Think about it how you may: 24 hours in a day, some maximum amount of time that’s possible to devote to reading, $x budgeted for books, yay much “cultural consciousness” with which to esteem canonical writers. There’s a limit, however high, on how much we can read.
Doesn’t that necessarily mean that there are only so many writers who can be read? If so, then every time one puts pen to paper and tries to write for public consumption, isn’t one potentially depriving another writer of his readers? Due to the vicissitudes of fortune, how can one be sure one isn’t displacing a better writer, a more deserving author, of his readers, revenues, or literary fame? Is it possible that one is doing a public a disservice by writing? In short, is writing a 0-sum (or worse) game?
In a way, this is a silly question, one I wouldn’t ask of, say, a sandwich seller. When somebody sells a sandwich, he’s depriving his competitors of an empty belly that could’ve been filled by theirs. We don’t expect the sandwich seller to agonize over this. In fact, we think that competition, at least between sandwich sellers, is a good thing. Competition benefits the consumer, who now has a wider variety of sandwiches to choose from, and lower prices to pay. So, what breaks down, if anything, in the line of comparison leading from a sandwich seller to a writer?
First, I think writers have pretensions to do good. Writers don’t only write to garner living wages (in fact, some of them way look down on this as bourgeois) but also to entertain, to enlighten, to illuminate, to uplift and inspire, to disillusion and depress . . . etc. Second, and this is related to the first, I think writers have pretensions to be remembered. They want to be remembered well. They want to be remembered as good, important writers. They don’t want to be a Salieri to Mozart (the dramatized Salieri in Amadeus at least). They don’t want be the writers who posterity snickered at and think of only as “that guy who the reading public thought of so highly of while Edgar Allan Poe toiled in obscurity”. Third (because all lists should have at least 3 items), writers are a sensitive, ponderous, introspective bunch of whom you (I) can ask such questions, while the sandwich sellers are probably less sympathetic.
Naturally, writing is not the only craft with such noble aims, but these features of writing are surely more prominent in the ideal writer than in other professionals. Suppose I were to ask a writer to assume that by publishing, he will earn royalties, fame, and fans but that his work would effectively ensure that nobody reads Homer (or Herodotus, or Hemingway, or Shakespeare, or whoever is your idea of a canonical writer) again. If I then ask the writer whether he would continue to write and publish in this hypothetical situation, I think many writers would demure. Before possibly doing that, however, he would first pronounce the following:
- My writing is not inimical to Homer’s. In fact, it complements Homer’s: it builds on it, it expands its themes, it alludes to it. People will be (weakly) more likely to read Homer after they read me.
- My writing is not inimical to Homer’s. It is completely unrelated to it. People who read my writing would never have read Homer’s anyway.
- I’m giving the people a choice. They can read my work; they can read Homer’s. If they choose to read my stuff, all the better for me and more power to them. Why should I shrink from making my stuff available? Why should I limit the virtue that is having choices?
- Look, I would desist from writing if you can convince Danielle Steel to do the same. I would stop trying to peddle my wares if that means more people read Homer. But they don’t. If I don’t put my work out there, they’re going to read some other junky writer. In fact, I’m striking a blow for the good guys here, even if not Homer-caliber. Readers can do a lot worse than me.
- Screw Homer. I got something to say, and I’m going to say it as loud & proud as I can.
All this, of course, is valid. It’s why our writers aren’t paralyzed; it’s why we have more newly published books every year than ever before. It’s why this is a hypothetical. It’s why this may be a pointless blog post.
But let me try to throw myself a lifeline here. Maybe setting the bar at Homer is too high. What is the writer you’re displacing is a contemporary? Surely, that’s more likely. The literary agent that you’re trying to get to represent you is rejecting hundreds of others. The space your book takes on the bookstore shelf means somebody else’s is not carried; your review in the newspaper means lots of others’ didn’t get exposure; the time spent reading your book is time that didn’t go to reading another’s. Or, is that just not the case?