Not long ago I was talking to some folks about the problems of being an author (sadly, the Jeremiad that came from my mouth made it sound like being an author was nothing but problems), and one of the things that popped out, unbidden, seems to have been spot-on. The problem with being a writer — and, by extension, most any kind of creator — is not just that you're in competition with other writers currently alive. You're competing with every other writer that ever lived, too, because the same systems that deliver readers your work with the touch of a button also deliver all of theirs as well.
Wait, it gets worse (I added). You're also in competition with every other creative figure that wants to monopolize someone's time — every video game, every movie, every tabletop game, every board game, every TV show, every Sudoku puzzle and crossword, every magazine article and newspaper headline.
Whenever I hear all the bleating about the decline of reading (not that I believe it, mind you), there's a simple enough culprit: there's more than ever to do, it's hardly a surprise some of the most time-consuming and rarefied pleasures end up dropping off the bottom. With all the things that make demands on what little spare time we have, is it a surprise that sitting still and looking at words on a page gets pushed down and down?
And yet (I went on), people still do read, and voraciously so, in big part because books and reading deliver something that is unique to them. I will not park my toes in my mouth by saying books do such things better, only that they do them in a way that is not duplicated elsewhere, and for that reason need a cherishing of a sort that doesn't map to TV, movies, board games, Sudoku, Battlefield III, Grand Theft Auto, etc., etc. There's a reason they haven't been able to film, say, The Great Gatsby properly; it's because most of the actual story isn't on the page, but between and behind the lines, and so of course the results are flat even when they've been filmed in 3D. None of which is to say that great movies can't exist, only that what makes a movie great and what makes a book great are not always things that can be mapped onto each other or swapped between them.
It was only after I'd gone home from this conversation, with all of the above still washing back and forth in my head, that I realized the one thing I'd been building up to from all that had gone unsaid. It's something I've said in these pages before, but it seems all the more vital with each passing day: the more we think of a book as a mere prelude to some other piece of media, the less of a book it's going to be. And the more we think of that as being an antidote to the problem of competition — if you can't lick 'em, sell out to 'em — the less there ever will be to do as a writer in the first place.