom is good’ or ‘beware power’?
I feel crushed by the boots of Azimov, Tolstoy and Mishima. Stamping down on my head and hand. They accuse me.
‘Imitator’, they shout.
There are other issues. The road to being published is long and hard as anyone published will tell you. The reliance on others or responsibility to market yourself are tough. Being consistent, having discipline, getting a good feedback system and organising one’s thoughts (particularly the latter for me) are all tricky. Despite all that, I still continue, knowing not whether in vain, but I do still think there is a way to get to the top. That said, the bar has been set very high; the space to manoeuvre reduced and the competition over a reducing audience fiercer than ever. For a newcomer, it sure does feel like beginning at the deep end.
2 thoughts on “What is Left to Write”
I was in a very large bookstore a year or so ago, right before the pandemic. I remember looking around at the seemingly endless shelves of books and thinking to myself, what could I possibly have to say that isn’t here. So I understand your frustration. But maybe it is not wise to compare oneself to Asimov or Tolkien, or Tolstoy. They are the giants. But there are a lot of good writers out there, producing some really good work, that are not in their league. I enjoyed reading your post. So you are already a writer turning out good work.
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Life has moved quite fast, but it appears I have some free time now. Will get back into this project again. This comment helped me at an interesting time in my life. Thank you.