The vanishing apprenticeship

Why the decline of newspapers is a troubling sign for aspiring writers, especially novelists.

A man I used to work with authored six books and spent five years as a leader writer at one of the more reputable newspapers in London. He joked that he had spent his life building an incredibly strong resume in two of the lowest-paying and fastest-dying industries. Sadly, he is right. Newspapers are struggling to survive, as is the publishing industry, and both are losing the battle to remain relevant and profitable in a world where terms like information, entertainment, and news, seem imprecise and dated. The slow demise of books and newspapers is part of a profound shift in the way people think and communicate — but it is much more than that. Writing, as an art and a craft, is changing rapidly as a direct result. As newspapers die, so too does an apprentice system for young writers from which sprang many of the great names in modern literature. Will we see good writers still emerge? In an era of hashtags and 140 characters, does it even matter? Yes it matters, and although some good writers will emerge, many undoubtedly will not. It may be hard to mourn what did not happen, but it gives an idea of what we may be in store for.

From Dickens to Hemingway, Twain to Orwell, the list of writers who were journalists is long and impressive. Some (Hemingway) took the journalistic style to heart more than others (Dickens), but each writer benefitted from their time as journalist; like any skill, writing is one that requires practice, dedication, and discipline — three qualities at the heart of good journalism. Hemingway, in his notoriously unpleasant interview with the Paris Review, spoke rather glowingly of journalism (considering some of his other answers):

“On the Star you were forced to learn to write a simple declarative sentence. This is useful to anyone. Newspaper work will not harm a young writer and could help him if he gets out of it in time.”

There are, of course, many great authors without journalistic backgrounds too: Joseph Heller wrote Catch-22 in the hours after he had finished work; Elmore Leonard woke early and wrote before his day job in advertising.

But newspapers were the nursery for many young, ambitious writers (most obviously for authors such as David Halberstam, Roger Ebert, Hunter S. Thompson, Jan Morris, Michael Herr, Bob Woodward, etc.). As newspapers merge and close, shrink their professional staff and reduce foreign bureaus, the up-and-coming writers of today face the stark reality that writing, as a career, is limited, tough, and becoming more so.

There are, of course, still ways to earn a living as a writer. Starting a blog costs little to no money, though success often depends less on the quality of writing than on search engine placement. Blogs are also difficult to monetize and more often than not, they remain virtually unread, lost in the sea of other blogs (there are an estimated 31 million bloggers in the United States alone).

Graduate writing programs are no substitute, either. Aside from the few that offer modest stipends, most graduate degrees require students to take on significant debt. Some argue such debt is an investment. If it is, it is at best a risky one, as a graduate degree brings no guarantee of a writing job (what degree brings any guarantee today, unless perhaps for an unpaid internship?). Instead of bringing an advance and a book contract, these programs leave the graduate with a familiar choice: write and hope, or work and pay (back the student loans).

Money matters, and those who pretend otherwise often have the luxury of not worrying about it. Samuel Johnson’s honesty on the subject is refreshing: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

Newspapers allowed many young men (and later, women) to do precisely that, giving them a job that brought fulfillment and a paycheck, and which, at the very least, taught them “to write declarative sentences.” It was the closest thing to an apprentice system writers had.

The correlation between a steady income and writing well is not one-to-one. To take two of the better-known examples, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast — “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy” — one could argue the “starving artist” phase is a necessary and time-honored rite of passage for a good writer. This is more romance than reality.

Arthur Quiller-Couch, a literary critic and scholar of the early 20th Century, delivered a series of lectures at Cambridge from 1913 to 1914 . They have been collected and published under the title On the Art of Writing. In his second lecture, “The Practice of Writing,” Quiller-Couch confronted the “rite of passage” belief, saying:

“What are the great poetical names of the last hundred years or so? Coleridge, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Landor, Keats, Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, Morris, Rossetti, Swinburne — we may stop there. Of these all but Keats, Browning, Rossetti were University men; and of these three Keats, who died young, cut off in his prime, was the only one not fairly well-to-do. It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth … These are dreadful facts, but let us face them. It is — however dishonouring to us as a nation — certain that, by some fault in our commonwealth, the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance.”

It is worth going back even further than Quiller-Couch did. The most stunning achievements of the Renaissance were produced by men who began as apprentices, and who later enjoyed sustained financial support from wealthy patrons — Leonardo began in the workshop of Verrocchio; Michelangelo as an apprentice of Ghirlandaio, eventually becoming a pupil of Donatello’s; Botticelli is said to have apprenticed at the age of 14; and all three, Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Botticelli, received significant financial backing from Cosimo de Medici, or his grandson Lorenzo de Medici. It is no wonder that Leonardo saw the apprenticeship phase as indispensible in the formation of great artists:

“The young student should, in the first place, acquire a knowledge of perspective… after which, it is requisite that he be under the care of an able master, to accustom him, by degrees, to a good style…”

The point is not that years of employment, practice, and financial security will guarantee a Gone With the Wind (Mitchell also had a career in journalism) or Slaughterhouse-Five (Vonnegut’s career in journalism included a very, very brief stint at Sports Illustrated) or Ficciones (yes, Borges was a journalist, too), or a Mona Lisa or a Sistine Chapel.

But it does seem logical and obvious that a writer who is able to spend years sharpening his or her craft, who has an editor constantly critiquing their work and helping them sharpen and polish their prose, and who has a modest amount of financial support while doing so, will more often than not produce better work than a writer with no such backing, no such availability, and no editor.

James Dickey, who worked a 9–5 job in advertising before penning Deliverance and much of his best-known poetry, said:

“…the business world gives you almost no time to do anything but business. You are selling your soul to the devil all day and trying to buy it back at night. This can work out fine for a while, but after that the tensions and the difficulties begin to mount up and you see that you are going to have to make a choice.”

Unfortunately, the choice Dickey spoke of is increasingly becoming no choice at all. Without exposure and experience, the chances of getting paid to write today, even at the few publications still hiring, are lower than they ever have been — how is one supposed to get experience when you cannot get hired without it?

There are, of course, still young writers who are writing good books, and others who are getting paid to work at newspapers and magazines. But the numbers do not lie: in 1988, there were 455,600 people employed by newspapers in the United States; by 2010, the number had plummeted to 253,500. In the last 12 years alone, the industry has shed 1/5th of its journalists. And according to the Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism, in 2011, across the industry “net margins — after interest, taxes and special charges — are razor-thin… most papers achieved profitability largely through cutting.” Online and mobile advertising have increased significantly, but have in no way replaced print advertising (the Pew Center found “the 2012 ratio was 15 print ad dollars lost for every digital ad dollar gained”), and the industry continues to hemorrhage money. With fewer readers and plummeting advertising revenues, the newspaper industry is now smaller than the aerobics industry in the United States.

In a New York Times article titled, “The Slow Death of the American Author,” Scott Turow, president of the Authors Guild, explained that e-books will be no savior for the young author, either:

“Take e-books. They are much less expensive for publishers to produce: there are no printing, warehousing or transportation costs, and unlike physical books, there is no risk that the retailer will return the book for full credit.
But instead of using the savings to be more generous to authors, the six major publishing houses — five of which were sued last year [2012] by the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division for fixing e-book prices — all rigidly insist on clauses limiting e-book royalties to 25 percent of net receipts. That is roughly half of a traditional hardcover royalty.
Best-selling authors have the market power to negotiate a higher implicit e-book royalty in our advances, even if our publishers won’t admit it. But writers whose works sell less robustly find their earnings declining because of the new rate, a process that will accelerate as the market pivots more toward digital.”

It is becoming less and less ridiculous to believe that many good books which could have been written never will, and that young men and women who could have been a George Orwell or a Joyce Carol Oates will instead become clerks with a blog, or the friend who writes sharp emails. It has never been easier to get published (many authors do so themselves), while it has never been harder to have your work read, and even more, to make a living off of what you write. There is hope things will improve, but not much.