March 26, 2019: SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

SCRATCH: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. Edited by Manjula Martin. NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. 2017.

I recommend this book to anyone working in the arts, not just writers. Creatives can see how it relates to other artistic fields.

It’s especially relevant, since the WGA and the ATA are negotiating their new agreement. You can read both sides of their argument here.

The book is a mixture of essays and interviews about various writers and their relationship with earning money from their art and craft. Cheryl Strayed, Susan Orlean, Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Leslie Jamison, Emily Gould, and more.

These pieces talk about how society tries to manipulate us into not believing our work is worth being paid a living, comfortable wage. How the “starving artist” concept is part of institutionalized economic segregation and oppression. For minorities, that layers onto the other oppressions they already face.

It reinforced what irritates me every time I hear an unpublished or self-published writer say, “Oh, I don’t care about making money I just want this out in people’s hands.”

That hurts every writer who works hard to earn a living writing. It falls into the same category of “writers” willing to work for $1 an article or clicks for content mills, who hurt all the other freelancers out there.

J. Robert Lennon’s essay “Write to Suffer, Publish to Starve” talks about the relationship between art and commerce, and how “commerce” is often about more than money. Jennifer Weiner builds on that as she talks about self-questioning the worth of the writing when it’s not getting respect from other professionals, even when it pays well.

Emily Gould’s essay “Likeability” sets out the constant demands made on women authors to be accessible and likeable. One of her sentences, in particular, resonated: “Being an extremely social, sociable, accessible person should not be the price of being a professional writer, but for women it almost inevitably is.” (p. 147).

I find myself fighting this constantly. My writing ability has nothing, NOTHING to do with what I look like or whether or not I’m willing to have my own work interrupted constantly to be “accessible” so potential customers (most of whom don’t buy books anyway) won’t threaten to boycott my work or give me 1-star reviews because I was tired or on deadline or didn’t fawn over them when they decided I should.

Men are considered literary lights if they get drunk and behave badly at events. Women are dismissed as “unlikeable.”

One of the exceptions to the above, Jonathan Franzen, who has faced his share of criticism, talks about the need for journalists covering a regular beat rather than crowfunding everything, and the need for writers to go deep within for creation, away from constant electronic interaction. Something he states also resonated strongly: “I think we need to put an end to the expectation that stuff be free.” (p.268). It was part of his response on the need to pay journalists, with which I agree. We pay lawyers, doctors, plumbers, pay for our utilities, the groceries — why do so many balk at paying for words, when they must be in constant state of creation and arrangement in order for society to function?

Cari Luna talks about her agent firing her after five years. Colin Dickey points out the flaw in the demand that writing for free gains the writer something, how a “circulation economy” must work in both directions. Kiese Laymon reveals the pressure to soften the racial themes in his novel in order to make it economically appealing to white readers in order to have it published.

Manjula Martin’s essay about day jobs and contacts, along with Leslie Jamison’s MFA vs. NYC models, got me thinking about how writers sometimes ghettoize each other in their definitions of what a “real” writer is, or what a “day job” is. Even within some of the essays, I saw delineations with which I strongly, strongly disagree.

Susie Cagle’s essay “Economics 101” where she talks about the Grift Economy, the Gift Economy, the Gig Economy, the Guild Economy, and the Big Economy articulated many of the frustrations so many artists face trying to make a living.

Essays made me laugh or wince; nod my head or talk out loud back at the page in disagreement. Some of them challenged assumptions I’ve mistakenly made about others’ writing and make me want to do better in the future. But every single one evoked a strong, emotional response.

Which is the point of good writing.

Every piece in this book is damn good writing.

We live in a society that demands money, but that does not want to pay artists for creating something they need and use every day of their lives. Words are an imperative to communication, business, social exchange. The engaging creation of those necessary words deserves as fair a pay as any other profession. The rise of the Cult of the Stupid and the Glorification of the Ignorant in the past few years, especially in politics, makes it even more difficult to get both the respect for the work and the fair payment.

Does this book have all the answers? No. But it has personal experience layered over socio-economic reality, mixed in with emotion and great writing. It will make you take a more nuanced look at the questions, and give you some ideas for creating your own answers.

So buy this book. Support the artists who are willing to discuss what we are often shamed into keeping silent. Denial of fair payment is too often what is demanded of us because we chose, we are talented enough, and we work hard enough to create a life in the arts.

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Reader Expansion Challenge: Book by A Woman Whose Work You Haven’t Yet Read: Until You by Jeannie Moon

 

This month, the challenge was to read a book by a woman writer whose work we had not previously read.

I got some wonderful recommendations. I looked at several books; I have a huge TBR pile from those recommendations that is very exciting. Some of them are big books that will probably change my life.

Then, I saw a RT on Twitter (can’t remember from whom, but it must have been a fellow writer). It was about a writer I had never yet read named Jeannie Moon, who writes romance. A younger writer criticized her because her female protagonist is ten years older than the male love interest.

Say what?

As an unmarried woman who’s older than I ever expected to be, that offends me.

I’ve dated older; I’ve dated younger. I joke a lot about how my cut-off in dating is that don’t date a man to whom I could have technically given birth.

That’s not always true. I’ve sometimes dated men younger than that.

But, as I said, I’m older than I ever thought I’d be.

I don’t date them very young, because I don’t date boys, I date men.

Of course, there are plenty of males who are chronologically men but emotionally boys. I try to steer clear of them, too.

I hurt on behalf of Jeannie Moon, and I was offended FOR her. She gets to write whatever she wants. She writes romance. That means her characters find their Happily Ever After.

In my Gwen Finnegan series, Gwen is twelve years older than Justin. Does it cause problems? Hell, yes. Do they have great sex anyway? HELL, yes! Do they genuinely love each other? Hell, hell, HELL yes!

Granted, the Gwen Finnegan books are paranormal mysteries with romantic elements, not romance novels. But I believe everyone deserves a happy ending. A real one, not a nudge, nudge, wink, wink kind that’s paid for by old white men in Florida “spas.”

I looked over Jeannie Moon’s published books and decided to read UNTIL YOU for this month’s challenge. First, that was the book criticized. Second, the male protagonist was a professional hockey player.

I’m a huge hockey fan. I’ve written about hockey, both in fiction and by covering the sport. I even spent eight months with a minor league team (where, even then, I was already older than some of their mothers). No, I didn’t date any of them. I wasn’t even tempted, and I set strong boundaries. But I wrote about quite a few hockey players over a period of years who started out as talented boys and grew into terrific men. I’m proud of them.

I didn’t date any of them after they’d all grown up, either.

An aside: I once brought a date to one of the games. We went to the bar where we all hung out after the games. My date and I sat on our own, but I brought him over to introduce him to the players. As we walked away, I looked back at the table, and a handful of the guys with whom I was closest looked horrified and shook their heads. When I went to the rink the next day, they sat me down and gave me a serious talking to about how this guy was entirely wrong for me, and they were worried.

I’d already figured that out. But I thought they were adorable to care.

Back to Jeannie Moon’s book.

I really liked it. It was charming and funny. She’d done her research. She got the hockey right and the teamwork right and some of the not-so-nice aspects right. She got various settings right and they sang, supporting the story.

There was one plot development where I thought the book would lose me, because I am sick and tired of that choice being the endgame in too many books, especially romance novels. But then, it took a sad and poignant twist. The way the characters dealt with it was beautiful and true to their core integrity, and made me care about them even more.

The antagonists were drawn a bit too broadly sometimes, and I got ahead of them. I didn’t need scenes in their POVs. The scenes were fine–the writing was good, we got insight. But I didn’t need those scenes.

But the other characters and the way they grew and loved and laughed and cried and lived and fought and supported each other — it was beautiful.

I had a smile on my face by the end of the book. I look forward to reading more of her work.

I’m sorry Jeannie Moon was attacked for writing lovely, vibrant people who genuinely love each other; but I might not have found her work otherwise. She’s definitely worth reading.

So what’s next month’s challenge?

April’s challenge is to read in a favorite genre by a new-to-you author. We reconvene to share on Tuesday, April 16th.

Please share in this post’s comments what you read this month. I’d love to add them to my TBR pile!

Yes, these posts are more essays on my emotional responses to a book than a review. That is my choice. A review serves a different purpose. The point of the Reader Expansion Challenge is to get us reading in new directions and respond emotionally as much as intellectually. These posts are not reviews. They’re discussions of reading experiences.