Reflections on the Silent, Insidious Writer Shortage of the 21st Century

By on Monday, October 28th, 2013 at 9:01 am

Everywhere one travels in literary circles—book launches, cocktail parties, the adjunct lounges at third-tier academic institutions—one hears the same lament: We have too many writers. Whether the cause is the invention of the word processor and the availability of self-publishing on demand, or the explosion of new MFA programs, or merely a culture steeped in narcissism, editors and agents and established authors have a penchant for griping about the masses of untrained (and often talentless) souls who inundate the bulwarks of the publishing industry with volleys of hopeless drivel—or, in the least, work that is never likely to be rendered marketable. The BBC recently reported that one in ten residents of Iceland will soon be a published author; in Brooklyn, that figure sometimes seems like one in two. Against this backdrop, I’d like to make a contrarian case: I’ve grown to believe we have too few writers, not too many.

I recently judged a fiction contest for undergraduate and graduate creative writing majors at a top university. What astounded me about that experience was the quality of the work. I had anticipated struggling to find a story of sufficient merit to be honored; instead, I encountered a half dozen of professional caliber. Each year, teaching an adult fiction class at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I find myself awed by the capacity of nurses and lawyers and high school science teachers to craft first-rate stories in the absence of any formal training. This semester, I am serving as “writer-in-residence” at Yeshiva College; any of the fifteen students in my workshop, I have discovered, had serious potential to become a first-rate novelist.

There lies the rub: despite all of this talent and promise, few of my Gotham and Yeshiva students will continue with their literary careers. Of the half dozen brilliant writers who entered the competition that I judged, we will be lucky if one or two are still writing in a decade. It may be true that a few talentless souls inundate William Morris and FSG with twaddle—only to have their manuscripts promptly weeded out by college interns. Far more concerning are the many gifted storytellers who, for one reason or another, choose not to stick with their literary pursuits. It saddens me to reflect upon how many beautiful and wise and important narratives are lost as a result. If, as a society, we want to enjoy the most compelling creative work possible, we need to figure out why we lose so many of these talents—and how to stop the hemorrhage.

We lose talented writers because we discourage them.

The answer, I believe, is strikingly simple. We lose talented writers because we discourage them. Teachers and parents tell them from an early age that writing = starvation, leading many would-be Chekhovs to stick with medical school. Agents and editors and established authors pronounce the difficulties of selling books, the challenges of earning a living at the word processor, the long-repeated canard that, “If you can do anything else other than write, you should.” I wish to deliver the opposite message. While the writing life is not easy, at least at the outset, it is also not mining salt. People do “make it.” Doors can open. Writers like Annie Proulx and Harriet Doerr demonstrate that it is never too late to achieve success. Every one of us is only 54,000 words away from writing the next Great Gatsby.

I am often asked by my students whether they should seek an MFA. While there is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question, I do encourage most of those who ask to pursue graduate training. I do not recommend this only because graduate school has tangible benefits in terms of earning teaching credentials, building contacts, and—if one is fortunate—providing funding to complete a first novel or collection. Rather, a second advantage of earning an MFA is that it locks (or, at least, straps) one into a literary career. Not everyone who goes to dental school becomes a dentist — but after four years and $200,000, most graduates at least take dentistry seriously. While MFAs are shorter and cheaper, the commitment captures many talents who might otherwise be lost to earning a living, raising a family and the relentless vagaries of life.

At one point in my own literary career, I confess that I nearly gave up. I had completed the manuscripts for two novels and a short story collection—and a succession of skilled agents had been unable to sell any of them. Fortunately, I was in law school at the time, because the thought of a career as a lawyer was enough to keep me pursuing alternatives, as discouraged as I felt at the moment. So I kept submitting. Ten years later, thanks mostly to good fortune, both of those novels have been published and the short story collection will be out next month. The takeaway message should not be that I am talented or persistent or lucky—although I delude myself into thinking that I am at least a little bit of all three. The takeaway message should be that if I can do it, you can to. If naysayers tell you otherwise, ignore them and keep plugging away—but don’t forget to record their addresses, so you can send them published evidence of your success in the future.

Jacob M. Appel is the author of the novels, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up and The Biology of Luck. His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, is forthcoming in November. More at www.jacobmappel.com.

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