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Is Writing for the Rich?

By Catherine Halley

There’s an interesting article in The Week that asks what is perhaps a rhetorical question: Is writing for the rich?

Comments (21)

  • On March 6, 2009 at 9:57 am Mary Meriam wrote:

    I haven’t read the article yet, but must answer the question. Yes, of course, darling, writing is for the rich. Of course! Of course!

  • On March 6, 2009 at 10:44 am thomas brady wrote:

    This sounds like more whining from print media, the old, dying order, on the rise of blogs. My, my. You’d think on-line writing was the end of everything good, rather than a thrilling democratic revolution.
    Writers never starved before the internet? Excuse me?
    John Maynard Keynes was a Lord,with A-list political connections. The other example wrote for Hearst.
    We’re supposed to believe that writers will starve if they try to publish on the internet? No, they might have to work a day job, that’s all. The internet is not taking away jobs; it’s making an older, less democratic process less relevant. I say, hurrah for that.
    Writing is LESS a rich man’s job today than it was in the days of John Maynard Keynes.

  • On March 6, 2009 at 11:15 am Cathy Halley wrote:

    My friends who are sculptors or filmmakers like to remind me that writers are lucky because it only takes a pen and paper to practice their art. Time is precious no matter what. But as far as materials go, all you need to be a writer is your thoughts, a pen and paper.

  • On March 6, 2009 at 11:49 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Writing is like painting. Just about anyone can go down to the hardware store and buy a few brushes and cans of paint. If you can’t do that you can go through the garbage around a construction site. You are sure to find something there, if only a beginning. We can enterprisingly start with the proverbial white picket fence and work our way up to the house. We can even subcontract the job like Tom Sawyer. That’s painting. And there is also Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Two usual suspects is the argument of minimalist forms. How much content does a white picket fence have and what are its sexual politics? Is it really part of the patriarchal death machine? Does painting necessarily make us good neighbors?
    Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart. And while the late steamer Big Missouri worked and sweated in the sun, the retired artist sat on a barrel in the shade close by, dangled his legs munched his apple, and planned the slaughter of more innocents. There was no lack of material; boys happened along every little while; they came to jeer, but remained to whitewash. By the time Ben was fagged out, Tom had traded the next chance to Billy Fisher for a kite in good repair; and when he played out, Johnny Miller bought in for a dead rat and a string to sing it with—and so on, hour after hour. And when the middle of the afternoon came, from being a poor poverty-stricken boy in the morning, Tom was literally rolling wealth. He had, besides the things before mentioned, twelve marbles, part of a jew’s-harp, a piece of blue bottle-glass to look through, a spoon cannon, a key that wouldn’t unlock anything, a fragment of chalk, a glass stopper of a decanter, a tin soldier, a couple of tadpoles, a kitten with only one eye, a brass door-knob, a dog-collar-but no dog – the handle of a knife, four pieces of orange-peel, and a dilapidated window-sash.
    He had had a nice, good, idle time all the while—plenty of company—and the fence had three coats of whitewash on it! If he hadn’t run out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village.

  • On March 6, 2009 at 12:39 pm LH wrote:

    No, but perhaps eating, dressing and living in style while writing is.

  • On March 6, 2009 at 3:04 pm Mairead wrote:

    on the one hand, Woolf: “Give her a room of her own and five hundred a year, let her speak her mind and leave out half that she now puts in, and she will write a better book one of these days.”
    on the other, Faulkner: “People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer.”
    (& I agree with both of them, naturally.)

  • On March 6, 2009 at 3:46 pm Iain wrote:

    Kind of insulting to his readers for Wilkinson to write this pretending he’s purely concerned for young writers. When you restrict publishing to a handful of people, it’s easy to keep your yes-men eating well.
    Wilkinson’s own business model is in danger. If he admitted his own selfish motives for rustling up fear over the Internet, his article would be easier to take seriously. If the price to pay for having free public access to publishing is that a lucky few can’t buy a second SUV, well, then it’s a price I pay gladly.

  • On March 6, 2009 at 6:14 pm Katy Tried wrote:

    “If the price to pay for having free public access to publishing is that a lucky few can’t buy a second SUV, well, then it’s a price I pay gladly.”
    No, the price you’re paying is that our would-be Sontags cannot pay rent while devoting themselves full-time to writing and reading.
    But something tells me that “writers” who rely on smug, hackneyed political shorthand like “second SUV’s” probably doesn’t think there’s a valuable difference between writers. It wouldn’t be “democratic” to suggest that some writers are just damned smarter and should be rewarded for it.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 3:15 am Essay Writing Boy wrote:

    Writing needs a lot of passion some people writes about their inspirations some writes about their experiences some essay writer writes because of the job but the mos important of all you write because of passion because you love doing it.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 9:30 am Iain wrote:

    You’re right Katy, it was a hackneyed response to an article that I felt wasn’t presenting both sides of an important issue. The reality is more complicated than either I or Wilkinson suggested.
    To me, writing, publishing, and reading are resources before they are industries. The Internet gives an exponentially larger amount of people access to these resources. If anyone is suggesting restricting access to these things for a massive amount of people, even for the purpose of paying a handful of people’s rent, I’m sorry, but I just can’t get on board with that.
    People not being able to pay rent is a whole other issue (and one I can certainly sympathize with). This is a problem for way too many people (not just would-be writers), and there’s no excuse for it in a country as rich as ours. I’m willing to fight that battle on any number of fronts, but I’m not willing to restrict access to what should be universal resources in order to do it.
    The Internet is killing the print industry, and this causes a huge amount of complications. These complications need to be dealt with seriously, and not with “smug, hackneyed political shorthand” like my own earlier. But we can’t pretend the fall of the print industry isn’t also the freeing of millions of voices.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 10:20 am mearl wrote:

    No matter which way you take this article and the author’s motives (and a variety of interpretations are popping up here) it’s definitely frightening – especially for freelancers. Grub Street never was an easy place to live, and it’s certainly not getting any easier.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 12:14 pm Katy Tried wrote:

    Iaian, I have spent most of my career under the assumption that writing, publishing and reading are resources before they are industries. But I also know that the best criticism I read in major publications beats the stuffing out of the best blogs I can think of. And being paid is what gives, say, Barry Schwabsky the time to write a 4,000-word masterful review of Barbara Guest in The Nation. I don’t think that we can just assume, in our race to the bottom, that the Schwabskys of the world will just do that work on a free blog in the future. That’s just one aspect of my internet pessimism, and it’s enough for now. Full disclosure: I make some money writing. And I drive a ten-year-old station wagon whose heater core needs to be replaced, and I can’t afford to fix it. ;-(

  • On March 7, 2009 at 1:55 pm Travis Nichols wrote:

    I wasn’t the poster here, Martin, but points taken.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 2:23 pm Colin Ward wrote:

    That most people who identify themselves as “writers” are poor is an unsurprising statistical fact.
    Mr. Wilkinson’s article merely iterates some of the reasons why most will remain so.

  • On March 7, 2009 at 4:45 pm Iain wrote:

    The Internet does actually have its own working business models, but personally, I’m not interested in business models. For the first time in history, writing has the ability to operate outside of both the tyranny of the market and the tyranny of big money. If there were ever something that needed to be said, but no one was willing to pay for it to be said, the Internet now provides a place for that kind of speech. We’ve already seen bloggers in countries where paid journalists have never been able to penetrate be able to tell the world about the conditions they live in, and alert us of human rights abuses we would have otherwise been unaware of.
    On a less sensationalist note, the Internet provides new possibilities for grass roots raising of money (as both Ron Paul and Obama’s campaigns well know). New ways of raising money for writers, and new ways of finding readers will provide smaller groups ways of publishing writing that otherwise could not get funded. I think there are a huge amount of small press publishers that have already experienced this. Large publishers have something to fear from the Internet, but no so much the writers and small presses. It’s the same with the recording industry. The RIAA is the only one who has anything to fear, artists who have embraced the Internet have already begun to make more money. This is the death of the superstar we’re talking about here, but not the death of the paid artist.
    The idea of “free speech” in a pre-internet culture is almost a joke compared to what it is now. It was only “free” if you had enough money to speak it, or were willing to submit yourself to the censorship of those who did. I think we will actually see an increase in the quality of writing now that there is so much less bureaucracy standing between the passion of the writers and publishing of the product. As long as there is money, there will be people willing who are willing to shell it out for Barry Schwabsky’s 10 page reviews. That said, I will continue to exercise what I consider my basic human right to “access” knowledge that I cannot afford.

  • On March 8, 2009 at 4:18 pm Doodle wrote:

    “I agree that, in an ideal world, studying epistemology, classical music, and Italian Renaissance art would be part of every cultivated person’s education. But we live in a world in which 27,000 children die every day from preventable causes.
    In such a world, it is difficult to deny that some areas of study are an indulgence. It’s not wrong to pursue them. Arguably we need some indulgences, some pursuits that broaden our gaze and refresh our spirits before we turn back to more-urgent problems. But indulgences need to be placed in a setting in which it is clear that they are not the most important thing in our lives, or in the education we offer.”
    Peter Singer

  • On March 8, 2009 at 8:16 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Civilization is not an “indulgence.” This assumes that if we diminish the importance of classical music and poetry, for instance, charitiable giving will somehow increase, and this is not the case. Wealth-creation is a highly complex issue. I don’t doubt Mr. Singer’s sincerity, but the guilt-trip is beside the point, I’m afraid.

  • On March 9, 2009 at 9:20 am Doodle wrote:

    One man’s guilt trip is another man’s guilt. Agree or disagree with Singer, who puts the case more boldly than Wilkinson, everybody must decide how literally they take WCW’s lines:
    It is difficult
    to get the news from poems
    yet men die every day
    for lack
    of what is found

  • On March 9, 2009 at 9:40 am Aaron Fagan wrote:

    Speaking of that WCW quote, here is a great NYTBR Letter to the Editor about the latest Orr column On Poetry:
    To the Editor:
    Am I the only loyal reader (and subscriber) who would rather have read several reviews of “not great” contemporary poetry than David Orr’s tiresome essay? Like an adventurer who climbs the greatest glaciers as the climate system that makes them possible collapses, Orr claims the “greatest” poets while the system of popular newspaper poetry reviewing that supports a literary culture trickles out. Please start giving us readers the news of poems, preferably from contemporary poetry presses rather than the “great” trades, because we’re dying miserably every day out here for lack thereof.

  • On March 11, 2009 at 4:22 pm thomas brady wrote:

    Thanks for quoting E.J. MCADAMS.
    “Like an adventurer who climbs the greatest glaciers as the climate system that makes them possible collapses, Orr claims the “greatest” poets while the system of popular newspaper poetry reviewing that supports a literary culture trickles out. Please start giving us readers the news of poems, preferably from contemporary poetry presses rather than the “great” trades, because we’re dying miserably every day out here for lack thereof.”
    But the letter writer is surely not blaming Mr. Orr for the dying out of popular newspaper poetry reviewing?
    “Please start giving us readers the news of poems, preferably from contemporary poetry presses…”
    But the quantity of “us readers” asking for “contemporary poetry” is too small for the newspaper editor to pay his bills.
    Until the numbers pick up, E.J.’s request to “start giving us readers the news of poems, preferably from contemporary poetry…” will fall on deaf ears, and meanwhile it will be necessary for reviewers like Mr. Orr to ask as provocatively as possible for great poetry.

  • On March 12, 2009 at 2:01 am Gilberto Garza wrote:

    Writing for the rich? If that is to be the sole means of income, there will be a significant number of writers who will quickly learn that thoughts and pencil lead do not a meal make. But, how many writers truly hold to the concept that writing is going to be their only means of income. You must become established in order to make the a “living” from your writing alone. The same is understood in all circles of life. College is a beautiful opportunity, but not many students can be students alone. Therefore, is college only for the rich? I have a love of basketball, but it will not keep the lights on in my home. It must be for the rich, also.
    The internet is merely the newest canvas/spiral notebook. As old forms of communication are replaced by new technology, the art will adapt to the medium. There may be a chaotic period during the transition, and we may lose some of the talented individuals who are not capable of adapting, But, writers have written, knowing that they must have a supplemental income, since the dawn of the art. Be it as professors, lecturers, factory workers, or fast food delivery boys/girls. Writers will write, some will be paid, and the lucky few will be able to make a living on their craft alone.
    So, Good Luck to you all.

Posted in Poetry News on Friday, March 6th, 2009 by Catherine Halley.