Why Society Hates Its Writers

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Vladimir Nabokov: famed butterfly collector and literary punk

About a month ago, someone posed to me that age-old question about why our society loves to glorify its athletes, celebrities, and businesspeople while its intellectuals: particularly its writers and artists scrape a living off of periodicals and food stamps.

This seems to be a question that has never been properly addressed. Why is it that parents dote upon their children’s fantasies of becoming doctors and astronauts but chide or caution them for wanting to become artists? Why is it that artistic professions merit societal disrepute; humanities majors regarded with skepticism and a level of contempt? Oh that’s nice. So what are you going to do when you graduate? How are you going to make a living?

Perhaps it’s actual concern. Of course it’s no secret that the life of the artist is hardly an easy one: the starving or desperate artist cliché certainly does not lack substance. J.K. Rowling was diagnosed with clinical depression and was near homelessness when she conceived Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Franz Kafka’s death was ultimately caused by starvation. Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird wouldn’t have been written had not a generous benefactor gifted the author with the Christmas present of a years’ wages in order to write “whatever you please.”

Many other writers however have avoided these drastic measures by choosing orthodox day jobs. Brian O’Nolan (Flann O’Brien, best known for his masterpiece At Swim Two Birds) was celebrated as a preeminent journalist before he was realized a novelist, as was John Updike and Gabriel García Márquez (100 Years of Solitude).

Other writers, such as David Mitchell, served as teachers until success, seemingly apropos of nothing save luck, fell into their laps. Others, like T.S. Eliot, chose reputable desk and clerk jobs while others, like Vladimir Nabokov, a lepidopterist (butterfly enthusiast), and James Joyce who, before Ulysses, was a celebrated tenor, fell back on their hobbies in order to get their immediate wages. And yet, there are even more who, following initial success, were forced into churning out a wealth of writing in order to support their lifestyles. Scott Fitzgerald spurned his many poor-quality short stories as “whoring” out his talents for the benefit of the public. Anthony Burgess, believing himself ever on the pinnacle of poverty, kept a manic work schedule, writing over 350 book reviews in one, two-year period while also working as a novelist, lecturer, tutor, and critic.

But why did these writers, most of them now regarded as geniuses or invaluable cultural icons, have to resort to these measures in the first place? The simple answer is because the writer’s occupation does not exist; he or she is constantly chasing after a job for which there is no application, no education requirement, and no required time other than what the writer decides. And once the writer has proven his or her worth to society there is hardly a moment for rest: the public grabs at its newest icon and milks it for all its worth, neverminding artistic integrity. Popularity is a death sentence for the true writer, for it demands not literature, but the product.

This is not entirely society’s fault, however. The writer confuses society’s notions of employment and production; there is no immediate demand for literature as there is for more standard creature comforts: T.V. sitcoms, sports teams, etc.

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Irish, literary rebel-rouser Flann O’Brien

True literature indelibly alters human perspective. It makes us question our prerogatives, our standard perceptions of the day-to-day, our personalities, and even meaning itself. As psychology tells us that humans understand the world through the use of narrative, language, and symbolism (if you doubt this, try to imagine any concept without using language), literature and its tropes represents the purest path towards understanding—unlike essays or treatises that merely expound upon ideas and principles, it makes for much more natural reading, and its effects, its alteration of our judgments, are easier to perceive. It’s no small wonder that Plato expounded his mathematical philosophies through the use of the Socratic Dialogue, which used the literary devices of character and setting.

This is all to lead to the conclusion that the writer, the producer of literature, is something of a rebel, even a punk. The successful writer produces a product whose very nature is antisocial and anti-capitalist: when you’re reading, you’re not buying, nor is there much space (not yet) for product placement within the pages. When you’re reading, you’re not being ‘productive,’ in the sense that you’re not actively contributing towards the economy. Such is the truth expressed in the words of the great Oscar Wilde, that “all art is quite useless.” Why, of course it is! the writer affirms. Nobody asks for perspective. Nobody asks for his or her life to be altered. Indeed, nobody really wants change, but the idea of change: a whisper, not literature’s riotous exclamation.

Of course, none of this alters the state of the writer. If he or she is to be truthful to his or herself, then he or she must accept the burden that has been placed upon their shoulders. For the life of the writer is the life of the unknown vigilante: a thankless job of quiet diligence and hard labor whose results won’t be realized until long after the laborer’s death; a job whose hours are long and difficult and its rewards paltry; a job of low demand that constantly suffers under the argument of its uselessness. Useless maybe, but one hundred per cent necessary. 

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3 Responses to Why Society Hates Its Writers

  1. I agree with this. I also think a big reason why society tends to look down on artists or writers is because, and as you touched on a bit here, they are not contributing to the economy or participating in the rat race like everyone else is. I’ve found that people tend to look at writers as being self-involved, depressive, self-indulgent individuals. What use are they, if they are not working towards the common goal of achieving riches and the American Dream? This is just what I think..

  2. cometotimmy says:

    yet when totalitarian regimes arise, it’s the artists/writers who are among the first targets and the people suffering under the regime’s thumb end up really hungry for art, literature…

  3. Brandon Cook says:

    You’re quite right about writers and their rejection of the American Dream. The writer’s ideologies are separate from those of society–he prizes solitude (any writing requires it), rejects notions of success (monetary power) and advancement (through the eyes of others) and instead dedicates himself towards his own self-growth and self-edification: for the writer, nothing but the deepest emotional catharses will settle. Anything else is just a waste of time. There’s a lovely interview with Austrian avant-garde novelist Peter Handke being interviewed; at one point the interviewee asks him how he plans on interesting himself in happiness; Handke rejects happiness, “It doesn’t interest me,” he says. “I’m interested in joy.”

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