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It reinforced what irritates me every time I hear an unpublished or self-published writer say, “Oh, I don’t care about making money I just want this out in people’s hands.”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