Sunday, January 24, 2010

It's About the Past, the Present and the Future

Keith Ferrell (left) with W&L professor Doug Cumming at the reception.^

Here's Keith Ferrell's intensity and passion at yesterday's talk.^

We had a brisk finishing roundtable discussion at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference yesterday, based on the question, "How will writers make money in the future?" There are several sides to this issue and the opinions--all valid in my view--conflict with each other pretty significantly and often dramatically.

My friend Keith Ferrell, whose resume is long and impressive, is one of those veteran writers who laments the decline of the long, thoughtful, intellectual essay in national magazines in favor of shorter, less hefty pieces. My business partner, Tom Field, while agreeing in principal with Keith, I think, sees what the public is demanding. Anne Clelland of Handshake 2.0 is a Web publisher who is also seeing the enthusiastic reception to shorter, more to the point pieces and was persuasive yesterday. (Anne's responses to all this can be found here and here. Anne has a lot to say and, as usual, it's good stuff.)

Keith puts his argument this way, "It is a funny (in every sense of the word) thing to have gotten the reputation of being a Cassandra when all I am really trying to say, and actually do say in all of my ’doom and gloom’ talks, is that we need to make sure that the immediacy and convenience and ’everybody into the pool’ attractions of the new media in all of its increasingly reductive forms and formats don’t cause us either to displace or forget the far longer and far more culturally vital importance and effectiveness of traditional writing; not just ink on paper, but language used by people who have learned and worked and struggled to master its use, arguments and, yes, points of view, presented carefully and in-depth, engagement with readers that lasts longer than the instant it takes to communicate (or give the impression of communicating) the “Wow factor” that is so important to the new media evangelists. [Note: "The previous sentence, containing an impressive argument is 155 words and one period.] Writing that has to be thought about, not just clicked on or through.

"Transitions shouldn’t mean abandoning traditions, particularly [traditions] that have served our species so well for so long. Not everything is meant to be read fast, and nearly nothing important is meant to be read fast, or can be.

"Of Time And The River [by Thomas Wolfe] (or Ernest Gaines, or a good in-depth investigative piece or feature) would be nothing as a tweet. I worked to ... point out that everyone who sets out to learn how to put words together in a serious way (even when writing humorously!) is part of this tradition, or can be, and they ignore or discard it at society’s peril, not just their own. That writing is a responsibility as well as a craft and profession ... I ... felt and feel that it’s important for young ... writers to hear something of the philosophy and history and industry that got us to here, before ’here’ becomes something completely different."

Tom Field talks of “the great divide in this vocation” and says, “There are some ‘woe is me’ individuals who express frustration and almost seem despondent about the difficulties in ‘making a living’ at this … and then there are the people who simply forge ahead with their passion, whether or not they make a living at it. I believe the attraction to Anne Clelland … is that she has a positive resolve to make it work and simply refuses to resign to the ‘poor state of the industry,’ if you will.

"The talk about who pays for what and where the money comes from is, to me, no different in this profession than any other. The remarks about the good old days when newspapers were held to a higher standard is hogwash, if you ask me. Do you think people migrate to blogs because they don’t care about objectivity and journalistic standards? They’re really not that gullible. These are simply different artistic formats—that’s it."

And Keith is right. It is important for young writers to know the history and philosophy and to emulate the parts of that history and philosophy that still work for a different audience, one that considers tweets something other than a series of intellectual grunts and belches. Keith knows--and guys my age know well--that things change dramatically over a career or a lifetime. A marvelous book from last year, Printer's Devil, talked of Mark Twain's intense interest in printing, which, says the author, changed more in Twain's lifetime than at any time before or since. That assertion, frankly, is bullshit. Printing and publishing changed more last week than it did in Twain's time.

Still, it's as important to recognize the importance of what was, as it is to stay attuned to the reality of the writing market and the reader of today and next week and next year. It's important to listen to Keith--even when he goes on 155 words in a sentence--because he knows what he's talking about. It's also vital to listen to people like Anne Clelland and Bonnie Cranmer and Tom Field. They understand what was, what is and what's coming. And, frankly, it's all important. And, more frankly,the conversation is nowhere near over.


  1. Speaking at the Roanoke Regional Writers Conference was a rich and meaningful experience. I found the last panel discussion very thought-provoking.

    I've written some of those thoughts here:

    Thank you again for an experience that's still producing insights.

    With appreciation,

  2. Kevin Kelleher has thoughtful, informed comments on the subject in "How the Internet Changed Writing in the 2000s":