Integral to human understanding and invention, fiction plays an essential role in imagining alternatives to reality, in shaping reality, in disguising reality, and in providing avenues of escape from reality. Fictional narratives are more than entertaining stories; they are simulations of worlds, not unlike scientific experiments, algorithms, and AIs. Realizing that they are trapped in an artificial world invented to serve commercial interests, writers and readers of fictional texts can escape together into an alternative world of their own invention.
– from the Postcapitalist Realities outline
What constrains fiction writers in perpetrating a collective escape from escapism? Habit is a big limiting factor:
People adapt to environments, even artificial ones. Adaptations become habits, hard to break even when moving into an alternative environment where those habits are no longer adaptive. Freed from the constraints of the traditional publishing world, would readers and writers of fictions remain locked into their habitual ways of reading and writing? Or would the alternate reality of writers’ syndicates and readers’ duplicating libraries establish a different ecology, calling for different adaptations from which different habits take shape?
Erdman has endorsed this idea of fiction writers being immersed in a habit-forming ecosystem. In the Blog Fail post he analogized from a DF Wallace commencement address:
An older fish swims along and two younger fish pass him coming the other direction . “How’s the water,boys?” he asks. “What’s water?” is their reply. Since capitalism is the water we swim in, most humans – and particularly Americans – have no idea there is anything else or that capitalism even exists. Why does a fish even need to know what “water” is when there’s no other reality in which they can live? Why do we need to know what capitalism is, since there’s no other reality in which we can survive? I run into this quite a bit in discussing socialism. It’s hard enough to talk about capitalism as though it exists, even harder to talk about it as though it doesn’t exist (as though there is another reality).
Wallace’s fish story doesn’t offer much room for optimism. Even if the fish realize they’re in the water, why would they want to escape from it? Water is the medium in which they evolved, to which they’re adapted, which provides the essentials for their survival. The older fish gets it, understands that he’s swimming in water, but he’s managed to get old by staying in the water, not by trying to make a go of it in some other medium. If fiction writers are adapted to a capitalist ecosystem, why would they want to get out of that water only to flounder around on dry land? As Erdman remarked on the Profession of Doubt post:
Americans thoroughly identify as capitalists, and as such I think that the psychology is one and the same. We sort of assume that the market is always working things out in the best way possible, more or less… As such, capitalism is so thoroughly our way of being that it drives our creativity, and I think that most American artists are more or less okay with that.
In my response to Erdman’s comment I conceded that most fiction writers seem to be trying to succeed in marketplace terms, either by writing popular fiction they hope sells well or by padding their CVs with published stories that don’t pay at all but that might eventually get them a gig teaching creative writing.
So let’s assume that most fiction writers are adapted to swimming in the waters of capitalism. But what if the waters are drying up while the number of fish is increasing — so many fish swimming around in shrinking ponds that there’s no room to move, no oxygen to breathe, nothing to eat. That’s the scenario I was trying to sketch in one of the earliest posts on this site: hardly any novels get published, and even published novelists typically earn a pittance from sales of their books, while most self-published authors make next to nothing. I’ve not yet written about the writing schools, but the situation is comparably dire: far fewer teaching slots than qualified applicants, the jobs being mostly adjunct and temp positions that don’t pay enough to make a living. In short, the capitalistic ecological niche can’t support most of the fiction writers whose talents and predilections are optimally adapted to that niche.
If Erdman is right — if most fiction writers aren’t consciously aware of how their immersion in the capitalistic pond influences the way they write — then describing an alternative postcapitalistic ecosystem to them isn’t likely to alter their habitual writing practices. The alternative ecosystem I’ve outlined on this site doesn’t actually exist, so it’s not possible to lure writers into it to see how they adapt.
But what if Erdman is wrong? What if fiction writers are aware that they’re adapted to an ecosystem that can’t support them? Would that awareness make them more likely to climb out of the water and step into an alternative ecosystem, even if that ecosystem is only an experimental laboratory that’s not ready to support life on an ongoing basis?
One way to find out would be to open up the alternative ecosystem, issue invitations to writers to step in through the portal, and see who responds. The biggest obstacle is that the alternative ecosystem isn’t an empty habitat waiting for occupants, like a newly constructed housing subdivision waiting for buyers to move in or a newly established corporation waiting for applicants to reply to its help wanted ads. It’s more like a bunch of homesteaders building a settlement together, with houses and shops, a corral and a railway station, a church and a schoolhouse and a tavern, a town hall and a Boot Hill… Another way to find out whether writers are adapted to an alternative ecosystem is to ask them. Maybe don’t ask them point blank if they’d like to pitch in, sign up as one of the pioneers in the homesteading project. Instead, ask them about themselves as fiction writers: their preferences and practices, their hopes and fears. Ask them also about their perceptions of the fictional ecosystem in which they operate: its features and its bugs, what it affords and what it prevents. Eventually ask them to speculate about possible features of alternative fictional ecosystems. We’d learn something about writers’ enthusiasm and readiness for getting out of the water, while writers would learn something about themselves and about one another.
And what if I too am wrong? What if there already is a fictional habitat compatible with the postcapitalistic scheme I’ve outlined here? Would it be possible to expand and deepen that habitat?
There are a lot of online open-access literary magazines: readers don’t pay to read; writers don’t get paid for writing. I’ve been assuming that fiction writers publish in these venues as a way of paying their dues, building up their résumés, establishing credibility with agents and publishers when eventually they submit novels for consideration as commercially viable commodities. But maybe writers write short stories for free because those publishing venues encourage more variety in style and content, more experimentation in art and craft, than do the commercial publishers. There are, to be sure, some boutique publishers of long fictions that emphasize artistic merit rather than potential popularity, but those publishers, being short on staff and on revenues, tend to put out only a small number of new titles every year. Maybe these more adventurous writers would thrive in an alternative fictional ecosystem, a habitat run by and for writers themselves, a venue where they can edit and publish and distribute long fictions of distinction, its capacity constrained only by the merits of the books themselves.
I’m closing in on a redesign of this site…