Writing as Art, & Aggregate Demand

I made some sort of promise – to whom, it’s entirely unclear – that I would discontinue the nasty habit of blogging my musings on various things philosophical or ideological.  Not that I would sever such topics from my sphere of thought, but that I would distinguish items fit for private compilation (assumably of interest to no one else) and those suitable for social presentation.  This is the kind of promise which, at the very moment it passes your lips, you know, somewhere in there, you will break.

After that entirely unnecessary introduction (and that one), let me note a trend which, let’s say, worries me.

In fact, at first sight I did not even recognize it as a “trend”, but rather a “fact”: the fact that there exist the sets of
1) popular writers, and
2) ideological writers;
and that the two groups serve different purposes, assume different mindsets, and target different audiences.  Of course, in uncommon instances an author may at one time write a popular work and at another write an ideological one (the examples escape me), but even then the author as much as puts on a different “hat” when he switches between the two roles, the same way that one individual might serve both as a vice president in a corporation and sit on its board of directors (roles which, precisely defined, serve different aims); and so the distinctness of the groupings is preserved.

Of course, most of my friends in this modern time will find such a separation natural: we read Dan Brown, J. K. Rowling, and Michael Crichton when we want a page-turner (“a good read”); we turn to Hemingway, Dickens, Dostoevsky, or Orwell when we want something which nourishes the intellect (not that the writing of Hemingway or Orwell isn’t immediate or entertaining).  And really, how can we criticize this existence of dual preferences?  I’m happy to say that I liked Angels & Demons, the Harry Potter series, and Andromeda Strain; I would even call them good books (for their purposes, of course, just as many of the “classics” are good only with respect to their given purposes; that they are classics simply shows that the people who successfully disseminated this label believed those purposes to be more commendable).

However, I have to believe that these dual preferences weren’t always the rule of the landscape of the art of writing.  The Federalist Papers were works read by the common (if I may use a word with muddy implications) New England farmer; yet those by Hamilton which I have read were penned with style and with real depth of thought. Homer’s epics were the definitive stories of Classical Greek culture – of all the age, not only the thin slice of the population analogous to today’s men and women who crouch at their night-time desks over Proust in small print.  More recently, ideologues such as George Orwell and Karl Marx wrote their most idea-dense works with their targets aimed squarely at the white matter of, if I may borrow a symbol from Eastern Europe, the “peasant”: such that everyone could read, understand, discuss, and propagate The Communist Manifesto or Animal Farm.

What, then, differentiates the modern American culture from the antiquities such that we view the new dichotomous trend as simply “the way it is”?  The increased proportion of the population which can claim literacy, the changes in preferences for the presentation of ideas which accompanied (and accompany) the information revolution, the rise in living standards (and the implied corollary of a reduced interest in lofty ideology and an increased interest in leisure), and the growing gap between the individual and his popular control over government seem like likely suspects at first speculation.  If I had to guess, I would say that we like our information faster and flashier – in sound bytes, images, video, and headlines – and we have better access to that kind of information, which does not exhaustively make obsolete lengthy works (since long popular books are still purchased with enthusiasm (but we’ll see about the results of the price war between Kindle and print publications)), only those which seek to stimulate our thinking tangentially or deeply, as we now have quick solutions which will think for us definitively and in a snap.  That there is no popular impetus back to a single market for the art of writing speaks to our lack of need or ability to consider deeply ideology.

Whatever the cause of this situation (because I hesitate to call it a “problem”), I would volunteer that the writers are not liable.  Writers who serve the desires of the modern popular audience aren’t “sellouts” any more than the writers of old who reference each others’ works in their multimillennia conversation: merely the dynamics of the industry have shifted such that where one market previously existed, where popular reading and the exploration of ideology were closely tied together, there now are two different markets – and the “new” one is just as legitimate, for there too the writers merely write in the language of the human condition (which in this case speaks in terms of fast, smart plots and clear delineations of character purpose), which is all writing can ask to be.  By definition communication is only relevant relative to social conditions at large – for all its beauty, Roman oratory was a practical response to the development of Republican politics – and is therefore a consumer’s market.  Microeconomic theory, which is descriptive, assumes consumers’ preferences as “primitive”, i.e. they are the outer limit of the domain of theory, and passes no judgment on them: yet in art, where human values are central (shush, post-modernists, that’s a discussion for another day) I have to say that I am troubled by the direction in which aggregate demand is heading.

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