Money, privilege, luck, connections
January 25, 2015 4:27 PM   Subscribe

 
Kinda the same as self publishing?
posted by sammyo at 4:33 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


I realize this is very much not the takeaway from this piece, but I really want to know who the blind-item writers are. Any guesses about the 30-something childless New-Yorker, the daughter of literary people with connections, who wrote her first book about privileged adolescents? How about the non-fiction writer with a brood of children who is heir to a fortune?

Anyway, I think she's mostly right, but it's part of a much larger problem in American culture that is not particularly limited to writers.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:43 PM on January 25, 2015 [11 favorites]


Is this a good place to say that I kind of couldn't stand The Goldfinch?

I was so excited to afford being able to read again! Nominally it was about something I love very much, and a lot of people apparently loved it. But in practice it was inescapably written by someone hung up on class distinctions and failures of privilege I don't give a damn about. At least it had a few bits on furniture, which was neat.

Money is power. If you have power, you get a massive head start on telling the story.
posted by tychotesla at 4:46 PM on January 25, 2015 [8 favorites]


Yeah I think it's kind of the same with all art forms- you need a certain level of privilege to be able to even have the time to make art, let alone something that will be successful. Which also means that the stories of those who are too poor to write are not getting told and not getting heard. And that is how capitalist culture reproduces itself :(
posted by winterportage at 4:46 PM on January 25, 2015 [23 favorites]


but it's part of a much larger problem in American culture that is not particularly limited to writers

This.

But, yeah, she also doesn't really make her point very well. She starts with "Why it's a problem that we don't talk about this" then doesn't really say WHY, which is that all these wannabes don't get told the truth that many of the people they admire have money in spite of what they do, not because of it.
posted by Michele in California at 4:47 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


JK Rowling, finishing The Philosphers Stone in cafes as a single mum and trainee teacher, would very much be the counter example here.
posted by Artw at 4:52 PM on January 25, 2015 [16 favorites]


She starts with "Why it's a problem that we don't talk about this" then doesn't really say WHY, which is that all these wannabes don't get told the truth that many of the people they admire have money in spite of what they do, not because of it.

But she does say that? She says lots of people think they're not as good as the writers they admire, but don't understand that those writers have advantages they don't have, and then she gives two examples.

I mean, yeah, she naval-gazes about her life as a writer too, but that's the writing style at Salon.
posted by subdee at 4:52 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


(Of course that's in a country with a more sane approach to healthcare and benefits. Or at least it was, at the time.)
posted by Artw at 4:53 PM on January 25, 2015 [14 favorites]


JK Rowling, finishing The Philosphers Stone in cafes as a single mum and trainee teacher, would very much be the counter example here.

Glen Cook used to write something like 3 books per year while working on a GM assembly line. He would write in his head while working on the car and then write it down between cars.
posted by Justinian at 4:54 PM on January 25, 2015 [12 favorites]


Not quite as hardcore as being a single mum, but not bad.
posted by Artw at 4:57 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


Bullshit.

Sponsored by the taxpayers of the State of Iowa.
posted by charlie don't surf at 4:59 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


JK Rowling, finishing The Philosphers Stone in cafes

Notably one owned by her brother-in-law.
posted by raygirvan at 5:01 PM on January 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


The arrowhead reckons that sinew is only good for rending.

This comment took me fifteen minutes to write while my automatic dishwasher kept my dishes clean. I have a dishwasher because I own a house; I own a house because I got some help from my parents; my parents were able to give me help because they are wealthy; they are wealthy because they were fortunate enough to be white and clever back when that was all one needed to be wealthy; they were white and clever because they were born to white parents who took advantage of the G.I. Bill to get educated out of manual labor and subsistence farming.

Also MeFi's Own scalzi has no problems detailing where his money comes from, and gives back to those who helped him whenever he can.
posted by infinitewindow at 5:01 PM on January 25, 2015 [17 favorites]


but it's part of a much larger problem in American culture that is not particularly limited to writers

i think - as of today - after cumulative disillusionment - i am no longer down with capitalism. i'm not at all academically trained in economics, but i can't really get behind a board game where the object of the game is 'douchebags win'...there's nothing constitutionally that says the republic must have a capitalist economy.

that was the straw, even the most liberal of the elite are choosing to hide their advantages from the public. the world is rich with spirit, talent, and resources. somehow, i believe we can make survival something besides a zero-sum game...i'll let you Know if i come up with a plan.
posted by j_curiouser at 5:03 PM on January 25, 2015 [12 favorites]


JK Rowling, finishing The Philosphers Stone in cafes as a single mum and trainee teacher, would very much be the counter example here.

JK Rowling was on the dole for part of that time.

Sine then, she's generated millions (billions?) in tax revenue for several governments. And, you know, yadda yadda yadda, sparked a lifelong love of reading among millions of children.

Seems like a pretty good deal. How much does the dole really cost if every now and again it gives a Rowling-esque return on the investment?
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:03 PM on January 25, 2015 [40 favorites]


Just as it would be impossible for some people to write under any circumstances (because they aren't writers, duh), some writers can write no matter what. Maybe Faulkner could have written Light in August while someone flicked lit matches at him and an osprey shit in his hair. That's awesome! What a dude. But should he have to write under those conditions? Would most people be able to? Would the people who didn't be only the "weak" ones whose work we didn't really need? Another question: If Donna Tartt were a single mom getting by on federal assistance and writing whenever she could, tearing her hair out at two in the morning and scribbling in a yellow legal pad because she couldn't afford to buy a laptop, would she be writing The Goldfinch, or would she be trying to write a knockoff of 50 Shades of Grey in hope of one day being able to pay her bills?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:04 PM on January 25, 2015 [24 favorites]


JK Rowling

Glen Cook

And Wallace Stevens, Franz Kafka, etc. We could list the counterexamples all day long as if they're some kind of proof that the article is wrong, or we could acknowledge that, generally speaking, 1) money buys time and energy, which are invaluable for the creative pursuits, and 2) connections and social privilege largely take care of the rest.
posted by naju at 5:05 PM on January 25, 2015 [54 favorites]


i think the real reason people don't like to talk about where the money comes from is because there's damn near no money to be made by writing anymore - no one makes a living from it unless they're very lucky

even the author here isn't willing to come right out and say it bluntly - she's left quite a few hints but not a forthright "you can't make a living writing - forget it"
posted by pyramid termite at 5:05 PM on January 25, 2015 [9 favorites]


1) money buys time and energy, which are invaluable, 2) connections and social privilege largely take care of the rest.

I agree with that. I don't think it's particularly unique to any profession, though. People who are independently wealthy or have a well-off spouse willing to support them can engage in whatever pursuit strikes their fancy. Whether it be writing, yachting, or being a professional video gamer.

I'm also not sure what we can do about it apart from trying to raise everyone's standard of living above some baseline level.
posted by Justinian at 5:08 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


i think - as of today - after cumulative disillusionment - i am no longer down with capitalism. i'm not at all academically trained in economics ... we can make survival something besides a zero-sum game.

Capitalism is not a zero-sum game.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:08 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


anything's a zero-sum game if the economy is falling
posted by pyramid termite at 5:11 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


You could at least try to discuss things in good faith.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:11 PM on January 25, 2015 [10 favorites]


I think a lot of these wealthy writers might genuinely have no idea that there could be a lifestyle much harder than theirs. It might sound ridiculous, but I've had people tell me, in their arched foyers while getting ready for an annual trip to Switzerland, that they're "solidly middle-class." I've known people who told me "money's tight" because they were buying a summer house - and money may very well be tight in that case, but it's obviously nowhere near as tight as it would be for someone making far less than them.

It's like the mentality behind this article, still one of the worst things the Washington Post has done (which is saying a lot).
posted by teponaztli at 5:12 PM on January 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


The thing is, Artw, that I'm not sure this works exactly the same way in the UK. I think that people there are a lot more aware of class, so people's class advantages are a lot more apparent. She's not saying that it's impossible to be a writer without privilege. I'm sure we can all think of counter-examples. She's saying that a lot of American writers have privileges that are invisible, and that leaves less-privileged writers wondering what's wrong with them when they have a harder time achieving the same success.

I don't think it's that different from rich kids who get fancy internships in New York and don't mention that their parents are paying their rent or Mitt Romney thinking that he bootstrapped it because he paid his own way through college with his stock options.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:13 PM on January 25, 2015 [28 favorites]


You said it better than I did. I'd forgotten about that line from Romney.
posted by teponaztli at 5:14 PM on January 25, 2015


Seems like a pretty good deal. How much does the dole really cost if every now and again it gives a Rowling-esque return on the investment?

And keeps Scotland from seceding!
posted by maxsparber at 5:16 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Any guesses about the 30-something childless New-Yorker, the daughter of literary people with connections, who wrote her first book about privileged adolescents?

Curtis Sittenfeld, undoubtedly. MFA at Iowa and Stanford for her BA. Her debut novel was Prep, a young girl's coming of age story set at a New England boarding school.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 5:16 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


i am discussing things in good faith - we are watching the economy contract; there are actually bonds being sold with negative interest rates these days

it's not a zero sum game - it's a less than zero sum game

but this thread isn't about that, so i'll drop it
posted by pyramid termite at 5:17 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


Curtis Sittenfeld was my first thought, but the biography is wrong. She's from Cincinnati, and her parents don't seem to have any literary connections.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:18 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Capitalism is not a zero-sum game.

I realize this is a major derail, but capitalism is only non zero sum under conditions where the growth rate exceeds the rate of return on capital, which only really ever happened in the postwar period up to about the late 70s. For the rest of history, it's been effectively a zero sum game of rent seeking. See Piketty.
posted by dis_integration at 5:19 PM on January 25, 2015 [19 favorites]


Actually, wait. Are Sittenfeld's parents literary figures? She certainly matches the description in every other regard; she's childless, attended a New England prep school, was well known in the NY literary scene before Prep was pubbed, and got huge attention for it long before the book's actual release. But her parents... they don't quite fit.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 5:19 PM on January 25, 2015


Capitalism is not a zero-sum game. That is clarifying. Thanks. I did admit to my lack of training, so sorry for the confusion. What I meant was:

"I can't get behind a system like we have today that is mostly shitty, for mostly everyone, most of time." What's the word for that?
/derail - i'll bow out for now

posted by j_curiouser at 5:20 PM on January 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


Curtis Sittenfeld, undoubtedly. MFA at Iowa and Stanford for her BA. Her debut novel was Prep, a young girl's coming of age story set at a New England boarding school.

She has siblings, unlike the writer in the blind item. From reading interviews with her, I also doubt she would be that tone deaf and unaware of her privilege.
posted by sallybrown at 5:20 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


i feel like i'm losing my mind or i'm in the grips of a serious deja vu situation - but i swear that a very similar article was written using at least the first blind item example and maybe both - sometime in the last 6 months? it's been itching at my brain all day...
posted by nadawi at 5:20 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's not just writers or artists. Growing up with and having a constant source of income--whether that be a spouse, a trust fund, or simply mom and dad sending you a check every month--is a boon to anyone lucky enough to get it. It doesn't negate hard work put into a job, but having those special circumstances does often allow for the job in the first place.

Privilege can be something as simple as family connections. A friend of mine is European, and at times talks/jokes about how broke he is, but the more I got to know him, the more I realized he's the beneficiary of amazing privileges most people don't have. "Opportunities" is the better word, really, because life so often hinges on timing and luck. For example, Euro friend wanted a job back in his home country, and needed to stay in a certain town for a few weeks. Lo and behold, a family friend owned a hotel in the town, which my friend was able to stay at, free, and as a result, got the job. If he had had to pay for that himself, would he have stayed as long? Would he have not gotten the job?
posted by zardoz at 5:22 PM on January 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


I'm reminded of Carolyn Chute, who wrote "The Beans of Maine." I enjoyed the book when it came out, but in my view, there was a sort of self-congratulatory undertone from the publisherati--"Wow! She's poor and writes so well. What a surprise."

Culture is as culture does. And, tbh, snootiness (especially the backhanded-kind) is a part of that.
posted by CincyBlues at 5:23 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


And because I'm a hopeless gossip and I really want to know:

Person 1, the non-fiction-writing heir:
The author was very well-known, a magnificent nonfictionist who has, deservedly, won several big awards. He also happens to be the heir to a mammoth fortune. Mega-millions. In other words he’s a man who has never had to work one job, much less two. He has several children; I know, because they were at the reading with him, all lined up. I heard someone say they were all traveling with him, plus two nannies, on his worldwide tour.
Person 2, the childless daughter of literary parents:
A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.
It's definitely not Curtis Sittenfeld, at least unless wikipedia is totally wrong. Her parents are a high-school teacher and investment advisor in Cincinnati, and she has a brother.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 5:23 PM on January 25, 2015


I don't think it's particularly unique to any profession, though. People who are independently wealthy or have a well-off spouse willing to support them can engage in whatever pursuit strikes their fancy. Whether it be writing, yachting, or being a professional video gamer.

One way in which writing is different is the myth that all you need is your mind (and physical utensils for writing). There is no degree requirement or other obvious barrier to entry. This article is pointing out that the barriers to entry are still there, they're just less visible.
posted by sallybrown at 5:25 PM on January 25, 2015 [10 favorites]


"Also MeFi's Own scalzi has no problems detailing where his money comes from"

At the moment, it's majority from fiction writing, either directly (advances, royalties, foreign sales) or indirectly (film/TV options). I do also recognize that I'm an outlier as far as writing incomes go.

On the issue of spouses and their contribution to the writing life, I think it's worth noting that a supportive spouse is incredibly useful and important aside from immediate, tangible issue of money. There's not been a time where my wife's income supported us or has been greater than my own (outlier, remember), but it's indisputably a fact that I would not have anything close to the career I have without out her.

On the financial end of things, her income, while less than mine, is consistent and stable (i.e., it's always something we could budget with), and she also carries the health insurance and other such benefits. She's also one of those people whom when she leaves a job, they have to hire two people to replace her, so the confidence that we would have some income was always high. That feeling of certainty allowed me to take a lot of chances I might not otherwise have done. Aside from that she's the one who handles much of the day-to-day financials of the Scalzi household, is the primary organizer and scheduler, and generally takes everything off my plate other than the writing. And also, you know. She loves me, and having a grounded, stable relationship of 20+ years has also been immensely conducive to my writing career.

So the "spousal sponsorship" is not just about the money, or at the very least has not been in my case. I could not have done it without my wife. Simple as that. Which is why I do recommend a smart, supportive spouse as a great aid for a writing career. If you can get one.

(Note well, just in case it was not clear, that support goes both ways. For the first decade of my marriage I was a full-time writer but not a full-time novelist; I wrote, well, whatever would make money. Because part of the deal for me was that I would not be precious about my career; I would be practical and support my family. There was a lot of copywriting and marketing and newsletters and articles on every possible subject, and I was happy to do it and if it came to it would do it again, not problem. Because again: That was the deal.)
posted by jscalzi at 5:25 PM on January 25, 2015 [106 favorites]


According to the Salon comments, Person 1 is Andrew Solomon, which fits his bio - Manhattan-raised son of a Pfizer exec.
posted by decathexis at 5:25 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


[Perspective of a full-time freelance writer who supports her male partner, not the other way around]

I think this is a REALLY important conversation to be having, and that transparency about how little people pay writers and how writers actually manage to make a living is critical. At the same time, this disconcerts me and makes me worry that it will be turned into yet another example of how women writers are less serious, write only as a hobby, and can always get a man to support them.

The barriers to entry are absolutely present, but not every successful writer is on first-name, Christmas-card terms with the Styrons. I got my first book deal without a connection in the world—it was a combination of hard work, good luck, and a book that happened to be salable at that particular moment.

That said, I'm trying to learn from my knee-jerk reaction to this piece, which is to start looking around for people lining up to denigrate and dismiss women writers, and keep an open mind here.
posted by mynameisluka at 5:29 PM on January 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Andrew Solomon is a good example of someone who has used his (immense) privilege to give a very loud voice to people who might never otherwise get their stories across.
posted by sallybrown at 5:30 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


This article makes me reflect on the current organization of publishing, whereby different kinds of writing are divided by genre (largely due to marketing requirements, as I understand), and these marketing requirements are in turn broadly mistaken as profound markers that tell us about the artistic worth of the books distributed thereby. Certain kinds of genre fiction (often the most profitable kinds) are deemed as worth less than, and also as inherently different from, "literary fiction" -- meaning that a writer who wants to earn his or her living through genre fiction, but also write literary fiction, is encouraged in many cases to completely obscure her identity as a genre novelist lest the critics and readers of her literary fiction look with acute skepticism on her "literary" works.

In short, it sometimes seems to me that the classist nature of "litrachoor" is built in to the very system of organizing and distributing fiction.

But this is, of course, a tangent.
posted by mylittlepoppet at 5:31 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


i feel like i'm losing my mind or i'm in the grips of a serious deja vu situation - but i swear that a very similar article was written using at least the first blind item example and maybe both - sometime in the last 6 months? it's been itching at my brain all day...

No, you are not losing your mind. I also read it, probably linked here. Perhaps an earlier version of this article?
posted by Dip Flash at 5:33 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Without all those advantages, I might be on page 52. OK, there’s mine. Now show me yours.

Okay. I'm a writer, so I'll bite. But this really feels like a trap.

I'm a healthy, white, cis-gendered male, so that's a bucket of privilege right there. I would say I grew up more or less middle class (single mother, brief run of a drug-addicted stepfather-ish figure), but I can remember Mom receiving food stamps when I was little. I got through my undergrad debt-free through a combination of living at home during school, working part or full-time, going to a state university and, most especially, the GI Bill. And I've always been somewhat academically talented.

I've always written as a hobby. I worked through most of my 30s as a substitute teacher (crappy pay, inconsistent work, zero benefits), sometimes with a second job to supplement. I was in a relationship that was...well, among other things, not financially practical, and so I wound up in debt. Little to no money for fun stuff. Constantly sitting on the edge of financial ruin just like millions of other Americans.

About the time that I got out of that relationship (late 2010), still saddled with significant debt, I got serious about writing. I built a following online with a story I wrote more or less for fun and practice. Even so, that meant that I woke up, went to work at a job that was increasingly dreary and depressing, and then came home and wrote until bed, and did the same thing the next day. I self-published that online story and it covered the gap in summer pay that happened every year as a substitute. I then put out another novel, and that one took off amazingly well, and I kept going.

I'm out of debt. My books are my primary income. I subbed all of 35 days in 2012/13, and considerably less in 13/14, because the writing nets significantly better profits. I pay for health insurance out of my own pocket. At this point, I only sub by request.

Sometimes I feel like I'm rich. I'm plainly not. But I spent my 30s getting used to living on a substitute teacher's wages, and so now that I'm making a respectable income for a college grad, it feels like I'm making a ton of money.

Most of the other writers I know, of varying levels of success, are from similar backgrounds. They have day jobs, on which they depend, and they write. Hell, I'm the one with the solid family behind me. Most of the other writers I know didn't even have that. I feel like I'm SUPER privileged, and it's always time to CHECK my privilege, yo, and...yeah.

And I'm reading this article here about these authors, and I'm like...really? These people actually exist?
posted by scaryblackdeath at 5:34 PM on January 25, 2015 [22 favorites]


Curious here, but it's my understanding the literary fiction markets, overloaded with social prestige as they may be, aren't particularly lucrative. So could this be another case where the high status is a form of social remuneration for crappy pay? Or am I way off the mark here, and literary fiction authors are just bathing in tubs of gold coins every night like Scrooge McDuck?
posted by saulgoodman at 5:37 PM on January 25, 2015


This is not a dirty secret among my peers-- mainly young adult and children's authors. We talk a lot about how to balance writing with regular jobs, what to neglect and when to get things accomplished, how to step back from one or the other when the time is right, etcetera. Of course, most of us aren't stupid rich-- we're a lot of blue collar families, and a lot of us write about growing up poor or middle class.

That said, if you want to get the big bucks in literary fiction, you probably do have to be in the brass-ring MFA and trust-fund club. Those books just seem to sell well to publishers, probably because editors recognize themselves in them.

Short version: she's not wrong, but she's speaking for a niche group of writers, not the whole of us.
posted by headspace at 5:38 PM on January 25, 2015 [5 favorites]


ArbitraryAndCapricious: "but it's part of a much larger problem in American culture that is not particularly limited to writers."

When I'm asked to talk to students about entering politics, I always try to be very clear that a big part of the reason I was able to do this is that I have a husband with a real job with good benefits. This is not always the message that the organizers of the event want me to be giving, especially to young women. But all of the men my age I know in politics have wives with real jobs with benefits so they can have more unstable employment too. It is REALLY HARD to campaign without someone who can full-time support you, unless you have family money or earned a LOT early on or have a big-donor backer.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:39 PM on January 25, 2015 [16 favorites]


Also, because this just happened to me and it feels relevant:

As noted above, writing has kinda saved me from working every day as a substitute teacher, which is often every bit as much of a drag as you might think. I still go in when a teacher friend calls me, because I'm not ready to throw that safety net over my shoulder...but it's usually a drag.

Shortly before Christmas, I had a school secretary get inexplicably snotty with me when I asked if the regular teacher had left lesson plans with her, because I couldn't find them in the classroom. It was all I could do not to tell her that I literally didn't need this job and walk out right there. I didn't do it, because I still care about teaching and professionalism and yadda yadda...but damn, did it feel good to know I had that option.

This last week, I took on a short subbing job. On Friday, I was driving to work in the car that my novels bought for me. I was thinking about that while I sat at a stoplight: it's a nice car, the first new car I could ever afford in my life, and I'm paying for it as a writer, rather than busting my ass as a teacher in a system that hasn't really been very good to me...but hey, kids need teachers, right?

Then I was immediately rear-ended by a van. I feel like the universe is trying to tell me something about my two careers.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 5:42 PM on January 25, 2015 [28 favorites]


i'm going to guess that #2 is Amber Dermont
posted by ennui.bz at 5:42 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


That said, if you want to get the big bucks in literary fiction, you probably do have to be in the brass-ring MFA and trust-fund club.

I would add the indie music world to this particular list. It's no accident that most of those Brooklyn indie bands getting attention are kids who come from means.
posted by naju at 5:45 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


This is such a silly essay. I know writers supported by spouses. I also know actors and chefs and medical students and serial start-up hopefuls and landscape architects and musicians and massage therapists and sommeliers supported by spouses. Should they all feel some vague guilt or obligation to announce a not-that-uncommon advantage? In this sentence, you can replace "writer" with virtually any vocation or avocation and it still rings true: "I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job."
posted by bassomatic at 5:50 PM on January 25, 2015 [7 favorites]


Also, FWIW: when your 1099 says "Royalties" on it, that's a flat 35% tax rate. It doesn't scale up like salary or wages. So whether you made a hundred bucks or a hundred thousand bucks on your writing, you're still looking at handing over 35% to the Feds.
posted by scaryblackdeath at 5:51 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


> I've had people tell me, in their arched foyers while getting ready for an annual trip to Switzerland, that they're "solidly middle-class."

Statistically, they are the middle class. Their income is closer to exactly between that of the rich and that of the poor.

We, who cannot live as well as they, are the lower-middle class at best.
posted by at by at 5:51 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Should they all feel some vague guilt or obligation to announce a not-that-uncommon advantage?

I think it's less common than you might think. That's kind of the whole thing about privilege; people don't know they have it.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 5:54 PM on January 25, 2015 [15 favorites]


Scaryblackdeath:

"Also, FWIW: when your 1099 says 'Royalties' on it, that's a flat 35% tax rate. It doesn't scale up like salary or wages."

You might want to get a second opinion on that from an accountant. If books are your primary source of income, you have to pay self-employment taxes (you'll also have to file quarterly), but otherwise "royalty income is considered ordinary income and not capital gains, except for musical works."

(You might also be thinking of royalties in terms of, like, gas and oil rights, which are assessed differently.)
posted by jscalzi at 6:24 PM on January 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


If you're interested in the intersection of writing and money, I highly recommend Scratch Magazine.
posted by twsf at 6:32 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Any guesses about the 30-something childless New-Yorker, the daughter of literary people with connections, who wrote her first book about privileged adolescents?

Lena Dunham came to mind.
posted by Dashy at 6:41 PM on January 25, 2015


Man, rob base had it figured out all along.
posted by Ferreous at 6:42 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


You might want to get a second opinion on that from an accountant.

It's possible that I articulate things about taxes very poorly.

I started going through a CPA last year (for 2013), and I may have my figures turned around since I haven't spoken directly with him much since then. 35% is what I withhold & pay the IRS quarterly as estimated tax, at any rate, but that's new for me, too, so I'll see how it shakes out for 2014 soon enough. Between your comment & a MeMail I've gotten, though, I'm wondering if I shouldn't double check all this. I felt like my CPA did a good job, but a second opinion may well be in order.

Thanks! (Now I get to tell all my friends that Scalzi talked to me online!)
posted by scaryblackdeath at 6:53 PM on January 25, 2015


Seems like a pretty good deal. How much does the dole really cost if every now and again it gives a Rowling-esque return on the investment?

Annually? Depends which current benefits you count as 'dole'.

Circa 5 billion on Jobseekers, 7 billion Income Support, 3 billion ESA. Oh, and 20 billion or so in Housing/Council tax benefit. As of 2012, anyway.

So, I guess we need a Rowling every couple of hours if its to even out.
posted by Hobo at 7:03 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


zardoz: "It's not just writers or artists. Growing up with and having a constant source of income--whether that be a spouse, a trust fund, or simply mom and dad sending you a check every month--is a boon to anyone lucky enough to get it. It doesn't negate hard work put into a job, but having those special circumstances does often allow for the job in the first place."

"Behind every ambitious adjunct instructor is a patient and supportive engineer spouse?"
posted by pwnguin at 7:29 PM on January 25, 2015 [4 favorites]


Or, y'know, people not starving and dying in the streets seems like a pretty good exchange for the money.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:33 PM on January 25, 2015 [19 favorites]


This is something my friend was saying to me today: that the people who Make It have help. Which explains why we haven't and won't. Finding someone on your side willing to help, especially with money, is a lot.
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:07 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]


Wanted: Sugar mama to support sexy starving artist.

MeFi Mail me.
posted by hoodrich at 8:13 PM on January 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


This is something my friend was saying to me today: that the people who Make It have help. Which explains why we haven't and won't

I doubt the average would-be author is just lacking an independent income.
posted by michaelh at 8:42 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


It's definitely not Curtis Sittenfeld, at least unless wikipedia is totally wrong. Her parents are a high-school teacher and investment advisor in Cincinnati, and she has a brother.

Curtis' brother is a friend of mine; I can confirm that he exists and she is not the person in this article.

(I liked Prep.)
posted by ilana at 8:55 PM on January 25, 2015


There should be trigger warnings for this type of article. My mother has spent her entire adult life writing the Great American Novel and unsuccessfully submitting needy stories to the New Yorker, while living on inherited money. And mostly ignoring me, in the process (though it was normal to my sister and me, since her friends were all the same way and besides it was the 70s in a flaky part of the country). Her career advice to me was useless ("get lucky"), and I wound up making some big mistakes because I assumed that money would magically appear for me the way it did for her. ("Oh, I think I'll just sell another old tea set...") It took me until I was 40 to find a career that wouldn't make me starve to death, and I'll always be kicking myself for not grasping sooner what earning a living actually means.

Now her money is mostly gone, she's still paying a moderately-sized mortgage at age 74, and she lives on my father's traditional pension, his social security payout which of course is higher than hers, and handouts from her brother. She constantly complains about how unfair life is, while spending hundreds of dollars on Amazon for reference books relating to her novel and the other things she's tried to write over the years. And she's still convinced that the book will be published, oh it must be published this year because my money is running out and oh I can't afford to live on what my brother gives me. He should give me more, he is a bad person for not giving me more. Oh my life is so hard.

Pardon me while I go do some extra freelance work so I can afford to go out to eat once in a while. Grrr.
posted by sockerpup at 8:56 PM on January 25, 2015 [12 favorites]


God save me from any more fucking coming-of-age tales. The most overrepresented genre in the history of fiction, regardless of medium.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 8:57 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]


And don't get me started on the son of a successful author I knew, who lived on his father's handouts and died at a young age from a drug overdose.
posted by sockerpup at 8:59 PM on January 25, 2015


There was an article posted here interviewing 10+ currently successful authors, jscalzi, peple like J.R.R. Martin. All had taken the "don't be precious and write what pays" approach for at least a decade.
posted by jeffburdges at 9:23 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]


Is #2 Julie Klausner? I didn't check the other details, but that sounds like her book.
posted by peep at 11:23 PM on January 25, 2015


I think we should be having the same conversation in academia. I have a real academic job now, but for the first four years after my PhD, until I got a postdoc, I was doing adjunct teaching and RA work, and although that pays a shitload better in Australia than elsewhere, some years I earned $30,000 and some years I earned less than $5000. And because you never know if you will get teaching until just before it starts, you can't know if it will be a $30000 year or a $3000 year until the year is more than half way through.

I did it and lasted long enough to get a postdoc because my husband was earning a decent salary. I have friends who managed it because their parents could bail them out when they got into too much debt. But pretty much no one with kids to support and/or no spouse or a spouse without secure well paid work would be able to live like that. And this makes academia a non career option for many or most people. Unlike writing, I don't think there's a widespread awareness of that.
posted by lollusc at 11:52 PM on January 25, 2015 [13 favorites]


Charles Bukowski was a postman with abusive poor parents and got smashed on booze every single night, and still managed to write absolutely heaps of stuff.

I'm not a total fan of his work but the attraction I've had to it in the past is certainly connected with his genuine outsider status. His novels are some of the only ones ever published that deal with the subject of working-class employment without sentimentality, despair or preaching.
posted by colie at 12:31 AM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


The first person I ever unfriended on facebook, back when I still logged in, was a middling guitarist in a mediocre cover band who is supported by his wife's big income. Not a big deal, except he was also a libertarian's libertarian*--constantly taking potshots at the poor who just needed to work harder to enjoy some of the success he rightfully possessed.

If there is a god, his wife will meet and become enamored with a decent human being (maybe even someone struggling financially) and he'll get his sorry ass dumped.

* He unironically was trying to organize people to go see the Rand movies.
posted by maxwelton at 1:40 AM on January 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Any guesses about the 30-something childless New-Yorker, the daughter of literary people with connections, who wrote her first book about privileged adolescents?
For a minute there I thought it was E. Lockhart, but she's in her 40s and We Were Liars is not her first book, so...not E. Lockhart?
posted by pxe2000 at 3:21 AM on January 26, 2015


I know writers supported by spouses. I also know actors and chefs and medical students and serial start-up hopefuls and landscape architects and musicians and massage therapists and sommeliers supported by spouses. Should they all feel some vague guilt or obligation to announce a not-that-uncommon advantage?

Yes, because if it were known that these jobs will never be enough to support a single adult, it might deter young hopefuls who reach mid-adulthood in poverty, burdened with debt, feeling like failures, and being asked by people who just don't get it, "you're such a good writer, why don't you write for a living? Do you have low self-esteem and just not believe in your talent?"

Nope, I have something else. It's called realism. And I would've gotten it a lot sooner if I'd been told the truth.
posted by Beethoven's Sith at 4:15 AM on January 26, 2015 [7 favorites]


Clearly, we should only read books by lower middle class writers whose spouses work blue collar union jobs in order to ensure the highest level of authenticity and fight [insert type] privilege.

Kudos to the author for jumping on the "feel guilty about one's good fortune and self-flagellate in public in order to win more attention for my work" bandwagon, though. +1.
posted by gsh at 5:20 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


And plus one for "cheap cynicism and grotesquely uncharitable read of a piece."
posted by maxsparber at 5:34 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I know writers supported by spouses. I also know actors and chefs and medical students and serial start-up hopefuls and landscape architects and musicians and massage therapists and sommeliers supported by spouses. Should they all feel some vague guilt or obligation to announce a not-that-uncommon advantage?

I don't think people in general need to feel more guilt, and certainly not for having a spouse who loves and supports them. That's ridiculous.

But we definitely should be more open in discussing the very large number of jobs, careers, and life choices that are difficult (if not impossible) without outside support of some kind. That can be a supportive spouse, family money, or a government subsidy -- but without some version of that, your time in Portland as a poet and aspiring artisanal craft producer isn't going to be nearly as pleasant as it is for someone who has help paying the rent.

And that applies doubly to simply having that support available as a safety net, so that you can take risks knowing that if things fail there is still a backup option and you won't be living on the street. It's a lot easier to join the Peace Corps or move to New York hoping for a career in publishing when you know that if necessary you can move back home to live in the basement for a little while afterwards.

Again, I'm not at all saying this is a negative thing -- we should all have that support -- but I agree with the author that people elide the various kinds of support that they get in favor of the "up by my own bootstraps" narrative, and the result is a general obfuscation of what is making people's choices possible.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:45 AM on January 26, 2015 [32 favorites]


I'd like to favourite Dip Flash's comment hard with my elbow.
posted by bonobothegreat at 5:48 AM on January 26, 2015


lollusc: I think we should be having the same conversation in academia.
I was just thinking that. Your story could be my story. My wife has supported me through a PhD, post-PhD part-time academic-related work, and a postdoc in a foreign country (all of which had massive employment and financial uncertainties baked in), and I couldn't have done any of it without her. Sure, I worked part-time along the way and I've had some scholarships and monetary awards as well, but like most other young academics I know, I was mostly held in place by lines of informal support that would be more or less invisible to an outsider.

If we want to get meta, let's think about how this situation applies to academics in Creative Writing departments ...
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:48 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think we should be having the same conversation in academia.

There are a few commonalities that are telling here. For starters, both pay pretty poorly (by and large - there are some very well-off exceptions in both writing and academia). The tenured track is going the way of the dodo, so the security is gone from a lot of academic positions as well (there has never been security in writing). And they're both "indulgences", the result of pursuing what you want to do rather than giving up to take a better paying (but unrelated) job.

The big difference is that people do know to some extent what the risk is when they head down the path of trying to be a writer. Not so much in academia. Universities have a vested interest in recruiting students. Nobody gets told until they're way down the rabbit hole that the employment prospects on the other side suck, and that most of the skills you've learnt are not transferrable. It's a crappy position to be in, because even when you have a strong support network you still have no guarantee of finding a position, for reasons that are largely out of your control. Personally, I blame my career advice guy at school. That guy had no fucking idea what he was talking about.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:49 AM on January 26, 2015


i feel like i'm losing my mind or i'm in the grips of a serious deja vu situation - but i swear that a very similar article was written using at least the first blind item example and maybe both - sometime in the last 6 months? it's been itching at my brain all day...

Yeah, I could swear I've read that before, too. In fact I could swear I've read *this very piece!* But I can't find evidence of it...
posted by Andrhia at 5:49 AM on January 26, 2015


There's a difference between "I'm lucky in that my spouse supports me" and "I'm a needy artist who's entitled to support."
posted by Melismata at 6:14 AM on January 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


She, the author, was their only beloved child.

Maybe Curtis Sittenfield's brother is not beloved, then? That would make her the only beloved child.
posted by sour cream at 6:18 AM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


My mother has spent her entire adult life writing the Great American Novel and unsuccessfully submitting needy stories to the New Yorker, while living on inherited money. And mostly ignoring me, in the process (though it was normal to my sister and me, since her friends were all the same way and besides it was the 70s in a flaky part of the country). Her career advice to me was useless ("get lucky"), and I wound up making some big mistakes because I assumed that money would magically appear for me the way it did for her. ("Oh, I think I'll just sell another old tea set...") It took me until I was 40 to find a career that wouldn't make me starve to death, and I'll always be kicking myself for not grasping sooner what earning a living actually means.

Now her money is mostly gone, she's still paying a moderately-sized mortgage at age 74, and she lives on my father's traditional pension, his social security payout which of course is higher than hers, and handouts from her brother. She constantly complains about how unfair life is, while spending hundreds of dollars on Amazon for reference books relating to her novel and the other things she's tried to write over the years. And she's still convinced that the book will be published, oh it must be published this year because my money is running out and oh I can't afford to live on what my brother gives me. He should give me more, he is a bad person for not giving me more. Oh my life is so hard.
Speaking of novels, this is a donnée worthy of James. I would read this book.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:19 AM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


> There's a difference between "I'm lucky in that my spouse supports me" and "I'm a needy artist who's entitled to support."

Really? Other than throwing around the word 'entitled' which codeword for "you should feel lucky that we outlawed poor houses", I don't see it.

Gratitude on one side and panhandling on the other doesn't change the fact that some get more help than others, and unless you believe in Social Darwinism, it would be to society's benefit; nay, it is society's duty to give every member the same opportunities. That we fail so utterly and miserably on that point means a great amount of potential goes to waste.
posted by fragmede at 7:01 AM on January 26, 2015


So is the deck firmly stacked against a budding writer with no connections or means of support?
posted by Renoroc at 7:21 AM on January 26, 2015


It's like the mentality behind this article, still one of the worst things the Washington Post has done (which is saying a lot).

Wait, seriously? Do you even read the Washington Post? A well-sourced article with actual data is far, far from the worst we can lay at their door.
posted by corb at 7:26 AM on January 26, 2015


So is the deck firmly stacked against a budding writer with no connections or means of support?

Um, yes? Even J.S. Bach needed patrons to support him.
posted by Melismata at 7:28 AM on January 26, 2015 [3 favorites]


When I was a teen, I remember seeing a man carry away three cakes from a church fair which he had one won. I mentioned his luck. He told me his wife was the judge.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:32 AM on January 26, 2015 [2 favorites]


I keep thinking about this. I've commented before that my husband's support has been pivotal in the career I've forged for myself. I definitely have a lot of privilege via his stability that another writer might not have. But at the same time, another writer who was a little younger or who didn't have kids to worry about feeding has a set of liberties I don't have, too. Hmmm.

But yeah, the deck of Success As An Artist is very definitely stacked against the poor and against people of color. Hard to find the time to write when you're working two jobs, three jobs, trying to spend time with kids, trying to grapple with a chronic health condition, trying to get a degree. And even once you've overcome the obstacles against creating in the first place, there are quiet, systemic biases that make it harder to get published or publicity or reviews or coverage or interviews when you try to put your work out into the world.

I wish so much that it were fair. It's soothing to pretend that it's fair and you've legit earned everything you get, but it's not strictly the truth, or at least not the whole story. Success as an artist isn't awarded on merit for having the most potential or wanting it the hardest, or even for deserving it from hardship or talent or being a good person. Alas.
posted by Andrhia at 8:55 AM on January 26, 2015


Here is an old comic relevant to this topic, it affected me deeply when I first saw it. I just found it again today on an ancient backup, many years after it was published.

Carol Lay - The Homely House
posted by charlie don't surf at 9:52 AM on January 26, 2015 [5 favorites]


Relevant reading: Tillie Olsen's Silences.
posted by jokeefe at 1:03 PM on January 26, 2015 [1 favorite]


It's funny, I started my current career thinking I was taking the "don't be precious" path. I started in IT as a technical writer after three years working as a legal code supplement editor (one of my former colleagues from that gig is now a very successful scifi writer). But I found I had a natural aptitude for the more technical side of the business, and after a lot of independent study and on-the-job training, I began to gradually move into a developer role. Now over a decade later, I'm a senior developer/architect. But I also make music, though honestly, that was always partly just another vehicle for getting my writing out. Now, all these years later, I'm a programmer somehow, but all I've ever really wanted to do is make and help make art (ha, maybe I am one of those hateful "maker" types from the other thread after all). Now at 41, I'm one track away from finishing up work (with my wife Lori, who's an amazing singer) on the best album I've ever had the privilege of working on in my life, and I've written an actual honest-to-god first novel that could stand to be published (it's not my first by a long shot, but it's the first I ever thought came close to being good enough to publish), but I spend all my days off-balance, reacting to one minor personal/family crisis after another, with little opportunity for putting it all together and actually selling anything I make either alone or in collaboration with others. Not sure where I'm going here, but yes, it's really hard to progress as a writer (or musician) without outside help. If my experience is typical, it's nearly impossible to balance those kinds of dreams/ambitions with playing a fair role in parenting small children and maintaining a challenging technical career--not because it's impossible to still write or make music in those circumstances, but because it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the social relations required and to justify the costs in time, money, and effort when your life isn't really even your own most of the time.
posted by saulgoodman at 5:35 PM on January 26, 2015 [4 favorites]


My (full-time freelance) writing friends and I sometimes call ourselves "$50,000 millionaires." The pay is often frankly insulting, but sometimes the benefits are pretty awesome. Case in point: just got back from heliskiing in Idaho, off to the Peruvian Amazon next week. For work!

Now where is March's mortgage payment coming from...?
posted by gottabefunky at 9:13 AM on January 27, 2015


(Oh and some of us are single/childless, others are married to people with "real" jobs, and a few *cough* married to other freelancers.)
posted by gottabefunky at 9:15 AM on January 27, 2015


Holy shit, saulgoodman -- as another 41-year old former technical writer trying to balance creative work with a day job in the tech industry while also being something resembling a halfway decent husband and father, I FEEL YOU, MAN.

We all need a Vera. Or a shit-ton of inherited money.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 6:58 AM on January 29, 2015


This is such a silly essay. I know writers supported by spouses. I also know actors and chefs and medical students and serial start-up hopefuls and landscape architects and musicians and massage therapists and sommeliers supported by spouses. Should they all feel some vague guilt or obligation to announce a not-that-uncommon advantage? In this sentence, you can replace "writer" with virtually any vocation or avocation and it still rings true: "I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job."
posted by bassomatic at 8:50 PM on January 25
[7 favorites +] [!]


Yes, this is important to share for all those professions.

I constantly question myself, why do I feel like I'm struggling where people I think of as peers are sailing. It makes me question all my good qualities. It's sometimes helpful to remember that they had support structures I don't, I had responsibilities they didn't. And I don't mean children, which feel like an out of reach luxury, which is incredibly painful. At the same time, it's easy to forget to be grateful all the things I did and do have going for me, not out of merit but out of luck. I think it builds character - confidence, hope, empathy - to be mindful of both ends of things, and I am thankful for others who take the time to do these accountings out loud.
posted by Salamandrous at 1:28 PM on January 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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