It is my experience that writers, as a matter of habit and, probably, survival, regularly delude themselves into believing that what they do is useful, not only to themselves, but to other people.
I will come right out and say I just don’t think this is the case.
The title of this piece, for those who are unfamiliar, is a reference to Office Space. In it, Richard Riehle’s character, Tom Smykowski, is a mid-level functionary at “Initech,”a software company. In this particular scene, he attempts to explain to “The Two Bobs” (a pair of “efficiency experts” brought in to streamline the company’s operations), what exactly his job is and why it (and he) is valuable:
Especially considering recent trends towards approaching art as one among many entertainment and recreation industries, Tom Smykowski and writers have more in common than any writer would like to admit.
I should be careful to point out that I understand there is writing that is useful. There is writing that is more effective or less effective. Writing might be instructive or persuasive and it may succeed or fail in its mission. It is possible for writing to do or encourage people to do or think things. But as a creative practice in which the genus, execution, and natural conclusion of project are almost entirely avocational–a hobby or recreation for writer and reader alike–it is tough to take too grave and earnest a view of its practical purpose without sounding like a very desperate human being to anyone who is not likewise deluded (see: other writers).
Anyone who has tried to talk seriously about writing or books with non-writers knows what I’m talking about. This is how we end up in “communities.” The literary community is a thing by, for, and unto itself. We’re a sort of glorified cat lady club that has, unlike the cat ladies, managed to convince the world that our particular obsession is at least a little important. That they should pay $9.99 to play with our cats. Our beautiful, beautiful cats. That everyone should support our cat-production program for the enrichment and happy-making of the people, especially ourselves.
We can’t imagine why everybody wouldn’t want an “eagerly-anticipated” cat.
(I always wonder by whom it is anticipated. I was almost never anticipating any of those books.)
I suppose it is true that for some, writing is a vocation in a manner of speaking. At least insofar as there is pay involved. But, as many here are all too well aware, in most cases writers fight tooth and nail, every inch clawing, to wring mere cents out of every word. It is not a situation where writing presents itself as a traditional vocation–where there is a need and people actively seeking out and hiring individuals qualified to fill that need. Trying to sell writing means a lifetime of, realistically, direct mail marketing, cold-calling, and door-knocking. In most cases, the fact is that there is very little need at all for anything any single creative writer does, and in most cases, s/he will find himself aggressively and forwardly pushing his/her unsolicited “services” on an unwitting, skeptical, and largely disinterested public rather than being sought out by anyone at all. Not readers, not agents, not publishers.
In the film, The Two Bobs do liquidate Tom Smykowski’s job, but everything turns out a-okay for him. He is hit by a drunk driver after being interrupted by his oblivious wife in the middle of a poorly executed suicide attempt and will collect a settlement for the rest of his life as a result. At a party celebrating his retirement, we see Smykowski in a wheelchair, full-body cast, and cervical halo, proclaiming, “Good things CAN happen! I mean, look at me!”
Rationalizations on full display, a number of writers with formerly lofty artistic goals resign themselves to the whims of the market, emerge from door-knocking and cold-calling haggard, bruised and broken but nevertheless with a book that at least kind of sells, and go, “GOOD THINGS CAN HAPPEN!”
They grin gap-toothed and proud past the split lip of their creative self-respect as their pummeled integrity swells into a massive shiner, impossible for anyone but the writer in question to ignore. Other writers grimace understandably. Not out of spite, but at the understanding that this could happen to any of us. That this does happen to a lot of us. That there are only so many options.
In such cases, the writer’s traditionally romantic artistic vision of writing is replaced not by reality, as many writers who have settled will insist, but a new kind of delusion: That which assumes their situation has improved just because it has changed dramatically or because they have traded one discomfort for another.
In sum: No one, in the end, is really looking for any of us. Creative writers are not necessary. To want to be a creative writer for a job is, in the greater cultural scheme of things, a fairly scandalous, decadent thing to demand.
When thousands of people are vying for a handful of positions that only sort of exist (that is, they only exist insofar as our powers of rhetoric can convince people they do), schisms predictably follow.
Writers of one type declare another type or all other types irrelevant, impractical, failing to deliver on the “true” purpose of writing.
Literary types accuse the commercial types of bastardizing the art, commercial types accuse literary types of partitioning literature off from the masses in violation of the “point” of written storytelling. Creative non-fiction is ass-backwardly decried as some new bastard child of non-fiction and fiction, poetry (what’s poetry?) is declared a dying, elitist, useless art, and fiction is regarded down poets’ noses, perceived as the promiscuous C+ cousin of them all.
Allow me to clear up a few historical misconceptions.
The “true” purpose of writing, the first writing, for the record, historically speaking, was for accounting, itemization, and taking stock of material goods. Plainly, writing was invented to make lists. Not to make entertainment.
After that, it was “for” governmental and religious propaganda, and consisted primarily of embellished historical accounts of the conquests of empires and their leaders. I suppose we could call those instances creative non-fiction, but that would be at least a little disingenuous.
The first fictional novels as we understand them didn’t even appear until the 18th century (generously), coinciding with a general rise in literacy. Reading, in the broad historical sense, never belonged to the masses at all because historically speaking, the masses couldn’t (and at any number of levels, still can’t) read. Very few people were literate in “civilized” ancient societies predating the Romans, and humanity (Western humanity, to be frank) returned quickly to a near-uniformly illiterate state for hundreds of years following the demise of The Empire, only to pick up the skill en masse again as late as the 20th century, depending on what one considers “widespread” literacy. As of 1900, the American illiteracy rate for individuals over 14 bore striking resemblances to today’s unemployment numbers. This means about 10% of the American population, nearly 60% of them either non-white or immigrants, could not read when L. Frank Baum was writing The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Compare that to a small fraction of a percent now.
We are, incidentally, once again, becoming less literate as a species following a modern historical peak in the 70s.
All these things considered, your H&R Block representative, Joseph Goebbels, and the silky-handed, teeming faux-elite of planned McMansion communities are arguably “truer” writers in the long-term historical sense than any of us (not that there aren’t accountants, propagandists or idle bourgeoisie among us, but that’s a different discussion, and I doubt those individuals think to count these qualifications among their writerly credentials).
So to pretend that the act of writing as we undertake it has some long-standing, sacred proletariat history that we are beholden to or entrusted to maintain or that makes one type of creative writing more correct than another is simply incorrect. The truth is quite to the contrary: Arguably, of the arts (written, visual, performing, and musical), writing is the newest and most exclusive of them all and its relatively recent overall democratization has served in large part to remove the luxuriousness from an item that never quite had much more than luxury going for it.
So writing–the writing we are generally talking about when we feel compelled to defend the importance of writing–really isn’t all that necessary at all. In fact, humanity (potential readers and writers alike) got along quite well without recreational reading or writing for the overwhelming bulk of its history, and even after its emergence, huge portions of the population continued (and continue) to get along without it just fine. Our feelings, as writers, about our own importance are almost certainly unfounded.
It’s easy to despair at the thought. That writers are never necessary, simply tolerated. That we are of indifferent value and generally disposable.
It could be depressing. Or it could be liberating. After all, though the road may be a lonely one, if no one really needs you, you’re free to do just about anything you please.
If I could let go of my pride and truly embrace the idea that my writing and I are accountable to no one and that nothing I might say is particularly important to anyone, what kinds of accidentally important things might I be freed up to say?
It’s time, maybe, to knock a wall out of my cube and start cleaning fish at my desk. To go to The Two Bobs of the world–and more importantly The Two Bobs in my head–and, when they say, “What do ya do here?” tell them exactly the truth.
“Virtually nothing. And therefore anything I want.”