I’ve known John Grant (aka Paul Barnett) for almost as many years as I’ve been involved in the writing business. He is a warm, fun, great friend as well as a prolific author and editor. Among his some seventy books are The World, The Hundredfold Problem, The Far-Enough Window, The Dragons of Manhattan and Leaving Fortusa. His anthology New Writings in the Fantastic (to which I’m proud to have contributed a story) was short-listed for a British Fantasy Award. His latest novellas are The City in These Pages (2009) and The Lonely Hunter (2010). He’s prolific in non-fiction, too, co-editing The Encyclopedia of Fantasy with John Clute, and writing all three editions of The Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters. His latest nonfictions have been Discarded Science, Corrupted Science and Bogus Science. He is currently working on Denying Science (Prometheus 2011), on a book about film noir, on the artist/illustrator entries for the massive online third edition of The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and on “a cute illustrated rhyming book for kids about a velociraptor.” John has received two Hugo Awards, the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award, and various other international literary awards. Under his real name, he ran the world-famous fantasy-artbook imprint Paper Tiger, earned a Chesley Award and a World Fantasy Award nomination. And on top of all that, he’s agreed to post this week’s guest spot on MW! His website is at www.johngrantpaulbarnett.com.
There Are Far Too Many “Writers”
Imagine the scene. You’re at a party – a family wedding, perhaps – and as you’re jostling at the punch bowl you find yourself engaged in that sort of idle, semi-interested chatter that’s reserved for people you’ll probably never meet again. Inevitably, after a while the topic turns to professions. “I’m a doctor,” your brief acquaintance says.
You’re entitled to make a couple of assumptions. First of all, the person concerned is not playing silly semantic games: they’re a physician, not someone with a PhD in Medieval Studies or a vet (“animal doctor”). Second, they have a medical degree: they’re not still in training, because in that case they’d describe themselves as a medical student. Third, they’re an actual, proper, real-life, scientific-medicine-style doctor and not someone who dabbles with herbs, massages people’s auras, or hawks snake oil.
The third assumption is more tenuous than the other two, because quacks and truth are not always natural bedfellows. Even so, if it proves your assumptions have been wrong, you have every right to feel peeved: you’ve been misled.
Now re-imagine the same encounter, only this time around the person says, “I’m a writer.”
Back in the day, the meaning of the statement would have been pretty clear: the person might not be a full-time writer – there might be a day job to pay the bills – but at a minimum had written a number of stories or articles that had been bought by professional magazines/anthologies, or some books that had been professionally published, some plays/scripts that had been professionally produced – you get the idea. (The person could be a journalist; but journalists normally identify themselves as such.)
There was, too, a definite status thing involved: there was a distinct cachet to being a writer. It was supposedly a glam job. For exactly this reason, it was not a claim one made lightly, for fear of being made to look a fool should it be revealed that, lacking the qualifications noted above, you’d been basing you’re “I’m a writer” claim on adolescent love poems sent to a paramour or your ability with a Magic Marker when finding yourself alone in a restroom.
In my own case the caution went a bit far. I was still introducing myself as an editor – my other profession – after I’d published half a dozen books. When I’d visit my mother she’d proudly and loudly introduce me to all her pals as “My son the writer!” . . . and I’d cringe.
Eventually, though, I felt that I’d sufficiently paid my professional dues, as it were, and plucked up the courage to describe my job, when asked, as “writer and editor” or – depending on context – “editor and writer”.
So, as I say, in the old days the phrase “I’m a writer” – just like “I’m a doctor” or “I’m a car mechanic” – meant something fairly specific: that you were professionally qualified in this particular discipline.
But a couple of decades ago there began to be a sea change. I first noticed it when my then-wife mentioned that someone had asked her what my job was and, on being told I was a writer, had responded, quite genuinely: “Has he had anything published?”
It’s hard to believe, had she said I was a doctor, that she’d have been asked: “Is he qualified?” Or that if she’d said I was a car mechanic that the question would have been: “Has he ever repaired any cars?” Clearly, however, the job description “writer” had begun to shift in meaning while I hadn’t been looking. Now that I was alerted, I found plenty more examples. I even came across someone who said they were a writer because they’d had a couple of letters published in the local newspaper.
Yes, of course, there’s the trivial argument that anyone who writes is a writer – in that sense, everyone in the world except the functionally illiterate is a writer. Along the same tack, you could say that everyone with a PhD is a doctor, but you know and I know that’s not what we customarily mean when we use the word “doctor” without further elaboration.
The sea change I’ve described came even before the proliferation of small POD presses and the mushrooming of opportunities for self-publishing. (Interestingly, bloggers generally describe themselves as bloggers rather than as writers, even if writing the blog is a full-time job and they earn a hefty income thereby.) Nowadays, not only is everyone a writer, but they can show you the printed book to prove it.
It doesn’t matter that the book failed to pass the obvious professional test of being considered by an editor to be worthy of publishing, nor that the author paid for the enterprise. It doesn’t matter if the text proves, at a glance, to be an illiterate mess – that, far from having been loved and nurtured by a professional editor it would have driven any professional editor to drink. So far as the guy with the sweaty forehead and the loud voice who’s proudly waving his masterpiece at you is concerned, it’s a published book . . . and he’s a writer.
The sole advantage of this is that, when I’m asked what my job is today, I no longer cringe about saying I’m a writer: I no longer feel there’s any claim to prestige in the description. The irony, of course, is that all the people who’re claiming to be professional writers, when by any stretch of the word “professional” they’re not, obviously do think there’s prestige involved. That’s the mainspring of those ads you see everywhere from vanity presses luring people with the promise that, for really not so very much money, they can become a “published author”. In fact, if “writers” would trouble to look up the word “publish” in the dictionary, they’d discover the claim’s a false one.
Leaving the whole boring status aspect aside, though, the exponential expansion in the number of “writers” is a profound nuisance. It’s obviously not quite as much of a nuisance as if urgent cries of “Is there a doctor in the house?” brought flocks of Medieval Studies PhDs running, but it’s still a degradation of our social wellbeing in that a not unimportant word has lost its meaning. And it’s embarrassing to have to start answering the “job” question with the cumbersome “professionally published writer”.
(The word “author” has suffered a similar fate. I’ve never much liked it anyway, because I always suspect self-described “authors” have just stuck their name on a book that’s been ghostwritten by someone else . . .)
And there’s another, even more serious point. It’s not just the number of “writers” that’s been booming, it’s the number of individual books on offer – at least via the internet – to prospective readers. This is damaging to all of us, primarily because a far higher ratio of books than ever before are garbage. One of Bruce Springsteen’s wryest songs is “57 Channels (And Nothin’ On)”: if you increase choice too much you end up with no choice at all, because you can’t find the pearls among all the crap. Old-style publishers produced (and produce) plenty of lousy books, as we all know, but at least when we bought a book we were assured that someone else other than the author thought this was a text worth printing, and worth paying to publish – that it wasn’t one of the 99.99% of texts that (however unjustly rejected a few good ones might have been) had failed this test.
Let’s be clear about this. Some of the very best books are self-published: it’s astonishing they weren’t picked up by a professional publisher. But that’s just the point: it’s astonishing. They’re the exceptions.
It’s not only that the readers’ bucks are being spread out over more titles that’s the concern. It’s that the high ratio of tripe is driving readers away. Someone who reads ten books in a row and finds they all put the dire in diarrhea is likely to conclude that reading books is not for them. Once the book trade – and that means you – has lost a reader, chances are said reader will never return.
So what’s to be done? Obviously we can’t turn the clock back, can’t stuff all this Pandoran technology back into its box and forget it ever existed. Are professional writers going to be wiped out except for a lucky gilded few, many of whom will be celebrities who’ve hired someone else to do the actual writing?
I don’t know the answers, and for obvious reasons I rather urgently wish I did. But in the meantime I’d be grateful if we could all try to exert some social pressure in the direction of returning the phrase “I’m a writer” to its original meaning.