Writers Having to Work for A Living, a #firstworldproblems

The Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times includes a couple of essays in the “Bookends” section under the collective headline Do Grants, Professorships and Other Forms of Institutional Support Help Writers but Hurt Writing? Siddhartha Deb (who I think is a professor at The New School) laments bitterly how creative writing/artist like Deb are increasingly expected take on the duties and responsibilities for being a professor:

Unless teaching at one of a few select places, writers are increasingly required, apart from their teaching duties, to attend meetings, serve on committees and be on email 24/7. They are also expected, in an era when students are customers, the university a brand and everything a matter of opinion, often to put aside whatever knowledge and expertise they might have acquired in order to assuage the varying sensibilities of their customers. Otherwise, as in the case of the poetry professor in Wisconsin attacked for teaching material with L.G.B.T. content, one might be taken to court in order for an F to be changed to an A.

In the second short essay, Benjamin Moser (who has been a translator and a columnist or editor at Harpers and The New York Review of Books, just to name a few places) also laments bitterly how “writing” doesn’t pay. He writes “Many writers enjoy teaching or journalism or translation or editing, but many do these jobs because it’s hard to survive on writing alone. Money clearly communicates the still-prevailing attitude: that writing is not a real job.” Moser goes on to suggest, basically, that society ought to simply pay writers (again, of the capital L “Literature” variety):

But literature is not made by society. It is made by individuals who, like anyone else, have bills to pay. Those whose job it is to enunciate other values often find themselves punished for the attempt, though we all need those values: Nobody wants to live in a world whose only measures are financial.

So does the world owe writers a living? We have grown so used to subordinating everything to money that the question seems absurd. But it is easy to imagine a society in which art — like health care and education, care of the poor and the elderly — is a public good: in which we delight in work and workman both.

Oh, boo-hoo. Two writers who have careers and jobs that most other writers would literally kill a sibling to obtain are complaining that it is a shame they have to labor to support themselves, despite the fact that they are artists, God-Damn It! Boo-hoo-hoo.

Coincidentally, the next piece I came across on the NYTimes web site while looking for the link to this piece was this column by Tracie McMillan, “Who Do We Think of as Poor?” McMillian begins with an anecdote about how when she was working on a book– ironically enough about poverty!– she went on food stamps to make ends meet.

In any event: yes, “creative” writers (more on “creative” in a moment) are not and never have been paid just for making art. If robots automate so much of the workforce that a basic income becomes a thing in advanced capitalist states, then that might mean there would be lots of people who could afford to do whatever they wanted, including make art. Short of that, the basic challenge of artists has been balancing a way to make art and pay the bills.

Maybe it would be a good idea to pay all artists to make art. On the plus-side, there might be a lot more happiness in the world if more people were spending their time making art. On the down-side, I am sure the world would have a lot more shitty art. Regardless, pretty much every novelist or poet that you can think of either had a day job, was an academic (which is also a day job, though a somewhat odd one), was independently wealthy, or had a patron of some sort. I’m reading a book about Hemingway and The Sun Also Rises right now and it’s pretty clear that in the early years, Papa sponged off of his first wife’s trust fund.

But I guess this pair of essays irritates me for at least two other reasons. First, one of the most annoying academic colleagues out there is the one who treats the position as patronage instead of as a real job. At the kind of university where I work, we need faculty members who are going to participate fully in the job, which does indeed mean meetings, advising, grading, paperwork, and all of the other real job stuff of being a professor. So while I understand the appeal of a job where your responsibilities are basically to do whatever you want, I can speak from experience that it’s kind of a pain in the ass for the rest of us to deal with these folks.

And for the record: all of my current colleagues who teach creative writing are fully engaged and involved faculty members, so I don’t have any of those folks in mind at all. But I have had (still have?) colleagues who take this approach and not all of them have been (are?) in creative writing.

Second, these two essays assume a narrow and frustrating definition of “writer,” an attitude that persists even among some of my students who are majoring in Written Communication. Journalists, editors, and translators are all writers. Social media writers/editors, content managers, technical documentation specialists, advertising copy editors, and so on are all writers. And I’d argue that if you are any good at teaching rhetoric and composition courses, you’re also a writer– or you had better be someone who seems themselves as a writer.

Maybe the problematic term here is “creative,” which in English departments means writing in the form of poetry, fiction, and drama. Separating creative from other kinds of writing  suggests what the rest of us practice and teach is not creative, which is clearly unfair. A better term might be “art” writing in the sense that writing a novel or a poem is more about making something to be appreciated, as opposed to writing that attempts to do things or persuade an audience. But that distinction doesn’t work either since of course art also is always trying to persuade and do things, and there are plenty of examples of writing that became literature only after readers and scholars decided to call it literature.

Regardless, anyone who has a guest column in The New York Times and who has received support for their writing as academics or from grants and then whines about how the need to work hurts their writing has got a whole lot of #firstworldproblems.

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