Archive for August 1st, 2012

Writers and the economic food chain

Wednesday, August 1st, 2012

Tim Parks touched a few nerves with his New York Review of Books blog post, “Does Money Make Us Write Better?”  He writes:

“Let’s talk about money. In his history of world art, E.H. Gombrich mentions a Renaissance artist whose uneven work was a puzzle, until art historians discovered some of his accounts and compared incomes with images: paid less he worked carelessly; well-remunerated he excelled. So, given the decreasing income of writers over recent years—one thinks of the sharp drop in payments for freelance journalism and again in advances for most novelists, partly to do with a stagnant market for books, partly to do with the liveliness and piracy of the Internet—are we to expect a corresponding falling off in the quality of what we read? Can the connection really be that simple? On the other hand, can any craft possibly be immune from a relationship with money?”

Is making a painting comparable to writing?  He wrings his hands over other issues.  “Asked to write blogs for other sites, some with much larger audiences, I chose to stay with the New York Review, partly out of an old loyalty and partly because they pay me better. Would I write worse if I wrote for a more popular site for less money? Or would I write better because I was excited by the larger number of people following the site? And would this larger public then lead to my making more money some other way, say, when I sold a book to an American publisher?”

Payment “indicates how much the publisher is planning to invest in you, how much recognition they will afford you, how much they will push your book, getting you that attention you crave, and of course the level of the advance will tell you where you stand in relation to other authors.”

Of course, for many, many writers on food stamps, it isn’t a choice. Certainly not for poets, novelists, and, increasingly, journalists.

Noah Berlatsky responded in a column entitled, “A New York Review of Books Writer Can’t Tell You About Writing.”  His conclusion?  Parks is “too far up the food chain.”

“I read Tim Parks’ essay and I think, good lord, he lives on a different planet, doesn’t he?  …  I’m over here praying that some packager will sign me up to write some wretched jargon-clogged business textbook so I can pay my quarterly taxes.” He writes:

“So what is the vast majority of writers doing? I’ll tell you. They’re writing SEO copy for godawful, often morally dubious websites. They’re writing instruction manuals for online marketing courses through packagers. They’re writing educational materials, or editing other people’s dissertations. They’re writing author bios for online encyclopedias or bands. They’re doing work, in short, which doesn’t involve a community of writers, or peer respect, or worries about whether too much money is going to affect the quality of their work. Indeed, “quality of work” for most writers most of the time doesn’t mean literary flair, honesty or style. It means hitting the right word count with clean copy before deadline. Period.”

Brian Oard is withholding judgment, for a different reason:  “I refuse to comment until Tim Parks pays me.”