Cash, Money, Hoes: BABY BOY’S GOT TO EAT!

by Salvatore Pane

A couple of great posts on The Rumpus recently focused on something near and dear to my heart: writers getting paid. Elissa Bassist–whose amazing exit interview with her boyfriend has to be read to be believed–quotes the writer Elaine Showalter who wrote:

I told… all my graduate students, ‘Learn to write so well that you can be paid for it, rather than so badly that someone has to be paid to read your work.’ Many graduate students in English deliberately make their writing so obscure and pedantic that it is unreadable. But actually getting paid as a freelance journalist demands hard work and luck, as you know, and these days the market is tighter than ever.

Elissa then goes on to discuss her decision to self-publish some of her work and implore readers Radiohead style to contribute via paypal. The second Rumpus post to deal with money is a farce about a writer answering fan mail and essentially begging for money or a job. Doesn’t seem too far removed from reality.

Compensation is something I discuss a lot with my MFA pals, but usually that conversation’s about the tiered funding system our program uses. But when I think of getting paid to write (and by write I mean publishing short stories, doing book reviews, blogging for lit websites) is it an absolute travesty for me to say I don’t think we should be getting paid, or at least not very much?

Let me back up. Many will accuse me of  having a privileged opinion, and hey, I come from Scranton. My whole family’s working class, especially my immediate family, and I have enough student debt and scholarship cash to jump start the economy all by myself. So that shouldn’t be a major issue. But something that’s always stuck with me is a scene I witnessed in a workshop at Susquehanna University, where I went to undergrad. A professor of mine, the oft-mentioned Tom Bailey, was leading a workshop of a story about an arty photographer who got really mad that they had to do day jobs. Tom got pretty angry and gave us a speech about how real artists should be willing to sacrifice for their art, that they should even do so happily.

Now I’m not saying that writers are paid 100% fairly. There’s pretty much zero way for any writer to support themselves wholly off of literary writing. But there’s other ways, right? Teaching? Technical Writing? Writing in a different field–be that screenplays or comic books or what have you? And of course, the argument is always that if writers didn’t have to do all that extraneous stuff to feed themselves, they’d be able to produce better art. Maybe. But writing is a privilege and it has to be earned (and guys, don’t forget that Chekhov was a full time doctor and I think he did just fine).

I really applaud what Elissa Bassist is doing–check out her work and donate some money here. She saw something in the system she didn’t like, and she made an attempt to change it. And maybe one day, that will be the new model, and writers will be paid for doing much of the work they now do for free. But in the meantime, I’m absolutely fine with blogging and reviewing for free and making the majority of my income through teaching or other means. But where do you guys all stand on this? Does it burn you up that writers make so little, or do you see it as a necessary sacrifice for your art (because honestly, there’s probably a billion easier ways to make better money than writing literary fiction)?