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So Why Write?

By (May 1, 2014) No Comment

MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction

Edited by Chad Harbach
n+1, 2014

MFAVSNYCThe most intriguing aspect of n+1’s hodgepodge collection of essays MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction, edited by Chad Harbach, is its insight into how writers make money. Or how they fail to do so. Many reviewers, such as Tony Tulathimutte at Salon, have lambasted the “phony debate” of the MFA v. NYC split; others have ventured into the murky terrain of arguing about the ways our bourgeoning MFA culture has or has not negatively affected our collective literary aesthetic—as if there were such a thing. But I am just going to talk about the money, and about how when it comes to creative writing it seems the money doesn’t really matter.

What emerges from the myriad voices in this collection is a mutual frustration about how writers earn a living in America: by teaching, for the most part.  And in the undertone of these essays, there seems to be an agreement that the battle, if not the war, has been lost—there is no such thing as a full-time creative writer anymore. Take this bit of sarcasm from Keith Gessen from his essay “Money (2006)”:

George Saunders, the great short story writer and my advisor at Syracuse, told me he knew only two nonteaching writers in his generation (born around 1960): Donald Antrim was one and I forgot the other.

In a way, this is gallows humor—we laugh at the awful truth. In his two essays in the collection, “Money (2006)” and “Money (2014),” the second of which he wrote after he sold his debut novel All The Sad Young Literary Men for $160,000 to Viking, Gessen shares his evolving financial anxieties. At first his success changes his life: he begins to take cabs and buy drinks for friends. But apparently he’s not very good with money, or at least he’s no investment wizard, because six years later, after haphazard freelancing, he is broke again and forced to take a job teaching a fiction workshop for $15,000 a semester. Throughout “Money (2014),” we learn that Gessen is not a very good teacher, and is in fact diametrically opposed to the entire notion of being a writer-teacher. He finds teaching creative writing too “fraudulent,” too time-consuming. “How some people manage to do a lot of writing while also teaching well is, frankly, beyond me,” he claims. To Gessen, the problem is that our economy only supports writer-teachers and such a creature is a compromised, limited version of the real thing.

Indeed, writers are not paid well. Most young aspiring writers receive nothing for their work besides the pleasure of publication. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that I was not paid a dime for this piece.) A skilled and persistent writer might receive $50-$500 for a story, essay, or review. A pittance, really. Not enough for regular monthly rent in New York. An established freelance journalist might be paid $7,000 for an article in The New Yorker, but such an article will almost certainly take months to research and write, so the recompense does not go far. These checks do not a mortgage pay. Even writers who hit the big time do not get paid very well. Say you land a $150,000 advance, or more, for your novel. That’s big time. The problem is that this novel probably took you two or three years to write, maybe even longer, and the post-publication work of promoting the book is going to take another year (or more). The math is not pretty: most writers are poorly paid.

SadYoungGessenYet at the same time our culture is producing more and more writers. Or at least people who write. This increase can be attributed not only to the great flowering of MFA programs across the country in the past four decades but also to the Internet and self-publishing. As Harbach points out in his eponymous “MFA vs NYC” essay, in 1975 there were 79 degree-granting creative writing programs; today there are 1,269! These programs have given hundreds of thousands of people the luxury of spending time (and money) to try and tell their stories to the world.  So there is a glut of credentialed writers on the market as well as a host of credible online magazines and websites eagers for new talent and their well-wrought copy. The American writing scene is robust and diverse and widespread. The only problem it seems is the money, or lack thereof.

But when have writers ever been well paid? After all, a degree of sacrifice goes with the vocation. The stories of writers working odd jobs to pay their way are literally endless. Raymond Carver worked as a janitor at Mercy Hospital in California while scribbling his early stories. In Trieste, James Joyce tutored students in English while trying to write A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. For nearly a decade, George Saunders was a technical writer and geophysical engineer at Radian International in Rochester, New York. Demanding jobs notwithstanding, they still wrote. In a way the whole act of writing seems to reside outside the world of money and rent and taxes, outside the imperatives of the market economy.

So why write? Because there is something about the pursuit of creative writing—its non-utilitarian nature, its total aversion to markets, its reputation for “making nothing happen,” as Auden said of poetry—that points back to our essential freedom. We are free to make choices about how we spend our time: we can pursue money or we can investigate our inner lives. In our society, it is difficult to do both; at least, it is difficult to do both all the time. This is the truth to which Gessen and his essays pay witness. He and other essayists here seem to claim that the soul of the writer is not made to thrive in a capitalist economy. Writers know intimately the risk involved in spending the afternoon writing a story: the risk of failing to turn time into money.

In “Basket Weaving 101,” Maria Adelmann proves herself a hero by taking this risk every day.  She is the great venture capitalist of the literary world and in her essay she deftly communicates the writer’s imperative to protect her freedom. She uses a quote from Thoreau as her foundation:

I too had woven a kind of basket of a delicate texture, but I had not made it worth any one’s while to buy them. Yet not the less, in my case, did I think it worth it my while to weave them, and instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.

In these lines, we hear Thoreau’s singular inwardness and his famous emphasis on thrift. Adelmann tells the story of her MFA years at the University of Virginia with a refreshing gentleness and lack of judgment. She offers keen insights into her “craving to create on [her] own terms.” It is this blunt demand that so sharply separates her from the market economy, and this is a good thing. As Adelmann writes, “Is it so naïve of me to believe that the best work is completed outside of the market, from a place of personal passion?”

Ironically enough, it is the product of Adelmann’s aimless free time—she makes postcards out of paintings she made from the spines of her books—that she eventually sells online and in stores like Anthropologie. But more importantly, she figures out, following Thoreau’s advice, not so much how to sell her stories as how to avoid the necessity of having to sell them. In other words, she figures out how to strike the ever elusive balance between paying her bills and keeping “the freedom to follow [her] intuitions.” She admits that her MFA program “may not have taught [her] how to make money, but it did teach [her] what [her] time is worth.” She makes clear that her time—her freedom—is worth more than any stack of silver.

Leonid_PasternakAdelmann’s perspective points to how the apparent problem—our culture’s tendency to force its writers to teach for a living—is, as usual, more personal than systemic. If anything, the MFA juggernaut is providing a whole network of jobs for our best teacher-writers, and many writers (unlike Gessen) seem well-suited to the task. Meanwhile, though it’s not particularly lucrative, the online world—where you find this essay—is providing countless writers with a viable forum through which they can realize their calling to express themselves. Of course, you could also try and write the potboiler paperback novel. Perhaps in an essay on writing and money I am obliged to report that, according to Forbes magazine, James Patterson earned $84 million last year, even more than America’s highest paid CEO. Or, as Emily Gould points out in her excellent essay “Into The Woods,” you could still try and be “a voice of a generation.” After all, last October, Random House gave Lena Dunham $3.7 million for her first book. But for the rest of us mere mortals, doggedly pursing our intuitions, we would do well to remember that whenever we sit down to write, it is time well spent. Paycheck forthcoming or not, our souls will thank us.

Paul Griffin writes fiction, book reviews and literary criticism. His work has appeared in Tin House, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Brooklyn Rail, The Common Review, and the NY Press, among other places. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and two daughters.