Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books, explores the question’s history in under 2000 words.
Parks doesn’t take on the actual historical role of the writer, only the perception left on those attempting the profession.
Let’s leave aside how accurate this is historically; it’s what they taught us and it got stuck in our heads: on the one hand the writer as artisan whose personality was hardly important, a position dominant in pre-industrial times when writers were few and held subordinate roles in fairly rigid hierarchies (a Petrarch or a Chaucer); on the other the writer as a charismatic superman (the Byrons and Shelleys) whose refined sensibility and creative powers gave him the right to transgress and question his community’s rules.
Next came T.S. Eliot, whose example taught that a writer had to “overcome his personality and find his place in tradition.” This gave the writer a path and a core curriculum. In the last 30 or 40 years, the game changed again. The cost of publishing plummeted and is plummeting still. The number of titles published has exploded. The blockbuster and long tail now rule.
From this chaos, the creative writing program has arisen as a haven for writers, exacerbating the split between writer-as-rebel and writer-as-professional.
Now a professional writer will “do literature” while trying to “project an image of himself (partly through his writings, but also in dozens of other ways) as an artist who embodies the direction in which culture is headed. In short, the next big new thing. A Rushdie. A Pamuk.”
But, Parks reminds us, this is only the career, not the job.
Much rarer is the sort of book (one thinks of Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin, or Peter Stamm’s On a Day Like This, or going back a way, the maverick English writer Henry Green) where the writer appears, amazingly, to be working directly from experience and imagination, drawing on his knowledge of past literature only in so far as it offers tools for having life happen on the page.