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‘Leaf Moulds’ of Thought: The New Writing Economy

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The notorious perfectionist JRR Tolkien spent 12 years writing his masterwork, the now-famous Lord of the Rings. At various points in the project he nearly gave it up but for the encouragement of his friends at Oxford, most especially that of CS Lewis, to whom Tolkien read much of the book as he was writing. Yet even those 12 years spent writing the story are trivial compared to the amount of time Tolkien spent preparing himself to be able to write such a story. A lover of medieval northern European literature for much of his life, Tolkien was 45 years old when he began work on the series and 57 when it was completed. There is no better example than Tolkien himself of the famous author’s quote that his books grew up from the ‘leaf mould’ of his mind. And as anyone who has composted knows, developing that leaf mould can take a long time.

This question of time is the chief crisis for writers—and readers!—today. Many think the great crisis facing writers is how to pay writers. This is certainty a concern. That’s where much of the advice for young journalists as well as the hand-wringing about newspapers and the rise of the author-as-entrepreneur model comes from. But for all the concern about the future of publications as businesses there is actually more demand for writing than ever, as LinkedIn’s push to publish more writing (and the rise of “content marketing” more generally) makes quite clear. The demand for writing is there and one suspects that the market is going to find a way of paying for it. The success of sites funded by a mixture of advertising and sponsored content like Buzzfeed and the Vox Media conglomerate suggests that the market may have found a solution, at least for now—it’s just that this particular solution makes some of us a bit squeamish.

The question of developing writers, in contrast, is stubbornly resistant to such easy methods of judgment. Figuring out how to pay writers is easy—you just need to find a business model that guarantees that there will be money in the bank when payroll hits. And whether we like it or not, Buzzfeed, Vice, Vox, and others like them are doing that. Figuring out how to make writers is harder, and that’s where the trouble starts. Paying writers is only a significant conversation if we are producing writers whose work deserves a readership. And that is why it is not the payment of writers that is our great problem today, but the development of writers.

Contra the laborious, time-consuming model embraced by Tolkien, who would spend years on a project before publishing, today’s writers are encouraged to “Write. Publish. Repeat” as the title of one how-to/self-help book for writers has it. And writers aren’t supposed to just publish in one place—we publish on personal websites, publication websites, friends’ blogs, and on a host of social media outlets. The current writing economy is built on technology that makes publishing and distribution simpler than at any other point in history. Therefore it has (unsurprisingly) become a fiercely competitive (and often combative) place where good writing and clear thinking will seldom be enough to stand out and be noticed. You need an edge, a certain type of bravado and confidence. You need to appear as a witty snark artist striding through the public square, swatting aside ideas with the panache of Chris Pratt in the opening scene to Guardians of the Galaxy. That’s how you get traffic, which is (eventually) how you get paid.

The trouble, of course, is that Han Solo-esque swagger might generate page views, but it doesn’t really comport with wisdom, judgment, or (often) basic Christian charity. What’s more, the demeanor of the snark artist thrives on controversy, fast-formed opinions (the famous “hot take” comes to mind), an air of belligerence toward ideological opposites, and a certain indifference to accurate reporting. These characteristics militate against the kind of calm, patient, humble judgment required to be a good reader and useful writer. When we consider the greatest thinkers of the past, we see that as their learning grew, so also did their humility. Near the end of his life, St. Thomas Aquinas dismissed his writing as “straw” compared to the glory of God. Near the end of his life, John Calvin wished to be buried in an unmarked grave. For these great thinkers of the past, great learning (and personal success) provoked a greater degree of humility by teaching them that they actually know very little. The successful young internet provocateur, whether it’s Matt Walsh on the right or Mark Joseph Stern on the left, knows nothing of these virtues.

And it’s not just malformed writers and misled readers who are hurt by this new economy in which we provide financial reward to immature thinkers who have been given too much success far too soon. It can hurt real victims of real injustices as well. Consider the case of the UVA rape story written by Sabrina Rubin Erdely published in Rolling Stone. In the aftermath of that story’s publication an obviously traumatized young woman—to whom something obviously happened, even if it wasn’t what was described in the story—was forced into a spotlight for which she wasn’t prepared. Young men innocent of the crimes described in the story were targeted by the predictable internet mob, and the many rape victims in the Charlottesville area (which really does have a major issue with sexual abuse, particularly at UVA) were forgotten as quickly as they were first seen by the national media. If the writer of the story had been more patient and professional in her reporting and if Rolling Stone had been more eager to get the story right than simply boost their traffic numbers, then none of that would have happened. Perhaps then we would have gotten a better story on the problem and something actually would get done to address it.

Obvious examples like this aside, however, there are also concerns about the temper of mind and way of thinking encouraged by the bravado of many younger journalists and writers. To read Walsh or Stern is to discover that your ideological opposites are not simply wrong, but that they are also vicious and stupid. In this sense, the rate and manner of online publishing doesn’t just encourage lazy thinking on the part of writers, but in society as well.

These criticisms do not mean that we must revert to some sort of Tolkien-esque process in which nothing is published for 20 years because it is being slowly, painfully perfected by writers who probably need to deal with their perfectionist issues rather than spend another day straining over a single sentence.  Rather, it is to make the far more modest point that quality work takes a great deal of time to produce. Careful, precise thought is more likely to yield quality work, and the current internet writing economy disrupts our ability to do that work. Sadly, the voices like Walsh and Stern will always have an audience for the same reasons that tabloids have large audiences. But if we are called to a still more excellent way, then that must begin with resisting the urge to publish something “just to have it up.” We should instead redirect our energy to, as one friend put it, “saying the thing as well as it can be said.” That way will require more time, energy, and patience (and less regard for traffic and social shares) than we are now used to, but it is the way that leads to work worth doing.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife and daughter. You can find him on Twitter at @jake_meador.