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Monday, October 12, 2009

Advice for Writers in a Dark Time, or, Does Posterity Really Exist?

When Radar magazine folded, I said, "They didn't hire me anyway." When Florida Inside Out magazine folded, I shrugged because I didn't live in Florida. When Gourmet magazine folded, I said a prayer for my late friend Laurie Colwin, who wrote such common-sense wonderful columns that they became a book, Home Cooking. Then I wondered at the irony of Gourmet going down for the count the same time a Julia Child bio-pic was doing just fine.

In the first quarter of 2009, 279 magazines folded. As a magazine editor--still, even if without a current gig--I'm concerned. (Well, actually, I'm way past concerned.) Though people still keep starting magazines, the Golden Age is definitely over.

This is not news anymore. What is news? Well, as the "news business" is dying, that's a loaded question. Let's say "news" is what people are reading on a timely basis. In the age of the Greeks, that might be four hours (the time of the runner who brought news of the victory at Marathon). In the age of Sail, it took six weeks for news of peace to arrive, so Andrew Jackson fought and won the battle of New Orleans in 1814 for nothing--although it did get him elected President later. In the golden age of Newspapers, you might get a morning edition, a mid-morning edition, a noon special, and two or three PM specials until the last night edition. Plus, you got the paper from a gap-toothed urchin wearing a newsboy cap who gave you such lip that you went home and repeated it to your family at the dining table.

If it's today, right now, maybe the news is what you Tweeted 30 seconds ago.


Yes, it's going to be a lovely Posterity, the way things are going.

About Posterity: The standard elitist approach to writing for future generations is to ask yourself: "How will this look to people living 100 years from now?" Which is, frankly, looking pretty toothless as a reproach these days. The death of "news" means, just maybe, the death of memory, of history.

Did I just hear somebody Tweet: "Come off it, Mr Grinch?" Okay, pipsqueak, I dare you to take the Twitter Challenge.

You say you Tweet? Often? Does anybody read it? Good. Will anybody read it a day from now? A month? A year? A hundred years? Oh, yeah, sure. Consider that if there are 3 million people on Twitter tweeting every hour or so, for 12 hours a day, what are the odds yours will be read by some imaginary archivist in the future? If there are 36 million individual Tweets a day (and this is surely a lowball estimate) how many future historians will be needed to excavate and decipher ("LOL"? hmmm) them, in order to construct/deconstruct these times in which we live? If you can do the math, then you know it's hopeless.

But, maybe, Posterity doesn't matter. Maybe it's all been part of the great shuck-and-jive, a way to sell pie in the sky to writers so they'll keep on writing for cheap or less. If you look at the unknowns who crack the literary canon, there does seem to be a rather large category for "unrecognized or unpublished in own lifetime"... which means publishers didn't have to pay them anything. Funny how that works.

So maybe we writers will all end up burying ourselves under a pile of 140-character Tweets, like one of those centuries-old Indian middens of discarded empty oyster shells--never a pearl to be found.

On the other hand, maybe art will come of it yet. After all, Emily Dickinson's short craggy lines do seem made for Twitter:

"Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me/The carriage held just ourselves/And immortality."

BTW: My wife's magazine, Plenty, is one of those that folded in 2009, still owing freelancers money, by the way, while its founder-editor accepts invitations to sit on media panels and "tell it like it is"--which, it would seem, boils down to walking over the employees who created your venture and boosted your reputation, while you go back to work for Daddy.

For solace, here is the advice offered to Willa Cather, when she was a very successful young magazine editor, from Sarah Orne Jewett:

"If you don’t keep and guard and mature your force, and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago...

"Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life and write from that to the world that holds offices, all society, all Bohemia, the city, the country–in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up... To work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writer’s lot; he is the only artist who must be solitary and yet needs the widest out look on the world."

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