Schopenhauer On The Age Of Sponsored Content

The Dish constantly links to and loves Maria Popova. For me, she represents the best that the Internet has to offer. She gets paid by reader Schopenhauerdonations and affiliate income. She writes what she loves. She reads books. She has seized the limitless potential of the web – but by bucking the cult of contemporaneity, by digging up the old and true rather than the new and buzzy, by building a community of readers who flock to an oasis far away from what she has called the “Buzzwashing” of our collective online minds.

In some ways, her appeal is pretty straightforward as a writer. She is unmistakably genuine. Nothing she writes is obviously designed purely for getting money (although, of course, she has done really well by simply writing tirelessly about what she loves). And so you can see why re-reading some of Schopenhauer’s essays on writing and journalism appealed to her. His brutal take-down of writing for money is about as good a case for that position as I’ve read:

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing. What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. It seems as if money lay under a curse, for every author deteriorates directly [whenever] he writes in any way for the sake of money. The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

When I was very young, I used to wonder why the newspaper had the same size every day – as if what was actually news didn’t vary, when it obviously did. As a working writer for much of my adult life, I understand now why the economics of journalism operates that way, and probably has to. But an economics that directly rewards eyeballs at the expense of any other criterion – i.e. the current economics of most of the web – or a “journalism” that is paid for by corporations – i.e. sponsored content – would horrify Schopenhauer. His standards are impossibly high; his judgments overly broad and caustic. But he was onto something, as is Maria. And our culture could learn a lot from it.

(Painting by Jules Lunteschütz)