Luring the Kids into the Unsustainable Literary Free-For-All

The Cult of Universal Authorhood now has a youth recruitment program. 

Created by former New Yorker managing editor Jacob Lewis and current New Yorker staff writer Dana Goodyear, it’s called Figment.com, conceived as a sort of Facebook for young adult fiction, where teens can “write whatever they wanted in whatever form they wanted.”

The idea for Figment … well, let me just quote the New York Times:

The idea for Figment emerged from a very 21st-century invention, the cellphone novel, which arrived in the United States around 2008. That December, Ms. Goodyear wrote a 6,000-word article for The New Yorker about young Japanese women who had been busy composing fiction on their mobile phones. In the article she declared it “the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age.”

Except that writing a novel on a cell-phone does not constitute a new literary genre.  It simply constitutes a new instrument with which to write any of the already existing genres.  Was the “typewriter novel” a new genre in the 19th century?  Wouldn’t we laugh at anyone who suggested that the “wordprocessor novel” was the most innovative literary genre of the 20th Century? 

So, right off the bat, we know that one of the creators of Figment has some fairly muddled and laughable thinking about literature.

Unsustainable Free-For-All

But, to get to the crux of it, Figment.com really isn’t about literature at all.  It’s about marketing, another step in the ongoing consumerization of writing which threatens the publishing biz with pyramid scheme dynamics. As Lewis explains, “For publishers this is an amazing opportunity to not only reach your consumers but to find out really valuable information about how they are reading.”

In other words, lure in reader-writers with the statistically deceptive hope that they can become writers themselves, who would then lure in other readers with the hope of becoming writers, etc.  A classic pyramid dynamic, doomed to inevitable collapse once the pool of potential reader-writers reaches a fatal saturation point.

The literary culture on which the publishing industry feeds is already beset by, as Melanie Benjamin put it in the HuffPost, “too many authors, not enough readers.”  (I would go one step further and put “authors” in ironic quotes, or modify it with “aspiring.”) 

An industry in which an increasing number of actors wants to supply, while a decreasing number of actors wants to buy, is an industry reeling toward an economic precipice.

The Children Are Their Own Future

And (before I am accused of being philistine*) criticizing an effort like Figment.com is not about stifling the creativity of kids.  After all, fiction is only one outlet for creative thinking, and with American kids still lagging behind in science and math they are missing opportunities to express their creativity in fields with much greater chance of eventual professional fulfillment.

Technological innovation, after all, is a form of creativity.  And it’s a path of creative thinking far less likely to leave the kid disappointedly buried in an income-crushing glut of competitors.

Not only do we have too many aspiring authors and not enough readers, but we also have not enough aspiring researchers, programmers, and engineers — any of whom could also be ravenous consumers of fiction with their much higher incomes.  Publishing pros take note!

So, how about we nudge the weaker majority of our aspiring writers toward reading more fiction, but producing something other than fiction, something that might afford them the opportunity to purchase and read more fiction?

And, as Lewis has confessed, Figment.com is ultimately not so much about the creativity of kids as it is about the misguided and self-sabotaging attempts by publishers to consumerize their resource.  We would not only be helping to save a lot of kids from wasting their minds on a field that any honest agent, editor, or publisher will admit is a long shot, but we would be helping to save publishing from shooting itself in the foot by undercutting its own consumer base.

The Way Ahead

Want to help kids be creative in an emotionally fulfilling and economically sustainable way?  Objectively assess their innate talent for math, science, and writing, then encourage them toward their greatest talent in economically reasonable proportions. 

But, for the sake of good fiction, let’s stop perpetuating the awful fictions that everyone has a novel in them, that it’s okay to encourage anyone and everyone to throw their litter into the already polluted gyre of amateur lit, and that publishing can indefinitely sustain a policy of diluting the literary enthusiasm of certain readership with that of unlikely gambles toward authorhood.

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* I prefer not to capitalize this term, and to use it as an adjective, to distant it somewhat from the historical Philistines who were, ironically, not philistine at all.

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