Literature & Capitalism

Arts & Letters Daily has two pieces today on the relationship between writing and making a living. The first notes that the complaint that writers want to be paid for what ought to be a work of love goes as far back as Ancient Greece. The author, a professional writer, is not enamored of this view. "Potlatch, like any gift economy, can never be a one-way process; those who receive gifts are indebted, and they are obligated to return the favor in order to save face. If editors and publishers—appealing to love, not money—ask for the gift of free words, then by the logic of the gift those writers can expect a return, with interest."

The second, by a columnist who writes about books, notes that even authors of best-sellers rarely make any money anyway.
That books still make money at all is something of a miracle. (And to be fair, the vast majority of books don’t make money; publishing, like baseball, is a game predicated on failure.) No market could be less rationalized, or as Strayed puts it, “There’s no other job in the world where you get your master’s degree in that field and you’re like, ‘Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 million.’ ”
I'm not sure it's true that there's no other job in the world in which the range goes from zero to five million, or even higher yet. Still, it does make it hard to predict the value of the degree you are pursuing -- although, I wonder how much value a degree in writing has in predicting whether you will even produce good writing.


E Hines said...

Slots--gambling in general where the house gets a cut for providing the environment--commodity futures are a couple of endeavors where breaking even is rarer than going broke or making a ton. And commodity futures and poker are games of skill more than chance.

Eric Hines

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The young man on the bus in CS Lewis's The Great Divorce is an example of many writers.

douglas said...

My son has expressed some interest in becoming a writer- even going so far as to start writing a book! I told him two things- One: Don't expect to make a living at it. Two: Forget about schooling for that, go out and live life- that's what the great writers did.

Tom said...

douglas, I would add, Three: read the great writers and keep asking yourself, 'What makes them great?' 'What makes this book great?' 'What makes this passage great?'

douglas said...

Ah, indeed Tom. I probably didn't think about that as both kids love reading (books were I think the number one Christmas gift this year I think). I do try to encourage him to diversify his readings though, as they tend toward similar subject matter.

Say, Grim- what do you think would be the best introduction to the sagas for a ninth grader who likes to read contemporary fantasy?

Texan99 said...

The practice of law can easily be compensated by anything from zero to five million, as can being an entrepreneur, and I'm sure we could think of innumerable other examples. I think we often go wrong by imagining that all human effort aimed at compensation should be analyzed in terms of some kind of approved wage scale. People who want to write for free, and find some other way to pay for their food and lodging, are of course entitled to do that. People who want to trade their written production for material goods can do that, too; no one has to buy their books unless it seems like a good idea. Feelings about money often strike me as completely deranged. It's one of the most free institutions people have ever devised, but from the way we talk about it you'd think it was slavery.