"How much my novel cost me" by Emily Gould.
February 26, 2014 9:58 AM   Subscribe

How much my novel cost me: "It’s hard to write about being broke because brokeness is so relative; “broke” people run the gamut from the trust-funded jerk whose drinks you buy because she’s “so broke right now” to the people who sleep outside the bar where she’s whining. But by summer 2012 I was broke, and in debt, and it was no one’s fault but mine." (Previously)
posted by Memo (121 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Multibillionaire JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter while on the dole.

If Gould wants success bad enough, she needs to move to a society with a nicer social blanket and keep chugging at it. She's going to starve to death in America.
posted by Renoroc at 10:09 AM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 10:12 AM on February 26, 2014 [9 favorites]


It seems hard to muster sympathy here. And that's a shitty thing to say. Someone who was a former editor for gawker, who jimmy kimmel smacked down for that role, and (from context) wrote unflattering anecdotes in her book about her family.

There is some interesting debate to be had (that she touches on, but doesn't explore) about whether all that time blogging/tweeting/conferencing etc actually does anything for your work (I read "not really" from her article). But it's really just the ennui of the life she's worked out for herself so far, and this ennui isn't selling.
posted by k5.user at 10:12 AM on February 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.

Art doesn't have to be a business. I wish, often, that there were options in this country for other ways of making it, like there are in most others.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:15 AM on February 26, 2014 [24 favorites]


I don't get a lot of self-pity from this article. It's very clear-eyed about how the choices she made affected her down the road. But it isn't regretful either.

Though at some points I did want Raffles to just kick the bucket already.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:16 AM on February 26, 2014 [7 favorites]


Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.

That's a bit of a leap.
posted by Hoopo at 10:21 AM on February 26, 2014 [15 favorites]


I'm sure there will be no shortage of people who want to tell her what she should do/have done differently. I think it's worth remembering though that it's rather rare for people to actually speak about these issues honestly for the wave of scorn they're guaranteed to receive when they do. I thought it was an interesting piece and I'm glad she wrote it.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:24 AM on February 26, 2014 [34 favorites]


Looked up her book on Amazon.com. The publisher's blurb leads off:
Essays by former editor of Gawker.com—and the new female voice of her generation.
So it seems they actually took her (bad) idea and ran with it.

Publisher's Weekly is less kind:
On the strength of an exposé she wrote for the New York Times Magazine two years ago about her experience working at Gawker.com, Gould, hailing from Silver Spring, Md., and now in her late 20s, delivers a series of 11 insipid essays about her uninspired youth and general lack of motivation or talent for various jobs she took after moving to New York City. The writing seems intentionally bland, as if Gould is attempting to be blasé.
On the strength of the piece in the FPP, I'm not seeing much reason to doubt PW.
posted by yoink at 10:25 AM on February 26, 2014 [10 favorites]


Oh, also, in the unlikely event Warren Buffet decides suddenly to name me his heir, I will establish massive grants for people to create art in a wide variety of forms, on the condition that they immediately release them into the public domain. Win/win.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 10:25 AM on February 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


I always think that it must be hard to be that nearly successful person, as opposed to the person who never really got close.

Those runners up on American Idol, who plug away year after year in obscurity, until they either give up the dream of being a huge music star, or they accept that they weren't actually good enough, and they get a day job.

We've been watching Melodifestivalen. Now Sweden is a small country, and every year they get 36 acts to be in this thing. And every one of them is good. I'm sure that to winnow it down to 36 that there were auditions and cuts and performance after performance.

By the time you get to your show, you've succeeded over your competitors hundreds of times. So...what happens, out of all 36 acts, only one is selected to go to Eurovision. And then it begins again, the competition against another 36 or so acts. AND, if you're lucky, you might win Eurovision.

And then what? Maybe you make a few bucks, maybe some small fame. And then it may only be in Sweden, or Europe. Other than Abba, how many Eurovision acts do you know?

My point is, every single loser on that show...was a winner up until that point.

I think a little failure keeps one grounded.

Ms. Gould seems to have accepted her success as a given, and is mightly shocked to discover that while we may have enjoyed her writing for free, that if asked to pay good, hard cash for same, we balk.

So she's yet another also-ran. Someone who got close, but at the end of the day, it didn't happen for her.

So what's your plan B? Is it time to go out and get a real job and save writing for your leisure time? Do you just keep throwing time and effort down that rat hole?

When do you re-calibrate your dream?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:26 AM on February 26, 2014 [27 favorites]


Final note: almost 100% of young writers fail to live up to their potential. Her honest depiction of how this goes down even if you get a book deal should be required reading for everyone going to MFA school or moving to NYC, and especially both.

I wish her great happiness in the Act II of her life, or at least a good portion of it, rather than "success."
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:27 AM on February 26, 2014 [22 favorites]


Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.

I have two words to offer in response to this:

Lee. Iacocca.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:27 AM on February 26, 2014 [11 favorites]


it's rather rare for people to actually speak about these issues honestly for the wave of scorn they're guaranteed to receive when they do

Not that rare, I think. There was a New Yorker piece last year, I think, about the current vogue for "Why I Failed as a Writer" memoirs. Oddly, given that that seems to be kinda the genre her memoir falls into, this essay seems to be a "Why I Failed as a Writer of Why I Failed as a Writer Memoirs"; which has a certain generic novelty to it, I guess.
posted by yoink at 10:27 AM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


So...she sold a book for about $200K, then after she realized that the book wasn't going to do well, she kind of didn't get another job and just spent all her money? It has very little to do with writing, I think, and more to do with the fact that she reads (to me) as a little entitled, because she's an ARTIST and all.
posted by xingcat at 10:29 AM on February 26, 2014 [10 favorites]


[takes out Artist Thread Bingo card]

man, I'm almost there already. keep it up, guys!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:30 AM on February 26, 2014 [40 favorites]


She should write a memoir about how hard it was after she wrote the first memoir.
posted by dobie at 10:31 AM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


SHE SHOULD JUST SHUT UP THERE ARE CATS IN CHINA THAT DOESNT EVEN HAVE KIDNEYS
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:32 AM on February 26, 2014 [39 favorites]


It has very little to do with writing, I think, and more to do with the fact that she reads (to me) as a little entitled, because she's an ARTIST and all.

This piece is more about her coming to terms with that, I think. I had never heard of this person or her drama, at least, so it was interesting to see someone processing her failures, even if it was in a rather navel-gazing fashion.
posted by Think_Long at 10:32 AM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


The word "entitled" is tough. As a person who has felt that way in the past, but didn't recognize it, and probably feels that way now in a different way, but doesn't recognize it, it always feels more judgmental than it needs to be. It's really hard to see a sense of entitlement in yourself in the present.
posted by josher71 at 10:33 AM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


To be fair, I can see how a $200k advance would boost your confidence that you could make it with no straight job.

Maybe young writers ought to be made to read that Steve Albini rant for people in bands. It's probably not that different from the music business, with regard to some things.
posted by thelonius at 10:39 AM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.
posted by escape from the potato planet


I make a decent living spending 8 hours a day working on a website to convince people to get an MBA.

In the margins of my time, I make a webcomic about failing musicians. It has a small but dedicated readership, and has gotten a decent amount of critical praise for being funny and honest.

In my lifetime, I've made hundreds of thousands of dollars, cumulatively, from activity number one. And I'm pretty sure that I've never even recouped the cost of art materials or web hosting for activity number 2.

I can't begin to understand how our society decides that sitting at a desk doing (essentially) busywork bullshit is hundreds of thousands of dollars more worthwhile than making art that explores the human condition, but that's the society we live in.

All I really know is that very few people doing creative work that's worth a damn are thinking of it as a business venture.
posted by COBRA! at 10:39 AM on February 26, 2014 [55 favorites]


Also: have you ever met anyone who didn't feel entitled, in some way? They aren't doing so well, typically.
posted by thelonius at 10:40 AM on February 26, 2014 [7 favorites]



Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.


This immediate notion (espoused by many in this culture) that a work of art is just another business venture is, I believe, fundamentally wrong. And yet very easy to arrive at. I've just spent the past quarter hour trying to formulate a taut, concise as to the why of this fundamental wrong, but have failed. I guess it's just too vast an issue for taut/concise. Maybe a life's work. Or maybe I just need another coffee.
posted by philip-random at 10:43 AM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


All I really know is that very few people doing creative work that's worth a damn are thinking of it as a business venture.

Not to mention I've since found like ten other cases of businesses that regularly receive government subsidies. So clearly, yes, we DO feel we have a social responsibility to subsidize other people's business ventures.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:44 AM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


The thing is, if she was talking about how she attempted to start her own business, and got a 200K advance on a product that then didn't sell, and then spent the next few years borrowing money and running up her credit cards and futzing around on the internet, the sentiment might be different.
posted by xingcat at 10:44 AM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


Also: have you ever met anyone who didn't feel entitled, in some way?

no
posted by philip-random at 10:44 AM on February 26, 2014


Evidently, people often feel entitled to point out when others feel entitled. It's a regular ouroboros of judgment. Wait, what's this coming up behind me?!
posted by feloniousmonk at 10:47 AM on February 26, 2014 [15 favorites]


I thought her article seemed slapdash but gave her the benefit of the doubt until I read her book excerpt: it's such sloppy writing, it's boring. Examples:

It’s crazy to think that a few months ago I felt so weak and tired. A few months ago, I had sat on the edge of my bed on weekends...

Every girl lives with her boyfriend in New York; all of my friends do, at least, because living with your boyfriend means paying hundreds of dollars less per month in rent than you otherwise would. Sharing a one-bedroom is hundreds of dollars a month less expensive than living with a roommate and up to a thousand dollars a month less expensive than living alone...

And this is the excerpt which I'm assuming someone (her?) deliberately chose to showcase the book. It's so repetitious it feels like it wasn't edited at all.
posted by sfkiddo at 10:48 AM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


I think the problem is the creative process is usually portrayed as: You write The Novel and then you sell it and then you are set to continue being A Writer And Artist. Really, most of the writers I know have written a lot of The Novels and most of them were terrible but eventually they write one that's pretty good and even then, there's a huge luck roll with "Not only did you write A Good Book but you also found the right agent to sell it and they found the right editor to handle it and all of you just happened to time the market well enough to achieve some success". But it's all wrapped in this gauzy, ethereal "do what you love" bullshit.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 10:49 AM on February 26, 2014 [12 favorites]


Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.

Other countries have figured out that you have an economic interest in giving people the ability to best allocate their skills in the market instead of trapping them wherever fate happened to put them.
And it comes with free extra servings of human happiness and prosperity, which is more important than the economy anyway (the economy only exists merely as a means to that end).
posted by anonymisc at 10:50 AM on February 26, 2014 [16 favorites]


I can't begin to understand how our society decides that sitting at a desk doing (essentially) busywork bullshit is hundreds of thousands of dollars more worthwhile than making art that explores the human condition, but that's the society we live in.

If there were thousands of people willing to do that busywork bullshit for free in their spare time, society wouldn't pay you to do it. If there weren't thousands of people willing to create art for free in their spare time, you might have a better shot at getting paid for yours.
posted by Longtime Listener at 10:50 AM on February 26, 2014 [20 favorites]


I am a successful science fiction novelist and have earned my living exclusively as a writer for all but about five of the past 23 years.

Here are some figures to illustrate how hard this is:

I sold my first short story in 1986, for a princely £135. (Don't give up the day job!)

Luckily I had a day job and didn't give it up, because between then and mid-1990 my peak income in one year from writing fiction was £2250, and averaged £800.

In 1990, I got a job as a technical author and began selling articles to computer magazines. The former paid a salary. I shifted sideways into programming, then ended up a full-time freelance computer journalist for a while after the dot-com bust in early 2000. I was able to earn £15,000-35,000 a year as a tech author or (at the high end of my game, and the field) computer journalist before I phased the non-fic out completely in 2005.

I sold a computer book to Addison-Wesley in 1994; it came out in 1996. Advance: £1000. It did not earn out the advance and pay royalties.

In 2001 I had a gigantic stroke of good luck: I acquired a [good] literary agent and sold my first novel. It was about the tenth novel or novel-shaped-thing I'd written since 1990, on my own time. The advance was, eventually, $15,000 for US rights (a good first book advance in SF/F) and £3500 for UK rights. Note that a new novelist can't get follow-on book contracts until their first book has proven itself in print -- to justify the advance money the new contract will cost the publisher -- so I had to keep up the freelance journalism for a few more years.

Since 2008 I have not earned less than £40,000 in a financial year, although my income fluctuates by +/- 40% from year to year (which makes tax planning -- not to mention pension planning -- a royal pain in the ass).

Yes, reader, I eventually gave up the day job -- but it took 19 years from my first short story sale to become a full-time fiction author.

(And this doesn't count the decade of writing as a learning/hobby thing I put in before that first sale. Yes, I am obsessive-compulsive about writing: why did you ask?)
posted by cstross at 10:51 AM on February 26, 2014 [97 favorites]


Not to mention cultural products are among the most popular exports a country has.
posted by The Whelk at 10:51 AM on February 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


It's possible both to believe in a robust social safety net that gives people the confidence to devote themselves to artistic/commercial/scientific endeavors that have a high risk of failure AND to believe that Emily Gould is not a very good writer and that she made some extraordinarily poor decisions that contributed to the unfortunate position she found herself in. These are not mutually exclusive positions.

One thing I'll note in passing, by the way; if Obamacare had been up and running, there's no way she'd have been paying such a huge amount for health insurance. That, right there, is an example of why Obamacare--for all its imperfections--is a huge improvement to the social safety net in the US.
posted by yoink at 10:51 AM on February 26, 2014 [22 favorites]


I approve of her cat priorities.
posted by Jacqueline at 10:54 AM on February 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


I was really glad to read this as I find myself in a position slightly similar to Gould's: I got the book deal (good, but not 200K good), and for a time could not do anything to squash the little voice inside of me that said I was going to be successful, if not with that book than with the next book or the one after that, and ... it was an incredibly hard and slow come-down as everything that was going to work out so great in my head did not work out so great in practice.

I did not live by myself in a $1700 apartment (although I did live by myself after some failed experiments in writing while having roommates) and I did not quit my day job; but I can relate to that feeling of "They really like me, so everything is going to be okay now.... oh, wait, not that."
posted by Jeanne at 10:55 AM on February 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


It's possible both to believe in a robust social safety net that gives people the confidence to devote themselves to artistic/commercial/scientific endeavors that have a high risk of failure AND to believe that Emily Gould is not a very good writer and that she made some extraordinarily poor decisions that contributed to the unfortunate position she found herself in. These are not mutually exclusive positions.

No, but the latter is very often used as a rationalization for denying the former. As usual with the myth of meritocracy, airing contempt for someone's artistic output in a context like this very often serves as a way to too easily shrug off any concern for their economic distress.

Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.

What we really have is a social obligation to subsidize other people, period. That we often don't honor it is part of an ongoing human tragedy, and it's unethical to sarcastically defend economic brutality when we should be sympathizing with all its victims, even the ones who make "poor decisions."
posted by RogerB at 10:59 AM on February 26, 2014 [16 favorites]


Also: have you ever met anyone who didn't feel entitled, in some way? They aren't doing so well, typically.

Agreed. Entitlement is a bad thing when you're being a dick about it, but otherwise, for the individual it's a critical life skill, and having some is a big part of why the children of well-off people are likely to do well themselves. Eg the body-language and self-belief it produces that reassures others that it's completely normal and right that things should proceed this way instead of some other way, the hundred-times-a-day version of "No-one ever got fired for choosing IBM" and "Go with the flow".
posted by anonymisc at 11:03 AM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


I lived alone for three years in Brooklyn

Full stop. No.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:09 AM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Thank you charlie stross.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:14 AM on February 26, 2014


I read Gould's first book when it came out and wasn't that impressed (tend to agree with PW's review), but I do think it was brave of her to write this piece, and I did pretty much enjoy reading it.

I'm always alternately attracted to and repelled by n+1's pieces dealing with hipsters/authors in Brooklyn. (I noticed Gould's essay is part of one such collection.) I wonder sometimes what my life would be like if I'd chosen to pursue my creative or even editorial interests full-time, at the expense of having a reliable paycheck. Sometimes the people doing that seem unbearably pretentious (and I'm sure I can't stand the idea of their being the "voice of my generation"). But sometimes I wish a little bit that I were more like them, instead of writing this comment from my day-job desk.
posted by mlle valentine at 11:16 AM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I've lived alone for four years in Brooklyn. Paying anywhere from $950 to $1100 on a librarian salary, which is... tight but doable. It's not hipster Brooklyn. It's not an apartment where I get consistent hot water every morning. It's still better than having roommates.

Anyway, I really wish these discussions didn't derail into whether or not the government should be subsidizing artists to a greater extent than it is. Gould isn't making that argument, and she fully admits that she made a lot of bad choices. If anything I would say that the feast-or-famine thing in the publishing industry, where you can make $200,000 off one book and then be persona non grata the next year, is a bigger problem for writers' financial stability than anything the government does.
posted by Jeanne at 11:17 AM on February 26, 2014 [9 favorites]


Yep, one month it's a check from Hermes and everything is perfect, next month it's literally 23$ dollars in your bank account and no one will return your calls cause you're "over."
posted by The Whelk at 11:21 AM on February 26, 2014


Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.

According to the conservative AEI think tank, the banker- and financier-induced Great Recession cost the nation $30 trillion. That's trillion with a T. (AEI thinks the situation was considerably worsened by the behavior of the Fed, but that's a different problem.)

A perhaps too-large guesstimate. But even the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas report highlighted there says,
We conservatively estimate the loss of national output as a result of the financial crisis and its aftermath at between $6 trillion and $14 trillion. The high end of this range is equal to nearly one year of U.S. output. Including broader and more difficult-to-quantify measures that reflect the lingering trauma experienced by millions of Americans pushes these costs still higher—possibly to as much as two years’ worth of forgone consumption.
Billions upon billions of dollars were spent propping up (AKA subsidizing) the "too big to fail" banks, who nearly cratered the entire global economy with stupid fucking business ventures.

So tell me again about our social obligations to everyday folk. I like fairy tales.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:22 AM on February 26, 2014 [9 favorites]


Surprised at some of the hate for her writing style. It's understated, unvarnished, and yes, in great need of a careful editor's touch here and there, but refreshing for it. Some nice bits of dry humour, too. I hope she finds the patience to hone and deepen it, if she wants to.

Bit of an open secret: great want of a careful editor is more or less the case for nearly all writers. If it isn't apparent in some, that's because they just haven't produced enough for probability to kick in, or were lucky enough that what's left of literary infrastructure threw an editor, thank god, between us and their awful mistakes before we took notice.

Few writers will catch all their unnecessary repetitions (definitely her primary sin) or pointless circumlocutions alone, and being able to develop a voice or a name before the internet definitely had its advantages. Even Hemingway would likely have been insufferable as a blogger. (I'll donate the opening for a "He was insufferable as a novelist too" crack to the first poor soul who needs it.)
posted by Mike Smith at 11:24 AM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


The happiest day of my writerly life was when an editor fixed a huge nagging problem with the narrative with a single sentence.
posted by The Whelk at 11:26 AM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


Go back and re-read that 2008 NYT magazine piece and you'll wonder if Emily Gould and Lena Dunham have ever actually been seen in the same room at the same time.
posted by yellowcandy at 11:44 AM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


Not everyone gets to be the voice of a generation. Some of us are just the burps and farts.
posted by oulipian at 11:44 AM on February 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


Next season on GIRLS...

yellowcandy beat me to it.
posted by Zephyrial at 11:45 AM on February 26, 2014


Wow, this was a long, self-indulgent, rambling piece. If that's typical, I'm not surprised at her problems.

Also: thanks Medium for helping bring tons more mediocrity into the world.
posted by shivohum at 11:46 AM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I really liked this article and was thinking about posting it here in conjunction with this piece from The Billfold. I can see why people don't enjoy Emily Gould's work, but I think these two pieces are part of a broader, and very brave, attempt by a small group of people to change the way writers talk about money.

The philosophy of the Billfold (and, I think, Scratch - which I'm less familiar with but which focuses entirely on writers' experiences) is that if we are going to talk about money in any meaningful way, people need to be open about 1.) Their privilege and 2.) their mistakes. Trashing people as soon as they open up about either one of those factors completely defeats the purpose of trying to have these larger conversations.

Emily Gould's example is crucial because she is the primary example of a writer who had succeeded. She did everything she was supposed to do: came to NYC, produced a ton of successful content for a big brand website, then continued on her own to create a huge internet presence, and then branched out into conventional media (the NYT piece) and eventually a six-figure book deal. If you think of the thousands of writers who are racking up credit card debt writing for free or almost on free all those websites we read every day, they are trying to become Emily Gould. Regardless of what they might think of her work itself, that's the approximate career path they're trying to follow.

So when people are glibly like, "Oh, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there's your problem," what they're saying is: the pinnacle of this career is one in which you will never be able to afford to live on your own, never mind have kids or financial stability or even a regular writing paycheck, the end. And that should really give us pause.

Because, sure, you can say "She should never have come to New York, she should always have kept a full time job in a different profession, etc. etc." But to work for Gawker, she had to come to New York. To gain the kind of name recognition she has, she had to work full time posting and networking and Tweeting and, basically, working for free. And when her book failed, it didn't fail because it was "bad" - because she wrote, in the book, the exact same way she wrote online. For better or for worse, that was what people liked. The real, applicable lesson is that the book failed because the people who read her stuff online didn't care enough to pay for it in print.

That army of thousands and thousands of young people that produces the massive amount of content we all consume for free every day aren't living sustainable lifestyles. They are either a.) supported by a ton of hidden privilege - either wealthy families or wage-earning significant others or b.) racking up debt and postponing starting a retirement fund or living in their (gasp) own apartments, in the hopes of catching a break. They do a ton of work for basically free because they're chasing the dream. But the break they're envisioning - the pie-in-the-sky possibility that will make it all worthwhile - won't, apparently, even pay them enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.

The message of Emily Gould is that writing for free doesn't pay off, even when it pays off. That should be sobering to everyone. If this generation of writers ends up listening to what she has to say, the online literary landscape could start looking very different, very quickly.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 11:53 AM on February 26, 2014 [119 favorites]


well said, pretentious illiterate.
posted by Think_Long at 11:59 AM on February 26, 2014


One of my thoughts reading this was to make a joke about why math is important, even for writers. Then I realized it wasn't a joke.

I have no problem subsidizing swaths of society to do creative endeavors, and like Horace Rumpole, would love to bestow grants on people if I had the money. But I would do it with a caveat - they must take a class on financial planning. (In fact, if I were ever lucky enough to have the power to create that kind of institution, I would fund a position solely to help the creative types with their finances.)

We're slowly learning to do it for athletes, who are also subsidized for their skills and our entertainment (although still at the highest levels). Why hasn't it sunk in yet that creative types could use the same kind of education? For example, why don't universities include a required class for all English major types that include basic financial planning? (Actually, why not in high school for everyone, but that's a different discussion.)

Just because a writer or artist may not be interested in making filthy lucre doesn't mean they shouldn't be aware of how money works. An argument could be made that a very real goal, regardless of how a creative type goes about it (giving up the day job, working the day job, etc.), is about stability, not money.

I say this, of course, entirely cognizant of how terrible most people are in terms of long-term planning and risk assessment of anything, even with the best education, but if this kind of thinking helped 1 out of 10, it would be worth it. It might cause some people to give up their dreams or creative endeavors upon learning more about it, or might make some more determined - either way, they would have a better idea of what they face, and be more educated about how and what it will take to make it work.
posted by barchan at 12:00 PM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


"In retrospect it seems clear that I should never have bought health insurance, nor lived by myself."

Because one of the most common causes for bankruptcy isn't unexpected medical bills?

"But in the months that followed I discovered that, even when I wanted to, I couldn’t write well in the first person anymore. I tried, but what came out read as self-conscious, self-censored, chastened—and worst of all, insincere. Then I tried to write straightforward critical essays, but without that dose of “I” I’d reliably been able to inject before, they were dry and boring, and suddenly my lack of real expertise or research skills was glaring—I’d always been able to fudge it before, compensating with feelings and observations when facts weren’t at my fingertips."

Props for being honest.

It all comes across as angsty, and despite the constant repetitions of being broke, being at the bottom of a well, it never seemed like there was desperation. It's like a lament of someone drinking wine at a nice restaurant complaining they will never get to return to Paris in the foreseeable future.
posted by Atreides at 12:05 PM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


You write sixteen books and what do you get?
posted by IndigoJones at 12:08 PM on February 26, 2014 [7 favorites]


I also found the essay overlong and rambling, but with a number of painfully too-close-to-home truths. Particularly, how fickle publishing is -- not just the endless-seeming slog toward actually selling a book, but every stage afterward as well. My first two YA novels also didn't sell up to expectations (expectations = my advance, not nearly as high as hers) for reasons mostly out of my hands, and it's definitely affected my career trajectory. It's also impacted my mental health (depression), although I've been doing much better lately, and unlike the author of the essay I've never stopped writing.

One of the best & most honest pieces I've seen about this is this blog post by YA author Jessica Spotswood, whose debut trilogy sold in a major deal (500k+ in publishing terms). Sure, it's a shit ton of money, though much less than it seems divided over several years and after agent fees and taxes. It's also a lot farther to fall -- and semi-publicly, too.

Fortunately (I hope?) I sold a couple middle-grade books late last year for more than the YAs, so branching out into a different age group seems to have transcended my sales history. We'll see. At this stage of my career, the roller coaster dips and spikes aren't as extreme, mostly because I have more experience managing them. But I don't think I'll ever be immune.
posted by changeling at 12:10 PM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


(In fact, if I were ever lucky enough to have the power to create that kind of institution, I would fund a position solely to help the creative types with their finances.)

and if it plays out anything like most of the funded arts situations I'm aware of, the person with this position would end up having a nicer office, nicer tools, and get paid way more than any of the creative types.
posted by philip-random at 12:13 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I both have a job and think about writing books. It has never, ever, ever, ever, ever occurred to me that writing a book would enable me (even if I wanted to) to quit my job.

Every now and then, somebody talks to me and says, "How do I quit my job and become a writer?" And I say the same thing, every single time: "You don't do that. Do not do that. Absolutely, positively do not do that. Become a writer and do it for a long time and work really hard for probably several years at least, and then, maybe, you can quit your job." I think in a lot of ways, that's what Gould is saying here.

The point of this is only to say that the problem in her story is not necessarily profligate spending or the economics of publishing or even the effects of writing for free. It's that very, very few people can -- with ONE book sale -- make the writing of books the thing they do to support themselves. I know a pretty successful novelist who sold several books before she got to think about quitting her job. Before that, she wrote on weekends, at five in the morning, late at night. Which is the same way I wrote for a long, long time.

It's not that the pinnacle of this career doesn't allow you to support yourself, it's that an online writing career and a book-writing career are very different things, and the book-writing strand of your career isn't at any sort of pinnacle the first time anybody buys a book from you. It's at a very early stage, and it's ... really unstable.

I'm not slamming her at all, because I get how she wound up in this situation, and I certainly think she gets unreasonably singled out for various reasons. You just really can't expect to support yourself from the first time you sell a book, and I think that's what she's partly saying. That's the part that isn't realistic, not the idea of making any money at all for your art and not anything ethereal about art versus business. I think there's a path to follow still in writing, but there are also some fantasies that need snuffing out to keep a lot of people from finding themselves in this very situation.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 12:15 PM on February 26, 2014 [11 favorites]


and if it plays out anything like most of the funded arts situations I'm aware of, the person with this position would end up having a nicer office, nicer tools, and get paid way more than any of the creative types.

I've not seen any funded arts situations that up close, so I find that incredibly disappointing.
posted by barchan at 12:15 PM on February 26, 2014


*reads a few pages of the essay*

*gets to the point where she talks about how she was addicted to reading the internet instead of making her own thing*

*closes tab and goes back to collecting reference for a background in her comic book*
posted by egypturnash at 12:22 PM on February 26, 2014 [11 favorites]


Gould's essay reminded me of the recent movie "Frances Ha," about which a client said, "A whole movie about a young women not wanting to get a day job."
posted by twsf at 12:28 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I came here to say what Pretentious Illiterate said, only more stupidly. I don't like Gould or her milieu, but she is writing well about being a writer, and that transcends how I feel about Gawker or the LES or whatever.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:29 PM on February 26, 2014


The problem is that she got payed very well for a book shaped product nobody was waiting for, let's not pretend it was high literature or even good pulp fiction. Had she just gotten a proper job and never written ever, who'd have missed her?

Note: this also goes for Tom Friedman, David Brooks and most of the rest of the non-fiction bestsellers section.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:34 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


"A whole movie about a young women not wanting to get a day job."

1) I am smart enough to unpack and enjoy intelligent writing. Many varieties.
2) I am too dumb or lazy to write well or interestingly.
3) I have a day job.
4) I, as a voracious reader, am not invested in talented writers having jobs other than making good writing.
5) Many writers have jobs other than writing, anyway! "Day" jobs!
6) Writing well is, in itself, hard work. Like, seriously hard work.
7) I can only conclude that people scoffing at writers wanting to write for a living, exclusively, have some puritanical or otherwise broken notion of the difficulty of writing, and the social value of writing.

And now I'm out of thoughts on that topic.
posted by sandettie light vessel automatic at 12:38 PM on February 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


I don't blame anyone for not wanting a day job! They are almost always no fun. Even when they are good, they are just so relentless that they eventually crush you. I'm Gen X, if you must. They called us slackers! And they were right, at least in my case. I was a slacker. I drove pizza and played in bands, I lived with other man-children in decaying share houses. It was, in many ways, the happiest I have ever been, but I'm glad I didn't try to drag it out for more than a few years. The bands were going nowhere, 30 was closing in, and I had the feeling that some serious downsides to the lifestyle were in the mail......
posted by thelonius at 12:45 PM on February 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


the recent movie "Frances Ha," about which a client said, "A whole movie about a young women not wanting to get a day job."

That's literally true, but a little dismissive of the film. Frances' refusal to take the admin job at her dance studio is never presented as anything other than a mistake, and once Frances finally admits that to herself she dutifully eats her humble pie and starts building a decent but realistic life for herself.
posted by oinopaponton at 12:49 PM on February 26, 2014 [6 favorites]


Wow, this was a long, self-indulgent, rambling piece. If that's typical, I'm not surprised at her problems.

Also: thanks Medium for helping bring tons more mediocrity into the world.


and now:

INTERNET COMMENT THEATER

Curtain rises. Puppets A and B bobble onstage.

A: Man, I don't feel any sympathy for this Emily Gould character!

B: Me neither!

A: Why not?

B: You know why not!

Both turn to audience.

TOGETHER: Because she sucks!

Curtain falls as they hit each other over the head with sticks.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:50 PM on February 26, 2014 [24 favorites]


Surprised at some of the hate for her writing style. It's understated, unvarnished, and yes, in great need of a careful editor's touch here and there, but refreshing for it.

Ugh. I found it unbearable. I, too, was waiting for the cat to die. And I love cats.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:04 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I liked this essay a lot and I don't understand the bile towards it. Maybe it's because I have instant sympathy for anyone who has a sick kitty, or maybe it's because once upon a time, I wanted to be a writer.

Years ago, I actually dropped out of law school to move (back) to New York and be a writer. I know. I was 23 and it seemed like a good plan at the time. I was going to write at night and do stupid temp jobs during the day to pay for living, and it was all going to work out perfectly and within ten years I'd have a book on the best seller list. I did not end up being a writer. I wound up liking temp jobs more than I liked writing and eventually I got a real job at a hedge fund and hardly wrote anything at all and when I did write things, they were not especially good. Later I went back to grad school for something else having a lot to do with Excel and math and nothing to do with writing, and I'm doing fine.

But I still sometimes mourn the fact that I am not a writer. I gave up. I quit. I don't know. I just didn't have the discipline. Or maybe I was too spoiled and maybe I just loved money too much to commit to a lifestyle of debt and roommates and worry. I wonder if I could have made myself do it, whether I would have been any good. Sometimes I still write things, and they are weird, and some people like them, but no publisher in his or her right mind would want to pay money for something I wrote. I just didn't know how to try hard enough to be any good.

I have to respect Emily Gould. She tried hard enough to write. Committing to writing and the miserable lifestyle it affords a person in this city is difficult. I really wanted to do it and I failed.
posted by millipede at 1:06 PM on February 26, 2014 [10 favorites]


This will probably only affirm any predispositions one has pro- or con- about her writing in general but apparently this essay took six months to write.

I'm wondering where the line falls between art and memoir. There are certainly aspects of the former in exceptional examples of the latter, but given the arc of development of her first book (slightly scandalous workplace romance becomes secret blog becomes pseudo roman a clef as a first person magazine article becomes a book), I'd hazard it falls on the side of the blog to book deal spectrum (Nick Douglas' Twitter book, Postcards from Yo Momma, This is Why You're Fat, all from other Gakwer alum) that make the 'underwriting your business' slightly more accurate than justifying NEA funding for 'art'.
posted by 99_ at 1:11 PM on February 26, 2014


What kind of neurotic would get $200K for half a book and decide *not* to write books full time?
posted by rue72 at 1:16 PM on February 26, 2014


What kind of neurotic would get $200K for half a book and decide *not* to write books full time?

Any adult who lives in New York.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:18 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


I can't begin to understand how our society decides that sitting at a desk doing (essentially) busywork bullshit is hundreds of thousands of dollars more worthwhile than making art that explores the human condition, but that's the society we live in.

True fact: people who value art that explores the human condition will reward you currency in kind, whereas people who value money-making "busywork bullshit" will reward you with, well, money.
posted by zanni at 1:24 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, because we have a social obligation to subsidize other people's business ventures.

Well, that's essentially the underlying justification for the existence of corporations, so I guess we used to think so?

(By limiting corporate interest holders financial liabilities through corporate law, we effectively subsidize those liabilities on the public dime when there are failures. So, yeah, we seem to very much believe in publicly subsidizing people's business ventures in the US! That's only one way we do it, too--we've already got lots of subsidies to various business interests and industries in the US.)
posted by saulgoodman at 1:25 PM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


What kind of neurotic would get $200K for half a book and decide *not* to write books full time?

Once you pay taxes and you pay out your agent and everybody else, you could probably live on that in New York for a year, after which it's gone. Assuming you will sell another book every year for that same amount would be wildly, unbelievably foolish, and that's basically what you'd need to do.

Book deals are not regular gigs; there is absolutely no reason to believe they will ever recur, let alone recur forever.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 1:27 PM on February 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


She turned her life into art—award-winning, apartment-buying, wildly popular art—which is something I’m still trying to do.

Yeeeeah, most people's lives are just not that interesting. Even when I traveled abroad I knew that only my parents were going to read my blog.

. . . it was still painful to borrow those feelings in order to try to write as though they were mine.

Isn't that called . . . writing?
posted by chainsofreedom at 1:31 PM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


And when her book failed, it didn't fail because it was "bad" - because she wrote, in the book, the exact same way she wrote online.

There's not much force to that "because." Lots of people do something well enough that people will be happy to enjoy it for free, but not well enough that people will pay for it. This isn't the story of someone sabotaged by piracy or some such thing--she was sabotaged by writing a book that didn't appeal to enough people to earn back the commission. That's no crime, of course, and lots of genuinely great writers have been in the same place. But while I definitely support anyone's desire to take a shot at discovering if they've got what it takes to move to the big city and Be A Writer, they kinda have to know A) that the chances are not good that it will work and B) that it's almost inevitably not going to work if they spend all day surfing the internet rather than actually writing.

None of this makes her a bad person, or anything. But I just can't see it as an indictment of an uncaring society or whatever that we don't automatically provide a free Brooklyn apartment and a generous stipend to every single person who thinks "maybe I've got a novel in me?" Heck, I'd be happy to sign up for that--I can surf the internet while not writing the great American novel as well as the next guy.
posted by yoink at 1:37 PM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


"In retrospect it seems clear that I should never have bought health insurance, nor lived by myself."

Because one of the most common causes for bankruptcy isn't unexpected medical bills?


With the power of retrospect, all bills are known, none are unexpected :)
posted by anonymisc at 1:55 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Gould's essay reminded me of the recent movie "Frances Ha," about which a client said, "A whole movie about a young women not wanting to get a day job."

That summation is only describes like half of that movie.
posted by Think_Long at 1:58 PM on February 26, 2014


Here's her New York Times Magazine "exposé" from 2008. I remember it because I had disliked it so much at the time.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:46 PM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


"I can't begin to understand how our society decides that sitting at a desk doing (essentially) busywork bullshit is hundreds of thousands of dollars more worthwhile than making art that explores the human condition, but that's the society we live in."

Because sitting at a desk is serving others, it's waiting on others, it's doing shit that other people can't or won't do. Hence why you wouldn't do it unless you were paid.
posted by jenfullmoon at 3:14 PM on February 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


Ugh. Thanks, Sticherbeast, that confirms my first impression that this woman's writing is some of the dreariest I have ever read. And, I hope, ever will read.

The nonevents of her unlife don't become romantic just because she is a Writer. And if her yawn manifestoes turn out not to have enough commercial value to support her lifestyle, then chalk one up for laissez-faire capitalism.
posted by tel3path at 3:27 PM on February 26, 2014


Young millennial can't live the Sex and the City lifestyle writing navel-gazing pablum.

Film at 11.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 4:06 PM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


doing (essentially) busywork bullshit is hundreds of thousands of dollars more worthwhile than making art that explores the human condition, but that's the society we live in."

Because sitting at a desk is serving others, it's waiting on others, it's doing shit that other people can't or won't do. Hence why you wouldn't do it unless you were paid.


if it's (essentially) busywork bullshit, it's pretty much by definition not "... serving others [...] waiting on others."

The stuff that other people can't or won't do unless they're being paid -- that's a different issue.
posted by philip-random at 4:07 PM on February 26, 2014 [1 favorite]


Writers have almost always been paid very poorly, with a few notable exceptions. Someone (Harpers maybe?) a while back reprinted a series of letters from a writer to her publisher a bit before WWII; she was living in Spain or France and the publisher was in New York I think. Anyway, she was so poor she was literally starving, going without food, and having to write these sad letters to extract pittances from the publisher. If we were a just society there would be a better social net and we would value writing (even bad writing) more than we do now.

So I value her honesty about the finances of writing and the ways social media has and hasn't worked for her (she got her book contract because of it, but finally figured out that it was hindering her writing). But it's a badly fragmented piece that needs a rewrite, and if her book is that disjointed I can see how sales would have suffered.
posted by Dip Flash at 4:08 PM on February 26, 2014


So when people are glibly like, "Oh, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, there's your problem," what they're saying is: the pinnacle of this career is one in which you will never be able to afford to live on your own, never mind have kids or financial stability or even a regular writing paycheck, the end. And that should really give us pause.

No, I think what we're saying is that editing Gawker and getting the advance for your first book is not the pinnacle of a career but the beginnings of one and that you'll go broke if you treat it like the former.
posted by Jahaza at 4:39 PM on February 26, 2014 [3 favorites]


Someone (Harpers maybe?) a while back reprinted a series of letters from a writer to her publisher a bit before WWII; she was living in Spain or France and the publisher was in New York I think.

You're probably thinking of Mavis Gallant's diary excerpts published in the New Yorker a few years ago. One big difference there being that you read them and only have to get a few sentences in to think "Wow, this person can fucking write." And she wasn't even writing for publication.
posted by yoink at 5:49 PM on February 26, 2014 [5 favorites]


Yes! That's it! I searched but couldn't find the right combination of phrases. Thanks for remembering that, her writing has stuck with me since reading it when it came out the other year.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:53 PM on February 26, 2014


I don't understand why all this is prepended on living in Brooklyn. It's like it's the only conceivable place in the world. Doesn't anybody write books in Iowa?
posted by newdaddy at 9:00 PM on February 26, 2014 [2 favorites]


I write for a living. Actually, I write for a pittance. I'm lucky, even though we're poor and I'm disabled, I can still write and make a tiny bit of money at it.

Even when there is no money at all in it, I still write. I have done it since I was a child, the words will continue to come out of me long after I am paid a dime for any of it.

My main work is for the local weekly newspaper. It is low paying hard work that, at the end of the year, I barely break even on.

I do it for my love of the written word, the need to get the information I write to the local public, and because I would be writing anyway.

You have to love to write to do it for tiny bit most of us make. There will never be a 200,000 advance for me on half a book, I'm not young, nor will I ever subject myself to living in a city on little money.

At least here in the country I can sit on my porch and watch the leaves blow in the wind, hear the sound of frogs croaking in the swamp, and build a fire from scrap wood to roast hot dogs for entertainment.

I'm blessed though. I get to wake up every day and do something I love. The majority of people in the world don't get to do that. Sure, I would love more support for writers everywhere, yet, until then, I'll keep plugging at it anyway.
posted by SuzySmith at 11:26 PM on February 26, 2014 [4 favorites]


This will probably only affirm any predispositions one has pro- or con- about her writing in general but apparently this essay took six months to write.

Stunning. It had the barely coherent style of a nearly drunk person you’ve just met, telling you way more than you want to know about themselves, and not really talking to you. The kind that if you walk away will just carry on with someone else. The first hundred pages were like that anyway.
posted by bongo_x at 12:19 AM on February 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


METAFILTER: telling you way more than you want to know about themselves, and not really talking to you
posted by philip-random at 2:08 AM on February 27, 2014


telling you way more than you want to know about themselves, and not really talking to you

Would you like to talk about it?
posted by IndigoJones at 5:24 AM on February 27, 2014


I don't understand why all this is prepended on living in Brooklyn. It's like it's the only conceivable place in the world. Doesn't anybody write books in Iowa?

It's where she lives and where her life is. I lived in Brooklyn when I made 22k a year and it sucked but I didn't move because that's where my friends and my life was.
posted by josher71 at 5:46 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


That 2008 article linked by Sticherbeast was very frustrating. There were a lot of good things in it and quite a bit of good writing . . . and then it just went on, and on, and on . . .
posted by chainsofreedom at 6:12 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I can only conclude that people scoffing at writers wanting to write for a living, exclusively, have some puritanical or otherwise broken notion of the difficulty of writing, and the social value of writing.

To be honest I have more sympathy for the Nick Mamatas school of writing which says that if you want to write for a living, write for a living, rather than get sucked into that romantic idea that you should only work on your masterpiece.

Especially when you're getting 200k for one book, which really even in NY should be enough to keep you going for a bit.
posted by MartinWisse at 7:40 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


As a genre-reader primarily, I have to wonder if her writing style is indicative of the trend that has been described as the Self-Absorbed MFA graduate writing about small, inconsequential things that is modern American literature, the stuff I've steered clear of.

Because if it is, I'm rather glad I'm reading the Steampunk etc I am. At least it's got a plot, often has a point, and is interesteng to read.

But then, I don't think most of the authors I tend to read have MFAs.
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:52 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


Hey don't bash MFA programs! Back when I was an undergrad (but taking grad writing workshops), there were at least two sort of decently passable writers in the MFA program.

Well, until they dropped out...
posted by saulgoodman at 8:07 AM on February 27, 2014


I'm sitting here at my so-so day job doing government mandated BS while my lovely and talented wife to be is at home (hopefully!) pounding out another ~5 pages of her... uh, adult novel... That I'm gambling some of my own income and stuff like future plans on (retirement fund? what is that?) ... and oh dear god, I see how hard she works and how much talent she actually does have... and this article is both scary and encouraging. I learned pretty early on that someone can try really hard and do everything right and things can still fail; but that kind of lesson will devastate my wife. But I still believe she can at least, get a good novel or three out.
posted by Jacen at 8:32 AM on February 27, 2014


Fine, fine.

It's not the program.

It's just the teachers, and the graduates they turn out, and the excruciatingly insipid, whiney, "Ordinary life really & truly is this ordinary and banal" tripe they produce.

Fuck Write what you know. Most people know boring, mundane stuff.

The advice should be Imagine something entertaining, engaging, and compelling to read, and write that instead!
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 8:37 AM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


and oh dear god, I see how hard she works

Well, right there she's several steps ahead of Emily Gould.
posted by yoink at 8:54 AM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


The advice should be Imagine something entertaining, engaging, and compelling to read, and write that instead!

As I've heard it put (from someone in an MFA program at the time), and indeed I've commented on it before here ...

That which we call good, effective, even great writing always comes from ...

Research
Imagination
Style
Experience

... always with an element of each, but not always the same balance.


Call it the RISE scenario.
posted by philip-random at 10:17 AM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


There is a definite (yet difficult-to-define) "MFA" tone that is pretty pervasive, especially in the small presses these days. To me, that tone is more of a disaffected and melancholic distance between the narrator and the action. There are parts of that in this piece, I suppose, but I think Gould's style is a less-polished, more conversational tone, which is different than the MFA house style.
posted by Think_Long at 10:34 AM on February 27, 2014


There is a definite (yet difficult-to-define) "MFA" tone that is pretty pervasive, especially in the small presses these days.

Maybe. On the other hand, every period in history has its "typical" prose styles and concerns. It would be a very hard thing to prove that the things that typify contemporary prose style are the result of the fact that many contemporary writers attend MFA programs or just the fact that, by definition, the only writers who attend contemporary MFA programs are "contemporary writers." There's just no control available to test the hypothesis. I mean, sure, you can look at contemporary writers who happen not to have attended MFA programs, but they're already going to be a rather different cohort for all kinds of other reasons (class, educational background etc.).

FWIW, Emily Gould did not attend an MFA program and thinks she's all the better for it.
posted by yoink at 10:50 AM on February 27, 2014


I guess I should add that the fact that Emily Gould thinks of herself as someone specifically made a better writer by not attending an MFA program (she's a contributor to a book called "MFA vs. NYC" which argues that there are two routes to becoming a writer--either via the MFA program or by moving to NYC and doing it the old fashioned way; and she's on the NYC side) and yet someone could read her prose and find that it is off-putting because it smacks of the MFA house style tends to demonstrate that there's a lot of confirmation bias in people's sense that they can detect the deleterious effects of the MFA program in people's style.
posted by yoink at 11:00 AM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


yet someone could read her prose and find that it is off-putting because it smacks of the MFA house style tends to demonstrate that there's a lot of confirmation bias in people's sense that they can detect the deleterious effects of the MFA program in people's style.

Very true. Plus, I'd bet that every past generation of writers had their own critics complaining about the MFA (or its contemporary equivalent) style.

It's an easy way to dismiss someone's work without actually engaging in concrete criticism. That said, I still do think there is a general tone in a lot of younger (under 40 maybe?) authors these days, though it's not fair to blame it on the MFA process. Regardless, I don't think Gould is the most obvious example of whatever I'm talking about.
posted by Think_Long at 11:12 AM on February 27, 2014


I've done the MFA thing. It was a good program. I learned a pile. If anything, "the MFA style" (if there is such) was something some students brought with them to the program based, I suspect, on the assumption that, "well that's how you're supposed to do it here, right?" * And so the program (ie: the faculty and the fellow students, once they "got it") was dispelling this notion far more than encouraging it.

Thinking about it now, my main takeaway is that very many wannabe writers, though they have the technical chops, just don't have very interesting stories in them (either via imagination or experience), so rather than go deep into research (ie: finding those stories elsewhere), they try to get by on style alone, writing "what they know". This combines with the fact that it's very difficult to directly critique a story's content in a collaborative workshop setting to give us this problem of an "MFA style".

* which raises the loaded question of, "so where does this assumption come from then?" I'll leave that open.
posted by philip-random at 11:22 AM on February 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


If the MFA style isn't the culprit, what accounts for the fact that so many of the stories in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, Tin House, and similar journals are sterile, "show don't tell" Hemingway acolytes rather than successors to Faulkner or Melville or Nabokov?
posted by shivohum at 1:06 PM on February 27, 2014


I think we are saying that "show don't tell"ism isn't necessarily the MFA style as much as it is just what's in-style, for better or worse.
posted by Think_Long at 1:26 PM on February 27, 2014


or as I heard it from a prof in a workshop, "Show don't tell is great except for when it's better just to tell."
posted by philip-random at 2:02 PM on February 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


If the MFA style isn't the culprit, what accounts for the fact that so many of the stories in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, Tin House, and similar journals are sterile, "show don't tell" Hemingway acolytes rather than successors to Faulkner or Melville or Nabokov?

But some sort of similar complaint was made in every age: "why do all the writers these days write like this, rather than like X?" Writing has its modes and fashions, just like clothing. I can open almost any book from the last six hundred years in English without looking at the author or title and have a high likelihood or being able to place it's year of publication within a few decades after reading a paragraph or two. It's one of the reasons people who don't have much of a scholarly background are always deluding themselves into thinking that X-contemporary-of-Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare's plays; they think there's something uncanny in how "similar" their writing is to Shakespeare's--where to someone who is actually immersed int he writing of the period it's obvious that those are just the inevitable similarities of the period and that the differences within that period mode are vast.

As for the particular examples you cite (Faulkner, Melville, Nabokov), they are stylistic extremists. It is inherently self-defeating to ask "why aren't more people like the radical outliers?" If more people were like them, they wouldn't be outliers; they'd be the founders of schools, and you'd complain about the mindless conformity of those who imitated them.
posted by yoink at 5:51 PM on February 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


But don't you think MFA programs and the need to create so-called "rules" of writing that can be "taught" have promoted a style that is in fact, easily taught because it is so mechanical? You know, cut out excessive words and all that jazz.

Agreed that there are writing fashions, but there are also factors (in this case institutions) that promote those fashions.
posted by shivohum at 9:23 PM on February 27, 2014


But don't you think MFA programs and the need to create so-called "rules" of writing that can be "taught" have promoted a style that is in fact, easily taught because it is so mechanical? You know, cut out excessive words and all that jazz.

The fact that every period tends to throw up a dominant, recognizable style (or set of styles) in itself demonstrates that those styles are easily "taught" (that is, most people writing in the period find it easy to "learn" to write in the period manner). I don't see the evidence that the current popular modes of writing are inherently more "teachable" than any other mode. MFA programs could just as easily encourage writers to "load every rift with ore" and write longer, more complex, more mellifluous sentences. If that mode of writing comes back into style in the future and there are still MFA classes being offered, I'm sure that that is what those MFA classes will teach their students to do.

Again, the complaint that MFA programs don't routinely produce maverick, sui generis stylistic innovators is inherently contradictory: "why can't everybody be that lone, daring adventurer who refuses to follow the crowd?" The people who teach in MFA programs are, taken as a whole, necessarily going to be a reasonably representative sample of the currently prevailing tastes and beliefs about the nature and purpose of writing. Inevitably they will tend to recognize and reward works that strike them as excellent examples of the virtues that--as representative examples of writers-of-their-period--they particularly prize. And sure, that has something of a homogenizing effect--but I see no evidence at all that that effect is stronger because of the institution of the MFA program than it was back in the pre-MFA days when in order to get published you had to be recognized as excellent by magazine editors, publishers etc. That is, in order to get your work before the public you are always going to have to convince some (on the average) representative example of the current literary world that your work is excellent according to whatever the prevailing notions of literary excellence happen to be.

Now, of course, in every era quirky exceptions make their way through--whether because of a particularly insightful or maverick editor or because of a rich patron or because somebody make a horrible mistake or whatever the hell. But these exceptions are very much the exceptions that prove the rule; and I see no evidence at all that the MFA system is some unique new filter preventing such exceptional talents from emerging. They were always long shots; they were always rare; often enough they were considered hopeless and largely insignificant failures in their own lifetimes (like Melville, for example).
posted by yoink at 8:56 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


But these fashions do not just stream out of some chasm in the heavens and descend like the holy dove. Fashions are propagated by particular people and institutions; they have histories; they amplify or wither depending on their means of influence.

And when the people who hold the reigns of popular literary publications and the schools that hold the key to the contemporary "writerly identity" push a particular style, that tends to be a powerful reinforcement to the longevity and predominance of that style.

That prior styles may have been absorbed by writers of the past doesn't really prove that they are teachable styles, because there's a difference between implicit and explicit knowledge. I might absorb a style implicitly by reading a lot of work written in it, but that does not mean that I can explicitly state the rules of that style.

Yet the requirement for MFA programs to sound authoritative requires that they be able to explicitly define certain rules; much like the social science penchant for measurement, that then twists the subjects under investigation. I don't think it is sufficiently explicit to say "load every rift with ore." That would require having ore, i.e. insights, which are not easily taught. Their acquisition may demand some kind of spiritual ascesis. To say "kill your darlings" is much more easily done and far more objective, which makes them a much easier subject for classroom pedagogy.
posted by shivohum at 9:21 AM on February 28, 2014


To say "kill your darlings" is much more easily done and far more objective, which makes them a much easier subject for classroom pedagogy

I don't see this at all (nor do I see the advice to "kill your darlings" being all that style specific, in fact). Why shouldn't we teach the practice of writing long, complicated sentences, full of richly descriptive, highly emotive language and complexly hypotactic in structure? Those are all definable, recognizable traits that can be taught. Not only that, they're traits that were taught in the past. People have a utterly fantastic notion that writing was never explicitly "taught" before the MFA programs, but that's just ignorance of history. In the eighteenth century, for example, everybody was reading, say, Bysshe on writing poetry and Lord Chesterfield's letters to his son as a model for prose style (along with Addison and Steele, of course). They were all reading manuals on letter-writing. In addition, the men were all doing endless translation of Latin authors--where their translations where judged not just for accuracy but for literary merit etc. etc. Explicit training in writing is not some new thing that just descended from the heavens when the Iowa MFA program sprung up. And yet, somehow, the stylistic forms that were explicitly taught and fostered in the C18th and C19th tended to produce prose that was quite unlike the prose produced in contemporary MFA programs.
posted by yoink at 9:51 AM on February 28, 2014


Why shouldn't we teach the practice of writing long, complicated sentences, full of richly descriptive, highly emotive language and complexly hypotactic in structure? Those are all definable, recognizable traits that can be taught. Not only that, they're traits that were taught in the past.

And they're traits that some writers still use today.

However, the difference between "quality writing" and "shit writing" isn't necessarily a matter of sentence structure and word choice. Those are factors, yeah, but often what sets the great apart from the merely good is some innate X-factor which I'm not sure can be taught. The "MFA Writing" people talk about is more a description of style than anything else, and there are a lot of styles out there in the wild. And writing in a shit style won't totally keep a genius writer down, just like writing in a fabulous style won't totally boost a shit writer up.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:42 AM on February 28, 2014


However, the difference between "quality writing" and "shit writing" isn't necessarily a matter of sentence structure and word choice.

No, indeed. Styles come and styles go but the percentage of good writers remains about the same from period to period. The question "why is there so much crap writing nowadays?" gets asked in every period through the ages, of course, and the answers people propose are always absurdly time-specific (it's the telegraph! it's the internet! it's MFA programs! its the baleful influence of the French! it's all these damn new women readers! etc. etc.). But all that's really happening is that when we compare the writing of the present to the writing of the past we compare a reasonable cross-section of the writing of the present to that infinitesimal proportion of the writing of the past that people continue to give any kind of crap about at all. You have to be in the top .01% of the writers of your period for people to bother to remember you well enough to say that you were crap a century later (except, of course, for people immortalized only because some famous writer took a dump on them).
posted by yoink at 10:52 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yet the requirement for MFA programs to sound authoritative requires that they be able to explicitly define certain rules; much like the social science penchant for measurement, that then twists the subjects under investigation.

this does not reflect my experience of an MFA program.

I took various workshops in various genres/disciplines and never once came across an explicitly defined rule that didn't pre-exist the program (ie: correct formatting in screenplay, proper sentence structure in prose). If anything, the opposite existed. Rules were made to be broken with the caveat that those breaking them be able to put these "transgressions" into something approaching context. But even here, it's not as if you'd get a bad mark because you couldn't justify why you'd confused the hell out of everybody for twenty pages or so. You'd just have to endure a difficult workshop.

Maybe my program was unique. It's certainly had its fair share of successes, one of which comes quickly to mind because it only recently sold, and I had to endure some of its early drafts in workshop. The book hasn't hit the market yet so I won't name it. But its early drafts were dense, show-offy, ultimately failed attempts to force-feed writerly poetics into what was otherwise a complex and fascinating examination of every day life in an unnamed conflict zone in the Middle East.

I haven't read the version that got purchased but a talk with the writer confirmed that he had ultimately stripped all the "gunk" away, named the conflict zone (Egypt) and ultimately just told his story in the plainest language he could.
posted by philip-random at 11:49 AM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


This thread made me think of the trailer for Adult World. "Not everyone is talented."
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 7:39 AM on March 3, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yet the requirement for MFA programs to sound authoritative requires that they be able to explicitly define certain rules

Just to second philip-random's response to this point: the English Department I teach in has a highly ranked Writing program attached to it. There is simply no institutional mechanism, whatsoever, that requires the faculty who teach in that writing program to "explicitly define certain rules" of good or bad writing to anyone who is not a member of their writing seminars. I've heard this argument levied about MFA programs before, and, who knows, it may be true at some institutions. But frankly I find it hard to imagine how that would work and I can say with complete certainty that it is by no means universally true. An MFA writing program can be highly ranked, competitive and influential without any one of the faculty who teach in it having to divulge to anybody outside of a seminar what they think "good writing" is or even whether they think it is something that can be defined by any abstract "rules."
posted by yoink at 9:30 AM on March 3, 2014


I'm seeing this book pop a lot today, I liked Michael Bourne's take on the millions, where he says:

But as we look back at this period we need to keep two very important things in mind. First, outside that one period, no one but hacks and geniuses really made money writing books, and most of the time even the hacks and the geniuses ended up poor. Second, were it not for the advent of the MFA system as a jobs program for midlist authors, we could be back in the 1850s, when serious writers either lived off their families like Henry Thoreau and Emily Dickinson or retreated into government sinecures like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville.

It is odd, especially for a group of writers like the n+1 set, who pride themselves on their intellectualism and historical insight, that their book on the subject mostly elides this essential historical explanation for the personal predicaments besetting members of their own tribe.

posted by Think_Long at 6:15 AM on March 4, 2014


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