Whenever I hear the cliché “You can do anything you like if you set your mind to it,” I immediately think of my career in the National Basketball Association (NBA). What, you’re surprised? Surprised that after shooting hoops in packed arenas across the country, after brushing sweaty backs with LeBron James and Kobe Bryant I would choose the quiet life of a writer? Shame on you. Have you never heard of Kareem Abdul Jabbar, nee Lew Alcindor? He did the exact same thing against the likes of Robert Parish and Bill Walton and Larry Bird, and then settled into a life of the mind. So cast away your doubts. I am merely trailing the vapouors of Kareem’s flight plan. Well, except for one thing: no matter how much I put my mind to it, regardless of the time spent in the gym and the weight room, no matter how badly I wanted it, there is absolutely no way I could have been an NBA player.
“You can do anything you want” has been a longstanding objection of mine. As ever I am on the side of realism—often mistaken for a deep-seated pessimism—and when I express this, when I bring people down to earth, the example I use is the one about being an NBA player. It is if course an extreme example, but in truth I could pick out a million other careers, careers not as unattainable as the lofty heights of the NBA but nonetheless out of reach. It is a pernicious lie we tell our children, even if it is done with the best intentions, that they too can be whatever they want.
At least, that is what I always told myself, until I met a woman who, after I applied my flawless NBA argument, asked me, “Have you ever wanted to be an NBA player? I mean, more than the childhood fantasies?” I stopped and thought about this. The truth is, no, I have never actually wanted to be an NBA player. When I said this to the woman, she finished me off with “So what’s the big deal that you can’t be one?” Swish! She nailed her three-point shot while swatting away my three-foot layup.
Unable to mount a defense after that, I restricted my realism to my own world. Not that I would ever tell someone else “You will never in a million years make it as a biochemist,” not only because I actually don’t know that’s true but also because who am I to tell someone what they can or can’t do? It takes such little effort to encourage each other, and if someone is not going to make it as a this or a that, they’ll find out on their own.
But the thesis won’t go away. I have a friend, Chris, a photographer, who absolutely insists anyone can not only do it but also do it well. I deeply admire that kind of optimism. It expresses the best of conservative thinking: the idea that you can pull yourself out of any situation and escape your circumstances. The downside to that way of thinking is that it presupposes equal access of opportunity—that Jane and Jeff, siblings in rural Arkansas, who grew up in foster homes, will have the same chance as Jessica and Jason, siblings who grew up in San Jose, the daughter and son of a software engineer and an OB/GYN.
Chris gets that, but claims the Internet has expanded opportunities for anyone and everyone to showcase their talents. On that point I agree. It takes a few points and clicks and boom! A Web site is created, and Bill from Buffalo has his venue to show his pictures. The point I disagree on is whether Bill from Buffalo’s pictures are worth showing, and Chris had unwittingly given me the proof I needed.
He took me to a local photography Web site, where aspiring photographers could share their work and network for jobs, etc. The quintessential activity of the gig economy: disparate people and talents brought together to compete for their shrinking bite of an already tiny pie. I had seen some of Chris’ work, and though my knowledge of photography is limited, I liken it to wine: I know what’s good, even if I don’t know why. And Chris has a beautiful eye. He paints with his camera.
The same cannot be said for the photographer—let’s call this person Zeta—Chris showed me to illustrate his point. “Yes,” he said, “the pictures themselves are garbage. But that doesn’t mean Zeta can’t improve. Look how there is a basic knowledge of the way light interacts with the setting. Zeta knows this,” Chris added, claiming that the real difference between his work and Zeta’s was one of commitment. “Zeta just needs to care a little more.” While I agree with Chris in theory, the long, rich history of the arts suggests this is as good as Zeta will ever get. Chris himself admits that’s at least possible, but again puts it down to effort. I can’t disagree more. Even amongst professional artists a talent gap clearly exists. Just as one exists in sports, chemistry, woodworking, plumbing, software engineering. Is Chris suggesting that what separates Bill Gates from Joe Programmer is simply effort?
Consider the work of Ed Wood, the immortally bad director of such masterpieces as Plan Nine From Outer Space and Glen or Glenda, among others. Far from knowing he was creating fodder for lovers of so-bad-they’re-good movies, Wood was convinced his work had merit. While he may not have considered himself a Fellini or Kubrick, he believed he was good enough. Not to be cruel, but the word I am looking for here is “no.” No amount of effort could transform his movies into something resembling a decent work of art, no extra time in the editing room would make the slightest difference. It’s both a relief and a pity Wood isn’t around to take advantage of the Internet. On the Internet no talent is needed; there is no gatekeeper reading and rejecting scripts at a film studio.
Although it’s easy to suggest that before the Internet hundreds of talented artists went unnoticed, it’s even easier to point out that the more there is of a thing, even a good thing, its value will drop accordingly. I freely admit I do not read blogs. I do not scour the Internet for musicians self-producing their work. The photos Chris showed me—both his and the other local photographers—represented a rare foray. No doubt I am missing out on some talent, but it’s discouraging that for all the potential of the Internet, what it does perhaps better than anything else is homogenisation. Far more than revealing the next great thing, the sheer volume of people on the Web exhibiting their work—whether writing, music, painting, photography—has the opposite effect: it throws us all into an ever-expanding cacophony of voices that make it harder and harder to muffle the dissonance and find the harmonious. There’s nothing wrong with greatness, even if it comes at the expense of many well-intentioned artists giving their all—artists who, in theory, lack not the talent but the connections. That is where the Internet comes in, my friend Chris believes. It levels the playing field.
Only it doesn’t. Sally Rooney does not have a book contract because she’s got more connections than Blogger B. Sally Rooney has a book contract because she’s a better writer than Blogger B.