Years ago an upstart magazine based in a smallish Ontario city/biggish Ontario town asked me to write an article for the premiere issue. I wrote the article and got paid a small honorarium, but the magazine itself collapsed before even the first edition was printed. No one has ever read that article.
No, that’s not entirely true: the editor read it and so did I. You may be thinking, “So what. You got paid, and that’s the main thing,” and if so you’re right but you’re wrong too. I put a lot of work into that article, and because I wanted to see the magazine do well, and they had a modest budget, I did the job for very little money. I doubt I even got paid minimum wage — but again, that’s not the point. I laboured in the making of that article because I assumed people would read it. I would have put in the same effort if I had expected no pay, whereas if I had expected no readers, I would have gone out with friends.
There’s a specific reason that I’ve been thinking about that black-hole essay. The immediate occasions are WordPress statistics and something I’m calling the Justin Bieber Principle. But before I explain the relevance of WordPress and the JBP, a little background.
Some days it’s lovely outside and I have an essay I need or want to write, but I’d rather drink a bottle of wine in the sun. I can’t do both. Writing and wine and sun mix badly. For instance, even though I will have wine or scotch while I write, I always write in a state of sobriety. It’s the addition of the outdoors that is the catalyst. Sun, wine, and the outdoors in combination are not conducive to the state of mental discipline that writing demands. That may sound quaint to you, or otherwise weird. I don’t mind. It’s my writing, and therefore my rules. I’m not claiming that everything I write is top-notch. In fact, most of what I write falls very much short of the standard I want to achieve. That’s going to be an important point in what follows, so keep it in mind.
WordPress does something that its designers doubtless feel is helpful and good for its users: they provide detailed statistics. I imagine many users also value these tools. I have mixed feelings about them. The stats provided by WordPress mostly depress and de-motivate me, because they prove something I’ve always suspected — that there’s no relationship between the quality of a piece of writing (and the effort put into making it) and the attention that a piece of writing gets. A year ago I consciously chose to forego sun and wine and outdoors to spend a good number of hours on an essay that has received one “hit.” It’s a good essay, in my opinion, but no one knows about it. It may very well never have been read, like the unpublished piece I wrote years ago. Meanwhile, some work of mine that in retrospect I consider not very good has been read quite a bit. I won’t complain about that, but if I’m being honest I have to admit it bothers me because it makes a mockery of my Protestant Work Ethic.
I learned the other day that Justin Bieber has over eleven million followers on Twitter, and that every day another 20,000 or so jump on his wagon. I infer from this that millions of people follow his every word. I’d be jealous of him for this if it weren’t the case that I don’t want millions of thirteen year-olds poring over my writing. If they happen to do so, fine. Only, I don’t covet it. And it’s nothing that I harbour against thirteen year-olds; I am merely recognizing the fact that they wouldn’t get much out of what I have to say. I suspect they don’t get much from Justin Bieber’s tweeting either, but that’s none of my business. There’s a verse in the Bible that states, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” That’s the Justin Bieber Principle, and it’s what bothers me. I think it should bother everyone, and the fact that it doesn’t bothers me even more.
It’s ironic that my dilemma, wine vs. work, may be conceived as a paradigm which has at both ends a biblical (or perhaps pseudo-biblical) provenance: the Protestant Work Ethic versus Ecclesiastes. PWE says, “Only the disciplined and gratification-deferring succeed,” whereas the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “Screw it. Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart … all the days of this meaningless life.” I’m all for Ecclesiates, but there’s probably always going to be a part of my brain that keeps believing I’ll get somewhere if I just keep working at it. Ecclesiates laughs at me, and I know I deserve it. And besides, I have bills to pay. So I do what we all do, a little of both. I hope that the balancing act gets me at least near to where I want to go. PWE versus Qoheleth yields a philosophical mullet, business up front and a party out in the back. The problem is that the balancing act never works and never can. You end up disappointed at both ends, because compromise is settling for half-measures and consolation prizes. Everyone looks ridiculous with a mullet.