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Wherefore an Economics of Writing?

Wherefore an Economics of Writing?

by Robert Stewart

In a society where everything is content (e.g. a novel, a film,  a tweet), and much of that content created for no pay, what are the economics of writing?

                              —Boulevard magazine

The Works Progress Administration in 1935 created The Missouri Writers Project to employ writers, most of whom had been on relief rolls, but who then were paid to collect folklore and write regional histories, plus other things.  Some of those writers, such as Jack Conroy, originally of Moberly, Missouri, belonged to the St. Louis Writers’ Union.  Conroy and Jean Winkler wrote book reviews for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the 1930s for book editor and poet John Neihardt.  Winkler complained in letters to another Project writer, Betrenia Watt, that he no longer received his $4.16 checks because Neihardt stopped sending him books to review, possibly because of Winkler’s leftist activities with the John Reed Club or Winkler’s partying after Prohibition. 

Creative writers and freelancers once expected to get paid.  Some still do.  Come to 2023, where so-called artificial intelligence “scrapes” or “mines” the web to re-use writing with no compensation to the original authors.  “More than 5,000 authors,” reports The Washington Post in 2023, “including Jodi Picoult, Margaret Atwood and Viet Thanh Nguyen, have signed a petition asking tech companies to get consent from and give credit and compensation to writers whose books were used in [tech company] training data.”  AI doesn’t actually write; it steals. 

Forty years after the WPA projects, in the 1970s, New Letters, a literary and art magazine based in Kansas City, Missouri, still paid $5 for a book review, out of principle.  The Kansas City Star, which published some of my book reviews during the 1970s and ‘80s, paid $35, which, at the time, I considered a significant source of income.  By the 2020s, The Star hardly reviewed books at all, or hired freelancers to any significant degree.  As of 2022, New Letters paid $25, or “as funds allow,” for a book review.  That is, by the way, $25 more than most other literary journals.

I edited New Letters for many years, until 2020, and the magazine continues, under editor Christie Hodgen, as one of the rare literary journals to pay writers, “albeit modestly,” guidelines state.  A few rare, well-off journals, such as The Georgia Review and Virginia Quarterly Review, pay prose writers $500 and up.  Rates of pay at New Letters peaked in the 2010s, paying over $50 for a book review and $100 to $200 for creative prose.  About that time, one prominent poet, a friend of mine, nevertheless took me aside at a reception in New York, where the magazine had just received an award for excellence, and chastised me for not paying writers enough.  “Virtue has never been as respectable as money,” noted Mark Twain.

As recently as the 1980s and ‘90s, award criteria at the Missouri Arts Council encouraged—in some cases required—literary-grant recipients to include money to pay writers.  These days, most literary journals, especially independents, could not survive if they needed to pay writers, sums amounting, as in my experience at New Letters, to well over a thousand dollars per issue.

For over a dozen years, mostly through the 1980s and ‘90s, I also worked as a freelance, commercial writer, mostly for business and industry magazines (veterinary magazines paid the best), earning anywhere from $250 to $1,500 for a major article.  Most of those same magazines pay less now, in part because they don’t run the same types of articles.  Instead of long-form articles that require thorough research and sustained thought, those magazines now publish large photos with captions, graphs, bullet-point lists, and paragraph-length material.  Most hardly publish anything we once called an article. 

I always thought the idea of a writers union to be a writer’s fantasy; but the literary historian Douglas Wixson, who taught until 1992 at what is now called Missouri University of Science and Technology, illustrated in such books as Tradition of Midwestern Literary Radicalism that early writers, such as those cited above, were always concerned with getting paid.  My own experience over seven years as editor of a visual-art review magazine called Forum, focusing on art in the Midwest, taught me that visual artists take money-making much more seriously, with little reserve in pricing their paintings or collages in the hundreds of dollars.  Visual artists and musicians usually expect some kind of money exchange between their art and audience.  People take this for granted.

Not so for writers.  Most people can write, to a degree, which can’t be said of those who can play the saxophone.  With over 350 creative-writing programs among U.S. colleges alone, supply clearly surpasses demand.  Partly for those reasons, I believe, writers, especially so-called creative types, often feel awkward to expect money for their work, conceding a kind of financial defeat.  I have a habit of discounting my own books at events and sometimes sending books out for free, postage paid by me, to people who show an interest. 

Lewis Hyde, in his classic The Gift, takes on the intrinsic conflict between art and money.  Some visual artists, such as Edward Hopper, Hyde shows, have been able to move productively between their creative and commercial work.  However, Hyde continues, “All cultures and all artists have felt the tension, between gift exchange and the market, between the self-forgetfulness of art and the self-aggrandizement of the merchant.”

So it is, Hyde might say, I have been talking dollars and not sense.  “The good book,” writes poet Steve Davenport, “is not a settling of accounts. . .  Instead: How to live,” he asserts: “with end time stamped on the back of your hand?”  Thus, the novelist, poet and essayist Jim Harrison once told New Letters on the Air’s Angela Elam that he gave up a highly paid job writing for the movies, solely because, as he said, “I didn’t want to die in L.A.” 

Let us note, then, that the question, not tangentially posed in the epigraph above, by the editors of Boulevard, a Missouri journal, applies the word content twice as contemporaneous for written expression.  The term reflects a larger cultural decline into generalities, and a degradation of the written word, which I witnessed during my one-time, long-time job as editor of a literary journal.  Rather than saying “poem,” “fiction” or “essay” to describe their submissions, some writers used generalities, such as “content,” “piece” or “work” to screen themselves, I assert, from specific standards and criteria. 

Not many years back, in the same tradition, English professors started referring to works of literature as “texts.”  Walden became a text.  Their Eyes Were Watching God, a text.  I am suggesting that the use of words such as “text” and “content” reduce the skilled use of language, literary insight and transcendence—which good books offer—to the same clinical, emotionally detached level as source material or pop-up ads.  Most of us text.  The content of an online news feed includes considerable text, if we use the same term for any kind of written expression.  Popular culture—where the money is—wants writing fast, easy and, ideally, free.  

Oftentimes, literary editors value literary writing more for its content—such as social commentary—than its art.  Consider the recently established Maya Angelou Literary Award, offered by a conglomerate of Missouri institutions, which is restricted to books with “a commitment to social justice.”  That admirable impulse by the award sponsors attempts to give literature an external value, a purpose on which the wider culture could easily agree.  As with most admirable impulses, this one reduces the art to a single thing. 

If you say that social commitment and literary art are not mutually exclusive, I would say yes, of course, and say further: All great literature has a commitment to social justice, given that literature—being by nature authentic and moral—engenders in readers self-examination and empathy for folks unlike themselves.  Must, now, publishers stamp social commitment on the book’s spine? 

What’s it about?  What’s the content?  So it is, I often look to my superiors and mentors for guidance.  The writer Stephen Mitchell once told me that he became frozen, creatively, once his books started to make money.  He had come to equate money with what he called “emotional absence.”  When his wife pointed out that his “money karma” was totally messed up, Mitchell went into the hills in northern California and meditated for two weeks in a tipi, at which time he realized, as he later wrote in an essay, “My aversion to money was just as unhealthy as greed.”  The process involves belief in the value of the work you do.  “I could see that money was simply energy,” Mitchell wrote in Psychology Today.  “If my books were ever going to be accepted by the public, I would need the grace to receive what came with their sale.” 

The challenge, for me, then, becomes how to keep going.  Wherefore the value?  Mitchell’s disregard for money impeded his work as much as would his over-regard.  Both desire and hatred are obstacles in the path, Yoga psychology tells us.  The economics of writing matters but separately from the process.  A writer’s expectations, like those of my poet friend (who always got paid), assess not so much our income but our worth.