Writing as Performance Art

Andrew Keen's thought-provoking polemic The Cult of the Amateur rails against, among other things, the dumbing down of genuine knowledge in favor of rumor and opinion; the "flattening" of expertise and professionalism in favor of amateurism and the belief that many, untrained people "know" more than the few elites; and Web 2.0's supposed privileging of immediate populist self-expression (i.e. YouTube) over genuine, nurtured, and properly remunerated talent.

Keen's book is a curious paradox, and reflects the anxiety and uncertainty of these times. It's both anti-corporate (in that Keen feels that only large corporations—as opposed to small businesses or individuals—will have the resources to be able to make their products visible in an increasingly fragmented and niche-oriented media-world) and yet pro-corporate (in that only large corporations have the money to be able to develop genuine talent as opposed to the worthless garbage that graces the Internet). The book laments the loss of record stores and knowledgeable sales staff, the ending of books and real editing, and the eclipsing of real journalism presented by old-time journalists who had standards and could be held accountable (unlike bloggers), but ends with a recognition that the Web is changing to absorb genuine and authoritative voices and products amid the mass of ephemera and lies.

One profound point in the book was Keen's observation that, until relatively late in his writing career, Charles Dickens didn't make a penny from his books when they were published in the U.S., and nor did American authors make any money from their books when they were published in the U.K. This was because there wasn't any copyright protection arrangement between the U.S. and U.K., so piracy was rampant. In order to make up for his losses, Dickens was forced both to produce more titles and to take his show on the road—giving performance-style readings that eventually consumed his life to such an extent that he exhausted himself, dying prematurely at the age of 58.

Whereas it used to be the case that a musician would tour in order to support an album, now musicians produce an album and then go on the road to pay for it. In other words, the market value of the musician lies in the face-time that the audience gets with him or her. Since music is easily downloadable and pirated, the only remuneration the musician can be guaranteed is through people paying to see them in concert, which Keen complains costs very little in comparison to the amount of times their music is downloaded or viewed on the Web for free.

Because writing will probably go the way of music, too, authors will have to return to the times of Dickens, when the serialization and production of novels or words became the passport to performance. Of course, this trend will tend to aid short-form writers like poets or short-story writers, and we certainly hope that it doesn't mean the premature death of writers.

Of course, it also means that only extroverts and narcissists need apply to be a writer, but that's already the case. I doubt that notorious recluses like Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger would be published today. Agents and publishers would be aghast at their lack of commitment to marketing and self-aggrandizement. But the need to perform one's writing might also encourage long-form writers to produce works that are suspenseful, have self-contained dramatic scenes and lively characterization, and are written with a strong voice. So it might be the best of times and the worst of times all over again.