The other day, in conversation, I came up with the phrase "the one-two cultural punch" as a label for the big dilemma that most creators face.
There is more cultural activity now than ever before,
but most of it is awful — or rather, most of it has no ambition greater than to give people what they want, and so there is no incentive for those people to ask for anything better when they can make up the difference in sheer bulk.
Some of us know that five bad books can't collectively add up to one good one. The whole of a certain urban-fantasy series whichi I won't name here can't work as a replacement for even a single Asimov short story. (I was going to say "a Chekhov play", but I decided to keep the playing field both fair and level here.) But most people, again, are not critics, and aren't in the habit of developing a critical mentality. Some of that might well be a factor of the ongoing conflation of criticism with being a gloomy killjoy, but one social myth at a time.
What I'm suspecting is an even more crucial issue is how authors have to compete with more different kinds of things than they did even twenty years ago, let alone a hundred. The sheer number of ways people can spend their leisure time (which is in increasingly short supply across the board) is staggering, and the ones who lose out most in such circumstances are the ones whose work requires the most time and effort.
I'm not suggesting that in the mad rush to steal a little attention away from the boob tube or WoW, authors are dumbing their work down to the point where they're essentially writing tie-ins for games yet to be created or TV shows yet to be made — although I'd bet a good argument could be made for that. Rather, I'm worried that authors are going to gradually dismiss — or outright forget — the things that made a book a book. Reading doesn't work like moviegoing or video game playing, and that's not a bug but a feature. The more we cultivate the things only a book can do, the better off we'll all be for it.