Where Do All The Lonely Writers Go To Dream In Public?
On marketplaces, Impressionism, and MFAs
Two writers walk into a bar. One orders an old-fashioned, the other a pilsener on tap.
“I’ve started writing again,” says the writer with the beer, who is a male.
“How wonderful,” the other writer, a woman, sips her old-fashioned. “Will you do anything with it this time?”
“I resent the tone of your query.”
“Of course you do. You don’t believe in the reader, but work without the reader in mind is worthless. Work should not be a monument at which the reader marvels, but a bridge over which the writer first travels, then gives the reader a map for their own journey.”
“There you go again about the reader, your God and commander,” he replies.
The male writer arches his head behind his back, stretching his neck like an ostrich, before returning eye contact.
“Fine, fine. I’ll build a bridge or whatever with my writing. Just tell me where to find some goddamn readers.”
“The only place anyone goes anymore.”
“You don’t mean ... ”
“Yes. You have any better suggestions?”
Gatekeeping is a funny idea. It’s one of those ideas where the right position to take seems obvious, especially on the social internet. For it was the internet, the myth goes, that first broke down the institutional doors blocked by gatekeepers and permitted artists to connect directly with their audience.
But that’s not really true. Back in the late 1800s, this art dealer named Paul Durand-Ruel met an underground group of French painters we know as the Impressionists: Renoir, Monet, Manet, Degas, Sisley, and so on. They were all broke as hell until Duran-Ruel came along. “We would have died of hunger without Durand-Ruel, all we Impressionists,” Monet later said.
At the time, artists submitted work to be judged by the Salon de Paris, which granted jury awards that led to prestige, commissions, and basically a stable income. If the Salon didn’t approve of them, an artist traveled the cultural hinterlands, broke and unknown, and the Salon more than didn’t approve of the Impressionists, they were bona fide haters. See, after getting smacked by the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War, the French art establishment sought conservative work that re-affirmed the nation’s history and tradition: fine brush strokes, mythological/religious imagery, all that jazz. The term Impressionism itself was a satirical comment by the French critic Louis Leroy about Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise, joking yes, it was an impression, a sketch really, of a complete work of art. “Wallpaper in its embryonic state is more finished than that seascape,” he wrote.
Durand-Ruel, the son of art supplies dealers, saw the value in Impressionism, believing their work, in its depictions of countrysides and middle-class life, would come to define a new French character for the future. When he first met Monet in London, he bought out the man’s entire studio, an act no one did at the time. Pissaro heard about this and said, Son, let me get some of that, and brought paintings to Durand-Ruel, who bought them on the spot and asked if Pissaro had any more. In total, Durand-Ruel went straight dummy acquiring over 1,000 Monets, 1,500 Renoirs, 800 Pissarros, 400 Sisleys, 400 Cassatts, and around 200 Manets.
Straight dummy, I write, because no one else bought these paintings. It took Durand-Ruel like 10-20 years to sell them. (And y’all crypto dorks think you have diamond hands for holding onto Boopcoin for six months!) He did more than buy their art -- he consoled them when inspiration ran dry and paid monthly stipends to keep them afloat. “I am expecting you, like the Messiah, to pay the damned quarterly rent,” Degas once wrote Durand-Ruel.
So how did your boy make back his nut? He created the modern art market as we know it, shifting the power from state-sponsored patronage to critics and dealers who established what was valuable and what was not. He hosted one-artist shows, displaying a painter’s entire ouevre (what a lovely word), and funded alternative art magazines to explain to the public what made Impressionism worthwhile. He was an agent, an investor, a caretaker of the movement.
Decades later, the American writer Gertrude Stein followed suit when she bought strange paintings from then-unknown artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Georges Braque. Cubism, the style was called, and their paintings covered every inch of Stein’s salon, which, as a result, became a new artistic mecca in Paris. There, Stein hosted writers like Ezra Pound and Hemingway and Ford Maddox Ford (never James Joyce, Stein’s sworn enemy), in addition to the painters, offering this uncivilized “lost generation,” broken and disillusion after The Great War, mentorship and stewardship, as well as a community to explore and exchange radical ideas for the time.
On his way to her salon after a hard day’s work, if the light was right, Hemingway liked to first stop at the Musee du Luxembourg and admire the great paintings by the Impressionists. More than any other, Hemingway was drawn to Cézanne (a post-Impressionist, really).
As he writes in A Moveable Feast:
“I was learning something from the paintings of Cézanne that made writing simple true sentences far from enough to make the stories have the dimensions I was trying to put into them. I was learning very much from him but I was not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.”
So, what was the secret?
In the beginning the internet was good for writers. A radical wave of blogs and websites in the late 2000s and early 2010s like The Awl, Grantland, The Dissolve, the Gawker network, and so on opened a vein of intimate, creatively daring writing that was impossible anymore at traditional outlets. It seemed like the place to be, where some of today’s more exciting writers -- Jia Tolentino, Jay Caspian Kang, John Hermann, Rachel Monroe, Zach Lowe, Louisa Thomas, Jonathan Abrams ... you get the point -- first made their names.
So yeah, for a while, the internet did upend the old ways and allow a new generation to storm the gates, until two things changed: advertisers got way smarter and social media swallowed journalism. David Cho, The Awl’s publisher, has admitted sites like his survived because advertisers were kind of clueless about the impact of digital ads. Then social media came around and was like, bruh, we got all the metrics you could ever want and we’ll sell you all these people’s data, but like, don’t be weird and tell the audience we’re harvesting their attention for profits.
Social media didn’t progressively smash a couple gates and borders over time, as an artistic movement like Impressionism did; instead social media splintered all the world’s gates and borders at once. Before you had all these regional ecosystems and markets in both a physical and intellectual sense that could co-exist independent of one another and provide a platform for a certain lifestyle or way of thought. Arts magazines only competed against other arts magazines and a news rag, liberal, conservative, or whatever, spoke directly to its audience and focused on satisfying and growing those ranks. Early on, a site like Twitter was described as a digital town square and Facebook was a social network, but as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has noted, that all changed with the advent of the like button and threaded comments.
Now, each social media platform is one giant marketplace in which everyone is competing for the same commodity -- your attention. Online, art is not art anymore. Art is politics is entertaintment is activism is money is power. If Monet wanted to paint some water lillies, those damn water lillies better represent the systematic oppression of global capitalism, provide an instant rush of dopamine, and probably be an NFT. I’m being reductionist here, but you get the point.
All marketplaces produce these strange phenomenon like the superstar effect or the Pareto principle. Basically, all marketplaces demonstrate an uneven distribution of rewards, where those at the top receive a disproportionate amount of the spoils. For example, 99% of sales for books on Amazon come from just 1% of books and 60% of all concert ticket revenue goes to just 1% of performers, like Beyonce, Taylor Swift, and Drake. This winner-takes-all marketplace is not very healthy for the development of fresh ideas or avant-garde art, which may require 10-20 years to catch on like the Impressionists.
A type of very online person bitches about this and blames it all on the 1% or capitalism or whatever, but marketplaces, as well as ecosystems, have always worked this way. What has changed is the economy of scale -- for example, in 1982, the top 1% of performers only took home 26% of national concert ticket revenue vs. the 60% figure today. So if you want to blame capitalism, don’t be lazy. At fault is this technocratic, globalized supply-chain marketplace in which every kind of creator is in competition with each other all the time. It is why so much of art and writing sucks today -- to survive, in a broad sense, it must appeal to the widest possible audience immediately and make a gajillion dollars in return to justify its existence.
Instead of many winners in multiple marketplaces, we have a couple in just a few. How miserable is that? What hope do the weirdos have in a competition like that?
What is a writer to do today, if he want to avoid the meat grinder that is the internet marketplace? More specifically, where should a writer go to develop the community and audience like those much mythologized “lost generation” of expats who went to Paris? Because the traditional path that someone like Hemingway followed is dead. That path was start writing at a local rag, gain some notoriety, upgrade to a medium-sized paper, then if you’re good enough land in a major metropolitan publication, fall in with the bohemian artistic community and go from there.
But two newspapers die every week in America. More than half of Americans receive their news through social media and only about 5% read print publication. Look at how print media has been cut in half over less than 20 years:
There is, I suppose, a path that remains through getting an MFA at a university, as genuinely interesting writers like Tommy Orange, Alexandra Kleeman, and Brandon Taylor have emerged this way in recent years. But you gotta drop like $100,000 to follow that path and honestly I’d rather face the meat grinder. Instead, I think it’s best to examine why this route works, which I believe has something to do with the time allowed for a writer’s voice to grow and find its right audience over a multi-year process.
In some ways, this is also what someone like Hemingway was doing in Paris, only someone was paying him during that time, instead of him paying someone for the opportunity to explore his little secret within Cézanne. That secret, obvious in retrospect, is about the power of suggestion and minimalism, of knowing but not saying, of allowing an audience’s imagination to complete the puzzle laid on the page or canvas.
It is radical in its belief in a reader that hadn’t existed until then. It is a belief in the reader that doesn’t so much exist online anymore. But maybe that can change.
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What a lovely history lesson and opportunity to understand some of the issues our modern day artists and writers are experiencing. I’m excited for more to come.