1994-06-07: The Popularity of Writers

The following is a little essay I for myself wrote to clarify some thoughts on memes.


 

The Popularity of Writers (1994)

by Mike Blackstone

The relation between the writer and the reader

Carl has twice mentioned the difference between writers like Hemingway and Dickens, implying that Hemingway won’t be long remembered, that his work is local to a time.

The interaction, communication, from a writer to a reader can take the following forms.

1)  The writer can express memes the reader already holds. The writer will usually be appreciated by the reader.

2)  The writer can express memes the reader knows of but disbelieves. The writer will usually not be appreciated by the reader.

3)  The writer can express memes the reader has never thought of, but which threaten memes the reader already holds. The writer will usually not be appreciated.

4)  The writer can express memes the reader has never thought of, and which do not threaten any memes the reader already holds, and which relate to some interest of the reader. The writer will usually be appreciated.

5)  The writer can express memes the reader has never thought of, and which do not threaten any memes the reader already holds, but which do not relate to any interest of the reader, and do not pique the reader’s interest. The writer will usually not be appreciated.

6)  The writer can express memes the reader has never thought of, and which do not threaten any memes the reader already holds, and which do not relate to any interest of the reader, but do pique the reader’s interest. The writer will usually be appreciated.

(Of course a complex work can do more than one of these things.)

With these six categories, knowing the distinctive set of memes expressed by a writer in a work, and knowing the distribution of readers with respect to those memes, it should be fairly straightforward to predict the popularity of a writer (assuming, of course, a reasonable amount of accessibility in the style, presentation and distribution of the work to various communities of potential readers.)

Then Dickens, for example, wrote about common people, facing common problems, in a way that made them seem nobler than most people probably are. His works were popular among people who identified or sympathized with similar victims, and were published in forms that made them accessible to such people.

Hemingway wrote about people living a lifestyle inaccessible to most people, but acting in a way that rejected many of the constraints society would impose. This came at a time when many people were rejecting attitudes and beliefs about social leadership after WW I. His works were popular. (I use Hemingway to stand for all those writers sometimes called the “lost generation”.)

This is all very obvious. What interests me is this. The readers of 1925 fall into three demographic categories with respect to WW I. The youngest were not old enough to serve (though some of their family members may have served). The middle group served or otherwise directly experienced ill effects of the war. The eldest group was too old to serve. Each of these groups can be further divided according to their 1925 attitude toward the justifiability of the war and its effects, giving six categories of readers: young/middle/old, hawk/dove. I don’t know the sizes of these groups, but research should give a reasonable estimate. I assume that the young/doves and middle/doves would largely appreciate Hemingway, and that few of the hawks would (though the young/hawks might be more favorable than the others). The old/doves might split along other concerns.

The question I would like to understand is this: For the middle and old groups, what changes in their attitudes/beliefs occurred in the period 1915-1925, that would make them appreciate Hemingway where they would not have done so before? Did a typical Hemingway appreciator also appreciate Dickens?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email