Friday, March 14, 2014

Masters and Commanders of Our Fates

What period of history, from the invention of the printing press to yesterday, was the best time to be a writer?

by Paul D. Marks

It depends. Like with most things, there's pluses and minuses to various times in history for being a writer.

If you start off in Gutenberg's days – or even before – there probably weren't a hell of a lot of writers, so there probably wasn't a hell of a lot of competition. On the downside, there probably weren't a hell of a lot of people who knew how to read.

Also, I doubt many people could afford a printing press, and writing more than a few pages with a quill pen probably wasn't a lot of fun.

During the Renaissance, writers and artists had patrons or you could be someone's protégé like the Mischa Auer character in the movie "My Man Godfrey," though, of course, that's not set during the Renaissance (good screwball comedy by the way). Wouldn't it be nice to have a rich patron to freeload off of and it wouldn't matter how many books you sold? But, of course, being writers we want to sell as many books as possible. There's always a downside, isn't there?

In the 20th century, things were a little easier in some ways. Typewriters were ubiquitous, which made the physical aspect of writing easier. But there was a highly entrenched establishment in the publishing industry and it was really hard to break in, almost as if you needed some magic spell to get the door to open – Open Sesame. But if you got in, even if your weren’t at the top of the best seller list and were just a midlist writer, you were at least nurtured along by an editor and/or publicist. And I think people in the publishing industry liked writing and had a respect for writers. That started to change, maybe around the 80s, when things got more corporatized and Hollywoodized. And the people in publishing cared less about the writing and the writers than the marketing. I saw this change from the time I "sold" my first book to a major publisher (that ultimately didn't get published), to when I tried later on to do it again and the whole ethos of the business had changed. The people I dealt with originally loved writers and writing and books. Not necessarily so a few years later. Very frustrating.

But also in the early 1980s, personal computers started to come in. When they did I was working in Hollywood and had a writing partner. He was the first person I knew to get a PC. I thought it was a silly toy...until I was over at his house one day and he showed me how easy it was to move a paragraph from page 3 to page 71. I was hooked – and I was the second person I knew to have a PC. Ancient technology by today's standards. It had two 5.25" floppy drives, no hard drive and a monochrome monitor. It was a Leading Edge, similar to the one on the right. Looks pretty high tech, doesn't it? And if you wanted to run more than one program you had to take the floppy with that program out of one floppy drive and put in the next program. Fun. Still, it was better than a typewriter. And things moved quickly and writing with computers was definitely the way to go.

But the biggest improvement came with the internet and being able to "take" meetings over e-mail and chat and send things and not have to live in town and be close to everything. And, of course, researching on the internet is a breeze. I'm a night person. I sleep during the day and I write at night. And there are few libraries open at 3am. But the internet is on 24/7. And that's heaven for me.

Along with that and things like e-books and Amazon, the publishing industry began to change again. Today, because of the indie scene, the gatekeepers are not as strong as they once were. And we'll see how things shake out. Now, with so many players on the field, the question becomes (as it was even with gatekeepers) who has a good book, how does a reader distinguish, and how does the writer get it noticed?

The final question is, how do you earn a living as writer? At least enough of a living to live off of it. In the mid-20th century people could actually make a living writing short stories. You could get paid a decent amount for them. Today you have more freedom, but paying markets for short stories have begun to dry up and it’s impossible to make a living off them. Even most novelists, both traditional and indie published, still have to keep their day jobs. Isn't the writing life grand, not quite Hemingway sitting on the Left Bank, is it?

That said, my answer to the question posed is: today is the best time for writers overall. Why, because for good or bad, we are much more the masters of our own destiny today. And (mostly) that's a good thing. Because as William Ernest Henley said in his poem "Invictus":

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul. 


GBPool said...

The technology makes this a marvelous time for writers. The problem we face is a generation or two of people who are so used to getting music and movies, and practically everything else they want for free. Before Gutenberg came up with the printing press, artists/musicians literally sang for their supper. A street poet would at least get a few coins in his hat for reciting his poem. People now expect us to give away our talent. I think writers are worth a whole lot more than that.

Paul D. Marks said...

Good points, Gayle. I guess like everything else all this technology is a double-edged sword. But even before this stuff, I know a lot of people expected writers to work for nothing, at least initially, where they wouldn't think of not paying their plumber.

Robin Spano said...

Brilliantly argued. And empowering. Thanks!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Robin! I appreciate it.