Freddie deBoer on writing, in “If You Absolutely Must”

Freddie deBoer has a book, or more realistically booklet (it’s free, too), called If You Absolutely Must, and, while it’s about writing, it’s also about the world; like many interesting books, the nominal topic is a jumping off point for, if not everything, then for many things, and he takes his own advice by being eccentric and obsessed. He recommends writers be serious and notes that “Immense damage has been done to the public perception of many causes beloved by the social justice set by that set’s dogged insistence on associating those causes with totally frivolous ideas. When a writer says ‘I’m going to connect the trauma of segregation to the semiotics of breakfast cereal,’ it doesn’t make people expand their thinking on the scope of racism. It makes the writer ridiculous and the issue seem trivial.” Probably you weren’t expecting probing commentary on the “social justice” set in a book about writing, or at least I wasn’t, and yet there it is—an effective, accurate critique. DeBoer says: “If you want to stand out, try being serious.” That’s a specific form of the advice, “Don’t automatically do what everyone else is doing.” If many persons writing spend “life in a self-defensive crouch,” do the opposite: doing what everyone else does is common. What’s rare and what’s common? Figure out the latter and use it to try and do the former.

DeBoer’s advice is: “you have to be difficult. You have to be weird. I think being unclassifiable and difficult and fractious are desirable qualities for a writer in and of themselves.” He’s probably right, for the kind of writing he’s doing, and the kind of writer he’s talking to. But, don’t try to be that type of writer, or, likely, any type of “writer” in the sense of someone who makes his or her primary income from writing for the general public: it’s too glamorous, and the supply and demand are way out of balance. If You Absolutely Must is an appropriate title, because you shouldn’t try to primarily be a writer, any more than today it makes sense trying to make adult amounts of money as a photographer. Both occupations coalesced in the before-times, and the border of those before-times is hard to define precisely but occurs somewhere in the 2009 – 2015 period. I’m going to call it “2014” somewhat arbitrarily, when the smartphone and social media world is not merely born but has matured into the dominant want people access, produce, and think through information. The journalism-publishing world that existed throughout the 20th Century and into the 21st was in decline throughout the ’00s but went terminal after the Great Recession, as did the literary world. Twitter and similar replaced it; that may be good, bad, neutral, or orthogonal, but it seems true, and is linked to the way “the financial picture in this world [of writing for publications] is significantly worse than it was even 10 years ago.”

The number of words available to a person, particularly on a daily basis, used to be limited, and you had to have a printing press to get words from the writer to the reader. I’ve read numerous writers describe how hard they worked, in their youth, to access books; William Gibson stands out in this respect, but there are many others. Now, the number of words, images, moving images, and combinations of those things is, from the ability of an individual to process that media, infinite. Attention, instead, is finite: that’s the bottleneck, and we’re slowly seeing adaptation to that reality. Companies and famous persons are learning that the legacy media might best be ignored, rather than engaged with; instead, “The whole concept of giving free content, quotes, interviews to legacy media corporations is obsolete,” and the job of companies and famous persons is to build their own channel. Whatever you’re talking about, that’s what you’re bringing attention to, and most of us are still poor at directing our own attention to things that matter, rather than things that don’t.

Point is, almost all writing institutions, the assumptions underlying those institutions, and so on, were set up before the smartphone-social-media era. Most of the people teaching writing were born and came up in the previous era, and even those who weren’t, still likely haven’t entirely imbibed the new world, and I include myself at least partially, and maybe entirely, in this. We went from a world of relative scarcity to a world of information abundance, and we’re still dealing with those effects. I’ve run into a couple of people paying apparently good money for masters degrees in journalism, which is a level of financial insanity and time wasting that I can just barely comprehend. Those masters degrees shouldn’t exist, and whoever’s in them hasn’t gotten the message.

If you’re trying to make adult amounts of money primarily as a writer today, you’re competing with people who have family money quietly backing them, and with people who have achieved financial independence in the tech industry. This is one of the most interesting bodies of work published in the last 20 years. You are also facing up against people like deBoer, who “write pathologically; that is, I write so much that it has become a detriment to my life, and the amount of writing I’m doing is frequently inversely correlated with my overall health. I have tracked how much I write in a given week fairly obsessively for about 9 years now. Since I lost my job last June I have been averaging a bit more than 35,000 words a week.” “Pathologically” is an apt word here: “involving, caused by, or of the nature of a physical or mental disease,” although I don’t love the word “disease” and prefer the ancient Greek notion of obsession arising almost from outside the self, or from divine inspiration: closer to Julian Jaynes, further from modern medicalization. Whatever the mental model one likes—I’ll take muses inserting metaphoric Neuralink into the brain and piping in messages—being obsessed is here, if not a virtue, then a condition of many of those who pursue this mode of writing, often at the expense of much else in their lives.

Still, DeBoer says that “If you’re a consumer of writing, you’re facing a paucity of real choice, and the choices that are before you are all likely quite unappealing. People seek out writers on the margins because they’re tired of pieces telling them that Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” I’m not sure all consumers of writing face a paucity of real choice: I’ve been in libraries, I’ve read books not published in the last four years; right now I’m a quarter through Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. There are around 230 websites in my RSS feed, none of which routinely tell me that “Valentine’s heart candies are rape culture.” So, finding that kind of writing is a choice, more than it’s forced and foisted on a reader. For many years I subscribed to or read the New York Times‘s Sunday edition, in paper, but I quit a while ago, and in doing so, I exercised the “real choice” to not support the sort of thing deBoer is talking about here. That some number of readers are making that choice to read about the Valentine’s heart candies thing, even if they somehow feel they aren’t making a choice, might be another avenue of exploration. From what I understand, there are also sources out deifying a certain man who inherited his father’s fortune and who is a former reality TV show host; I don’t read those either.

Writing fiction isn’t deBoer’s main interest here, but it’s been one of my interests: writing fiction, never an easy route to paying the bills, doesn’t work any more. As a hobby, sure. I’ve been annoying friends and acquittances by asking, “How many books did you read in the last year?” Usually this is greeted with some suspicion or surprise. Why am I being ambushed? Then there are qualifications: “I’ve been really busy,” “It’s hard to find time to read,” “I used to read a lot.” I say I’m not judging them—this is true, I will emphasize—and am looking for an integer answer. Most often it’s something like one or two, followed by declamations of plans to Read More In the Future. A good and noble sentiment, like starting that diet. Then I ask, “How many of the people you know read more than a book or two a year?” Usually there’s some thinking, and rattling off of one or two names, followed by silence, as the person thinks through the people they know. “So, out of the few hundred people you might know well enough to know, Jack and Mary are the two people you know who read somewhat regularly?” They nod. “And that is why the publishing industry works poorly,” I say. In the before-times, anyone interested in a world greater than what’s available around them and on network TV had to read, most often books, which isn’t true any more and, barring some kind of catastrophe, probably won’t be true again.

This isn’t a lament or whining about the kids these days, a genre that’s been tired for centuries if not millennia: it’s an observation of how culture and behavior change. Calculus is the study of change, and most writers are on some level also describing change. The economic institutions that used to support writers aren’t there any more, or exist only in skeletal form (good luck getting that MFA teaching gig). There are new ones (Patreon, self-publishing, Substack), and deBoer is orienting readers towards new ones. If they must. Don’t must. Do something else. Learn to write, as a secondary skill.

DeBoer isn’t writing to complain: he says: “the average level of pure prose chops – the ability to express yourself with clarity, concision, and style – is very high today, and better than it ever has been in the 20 years that I’ve been reading nonfiction.” I’m not sure if he’s right. It’s possible that the average level of pure prose chops among writers is higher, while the level among the general population might be lower. I can’t tell. Among students, I don’t detect a lot of change, although I also don’t know how I’d measure that, amid so many other changes. I find my own reading habits drifting away from books and towards longer articles: a Kindle combined with Instapaper are the key technologies here (it may also be that there are diminishing marginal returns to reading more fiction, at some point). It used to be that a lot of general nonfiction books had 10,000 or 20,000 words of material expanded to 50,000, in order to fill a book-sized pagecount. Now it seems that many articles remain articles. I read deBoer’s book The Cult of Smart, about which he says:

My first book, The Cult of Smart, was published by St. Martin’s Press in 2020. It sold more than 98% of the books published that year! But [it] still has only sold about 6,000 copies to date (late January 2022). That’s both [sic] not very good from the standpoint of my trying to sell another book.

According to The New York Times, 98% of books published in 2020 sold less than 5,000 copies.

The Cult of Smart is good and interesting, and it lines up with my own teaching experiences, far better than I wish it to. You should read it. It’s a success—well above what most writers achieve—and he makes only $75,000 from it? That’s success? And DeBoer has spent a huge amount of time writing, relentlessly, on the Internet. More and more, I find myself thinking, “I’m too bourgeois for this.”

One response

  1. Pingback: The death of literary culture « The Story's Story

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: