While I’m not one to spend a lot of time talking about writing, principally because it’s far too meta to do so regularly on a website like mine, from time to time I come up with an idea worthy of a little exploration. On that note, let’s spend a few minutes on meritocracy and writing.

When it comes to finding success in writing, I am very much a product of the educational doctrine drilled into me during my formative years. The late-eighties and early-nineties did everything they could to teach a young and impressionable Adam that if he worked hard, produced good work, and played by the rules, he would eventually find success. Despite the cynicism teenage Adam began to embrace in the late-nineties, my current sense of justice, delusional though it maybe, demands at least the theory of meritocracy must be true.

A recent attempt at landing a professional writing job has given me pause to reconsider the nature of the meritocracy as applied to our current cultural economy. Obviously, I didn’t get the job. Rest assured, however, this is not a setup to me complaining about a hard-knock life.

The form rejection I received told me there were approximately 1300 applications for this lone position. I knew my application was a long shot, but I was surprised by the scope of the completion. 1300 applications, holy shit. Let’s work through the figure. I’ve been on the receiving side of job applications enough times to know that one can usually discount a certain percentage of the applications after about five seconds of consideration. These applicants can be categorized as having no business whatsoever applying for the job in question e.g. butchers applying to be medical doctors. For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume 50% of the 1300 applications for the writing job were cast in the bin without a second thought. Doing so still leaves us with 650 applications.

650 applications is monstrously unmanageable. This is where I expect qualifications, education, and experience to further cut the number down to useful long list, say 26 applications, as that’s the number of applicants who fall within the 98th percentile of the original 1300.

While it’s easy to say that getting a job, any job, is about being the best applicant in the pile, it’s a lot easier to be the best when the completion doesn’t number in the quadruple digits. If there were only 50 applicants for the job and I placed in the 90th percentile, I would have been among the top five candidates for the job. Whereas if I was in the 90th percentile of those who made it past the initial cull, I would still only have ranked 65th overall i.e. well below the cutoff threshold for making the long list within the confines of this particular thought experiment.

I think we may have a problem of supply on our hands. Particularly because this problem of supply has the potential to disillusion a lot of good writers. The fundamental principle of a merit based system is if a person does well, they will advance. If we assume my recent experience is indicative of larger trends, and anecdotally I don’t see a lot of evidence to contradict the idea of a buyer’s market in the writing world, then doing well isn’t nearly enough anymore.

Faced with a protracted abundance of supply (such is the consequence of the democratization of knowledge and the written word via modern technology) the model of meritocracy, the notion that good work pays off, becomes statistically harder to swallow. Even if the meritocracy ruled the day without any exception or “corruption,” the vast numbers of applicants witnessed in the above example render the good candidates and the poor ones statistically indistinguishable from each other. Can we still call it a fair system when only the outliers of excellence have a chance at making the grade?