Art’s real bad friend is the horrible political economy of writing
Bear with me. This is not a meditation on how a published author’s greatest story is about the friends he made along the way. The opposite, in fact: there is good reason to believe that the stereotypical professional jealousy, gossip and sniping associated with artists, and recently brought to light by a virus New York Times cultural piece, are in fact the product of the intimidating and ruthless political economy in which they are forced to operate.
This Times The play is, of course, “Who’s Art’s Bad Friend?”, The nearly ten thousand word account of a feud between two aspiring Boston-area writers involving kidney, short story, lawsuits. and countersuits, and a lot of social media posting. With its hearty drama, ethical ambiguity, and blatantly flawed characters, the play and the dispute at its heart quickly became a phenomenon: In a week that saw explosive accusations against Facebook, revelations about the pivotal driving role From AT&T to tough right-wing propaganda, yet another disastrous oil spill, this obscure feud between two writers was all anyone could talk about in the professional media.
The question of who exactly, if at all, we should root for consumed the talk for a week, with just enough human detail to make each of the central characters a contender for the hero and the villain. I’m not going to try to convince you who I think is wrong here – you probably wouldn’t agree anyway – but it’s important to know the basics.
After Dawn Dorland created a Facebook group of writer and acquaintance friends, apparently to cultivate adulation for her decision to donate a perfectly fine kidney to a complete stranger, one such acquaintance, rising literary star Sonya Larson , wrote a short story based on Dorland’s Act of Charity. The story, portraying the inspired Dorland character as an affluent and clueless type of white savior, seemed at least partially designed to poke fun at Dorland, an impression that gained weight when private messages showing Larson and another writer friend doing so arrived later than before.
Soon after, Dorland found out about the story and, to her added horror, discovered that Larson’s story also included a letter that looked suspiciously like the one she had written to her own kidney recipient, which she had published in the group. (She later found out that Larson had first pasted his original letter verbatim into an earlier draft.) Can’t help but suspect, as a form of revenge, or at least to prevent his public humiliation from spreading even more. Larson counterattacked, his supporters accusing Dorland of essentially attempting to colonize the work of an Asian-American author.
Dorland is at fault, for trying to soak up the applause and then launch a mock copyright lawsuit to suppress the handwriting of a non-white colleague (a lawsuit which, for the sake of the art, the courts should quickly dismiss)? Is Larson at fault, for a petty public withdrawal from a coworker, whose identifying features she seems to have deliberately bothered to hide? Where are we the real bad friends of art, as one columnist suggested, casually wallowing in strangers’ missteps for our own cruel little pleasures?
I offer another option: what if this sort of poisonous behavior is exactly what happens when human beings are forced to fight over the crumbs at an ever-shrinking economic banquet? From Depression-era Germany to Yugoslavia to the modern United States, there is a tragically long history of tight or downright overwhelming economic conditions exacerbating existing social divisions, causing people to turn their backs. against each other viciously, even violently, depending on their prospects for success and material comforts shrink. Don’t believe me: Dorland and Larson’s own colleague, author Steve Almond, urged readers to try to understand that both are “human beings, writers living in an era.” . . in which it often seems impossible (especially for writers early in their careers) to believe that their stories will one day be published and read.
Consider the economic landscape of the world in which Dorland and Larson reside. Poets & Writers currently lists 212 Master of Fine Arts (MFA) creative writing programs in the United States alone, stretching from Alaska and Utah to Maine and Florida, up from 156 in 2008. Dozens thousands of aspiring writers apply each year, with only about three to four thousand graduating. Even fewer will find a publisher for their work, and even fewer will have this work widely read: less than five hundred of the more than one hundred thousand new books published each year make it to the New York Times bestseller list, and most of them will stay there for a few weeks at best. For many fictional writings, selling a few thousand books is considered a huge success. No wonder an editor told the New York Times in 2015, that MFA programs were “a house of cards” because “the number of writers has increased, but not the number of readers”.
Most of the time, the satisfaction of having something published and read is the only reward for writers, and more and more. According to the Author Income Survey’s 2018 Author Income Survey of just over five thousand published writers, the median sum of writing-related income fell 42% between 2009 and 2017 to just over five thousand published writers. $ 6,000, with literary fiction writers suffering the biggest drop: 27% since 2013. The pandemic has made matters worse, with 71% of those polled reporting an average loss of 49% of their pre-pandemic income during the year last, nearly half of those affected by the cancellation of speakers. With short stories, it’s even worse: The Larson newspaper had submitted their story to pay between $ 300 and $ 500, and for their stories to even be considered for publication, the authors have to pay. them a small amount.
If, like the vast majority of these graduates, they fail to make a decent living from writing, many have to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in debt by taking a job that makes little use of their talents. . Hires in the arts industry fell 13.7% in the year through March 2019, the worst among any industry, according to this month’s LinkedIn Workforce report. While he’s been making gains over the past few months, much of it depends on how decimated he was during 2020. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the median salary of working writers and authors. in all industry at $ 67,120 per year.
Once a safety net for aspiring writers, even the university system is no longer a safe haven, emptied by years of corporatization. According to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, creative writing graduates hoping to gain the financial stability they need to pursue a writing career face the same challenge as all other graduates trying to succeed in academia. , adapting to several -paying auxiliary positions in the hope that they will be offered full-time employment. In the 2017-18 academic year, that meant competing for 354 positions, of which only 176 were tenure-track jobs.
We can see so many of the issues that plague the broader American political economy play into this. For its part, the Authors Guild attributes the meager earnings of published authors to Amazon’s growing dominance in the market, as well as the greater publishing role of companies like Google and Facebook, which devalue the work of authors for keep costs to a minimum while winning the largest share. profits for themselves. But we also see the effects of the predatory American college system, its debt-driven business model and the devaluation of higher education and writing as intangible social goods after decades of neoliberalism. Unsurprisingly, the Guild supports antitrust measures to reduce the power of these tech giants, as well as the PRO Act, to allow freelancers to bargain collectively and hopefully get better rates and royalties.
Nearly ninety years ago, the federal government helped revitalize the creative arts and the American cultural landscape with the Federal New Deal Writers Project, helping to support the careers of famous American writers like Ralph Ellison. , Saul Bellow and Zora Neale Hurston. With the current president making claims to Rooseveltism, it would be easy and relatively inexpensive to do something similar now – or, ideally, something even bigger, given the impact of the digital shift on the big guys. books of all editing. In fact, there are several bills that would do just that. But with Joe Biden’s conservatism and the sprawling $ 3.5 trillion reconciliation bill stalled and now facing deep cuts, it may be some time before such proposals become reality.
It’s a shame, because without this kind of drastic change our world, whether in literary fiction or any other field of shrinking opportunities, threatens to become a landscape defined by ‘bad friend of mine’ style episodes. ‘art’. You probably know him. It sounds like almost every cultural divide in today’s United States, where immense human potential is cultivated for profit and then thrown into an arena with seemingly one way out: to bring together these God-given talents for s ‘attack each other, instead of the walls around us.
Being a good friend of art means more than supporting the people in your life who share your skills and ambitions. It also means reshuffling the rotten economy that pits artist against artist.
Branko Marcetic is a Jacobin editor and author of The man of yesterday: the case against Joe Biden. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.
This article was originally published on Jacobin.