In baseball, there is a concept in advanced statistics known as VORP or Value Over Replacement Player. It is used to describe how good a player is relative to another player who could be had, more or less, for free. How this is measured isn’t as important as the concept.
You see, for a very long time, the numbers in baseball have gotten less gaudy. Oh sure, someone will have a ridiculous season every now and then, but in general, the best players have a much lower VORP now than they did in the 60s or the 30s or the 20s. There’s a pretty basic reason behind this – the bottom level players are much better now than they were 80 or 100 years ago. The population sending players to the majors is much larger than it was then.
That doesn’t mean great players from the past weren’t great. It just means they look better than they were because the competition wasn’t as stiff. Babe Ruth would probably still be a wonderful player if he played today, but he might not be BABE RUTH, if you get my point.
This has been a lengthy introduction about baseball, but this isn’t really about baseball. Instead, I wanted to introduce the concept to you. Now, I want to you participate in a mental exercise I am borrowing from Virginia Woolf.
Imagine Shakespeare’s siblings. He had seven, but three died very young. Imagine they had lived. Now imagine he had more. Hundreds even. And imagine that many of them were just as talented as he was. They, too, were slaving away, writing great plays and poems. But their brother published first and became famous and so maybe they publish a little thing here or there, but in general, the public isn’t interested because they already have one Shakespeare and don’t need another.
Obviously, the numbers vary over the course of his lifetime, but a good estimate for the population of England when Shakespeare was alive is 4 million people. The literacy rate for men was about 30% (I can’t find the exact rate for women, but it was significantly lower). So, of the two million men kicking around England with Shakespeare, there were 600,000 who could at least write their names. If you like, we can guess at a 20% literacy rate for women and call it an even million literate people. Shakespeare was one in a million! Neat! And that seems right, doesn’t it?
There are more than 60 million people in the modern UK.
There are more than 300 million people in the modern US.
There are more than 30 million people in Canada.
There are more than 20 million people in Australia
Those are the four largest nations in the world where English is the primary language. 410 million people. If Shakespeare was one in a million, there should be about 410 of him running around right now.
Add to that this piece of information: Last year, there were over one million books published. That’s more books than there were people to write them in Shakespearean England.
There is a quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s memoir, The Sky Is Not theLimit that he takes from an 5000-year-old Assyrian tablet. It says:
“The earth is degenerating these days. Bribery and corruption abound. Children no longer mind their parents… and it is evident that the end of the world is approaching fast.”
The implication, obviously, is that people have always been romanticizing the past. Things today are never as good as they once were. Shakespeare. Dickens. Wharton. Austen. Steinbeck. Hemingway. These are the Great Writers and we will never see others like them.
This is almost certainly wrong. It’s wrong for the same reasons it’s wrong to assume that Babe Ruth was better than any of today’s players. Sheer numbers argue that there must be many more great writers today than there were then. The difference, mostly, is that the 50th best writer now is much closer to the best writer than the 50th best writer was two hundred years ago. That is, artists today suffer by comparison, just as baseball players do.
I don’t think that’s all of it, though. Humanity also tends to give extra credit to originators. Roger Ebert recently had a post about his list of the best films ever. They are almost all old, but many of them are also innovative. Innovation requires two things. Creativity, obviously, but also opportunity. You can’t discover something that’s already been found. Even if you figure something out on your own, it doesn’t count if someone else has done it.
Of course, discovery and innovation become increasingly difficult as time passes and as population increases. This is why there is an entire literary movement (post-modernism) built around the discovery that you can tell a story without thinking about the reader. There simply aren’t that many places left to go.
All of this means that today’s artists have a very low Value Over Replacement Artist (VORA). I recently started Lauren Groff’s new book. I didn’t care for it. I found the language overwrought and pretentious. I put it down. I had really been looking forward to the new book because I had really enjoyed her first two, but I didn’t think twice about moving on to something else. Why? There are wonderful books in uncountable numbers that I haven’t read. Why waste time on one I’m not enjoying when I can simply move on? This kind of thinking makes it difficult to anoint new “greats.” We have so many choices that we pick nits instead of trying to recognize someone as a great artist who is, at times, less great.
But there are bigger consequences because we do, eventually, choose those who represent our generation. Time is a wonderful filter. The larger consequences come because a society only needs so many books, so many musicians, so many athletes, and so many artists.
I want to return to one of the numbers I mentioned earlier. There were over a million books published last year. Do you really believe there aren’t a lifetime of classics there? Cate is the most avid reader I know. She routinely blows past a hundred books a year, but over the course of her life how many books can she read? Six thousand? Seven? Maybe eight? That’s less than one percent of all the books published in one year.
Humans, many of us at least, are inherently creative people. We interact with the world through creative expression. Often, this is its own reward, but it’s hard to create as much as you’d like when you have to worry about other things like paying the bills. And the bigger your society is, the more truly wonderful artists go through life utterly ignored and unappreciated. This is a tragedy.
It’s one of the reasons I occasionally pluck a book off the shelf at random when I’m in the bookstore or the library. But how many manuscripts are out there that never get published? Harper Lee walked into a publishing house and handed them her book. You can’t do that today. Publishing almost always requires getting and agent. Getting an agent almost always requires being published. It’s a vicious cycle.
And no one is to blame. Because there is a torrent. Manuscripts, I know, come in by the hundreds, but only so many can be published. We live in a big world and the bigger the world gets, the less the artist matters because there is always another one behind the next door who is just as good as the person they are replacing.