As far back as we can see, the economics of literary fame have been based on scarcity: there is not enough recognition to go around, so every human being's just claim cannot be met. Beauty is the currency, as arbitrary as gold or paper, in which recognition is bought and sold. We grant great writers the dignity of having really been, the posthumous recognition that we call immortality, because they please us with their arrangements of words. Because of how well they wrote, we remember not just their works but their letters, travels, illnesses, aspirations—we feel with and for them. But we do this as irrationally as the peahen rewards the peacock with the biggest tail feathers, which have nothing intrinsically to do with reproductive fitness.
If the scarcity of recognition is a symptom of the world's fallenness, then literary ambition is a form of complicity with fallenness. In other words, it is a sin. Because there is not enough money in the world, people steal; because there is not enough power, people do violence; because there is not enough recognition, they make art.
The Internet has democratized the means of self-expression, but it has not democratized the rewards of self-expression. Now everyone can assert a claim to recognition—in a blog, tumblr, Facebook status update. But the amount of recognition available in the world is inexorably shrinking, since each passing generation leaves behind more writers with a claim on our memory. That is why the fight for recognition is so fierce and so personal.
- from "The Fight for Recognition" by Adam Kirsch, from the November 2008 issue of POETRY.
Read the whole thing, for some reason retitled, here.