On Competition In The Arts

I have a friend who’s a glassblower, and I’ve always been amazed how solitary glassblowers are at times. Of course, to blow the coolest, craziest stuff, you need a team, but many glassblowers have cliques and secrets of the craft that they don’t necessarily want getting out for others to use.

The way I’ve come to understand it, as an outsider to the glassblowing culture is this: If a buyer buys a piece of glass from someone else, it eats into your business because that buyer now has less to spend on your work.

Needless to say this creates a cutthroat mentality that spawns envy and lies. There’s a lot of shit talking in the glassblowing community of Seattle–or so I’ve seen. People dislike each other for a lot of reasons, but most are trivial. But it does seem strange and contradictory to me for all these artists to be fighting each other rather than helping each other.

In the writing community (that I’m a part of) things couldn’t be more different. The success of a friend, if he/she publishes a book or gets an agent is also my success, because I’m part of the community. I support them, go to readings, I’ll read their material and give them honest feedback. I’ll read their book. How does this benefit me in my own writing? Well, when I publish, get an agent, or give a reading–hopefully that community will be there for me as well. However, I understand that not everyone has a community like this. Not all writers have the support. And some see the success of others as a detriment to their own success. Their own success becomes a tool which they can hold above others who are not so accomplished.

Today, a famous writer, one who has written a couple books and is very popular, tweeted out that they could be seen on CSpan that very instant. The authors I follow on Twitter are the ones I respect and admire, and I commonly try to strike up conversations with them–which I’m sometimes successful at. So, jokingly, I tweeted that, “I hear [CSpan] is real popular with the cool kids these days.” It was a joke, in my opinion directed at CSpan more than the writer. I hoped to exchange some banter about the viewership, maybe even have a laugh about the experience of watching yourself on TV. But instead, I got a defensive response. “Shrug. What channel are you on?” This struck me as an exceedingly arrogant response (and my blogging about it now, may be even more arrogant, but I’m not sure). Instead of a chance to speak and have a laugh with someone who has read the books this author has written, this author used the success they have achieved as an instrument to hold themselves up while pushing another writer, someone who admires them, down. I don’t dwell on such things often, but this instance reminded me so much of the glassblowing community in Seattle.

The problem with this defensive reactionary response is that it pits artists against each other, when they should be working together. I understand that my comment could have been seen as a slight, but I ask myself: what kind of famous, successful author uses fame as a tool to make other’s feel bad about their relatively early career? What good does this do for them, but reassure themselves that they are important? This is a lot of judgement to put on this tiny interaction, but it’s one that is prominent within the literary world, and anyone who has watched interviews of Jonathan Franzen* knows what I’m talking about.

(He is not the writer mentioned in this piece. He thinks Twitter is the most base form of writing and that nobody who uses Twitter can be a good writer: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/mar/07/jonathan-franzen-calls-twitter-irresponsible)

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