12 March 2006

Money

Keith Gessen lives on $12,000, checks the BookScan numbers, and finds himself in an O. Henry story

How much money does a writer need? In New York, a young writer can get by on $25,000, give or take $5,000, depending on thriftiness. A slightly older younger writer—a 30-year-old—will need another $10,000 to keep up appearances. But that’s New York. There are parts of this country where a person can live on twelve or thirteen thousand a year—figures so small they can be written out. Of course it depends.

My wife and I moved to New York after college, at 22. We lived in Queens and paid $714 for a one-bedroom apartment (inherited, complete with artist’s installation, from my friend, the poet and founder of Ugly Duckling Presse, Matvei Yankelevich). That year, the two of us combined made $24,000. But we had a car, and on weekends we visited my father on Cape Cod. I wrote stories; she organized an art exhibit. We were young.

We moved to Boston. Our rent rose to $900, but it was 1999, even a doorpost could create “content,” and I was more than a doorpost. I wrote long book reviews for an online magazine that paid 50 cents a word. Our combined income rose to $34,000. I failed to write stories, though; journalism took all my time.

The magazine collapsed with the NASDAQ. We moved to Syracuse and broke up. I stayed on at the MFA program, from which I received $15,000, then $12,000, then $15,000. I wrote stories again. My rent for a two-bedroom apartment was $435.

But I hated Syracuse. I moved back to New York; another friend, a novelist, sublet me his apartment. My rent was $550! That year, with what was left on my graduate stipend, plus some journalism and a book translation ($1,500), I made $20,000. I put $2,000 of it into n+1.

I turned 30. Things had to change. I moved to Brooklyn and signed a one-year contract for $40,000 to review books for New York magazine. This seemed like so much money that I immediately sent some to my ex-wife, who was back in Boston, with those high rents.


There are four ways to survive as a writer in the US in 2006: the university; journalism; odd jobs; and independent wealth. I have tried the first three. Each has its costs.

Practically no writer exists now who does not intersect at some point with the university system—this is unquestionably the chief sociological fact of modern American literature. Writers began moving into the university around 1940, at the tail end of the Federal Writers’ Project, which paid them to produce tour guides of the United States. The first university-sustained writers mostly taught English and composition; in the 1960s and especially the 1970s, however, universities began to grant graduate degrees in creative writing. Now vast regiments of accredited writers are dispatched in waves to the universities or Tucson and Houston, Iowa City and Irvine. George Saunders, the great short story writer and my adviser at Syracuse, told me he knew only two non-teaching writers in his generation (born around 1960): Donald Antrim was one and I forgot the other.

The literary historian Richard Ohmann has argued that the rise of English departments in the 1890s, and their immediate bifurcation into Literature on the one hand and Composition on the other, emerged from a new economy’s demand for educated managers. Our own age—born around 1960, and variously called post-industrial, informational, service/consumer—demanded copywriters and “knowledge workers” and, with the breakdown of traditional social arrangements, behavior manualists (He’s Just Not Texting You). With the rise of Communications came the rise of Creative Writing, and the new split of English departments into Literature, Creative Writing, and (still) Composition. It’s pretty clear by now where this is tending, and which hundred-year-old discipline will become less and less relevant from here on out. We do not have a reading crisis in this country, but we do have a reading comprehension crisis, and with the collapse of literary studies it will get much worse.

For now, the university buys the writer off with patronage, even as it destroys the fundamental preconditions for his being. A full-time tenure-track position will start at something like $40,000, increasing to full professorial salary—between $60,000 and $100,000—if the writer receives tenure. That’s good money, plus campuses have lawns and workout facilities and health insurance, and there are summer vacations during which the writer can earn extra as a counselor at one of those writing camps for adults.

On the minus side, he must attend departmental meetings and fight off departmental intrigues. Worse, he must teach workshop, which means responding intelligently and at length to manuscripts. A writer who ignores his teaching duties in favor of his own writing will spend an inordinate amount of time feeling guilty; one who scrupulously reads and comments on student manuscripts will have a clearer conscience. But he will be spending all his time with children.


Journalism’s pitfalls are well known. Bad magazines vulgarize your ideas and literally spray your pages with cologne. Good magazines are even worse: they do style editing, copyediting, query editing, bullet-proofing—and as you emerge from the subway with your trash bag of books (a burnt offering to the fact-checker), you suddenly realize that you have landed a $6-an-hour job, featuring heavy lifting.

Yet the biggest pitfall of journalism is not penury but vanity. Your name is in print; it is even, perhaps, in print in the most august possible venue. But you are still serving someone else’s idea of their readership—and their idea of you. You are still just doing journalism—or, worse, book reviewing. “What lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck,” as the 19th century put it.

Odd jobs—usually copyediting, tutoring, PowerPoint, graphic design; I don’t know any writers who wait tables but probably some exist—seem like a better idea in terms of one’s intellectual independence. But these can lead to a kind of desperation. What if your writing doesn’t make it? How long can you keep this up? You have no social position outside the artistic community; you have limited funds; you call yourself a writer but your name does not appear anywhere in print. Worst of all, for every one of you, there are five or ten or fifteen others, also working on novels, who are just total fakers—they have to be, statistically speaking. Journalism at least binds you to the world of publishing in some palpable way; the odd jobs leave you indefinitely in exile. It would take a great deal of strength not to grow bitter under these circumstances, and demoralized. Your success, if it comes, might still come too late.


And then, of course, a writer can make money by publishing a book. But if it is depressing to lack social status and copyedit UsWeekly, it is even more depressing to talk about publishing—because this in fact is what you’ve worked for your entire life. Except now you will learn about the way of things. That book you wrote has sales figures to shoot for; it has a sales force to help it. And you are in debt. Publishers have always used anemic sales to bully their writers—Malcolm Cowley speaks of their claim that only after 10,000 copies sold could they break even; of course, says the good-natured Cowley, “they may have been displaying a human weakness for exaggeration.” Now publishers come to lunch armed with Nielsen BookScan—to the same effect. The comical thing about this up-to-the-minute point-of-sale technology is how inaccurate everyone agrees it to be—“522 copies trade cloth” sold might mean 800 or 1,000 or 1,200 because so many bookstores don’t participate. The less comical thing is that, as a measure of short-term popularity, it is all too accurate—Everything Is Illuminated, a work of Jewish kitsch, has sold, according to BookScan, 271,433 copies since it came out in 2002; meanwhile, Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, a scabrous work of Jewish humor, has sold 13,503 copies; Michael Walzer’s Arguing about War, a work of political philosophy in the skeptical Jewish tradition, has sold 3,136. Of course one knew this; of course, one was not a fool; yet it’s still hard to believe.

The very precision of the numbers numbs the publishers into a false sense of their finality. They cannot imagine a book good enough to have its sales in the future. Publishers wish things were otherwise, they will tell you; they would rather publish better books; but the numbers don’t lie. The chief impression one gets of publishers these days is not of greed or corporatism but demoralization and confusion. They have acquired a manuscript; they know how they feel about it; they probably even know how reviewers will feel about it; but what about the public? Those people are animals. Over lunch the publisher tells his writer what it’s like out there—“You have no idea.” In fact the writer does have an idea: he lives “out there.” But the publisher can’t hear him; he is like an online poker player, always checking the computer. Nielsen BookScan rules.

“That equivocal figure,” Pierre Bourdieu calls the publisher, “through whom the logic of the economy is brought to the heart of the sub-field of production.” Yes, but he’s all the writer’s got. Is he looking tired? Poor publisher—last week he became so discombobulated by the “realities of the publishing industry” that he paid $400,000 for the first novel of a blogger. “He’ll be promoting the book on his blog!” the publisher tells his writer over seared ahi tuna. “Which, you see, is read by other bloggers!” He is like Major McLaughlin, the cursed, hapless owner of the Chicago Blackhawks who once became so frustrated with his team’s play, and successive coaches’ failure to mend it, that he hired a man who’d sent him a letter about the team in the mail.

Once the book is published it only gets worse: the writer proceeds to the Cavalry of publicity. Advances on first books vary—about $20,000 to $60,000 for a book of stories, though sometimes higher; between $50,000 and $250,000 for a “literary” novel, though also, sometimes, higher. Even the top figure—$250,000—which seems like so much, and is so much, still represents on both sides of the writing and rewriting, the pre-publication and post-publication, about four years of work—$60,000 a year, the same as a hack lifestyle journalist in New York. But the costs! The humiliations! No one will ever forgive a writer for getting so much money in one lump—not the press, not other writers, and his publisher least of all. He will make certain the phrase “advance against royalties” is not forgotten, and insist the writer bleed and mortify himself to make it back.

Our forefathers the Puritans used to have, in addition to days of thanksgiving, “days of humiliation,” when they prostrated themselves before God and begged for an end to their afflictions. “Before long,” the intellectual historian Perry Miller wrote, “it became apparent that there were more causes for humiliation than for rejoicing.” And so it is for the published author. The recent dress-down of James Frey and his publisher by Oprah was an event that people at publishing houses gathered to watch on their office televisions as if it were the Challenger disaster. But this was just karmic revenge on publishers and their authors, who spend every day prostituting themselves: with photographs, interviews, readings with accordions, live blogs on Amazon.com (“In the desert, it probably doesn’t matter if the groundhog sees his shadow,” went a recent entry by the novelist Rick Moody, a man who for all his sins is still the author of The Ice Storm, and deserves better than this. “Oh, by the way, the film Groundhog Day is one of my favorites!”) Henry James complained about writers being dragooned into “the periodical prattle about the future of fiction.” If only that were the worst of it. Consider the blurb: How humiliating that younger writers should spend so much time soliciting endorsements from more established writers, and how absurd that established writers should have to apologize for not providing them. If they’d want to be ad copywriters, they’d have done that, and been paid for it. But they once asked for those blurbs, too.

In the age of BookScan, only an unpublished writer is allowed to keep his dignity.


Most writers lived as before, on crumbs from a dozen different tables. Meanwhile a few dozen or even a hundred of the most popular writers were earning money about at the rate of war contractors.
          —Malcolm Cowley on the book-of-the-month club era, 1946

Not long ago I found a very interesting letter, a letter of advice, folded into one of my mother’s old books. It was from the Russian émigré writer Sergei Dovlatov, to another writer, apparently newly arrived. My mother was a literary critic, but I don’t know how that letter got into that book; in any case, it describes literary life here in the States—the two clashing editors of the émigré journals, in particular, one of whom is pleasant and never pays, while the other is unpleasant and does. And so on.

Dovlatov had done his Soviet army service as a guard in a labor camp and wrote dark, funny stories about camp life—“Solzhenitsyn believes that the camps are hell,” he wrote, explaining the difference between himself and the master. “Whereas I believe that hell is us.” In 1979, he emigrated to Forest Hills, Queens, and began writing about the Russians there. He published some stories in the New Yorker, met often with his good friend Joseph Brodsky, and died, mostly of alcoholism, at the age of 48. He had liked it here. “America’s an interesting place,” Dovlatov concluded the letter that was folded, for some reason, into one of my mother’s books. “Eventually you find someone to publish you. And you earn some money. You even find a wife. Things work out.”

It’s true. It’s mostly true. And when you think of the long-standing idea of art in opposition to the dominant culture, if only by keeping its autonomy from the pursuit of money—the only common value great writers from right to left have acknowledged—you begin to sense what we have lost. Capitalism as a system for the equitable distribution of goods is troublesome enough; as a way of measuring success it is useless. When you begin to think the advances of doled out to writers by major corporations possess anything but an accidental correlation to artistic worth, you are finished. Everything becomes publicity. How many writers now refuse to be photographed? How many refuse to sit for idiotic “lifestyle” pieces? Or to write supplemental reading group “guides” for their paperbacks? Everyone along the chain of production compromises a tiny bit and suddenly Jay McInerney is a guest judge on Iron Chef.

Publicity is not everything; money, also. Emile Zola was so concerned that he would lose his position in French artistic circles because of his incredible popularity that he formulated an aesthetic theory to explain his art. As recently as five years ago, Jonathan Franzen, too, worried lest his Corrections might seem to have fallen outside the main development of the American art novel, justified his work in aesthetic terms. (For doing so, for letting his guard down in public in tortured meditations on aesthetic value, Franzen has been made to pay, and pay again, by inferiors whose idea of good literature is German film.) Now writers simply point to their sales figures and accuse other writers of jealousy. Well, it’s true. Everyone wants money, and needs it (“a woman must have money and a room of her own”). The only relevant question is what you are willing to do for it.

As for me and my $40,000, I recently went off contract at New York so I could finish a book of stories. My last article for the magazine, written as a freelancer, was about the New York Rangers. I received $7,000—a lot. Two weeks later I hurt my finger playing football on a muddy field in Prospect Park.

Sitting in New York Methodist, my finger worrisomely bent and swollen, I watched a man in scrubs yell into his cell phone: “1.2 million! Yeah! We put down 400!” The doctor had bought a condo.

This was the hand surgeon. After glancing briefly at my X-rays, the surgeon declared I needed surgery.

“How about a splint?” I said.

“No way.”

I decided to negotiate. “I can afford $3,000,” I said.

“I’m not a financial adviser.”

“Well, how much will it be?”

“$7,000.”

Ha ha. It was like an O. Henry story: I wrote the article, they fixed my finger.

Except it wasn’t like that, because I declined the surgery and kept the money. At my current rate of spending, it will last me three months. That should be enough. I hope that’s enough.

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  • Keith Gessen
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