I came across an interesting article by Maggie Doherty in Dissent Magazine the other day via Arts and Letters Daily that discusses how and by whom a writer is paid might affect how and what they write. For instance, if you are being paid by a big commercial publisher and your compensation and future book publication is tied to how many copies of your current book sells, how much money it makes the publisher, then you are more likely to write the kind of fiction that caters to the mass market. And that is fine if that is what you want to do. What, however, happens to the genre of literature we call art? What happens to experimentation?
today’s writers must meet market demands. Those who succeed often do so by innovating no more than is necessary. Many of today’s most celebrated writers marry experimentalism with accessibility; they produce prize-winning fiction with just a dash of formal excitement, enough to catch the eye of cultural gatekeepers but not so much that it renders a work unmarketable. They forge aesthetic compromise and favor political consensus. Their work reassures readers more often than it unsettles them. This isn’t so much bad literature as boring literature. After all, what’s more exhausting than reading, time and again, experimentation you’ve come to expect?
The article provides a thoughtful look at the history of public funding of literature in the United States, mostly through the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), but other organizations as well such as the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP) during the depression. When public funding was high, literature thrived, there was a diversity in viewpoint and a wider engagement with issues. Think Zora Neal Hurston and Ralph Ellison both of whom received funding from the FWP. Think Tillie Olsen and Raymond Carver, both of whom received grants from the NEA when they were just starting out as writers. But thanks to Ronald Reagan and the 1980s, public funding has been cut back to a pittance and the NEA has to be extremely careful in who it gives grants to so it doesn’t ruffle conservative feathers and lose even more funding.
What about universities you may ask since many writers support themselves these days by teaching:
many of today’s writers have retreated from the public sphere and are holed up in private and increasingly corporatized universities. Endowment managers are their patrons now, rather than representatives of the public. More and more writers cycle through temporary faculty appointments, teaching at the undergraduate level and in MFA programs. At a time when some English departments must make do without a medievalist or an eighteenth-century specialist, creative writing is flourishing. Since 1975, the number of MFA programs across the nation has increased tenfold. Some critics have also complained about the standardizing of literary style, while others, such as Junot Díaz, have voiced concerns about the lack of diversity among MFA faculty and students.
So while universities may offer some support, they are clearly not the answer either. After all, there are only so many jobs to go around and if you don’t have an MFA you are completely out of luck unless you have already made a name for yourself as a writer.
I’ve sometimes wondered what the big deal was with most writers not being able to actually make a living from their work. I mean all of us regular people who write manage to do it. Sure it takes a long time but we keep at it anyway because it is important to us. Even the likes of Kafka and Hawthorne had jobs that were not related to writing and they seemed to do just fine.
But that is short-sighted of me. Because the single mother who has to work two jobs to make ends meet and take care of her children and everything else is not going to have the time or energy to write even if she wants to. What a gift it would be for her to have all her expenses covered for a year or two! But even if she has shown talent, published a few pieces that prove her potential, she is not the sort of person who gets grants these days. Grants tend to go to writers like Jonathan Franzen and Jhumpa Lahiri after they have won major awards, after they have begun to make a name for themselves, rarely new and unknown, unproven writers.
All things considered, Doherty says we can’t fault writers for “selling out.” But the results are a literature that appeals to the mainstream and is aesthetically compromised, a literature that reassures rather than unsettles, a literature that flirts with innovation and excitement but never truly is innovative or exciting. In short, a literature that is boring.
What might a literature that is not beholden to anyone look like? Wouldn’t it be interesting and exciting to find out? Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear as though that will happen any time soon. Doherty suggests we need a return to a patronage type of system, preferably a public one like the NEA used to be. There is no political will for that in the US.
I wonder though what enterprising authors might not be able to achieve with crowdfunding? I contributed to a crowdfunded novel a few months ago and actually received the book in the mail a week ago. I haven’t gotten a chance to read it yet but I am looking forward to it whether or not it is good. As if writing isn’t hard enough already for writers looking to do something truly innovative, to have to do a Kickstarter or similar campaign just adds to the burden. But it does seem a possible viable alternative from my perspective because it would offer a kind of freedom they might not otherwise have. As Doherty says,
When writers are forced to conform to consensus positions, either political or aesthetic, the literary world starts to look depressingly monochrome. Literature that appeals to the mainstream isn’t just politically anodyne—it’s aesthetically predictable. We need a literary world, and a political order, in which writers, from a range of social positions, feel encouraged to surprise their readers. We need fiction and poetry that will confuse us and trouble us, challenge us and incite us.
A range of social and political positions, surprises, challenge and incitement. Yes please!