Michael Crichton 2023
Maybe gatekeepers are actually good?
Though hard to fathom today, Michael Crichton wrote his first novel to help pay for “furniture and groceries.” While attending Harvard Medical School, no less.
I can’t help but wonder, what would Michael Crichton look like if he got his start in 2023? Would he get his start at all?
Far from printing and selling copies of books out of the trunk of a car, Crichton submitted his novels to publishing houses. Though Doubleday turned it down, they recommended his first book, Odds On, to New American Library who published it shortly thereafter.
It’s a process that sounds quaint today. But it’s how the writing world worked for decades. Authors would submit drafts to literary agents or magazine editors who would work with talented writers to bring their work to market.
Like so many other businesses, the rise of social media and the ubiquity of the smartphone decimated the publishing industry. It still exists, but has consolidated significantly. And if you spend five minutes in the “new releases” section of Barnes & Noble (God help you), you’ll quickly see that they aren’t exactly publishing anything on the level of Michael Crichton these days.
But there’s a corner of the internet that says this is a good thing. We’re told that there are “no more gatekeepers” and that “anyone can open MS Word” and “self-publish a book on Amazon for free.”
Perhaps this is true in a literal sense. But does that actually mean there are no gatekeepers? And is that actually a good thing?
The answer to both questions is a resounding “No.”
Sure, you don’t need a publisher to bring a book to market. But if you self-publish something on Amazon and no one is there to read it, are you really an author?
Whereas Crichton had multiple avenues to successfully bring his work to an audience, there is really only one path to do so in today’s world. And it involves pleasing the most powerful gatekeeper of all: social media algorithms.
A small handful of faceless digital masters with a bottomless appetite for ephemeral content.
Want to build an audience online? Then get ready to play “the internet game.” A sort of social media version of Hungry Hungry Hippos in which you need to post entertaining and valuable content consistently, day after day, perhaps for years, until you get traction. And there’s no guarantee you will.
Now to be clear, it is very much possible to do this. But there are a couple of things I can’t help but notice:
1 – so many people that build an audience this way do so by regularly sharing content where they have existing expertise. Typically from a niche interest or career.
2 – they make content about making content. These MC^2s as I’ll call them are the primary people claiming we no longer have gatekeepers.
“You don’t need permission, just grind away on Twitter and Instagram for a year or two and you’ll get traction!” – the MC^2 advice in a nutshell.
But is this really conducive to great creative work? Like, say, a novel?
As a thought experiment, let’s try and imagine what Michael Crichton would do if he were a Med student today — as though we were reading about it in a Michael Crichton novel:
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP BE—. Michael’s left hand finally found the snooze button. “Shit.” It’s 9:20 and he was supposed to be in Foundations of Microbiology an hour ago.
But he didn’t care. It’d taken a year, but @MCHarvardMed just passed 15,000 followers after his latest MCAT Tweet thread went viral. Better still, his YouTube channel was starting to gain traction.
Though he wasn’t quite ready to say it – at least not out loud – medical school had become something of an afterthought. The average doc makes $350k a year, Logan Paul makes that from a single Instagram post. Michael’s last YouTube video made $600…Rome wasn’t built in a day, but he could feel the potential.
He never really wanted to be a doctor anyway. But after getting a B- from an out-to-lunch professor on an essay he copied verbatim from George Orwell, he dropped English in favor of Biology. And now here he is.
Michael grabs a Red Bull as he saunters over to his desk. “What a mess,” he mutters as he dumps an empty pizza box into a garbage bin that hasn’t been emptied in a week. He opens his laptop and finds Microsoft Word still open.
THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN
A man with binoculars. That is how it began: with a man standing by the side of the road…
The page went blank. He’d had this idea for years about an alien virus brought to Earth on a crashed satellite. He’d storyboarded the whole thing out, but hasn’t written more than a sentence since he launched his Twitter account.
He closes Word with a quiet sigh. “Later…” he says, only half believing it, as he opens Final Cut Pro. “There we go.”
This is it. After days of editing and countless hours obsessing over the thumbnail, his latest video was ready to go live. He’d read The YouTube Formula cover-to-cover and had the algorithm down cold.
He command-tabs over to Chrome and loads up the backend of his YouTube channel. With a few clicks he uploads his video. Michael takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, and allows himself to fantasize, if only for a moment, about what life will be like when he’s made it.
He clicks “publish,” takes a sip of his Red Bull, and admires his masterpiece:
“Two hours until Anatomy,” he thinks to himself. “Fuck it,” he opens Twitter.