Thanks to Pitchers and Poets I just read this somewhat infuriating article by Bill James (general smart guy and honorary father of modern Sabermetrics, for those of you who don't know him). Eric Nusbaum does a nice critique of the salient logical fallacies of the article, but I have my own entirely more pretentious and cultural axe to grind. Upon doing so in the comments, I realized that I had written a blog post, so I transfered the thing over and made a couple edits and additions. Enjoy.
Are we great at producing athletes? Of course we are. But to say that we don't develop great writers or philosophers or artists or whatever in our society is total and utter hogwash. We produce a whole lot of great thinkers, and, thanks to 1) increased access to great ideas of both the past and present, 2) more sophisticated and far-reaching networks, and 3) improved social justice, I would guess that we're producing just as many if not more great thinkers per capita as Shakespeare's London.
Now, it is certainly true that we don't value great thinkers commercially as much as we do athletes, thanks to the nature of consumption of their respective products, but one need only spend a few hours in a university library somewhere to see that there's a whole hell of a lot of darn good writing going on in the world (and, hey, save the gas and spend some time surfing the interwebs or even *gasp* watching television, since a lot of darn good writing is happening both of those mediums, as well; people are writing and reading more now than at any time in history).
Is contemporary writing "great" writing? Well, what does "great" even mean? Doesn't a big part of Shakespeare's greatness come from the hundreds of years of cultural and academic narrative we've built around his work? I'm not arguing against it's inherent quality, but as silly as that would be, it's equally silly to claim that no one writing today is as good as Shakespeare. Indeed, I would argue that there might be dozens or even hundreds (or even, dare I suggest, thousands or tens of thousands) of writers today with both the natural talent and the refined sensibilities to match Shakespeare. The reality is, we don't have the lens of history through which to look at the present, and we don't have the time to compare all of those potential Topekan Shakespeares to old Will, so it's impossible to really know.
What's more, our whole cultural paradigm has shifted. No longer is there a single Canon of great works that everyone reads, certainly not among works produced in the last half-century. Instead, there are sub-cultures and sub-canons. Whereas the work of producing great literature, art, and philosophy was once concentrated in the hands of a select few masters, now that same work is distributed across vast networks of vaguely interconnected domains. The result: umpteen great writers with talent and determination and good educations and so on, most of whom do not fail to be considered great because of the quality of their work, but because they simply never find much of an audience. Remember, most of us had to be forced to read Shakespeare in school, anyway (and many students just read the cliff notes), and that's freaking Shakespeare. How much more likely are we to ignore a modern writer of equal quality, but whose work is not forced down our throats?
In short, it's silly to ignore all of the vast cultural differences between Shakespearean London and modern Topeka (or anywhere else). I'm as much a fan of the notion of something eternal in human experience as anyone, and I also happen to think that reading Shakespeare (and Bacon, and Kant, and Plato, and Hegel, and so on) is a good idea. But you can't just call writers from before 1900 "Great" and write off modernity. You can't claim that some seminal works of the past might be closer to capital-T Truth without acknowledging that the way in which times have changed has had a profound impact on the process of thinking, writing, the organization of society, and our notions of greatness.