Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Decline of the Middle (Creative) Class

I suggested in an earlier post that the rise to dominance of the thriller had not been accompanied by a rise in quality and reputation. In this and the next post, I'll try to put some foundations under this claim.

Popular art is driven by markets and shifts in popular art can always be traced back, at least partly, to economic, social and technological developments as well as changes in popular taste. The emergence of genre fiction followed the rise of the popular magazine (check here for more). Jazz hit its stride as the population started moving to cities. Talking pictures replaced silents when the technology made them possible.

Crime fiction, like science fiction first appeared in response to demand from general interest magazines like the Strand then moved into genre specific magazines like Black Mask and a few years later, cheap paperbacks. The demand for short stories was so great that even a successful author like Fitzgerald saw them as a lucrative alternative to novels. There was money to be made and that money brought in a lot of new writers.

It seems strange to say it now but for much of the Twentieth Century, it was possible to make a middle class living as a writer of short fiction. It wasn't easy; you had to write well and type fast enough to melt the keys but a surprisingly large number of people managed to do it.

Nor were writers the only example of the new creative middle class. According to Rosy McHargue (reported by music historian Brad Kay) in 1925 there were two hundred thousand professional musicians in the United States. Some were just scraping by, but many were making a good living. (keep in mind that many restaurants, most clubs and all theaters had at least one musician on the payroll.) Likewise, the large number of newspapers and independent publishers meant lots of work for graphic artists.

I don't want to wax too nostalgic for this era. Sturgeon's Law held firmly in place: 95% of what was published was crap. But it was the market for crap that made the system work. It provided the freelance equivalent of paid training -- writers could start at least partially supporting themselves while learning their craft, and it mitigated some of the risk of going into the profession -- even if you turned out not to be good enough you could still manage food and shelter while you were failing.

It was also a remarkably graduated system, one that rewarded quality while making room for the aforementioned crap. The better the stories the better the market and the higher the acceptance rate. In 1935, Robert E. Howard made over $2,000 strictly through magazine sales. Later, as the paperback market grew, writers at the very top like Ray Bradbury or John O'Hara would also see their stories collected in book form.

Starting with Gold Medal Books, paperback originals became a force in 1950. This did cut into the magazine market and hastened the demise of the pulps but it made it easier than ever before to become a novelist. It was more difficult (though still possible) to make a living simply by selling short stories, but easier to make the transition to longer and more lucrative works.

It was, in short, a beautifully functioning market with an almost ideal compensation system for a freelance based industry. It produced some exceptionally high quality products that have generated billions of dollars and continue to generate them in resales and adaptations (not to mention imitations and unlicensed remakes). This includes pretty much every piece of genre fiction you can think written before 1970.

The foundation of that system, the short story submarket, is essentially dead and the economics and business models of the rest of the publishing industry has changed radically leading to the rise of marketing, the blockbuster mentality and what I like to call the Slim Jim conundrum.

Tune in next time.

1 comment:

  1. A really great post! I really enjoyed it and I remember reading about just how much a cent or a half-cent a word was really worth in 1935!