Soul Trading: how dirty words like entrepreneur are undergoing a digital-age makeover

Is it possible, in the second decade of the 21st century, to establish oneself as an author without also being an entrepreneur? NB: I use the word author rather than writer, the Latin root of the former meaning originator and the German root of the latter’s verb forms meaning to scratch. As a verb, author refers to the essence of creative work, while write refers to the occupation’s mechanics in space–time.

By the bye, the French word entrepreneur comes from entreprendre, meaning ‘take in hand’ or ‘undertake’ (Macquarie Dictionary 5th edition), two ways of saying ‘assume responsibility for’. Seen in that light, entrepreneurship sounds ever so well rounded, grown up; evokes the proverbial Renaissance man/woman. And yet, both definitions share the concept of taking, not giving, consistent with the political climate in which entrepreneurs tend to thrive, and which last time I looked was called ‘late capitalism’.

For years now, most writers’ newsletters to which I subscribe have brimmed with features on how to exploit social media. It’s rare to see a good, in-depth article on creative writing technique. Writers who want to be published must become small business operators.* Duh, I hear most of you say. So what exactly has changed?

It used to be possible to be both a writer and a recluse, to be read while maintaining a measure of privacy. But now we’ve graduated to a so-called ‘information society’, where pundits wax self-righteous about the virtue of having nothing to hide. More and more, an individual’s worth in the world appears to be judged by how often they inspire some stranger to click a ‘like’ button or leave a comment; their ultimate value reducible to how much traffic they attract. To run with the obvious metaphor, increased traffic means accessibility. What’s narrow must be widened, possible only through the sacrifice of varied wildlife, peace and quiet, and acceptance of higher pollution levels. Then, too, as demand increases, it’s common for quality to retreat. Trolls take their toll (there’s that word take again).

I once knew a writer who used to classify people as ‘Givers’ or ‘Takers’ – a binary opposition that marks much thinking in the digital age. This writer also challenged me for disparaging the noble cult of entrepreneurship; a peeve of mine, it turned out, she had reason to take personally. Admittedly, my misgivings (vs. mistakings?) are no more rational than her contempt for Indian mynahs or phobia of spiders. But I don’t advocate the killing of the object of my antipathy. And given that said objects are hogging a pie I’d taste if offered a slice (be it only half-baked, as even major publishers’ standards decline under pressure from burgeoning competition and vanishing time), why would I be impressed with her kind – brash as mynahs and sly as spiders (forgive the cheap anthropomorphic gibe). The thing is, it’s not individual entrepreneurs – sole traders – I despise, but assumptions that encourage the opportunistic mindset that results in the sort of competitive culture that spawns a race against time to exploit exponentially dwindling resources.†

An obvious question is, What do I gain by not dipping so much as a toe in the maelstrom of 140-character blurts and virtual friend collecting? But, as a less-than-averagely conditioned consumer, I wonder instead: What, if I subscribe to this new diversion, might I lose? (For one thing, privacy.) Because – and feel free to tell me if you disagree – hasn’t a growing mood of there being nothing much left to lose fuelled our digital hunger, thanks to 24/7 multimedia plugging into our low self-esteem, implanting the belief that we can’t be young/spunky/rich enough or smell artificial enough to deserve love unless we spend and own more, use more products? No wonder we like the duplicitous online ‘environment’ where we can choose to be known by our cutest photo; a flower or butterfly gravatar; a catchy, upbeat tag.

It’s as if the whole of civilised society is regressing towards childhood. In one of her finest novels, The Stone Gods (2007), Jeanette Winterson satirises this brilliantly (which many reviewers missed, Winterson’s books having become as critically undervalued as Woody Allen’s films – perhaps because both, besides being prolific, recycle favourite tropes and persist in self-portraiture?). Jennifer Egan, too, foresees a child-oriented future in A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), with digitally enabled toddlers decreeing the fate of popular music. And hey, over three decades ago, Milan Kundera made kindred observations in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978).

* In her essay on graphomania, ‘Echo Chamber’ (Monthly, Oct 2012), Linda Jaivin (having quoted generously from Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting) laments the narcissism of internet culture, saying:

Leslie Cannold once wrote in Australian Author magazine about the need for writers to face the fact that 90% of the job these days was self-promotion and only 10% writing, and to get on Twitter. I can’t quote her exactly. The piece made me so anxious that I threw the whole issue in the recycling bin. I didn’t recognise anything in it that I liked about being a writer.

Though I recognised nothing likeable either, I didn’t toss that issue; the difference between Linda and me lies less in our values than that she’s established; her star rose before the cult of self-promotion took over. What publisher now would take a punt on a writer with no online following? (Do they google the submitter’s name before or after they read the synopsis?) Jaivin, whom I admire both as an activist and comic writer, sides with fellow boomer Jonathan Franzen, and despite all the flak he cops for his anti-social-media stance, I concur. But what do these fully-fledged authors with their natural, even soulful, aversion have for those of us still struggling to emerge?

Clementine Ford, another sassy, politically savvy comic writer (if at an earlier career stage, being a gen Yer) speaks more for the hordes of writers finding their way in these challenging times. Says Ford, who describes herself as ‘someone who uses social media platforms voraciously’: ‘Like many writers of my generation, I first started flexing my writing muscles on the internet.’ The gist of her article ‘The Business of Creativity’ (Newswrite, Oct–Nov 2012) is: Why sacrifice authenticity when you can just bring it to Facebook and Twitter, assuming you hope to write for a living?

† In an article provocatively titled ‘Why sustainability is bad for the environment’, Paul Kingsnorth sums up the problem of the average business model: ‘This is business-as-usual: the expansive, colonising, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. […] Instead of changing how we live, we are talking about changing our technologies. But it’s not enough – and it’s not the point.’

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