“When was the last time a classic novel came out?” Bruce asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. I struggled to think of something more recent than the 70s. Most of the books on the Modern Library “100 Best Novels” list are older 20th century books. The newer ones have sold a fraction of the copies sold by the early to mid-20th century “classics.” Much of the “Readers List” are those placed there by diehard fans — nearly all Ayn Rand books are on that list, for example. It warms my heart to see Charles de Lint on there! But the reader list is clearly created by small groups of people naming their favorites. All the votes in the world for Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead won’t make them as enjoyable as The Hobbit or Huckleberry Finn.
As to the official “best novels” list, and #1, Joyce’s Ulysses … let’s just say it’s on my shelf. Let’s just say, yes, once upon a time, I did read maybe 60 percent of it. Because I was told how great it was.
People understand things in terms of their senses. They perceive things primarily in the present.
Books aren’t like that. Even a book as opaque as Ulysses transcends both time and space. Books enable communication over vast distances; they cross language barriers; they bridge gaps between cultures, and they tell human stories that the reader creates in his or her own mind. They are the ultimate long-tail, long-term value product.
Writers are Indentured Servants
Consider the “indentured servant” concept, by which the time and effort of hundreds of thousands of writers, artists and others, is little-valued in our society. Has it always been so?
No. In the Renaissance, writers were not expected to starve. Machiavelli was supported by the Florentine state and the Medicis before he was exiled. His torture, exile and poverty were a result of politics, not his work as a writer. Before that, he worked, ate and lived well. Michelangelo lived a storied life, becoming the first artist to have a biography written about him during his own lifetime. He was not expected to starve or work for free to paint the Sistine Chapel or create any of his other masterpieces. Yes, both artists were in service to the state, and Michelangelo, in service to the church.
Today, writers and artists who work are primarily in service to corporations, whether they “self publish” or are traditionally published. They work to make money for others just as the original indentured servants were expected to give up vast amounts of their lives and effort to make life easier for the people who owned their contracts. The interest of the corporation, be it Amazon or Penguin Random House, is to earn profit for the shareholder. It isn’t to serve the state, as Machiavelli served Florence. It isn’t to serve the church, as Michelangelo served the Vatican. It is absolutely not to serve the betterment of the community or the world as a whole.
Therefore today, we have no Machiavelli, and no new The Prince. We have no new Michelangelo and Sistine Chapel. Those things stand and remain — they are for all we can comprehend — eternal. Because they were made humanely, with humane concepts in mind. Machiavelli, to discover the best system of governance (for all one may disagree with his advice to “The Prince”), and Michelangelo, to show all who entered that place what it is to touch the face of God.
Today, the writer is primarily held in indentured servitude to create temporary, consumable profits for shareholders. They work in order to provide a few with their “cake.” As we should all realize now, “the cake is a lie.” The benefit is ephemeral even to the proverbial “1 percent.”
Henry Ford changed the world. He changed it far more than Hitler, Stalin or Mao. He didn’t invent the assembly line, but he perfected it. The first year Fords were mass-produced, more than 10,000 were sold. Eight years later, more than 15 million cars had been manufactured and sold in the United States alone. Cars enabled people to move much farther and faster than ever before. They provided physical freedom and launched a constellation of other industries and jobs.
Ford did not just figure out how to make and sell cars affordably, so that the “average man” could afford to own and use them, a group which eventually grew to include the “average woman.” He also revolutionized how employees were paid and treated. He, not any politician, determined that an eight-hour workday was the best for the employee and company. He, not any politician, and certainly not Karl Marx, who refused to visit any factory recommended by his writing partner Friedrich Engels, determined that it would be best all-round if employees were paid well enough to afford to buy the product they were making: cars. In one day, he raised the minimum wage for Ford workers from $2.83 to $5.00 an hour, and lowered their hours worked from 9 to 8. Others were forced to follow suit to compete. Eventually, U.S. labor laws came into effect that eliminated child labor, enforced pay for overtime, and set a legal minimum wage (that is still, in relation to Ford’s 1914 $5.000 hourly wage, extremely low). Those laws didn’t come out of nowhere; they were driven by Ford’s vision. Without Henry Ford, there’s a reasonable expectation that they would not exist.
Despite, Not Because
Everything good today that is written and published is done despite, not because, of the way things are. Michelangelo was given the charge to produce a masterpiece for the church (as were all of his other commissions) and he followed through. Writers today believe that they are given the charge to make money. Many believe that they are making money for themselves exclusively, not realizing that the equations are far worse than Ford’s original $2.83 hourly wage and 9 hour workday. Even the richest woman in England, J.K. Rowling, has not received compensation in accordance with the impact of her work. She achieved something remarkable: she interested and engaged millions of young readers in Harry Potter’s world, young people worldwide whose choices pre-Harry Potter were nowhere near as encompassing, imaginative, or adventurous. What she did, is worth more than even her amassed fortune. To me, she proved that a woman could tell an adventure story as compelling as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, or Robert Louis Stevenson ever conceived, and could sustain it far longer than any of them would have imagined possible.
Where We Are Today
Some self-published authors have discovered that the sales patterns for their work differ from the traditionally-published sales patterns that have accelerated to accommodate a vastly unhealthy, adversarial, customer-unfriendly market. They have found that their sales build up over time, and can sustain themselves over significant periods. Traditionally-published books today overwhelmingly have a brief shelf life of a few weeks. The great bulk of sales are made within the first three weeks of book publication. Sales then drop precipitously. Traditional publishers long-account book sales for the purpose of calculating and paying royalty payments, but in their planning, structure, and seasonal releases, they account as short-term as possible. What little marketing takes place isn’t reader-focused in the sense that eternal values (i.e. – do the wheels of the car go around? Does the engine work?) are ignored in favor of ephemerals (red upholstery vs. gray).
The desire to create is boundless. Otherwise, writing programs, writer conferences, and self-publishing and its support industries, would not exist. But because the motive is to earn profit for shareholders, the basic, underlying creative impulse is blunted and directed away from eternals.
Eternals like: “A good story, well-told.”
I cannot say how many analogies I’ve read that compare the writer to the “storyteller” or the “bard” in ancient cultures. Just as every village has its idiot, these analogies say that each village had its “storyteller.” Usually, the storyteller is described as a gray, Homeric sort of man, or perhaps a young man with a harp. Sometimes, it’s a wise old lady. The analogy is — so many people want to write these days because “in olden days,” every village had this type of person, but now that we can publish to masses, we only “need a few.”
What it is Today
We really are in pre-1914 as far as creative work goes. Only “special people” get to write and are chosen by ill-defined means to be popular, well-known, and paid attention-to. Special people who are of use to those whose business it is to make money off them, and make money from the whole system as it stands. Special people who are willing to work for less than Henry Ford’s original $2.83 an hour salary (in 1914 … so $66.45 today). The $5.00 an hour raise? That would be the equivalent of $117.41 today.
I have read so many frustrated expressions of despair and dismay from others who cannot fit the ever-changing definitions of commercially-desirable work which are constantly broadcast by the small group of literary agents and publishers who hold court. Imagine being ejected from your village because there’s a better idiot who does a better job of falling off the wall than you. Imagine the best thing you can aspire to even if you are the desired idiot, is to “entertain” people. Imagine a world where the village idiot is telling a story that encourages young women to aspire to a romantic relationship with a domineering, controlling man who physically hurts you and tells you it’s love. Let them spend their hours imagining how happy they will be in the arms of the ultra-wealthy, ultra-hot, ultra-complex internet magnate, Christian Grey (his real-world counterpart, Bill Gates, might not think all that Christian says and does is quite so sexy).
It’s not just corporate food. It’s not just corporate clothing. It’s corporate “creativity.”
Ford’s assembly line and all of his ideas, including the 8 hour day, and pay adequate to enable those who made the cars able to also buy and use them, resulting in physical freedom made possible for billions on this planet.
The shape of things to come should be emotional, spiritual, and intellectual freedom for billions on this planet.
Stories, no longer made by a few, inspiring others to be “just like everyone else.” Ideas, able to live forever.
Michelangelo, painting that ceiling, was concerned only with portraying the eternal as best as he could. As best as has lasted more than 500 years. That is what he was born to do, trained to do, and that is what he did.
Five hundred years from now, of course few, if any, will still be reading 50 Shades of Grey. Today, people still are reading Don Quixote, and they are still performing Hamlet. According to Harold Bloom, a critic with whom I seldom agree, Shakespeare’s Hamlet did for the modern human what Henry Ford did for the physical freedom of everyone who owns a car and drives. Shakespeare was concerned with entertainment, of course, but he crafted all of his plays, from structure and scene to word, with humanity in mind.
He did not starve to do so. Even at the Globe, they paid the scribbler, and the actors as well. And if I’m not mistaken, Shakespeare was originally a 12.5% shareholder in the Globe; his percentage diminished to the now-familiar 7 percent figure (check out traditional book royalties sometime).
To move the dial, we have to move our hearts and minds and attitudes. One book, one project, one company at a time. The results are: limitless.