The Future of Writing and Getting Paid

Writers, artists, and public intellectuals are nearing some sort of precipice: Their audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free…. Related difficulties are now looming for books.
     –Sam Harris, “The Future of the Book

Sam Harris’s essay is only partly about print publication losing ground in the market, and mainly about the erosion of “market” for writing altogether, where market means “selling” your stuff for “money.” “Jaron Lanier has written and spoken about this issue with great sagacity,” Harris writes. “You can purchase his book here, which most of you will not do, or you can watch him discuss these matters for free. The problem is thus revealed even in the act of stating it.”

No doubt Harris is right. He still sees a place for print books, but I’ve heard others predict an end to hardcopies of anything. Maybe it’s inescapable. Maybe it’s progress, the final conquest of the organic and human by the digital and infinitely reproducible. A century ago the automobile inevitably replaced the horse, fifty years ago Hamburger Helper made cooking knowledge obsolete, and ten seconds ago Itunes finished replacing live music forever.

Yesterday, however, I stepped around a large pile of horse-apples on a dirt road dented by horseshoes.

Sometimes people check out old Julia Child archives on NetFlix, get together and steam up the kitchen with vegetables, meats, and spices grown in the garden, then sit down and eat together.

Afterwards they get out instruments and jam in the living room.

I still have a wall full of books, more than enough to last the rest of my life. Maybe someone who prefers the smell and feel of paper to plastic will want them when I’m gone.

And live theater, after several thousand years, can still go off like a grenade.

I’ve often wondered whether art is really driven by profit or just the irrepressible need to express yourself. Throughout history, some of the finest art in all genres was produced by wealthy elites with time on their hands and nothing to gain but fame, or down-and-out paupers, or prisoners, or other nobodies who never got paid. Digital publication doesn’t stand in the way of their efforts, it only expedites them.

But then again, there’s Shakespeare: professional playwright, actor, and theater manager turning a buck by producing whatever the public wanted. If they wouldn’t buy it, he didn’t produce it. Thank goodness they bought it. He died rich, and left us rich.

Speaking of Shakespeare, here’s an irony: maybe professional writing will find its future tangled up with the future of professional theater: people writing drama, allowing its free distribution but retaining and enforcing public performance rights, and making a living putting on good old shows. It’s been known to work before. Live theater may be the one thing able to compete with movies and song-video mashups. Live theater has something video doesn’t: actual people in the same room with you.

There is a style of play production called “promenade”: the actors and audience share the same space, both move freely at will, and sometimes the audience participates in the action, possibly even in the dialog. I recently attended such a production, HCC’s production of “Lark Rise,” and ever since I’ve been trying to absorb the experience. It was new to all of us — the cast and the audience. It seemed to feel awkward to a few of the actors, but others thrived in it. It had its aural and visual dead spots and may have needed a better educated audience to make it work, but at times it knocked you off your feet or scared you half to death. Imagine forcible arrest or attempted rape at eye level ten feet away, or being a “fly on the wall” listening to an intense private conversation right beside you. That’s the kind of thing.

Here’s the admirable thing this production did: it went in exactly the opposite direction of the general flight from live theater. At a time when audiences are drifting to the back of live theater and out the doors, this one invited the audience forward instead, deeper into the theater, all the way up onstage to interpenetrate with the characters and the action. It’s the right instinct and maybe should be pursued.

At least it’s organic and human.

© 2011 Greg Bryant under the Creative Commons

About Greg Bryant

I teach writing and literature at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas.
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5 Responses to The Future of Writing and Getting Paid

  1. bryon says:

    As I read, I was reminded of two things from popular culture. The first was when you wrote about “making a living putting on good old shows,” and I could almost hear Alfalfa exclaim to the other Little Rascals, “Let’s put on a show!” The second was in your discussion of “promenade,” which reminded me of the holodeck from “Star Trek.” In that vision of the future, people enjoy passively watching entertainment far less than we do today; they participate in the story as full-fledged characters.

    I don’t know that books will ever go away. I do think a lot fewer will be made, and generations will be raised with far less notion of the beauty of the printed word than their elders had. But I think books will become very inexpensive and quick to make, and they will be created one at a time for works we consider deeply special, whether for ourselves or to give as gifts.

    Now, as for the authors getting paid… that is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. We do seem to be at a tradeoff point: easy access to means of publication and difficult access to means of eating while you write. Someone needs to solve that.

    • Greg Bryant says:

      Alfalfa’s invitation is exactly what I mean. Community theater. There’s no reason small communities like Robinson can’t offer productions as original and entertaining, and intelligent, as New York can. I’m serious. Tiny little Jamestown, Colorado, wrote and produced a historical musical comedy of excellent quality. We have writing talent, and (maybe) acting talent, here in the Robinson-Everest rural loose association of villages that could do good drama without calling on the aid of glittering metropolii like Hiawatha.

      We’re just too busy, or too lazy. Or something.

      You mentioned Star Trek’s holodeck. In turn I’m reminded, more negatively, of Bradbury’s wrap-around programmed soap operas in Fahrenheit 451.

      I’m serious about local drama. It matters more, in the long run, than professional stuff from out of town. It’s expressive and participatory.

  2. bryon says:

    I think your point about local theater is fairly well proved with the annual success of the melodrama. The first year I was out here, I was astounded to see the street outside the Birdcage fill with cars and people. So, yes, it can be done.

  3. bryon says:

    Almost a month later, this is still interesting.

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