How Can People Be Expected to Live on These Salaries?
June 25, 2022 10:45 AM   Subscribe

In most literary novels, there is little indication of how the protagonist earns a living and is able to afford their lifestyle, or if there are attempts at these indicators, it’s clear that the numbers don’t add up. from If They Want to Be Published, Literary Writers Can’t Be Honest About Money by Naomi Kanakia
posted by chavenet (59 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
 
You cannot write about life in contemporary Brooklyn if you’re not describing the family connections that get you the job or the parents who give you money to subsidize your rent. Moreover, to leave those things out is to create a false picture of how life operates: it’s to create the image that there are virtuous middle-class editorial assistants who can survive on what they’re paid.

Very interesting essay.
posted by Gadarene at 11:04 AM on June 25 [8 favorites]


Was she paid by the word?
posted by Ideefixe at 11:11 AM on June 25 [9 favorites]


in this system, you can write anything—you can even express hatred of the capitalist system itself—so long as your hatred is marketable.

I liked this essay, a lot to think about for someone like me who hasn't thought much about this. Though I'm not even a member of the book club-etariat.
posted by skewed at 11:14 AM on June 25 [3 favorites]


An associated issue is how sitcom characters are supposed to afford the large, attractive apartments they have in major US cities. Friends hand-waved this away bu explaining Monica's huge appt in Greenwich Village belonged to a older relative and Frasier suggested at one point that he'd been an early investor in Microsoft. Seinfeld's the only major sitcom I can think of took a more realistic line: Jerry's appt was tiny.
posted by Paul Slade at 11:33 AM on June 25 [12 favorites]


Zola!

That essay described a lot of why I bounced off Sally Rooney’s novels so hard, I think. And even those made courtiership fairly evident, just out-of-focus. The preferment plot isn’t the marriage plot even if it involves sex.

I can recommend a trilogy that was utterly about The Money and appalling with it, starting with The Hills at Home.
posted by clew at 11:33 AM on June 25 [2 favorites]


Having a hard time getting past the Sally Rooney call-out as the first example. It’s a major theme of Normal People and Beautiful World, Where are You (the two that I’ve read) that Connell and Eileen are struggling financially, though their luck is subject to change. It seems like very lazy reading and thinking for the essayist to overlook this in setting up their argument.
posted by sk932 at 11:37 AM on June 25 [15 favorites]


They’re struggling financially but the novel doesn’t think about how they’re going to get money with jobs, is why they’re preferment plots, is how I remember the one I remember. Not even jobs broadly defined. E.g., the path to success isn’t how to make the spoken-word either better art or art with a bigger following; the characters are courting a rich connected couple.
posted by clew at 11:53 AM on June 25 [3 favorites]


The essay opens that Sally Rooney’s characters “drift through life from success to success and never worry about money, their class status thoroughly abstract.” This is just not an accurate read of the texts. Connell very distinctly comes from a working class background. Eileen is very much struggling with her lack of success, and we see scenes of her at work in her low paid job and trying to grapple with her career choices. Rooney includes a lot about the characters’ particular experience of money as well as how people having different amounts of it impacts their personal relationships. Sure, Rooneys characters aren’t necessarily going to become financially stable only from their jobs. That’s the reality for a lot of people, whether they are literary characters or not. But the characters don’t just drift from success to success and never worry about money. It bothers me because it seems like the essayist is name dropping Rooney in there to draw people into the essay because of Rooney’s fame rather than truly building a strong argument.
posted by sk932 at 12:09 PM on June 25 [9 favorites]


I guess that I don't think there's any huge mystery about why so many authors work in academia. I think it's because academia is (supposed to be) structured to give people time to focus on creative pursuits, whether that's research for most faculty members or creative writing for people in creative writing departments. It doesn't really work that way for a lot of people in adjunct and other teaching positions, but if you're a successful literary writer you can probably get a gig that will pay you a regular salary and build in time to write. That's not true of other full-time jobs, where you're going to work a 40-plus-hour week and probably come home too exhausted to focus on your writing. It's not some abstract thing about being a member of a guild: it's just about the reality of having time and attention to focus on the work of writing. For an essay about how writers ignore the reality of work, that's kind of a weird oversight about the reality of work.

In general, though, this is a super interesting essay, and I think she's right about a lot of things. It also made me realize how little literary fiction I've been reading recently.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 12:18 PM on June 25 [8 favorites]


Seinfeld's the only major sitcom I can think of took a more realistic line:

There’s Curb Your Enthusiasm , where his fabulous wealth is directly attributable to Seinfeld, but that is obviously an edge case!
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:46 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]


if you're a successful literary writer you can probably get a gig that will pay you a regular salary and build in time to write.

But is this because of the literary notoriety, or because almost everyone who can write a successful novel does so with skills that could win a sweet academic gig without the notoriety? The former is a guild, the latter isn’t.
posted by clew at 1:15 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


But is this because of the literary notoriety, or because almost everyone who can write a successful novel does so with skills that could win a sweet academic gig without the notoriety?
The former. But I guess that my point is that it seems real weird to ask why a writer would take a job that treated writing as one of their job responsibilities, rather than choosing a job that required full-time attention to other things. If you have the second kind of job, then you actually have two jobs: your bill-paying job and your writing job. The question only makes sense if you don't realize that writing is work or if you don't realize that having two jobs is exhausting. And yeah, there are genre writers who do it, but my sense is that they don't do it by choice and usually quit as soon as they're making enough money to make quitting feasible. The difference is that literary writers are more likely to be able to get jobs in academia, not that they're more likely to see the benefit.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 1:25 PM on June 25 [6 favorites]


Does anyone remember that book about a guy who stamps labels on cans for eight hours a day, then drinks beer in front of the TV?

Of course not.
posted by adept256 at 1:29 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]


You mean "Repo Man"? [Not a book]
posted by chavenet at 1:31 PM on June 25 [15 favorites]


Even science fiction post-Banks has weirdly a lot of specific jobs in it. Everyone in The Expanse is employed, and many new writers clarify the contract gig nature of their spaceship characters’ livelihoods.
posted by migurski at 2:01 PM on June 25 [8 favorites]


It seems like she's saying that escapist fantasy is a popular literary genre.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:03 PM on June 25 [15 favorites]


This was pretty interesting. The Rooney thing is a little blip at the opening - it's more of a survey of how US writers write (or don't write) about work & money now and through the ages, and theorizes why literary fiction does not talk about work now. I guess I don't read a lot of popular contemporary literary fiction? I can think of some small press critically acclaimed recent novels I liked a lot that do talk about work and money and class. But I'm not sure on the big name Pulitzer winners. Anyway, she seems to ascribe an intentionality to the decision to not talk about work & money given the pressures to sell books. My guess it is less of a calculated financial move and more of a social taboo.

Artistic white people in the US largely live on inherited wealth. I know that's what made the difference in my life. I may have been very downwardly mobile (or what I now understand was a downward income pressure impacting my whole generation), but those of us who had middle class parents - and the boomer period had an exceptionally expansive middle class - were able to pay for college or home down payments whether or not we had much income because of inherited land-wealth. This is totally taboo to say out loud! We who have this experience - and there are a lot of us - rightfully! feel shame about it. We have a totally unfair leg up and even a couple generations removed, some young people are still able to work in for example the publishing industry due to support from white parents, grandparents or even great grandparents. Sure that well is starting to run dry now, but it got many people on firm enough footing to get into a rent controlled apartment or get seniority at their artsy or non profit or education job.

Those folks can afford to do internships and MFAs. That seems like what is going on here.
posted by latkes at 2:03 PM on June 25 [19 favorites]


it seems real weird to ask why a writer would take a job that treated writing as one of their job responsibilities

Do you get that from the essay? What I get is that the literature-academia loop is a lottery more than a production system, in which one of the rules is to not talk about what winning the lottery requires.

Genre writers are more likely to be in a production system, ie, paid proportionally to how many readers they have, not "made post" on one success in the past. (Perhaps Mefi’s Own genre writers can check me on this. Also, are film/TV rights more like production rewards or preferment?)

Also I'm wondering if how one interprets this depends on what kind of jobs we’ve had. Doubtless.
posted by clew at 2:04 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]


The piece seems to be circling a thesis but not quite able to land.

I think the thesis is:

Lit fic is bought by meritocratic middle class people.

These people are open to the depiction of poverty and oppression of the subaltern, although not so much that it gets them down. (One book club pick a year?)

These people don't especially like depictions of the precariousness of fellow meritocrats - that makes them feel bad or anxious.

These people really don't want held into their face that the non-precarious creative elite achieve that status through consummate ass-kissing or parental or spousal support. That makes them feel that there really isn't a meritocracy among the producers of the creative product they consume.
posted by MattD at 2:28 PM on June 25 [26 favorites]


Clew: genre writers rarely get permanent faculty positions.

There's a massive bias against them in favor of lit fic writers, of course.

It's hard to be a successful enough genre writer to merit faculty position without selling enough books or Hollywood stuff for a full-time faculty job to be of no interest. The review/prize conveyor belt creates "successful" lit fic writers who sell books in the single-digit thousands.

Lots of genre writers have good day jobs that they wouldn't quit for a faculty position.
posted by MattD at 2:33 PM on June 25 [7 favorites]


"I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down."

-Jack Kerouac
posted by clavdivs at 3:19 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]


Yeah, science fiction characters have jobs because a lot of science fiction writers have jobs and most science fiction readers have jobs. I actually found myself complaining with a friend recently about a series we like because we feel that since the author has only ever been an extremely successful science fiction writer as his source of income (after a few years in graduate school, he got his first book contract and dropped out and has been happily supporting himself writing science fiction in the intervening decades), he really doesn't know how to write realistic office politics at all and only seems to get worse at it as the years go by. He's doing his best but it reads very unrealistic; we were saying dude ought to just get a job for a few years so he can write better for his audience.

Lots of folks in the book-club class don't work for a living. Everyone I know who actually has time to get to a book club regularly is either a stay-at-home parent, or retired. So probably it doesn't bug them as much not to hear about the characters' financial struggles. Work for pay isn't a feature of their lives either, and they'd presumably rather not have it thrown in their faces that they're dependent on spousal support, government help, or familial wealth, since people in such a position are generally not afforded as much respect in modern society as people who work for a wage.
posted by potrzebie at 4:10 PM on June 25 [15 favorites]


Well, sure, genre writers don’t take faculty featherbeds because they aren’t offered them. But really because they are true to a subtler reality, dedicated to their craft and readers, hard working, long thinking, clean-limbed and clear-eyed.
posted by clew at 4:56 PM on June 25 [9 favorites]


As noted in the article, I also want to tell you a thing: editors work and live in New York. Many have grown up in New York. For them to survive being a junior editor and working their way up, they too, have probably come from money or have some measure of privilege that allows them to work in the notoriously poorly paid but prestigious field of book editing.

And that means a large proportion of editors don't get it in the same way that their cohort authors don't get it.

And when a blue collar or impoverished author shows up and writes about blue collar and/or impoverished people in a realistic way-- the editors don't get it. I have had to explain things to editors time and again that I just shouldn't have to, including, about characters:

* Nobody who is getting their groceries home on a bus is buying a 50 pound sack of flour in addition to gallons of milk, dozens of eggs, etc..

* Poor people don't have to have questionable grammar.

* Poor people leave their children at home at night/at home during the day while they work.

* Poor kids play outside unsupervised a lot, even now.

* Poor doesn't have to mean dirty.

* Bad shit happens to poor kids all the time, and you don't hear about it on the news unless it's a tragedy involving the neighborhood's great hope.

Etc., etc..

About poor authors:

* We cannot afford to take a taxi and get reimbursed.

* We may not have credit cards, and definitely not enough in the bank to put a hold on a room at an event for which the publisher is paying.

* We cannot drop everything and peace out for a tour, or every promo event, or provide video, or audio, or zoom calls. Some of us don't even have the Internet at home. (Libraries are free.)

* Quick, tight, drop-dead deadlines that come out of nowhere are difficult for poor authors who work hard jobs. I'm not saying it's easy to be a professor all day and come home and write. But I work in a Fedex factory doing physical labor, with no climate control, starting at 4:30 in the morning, with a disability. I can't quit Fedex, so those unexpected, unplanned deadlines are gonna have to bend a little.

And so on, and so forth. So eventually, editors self select for authors they understand, who have the flexibility to expense shit, and time to drop everything to fit their schedules. Et voilá. Well-off people writing about other well-off people... or well-off people writing bad office dialogue and poverty porn.

(Full disclosure: I have edited the author of this article, in one of my anthologies.)
posted by headspace at 4:59 PM on June 25 [103 favorites]


Eh...this piece assumes a weirdly homogenous "middle class" with homogenous tastes. Even leaving aside race and ethnicity (man, not even a nod or handwave there!), the conception of the middle class that treats the schoolteacher in Kansas, the engineer in Charlotte, and the lawyer in NYC as being essentially identical in their relationship to capital and their processes of taste formation seems as bland and flattening as anything this writer is complaining about.

(Actually, doing a quick scan of recent Pulitzer-winner titles reveals nothing like the all-people-with-independent-wealth-all-the-time parade she suggests exists. The Pulitzer isn't everything, of course, but she does cite it herself.)

(Also also, STRETHER DOES NOT HAVE AN INDEPENDENT FORTUNE. The family he semi-aspires to marry into does! Geeeeeez!!!!)
posted by praemunire at 5:50 PM on June 25 [4 favorites]


I ended up getting an English degree in the 2000s, when I was in my forties. I emerged from that experience with a lasting, all-encompassing loathing for literary fiction. This article helps explain why. Thanks for posting it.
posted by MrVisible at 6:14 PM on June 25 [12 favorites]


The division of literature (and audiences) into 'high-brow/literary' vs 'middle-brow/commercial' is in itself exclusionary, classist, and insular, so asking why this results in exclusionary, classist, and insular fiction is like asking why fire results in burning or water results in getting wet.
posted by signal at 6:22 PM on June 25 [10 favorites]


This piece comes close, but never quite identifies, what I find is a major reason for eliding over the ways fictitious characters make their income. Real life is boring and even the most slice of life literary fiction entails some aspect of hyperreality. As adept256 notes, nobody wants to read about the "thrilling" life of someone engaging in dull, mundane labor before going home to banal diversions.

This goes doubly so for the white collar office workers which consume mass market fiction. They don't want to hear about eight hours of re-coding a database before scheduling a dental cleaning while hoping the funny noise coming from their car is nothing to worry about. Fiction is escapist, and those jejune details are just going to mirror back the same inanities and insecurities the reader has in their daily life.

Not to mention that actually giving a character a full time job would cut into the time available for, uh... plot. I know it's supposed to be 8 hours of labor, 8 hours of leisure, and 8 hours of rest, but the average protagonist would have a hard time fitting in the travails of a novel in-between commuting, meal prepping, and doing laundry. It's not like novels could only occur over long weekends. Move the character out of a white collar office and into the service industry, and maybe they'd have when less time between catching the bus between their two part time jobs.

Abstracting a character's source of income to a vague background buzz moves the job out of the spotlight to make room for the actual topic of the novel. It feels artificial because most of us spend most of our time at work, but it makes sense because fiction is about themes and extraordinary occurrences, not biographical stenography.
posted by Panjandrum at 6:53 PM on June 25 [9 favorites]


(Actually, doing a quick scan of recent Pulitzer-winner titles reveals nothing like the all-people-with-independent-wealth-all-the-time parade she suggests exists. The Pulitzer isn't everything, of course, but she does cite it herself.)
Honestly, the National Book Awards fiction finalists seem to support her thesis even less. This year's winner, Jason Mott, did get an MFA at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, but afterwards he worked for four years at a Verizon call center, which is a partial inspiration for his book. Last year's winner, Charles Yu, was a corporate lawyer for 13 years before quitting to write full-time. Finalist Douglas Stuart worked in the fashion industry for 20 years before publishing his first book, and Deesha Philyaw worked in corporate communications at a bank in Pittsburgh until after she sold her first book. Lydia Millett has a masters in environmental policy, rather than an MFA, and currently works as the chief editor at the Center for Biological Diversity. Robert Jones, Jr. grew up in working-class Brooklyn and got his BA and MFA from Brooklyn College, where he later worked in the communications office. In interviews, he has mentioned that he wrote a lot of his book on the subway commuting between his MFA classes and each of his two jobs. There are some recent finalists who fit her description, but not all or really even most.

I do think it's true, though, that the conventional path into publishing is pretty much only open to people who have family money. It's not possible to support yourself in New York on an entry-level publishing salary. And that definitely has a huge effect on what gets published, in all sorts of highly detrimental ways.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:54 PM on June 25 [10 favorites]


Some recent-ish literary fiction that I thought was very good on class - "Breasts & Eggs" by Mieko Kawakami; "Deacon King Kong" by James McBride (though that's historical); "Luster" by Raven Leilani is notable for actually understanding how difficult it is to survive in NYC on an entry-level publishing salary although you don't get a LOT of glimpses of the narrator's awful apartment; "Shuggie Bain" by Douglas Stuart is a maybe a little bit too poverty-porn for me but I feel bad even saying that because it's so much drawn from the author's own life; "Real Life" by Brandon Taylor doesn't mention class a lot at an explicit level as far as I can remember but it felt very true-to-life to how I thought about money when living on a graduate student stipend in the midwest, and it's REALLY good in terms of how the main character's job informs and reflects the rest of the narrative, and the detail Taylor puts into the main character's day-to-day work.
posted by Jeanne at 7:39 PM on June 25 [10 favorites]


I do think it's true, though, that the conventional path into publishing is pretty much only open to people who have family money. It's not possible to support yourself in New York on an entry-level publishing salary.

Yeah, this piece is spiraling out from the nasty open secret that doing any cultural work, really, in NYC requires an extraordinary form of support. But...it is an open secret. The author seems to be fumbling to find something new to say about it, and decided to go back to Dwight MacDonald (???).

"Real Life" by Brandon Taylor

His recently-published short story Urgent, Necessary, Vital hits these details well, too.
posted by praemunire at 8:11 PM on June 25 [5 favorites]


fiction is about themes and extraordinary occurrences, not biographical stenography.

[citation necessary]
posted by praemunire at 8:13 PM on June 25 [2 favorites]


or well-off people writing bad office dialogue and poverty porn.

"Write beautifully what people don’t want to hear."

-Frederick Seidel.

[citation necessary]
"That's not writing, it's typing"
(allegedly said about Kerouac)
posted by clavdivs at 8:33 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Interesting article on an interesting (to us) subject. While I agree with the author that most contemporary litfic is bad, what is most outstanding is her jealousy of Sally Rooney's success. Contemporary litfic is mundane, unrealistic, and the publishing and book review world is just really nepotistic, which is why no real people actually read those things that she has namedropped. But the whole article is super good because it highlights how the literary establishment is just untalented people squabbling over an ever shrinking pie. And ... that's actually a funny and excellent story. She should write that into a novel.
posted by Didnt_do_enough at 9:18 PM on June 25 [3 favorites]


Was she paid by the word?

That would explain why she repeats herself so much.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 9:22 PM on June 25 [1 favorite]


Great article which explains a lot. I'd always thought publishing was a job-job, I genuinely didn't know it was part of the "starvation wages for some or hobby for the trust-funded" arts complex.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 1:05 AM on June 26 [6 favorites]


I found it a pretty thin and unedifying article. As several people have pointed out, her examples are often wrong, and her underlying theory is only a shock if you have been living under a rock for several decades. And if it is a shock to you, brace yourself: I have some difficult news about lawyers, architects, and other professional jobs.
posted by The River Ivel at 1:18 AM on June 26 [9 favorites]


Artistic white people in the US largely live on inherited wealth.

Ummmm...cite? I know a good many artists, and none of them remotely live by any sort of inheritance. They have day jobs, night jobs, spouses, side-gigs, or any combo of those that help pay bills and allow time to create. And, they do occasionally sell something.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:05 AM on June 26 [9 favorites]


[Brandon Taylor's] recently-published short story Urgent, Necessary, Vital hits these details well, too.

Thank you for posting, praemunire. What a wonderful rad that was!
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 5:17 AM on June 26 [2 favorites]


As I understand it, Updike's four Rabbit Angstrom novels were meant to be an exercise in writing about a boring, ordinary guy who had a series of boring, ordinary jobs, from MagiPeel Peeler salesman to running a Toyota dealership. There is a critical scene in Rabbit Redux when Angstrom is operating a Linotype machine that is rendered with care and actual drama.

I know a lot of people have had issues with Updike, even more so today, but he knew how to situate a character in the day-to-day.
posted by How the runs scored at 5:20 AM on June 26 [7 favorites]


What? No mention of Tom Wolfe, Stalking The Billion-footed Beast 1989

Or, George Gissing, New Grub Street (1891)

Same as it ever was.

I know a lot of people have had issues with Updike,

Style, mostly. Too much of it. "Look, ma, I'm writing!"
posted by BWA at 7:01 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Artistic white people in the US largely live on inherited wealth.

Ummmm...cite? I know a good many artists, and none of them remotely live by any sort of inheritance. They have day jobs, night jobs, spouses, side-gigs, or any combo of those that help pay bills and allow time to create. And, they do occasionally sell something.


I'm not talking about trust-fund lifestyles, I'm talking about the way wealth (usually in the form of homeownership) allows white families to give their adult kids a leg up at key moments in their lives that allows them to safely live on less income or ultimately to increase their income. My parents were not rich. My mom worked in admin roles for non profits and colleges in California. We did not have extra growing up. When I moved out I spent a lot of years broke, overdrawing my bank account, living on little with lots of roommates unable to travel or spend money on objects, working bad jobs and living (mostly) on that limited income. But especially after I left home my parents had accrued enough equity as homeowners and my mother had enough seniority in her job that they could help me at key moments. I never risked homelessness or destitute as long as I didn't completely alienate them, and when I decided to go to school they could help me pay for that - enough help that I was able to pull it off, and then after I finished school when I got a higher paying job and could think about buying a house, I was able to do so in the SF Bay Area because by that time my parents could help with my downpayment. Just as likewise my grandmother helped my parents with THEIR downpayment. That's intergenerational white wealth which many in artistic and non profit fields rely on as a safety net and backup, along with the intangibles of family connections, access, knowledge of how to use the system effectively, etc. Intergenerational white wealth is not the same as the person feeling like they came from a rich family! Very googleable but here's a good link: The Racial Wealth Audit
posted by latkes at 8:04 AM on June 26 [34 favorites]


The article conflates two different issues, only one of which is real.

(1) Traditional publishing runs on family money and nepotism and publishing jobs are inaccessible to people who actually need a salary to live. (real)

(2) Literary fiction is about young white people in Brooklyn or Dublin who never think about money. (not real)

Kanakia should have taken 5 minutes to google the Booker shortlist or the Tournament of Books or the National Book Awards because that would have shown how the Sally Rooney-type book is basically only Sally Rooney and that most novels that have been assigned to the literary genre as opposed to upscale women's fiction (book club books) or whatever do take money into account. The only recent critically-acclaimed novel I can think of that might fit the article is Patricia Lockwood's No One Is Talking About This, but I haven't read it, so I don't know.
posted by betweenthebars at 10:31 AM on June 26 [4 favorites]


I'd say that "No One Is Talking About This" probably does fit the article - it's excellent and brilliant and I recommend it especially to people who are too online like I am, but it definitely elides issues of money. (Does the narrator make a living just from social-media-influencer stuff? Does her partner provide most of the money? She seems to have the money for a lot of plane flights, but she could be just putting everything on credit cards and hoping that it works out - I feel like she could be anything from upper-precariat to upper-middle-class.)
posted by Jeanne at 10:57 AM on June 26 [1 favorite]


I know a lot of people have had issues with Updike,

The casual wife beating. Kinda alienating.

I spent a bunch of time this morning trying to find an old article from "The Village Voice" called something like "The Privileged Poor" about people who have no money but still manage to get to the Hamptons a couple times each summer and to the Opera and and and. It was a good article about how to get around the (1990's version of New York) City for cheap. I know a few 'lit' people who get by this way. And yes, others were born with it.
posted by From Bklyn at 11:42 AM on June 26 [3 favorites]


Maybe it is just NYC - Barbara Kingsolver's "Unsheltered" is a pretty thorough examination of modern ways of work, and quite a few of her novels have a strong focus on how you make enough to support yourself and your family.

I cannot find the original source of the description, "Success is like a carnival game - if you are middle class, you get a couple of shots at hitting the target. If you are wealthy, you can keep throwing shots until you hit the target. And if you're poor? you're the one cleaning up the mess."
posted by Barbara Spitzer at 4:52 PM on June 26 [1 favorite]


Heh, I came to this essay after reading three books by Elizabeth Strout in quick succession over the past week - My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything Is Possible, and Oh, William!, and immediately prior I had read Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members. All four novels are about people with jobs - academic jobs, in some cases, but many just regular! - whose entire personalities and plots are defined by money problems.

Not just because of these particular books but as someone who loves literary fiction (it's my main thing, I love it) I do not, not, not agree with the allegation that literary fiction tends to be populated by rich white academics who don't care about money and don't have real jobs. IDK maybe it's possible to choose literary novels that elide the subject of jobs and money problems but I just can't agree that it's a characteristic of the genre itself.

I am hard pressed to think of the last lit fic book I read which doesn't have main characters worrying over money or suffering from money problems in significantly plot-related ways. And all the fiction that comes readily to mind where nobody worries about money is genre fiction - the Louise Penney series I was tearing through last month is about detectives i.e. people with jobs but they're all curiously free of money issues - even the retiree who runs a second hand bookshop in a tiny village! And the first Mistborn novel which I read two weeks ago (high fantasy by Brandon Sanderson) has a main character who was poor in the first chapter but is literally throwing away coins willy nilly by the third, and nobody really says where the coins came from, nobody has an actual job! Nobody in N.K. Jemisin's fantasy novels, which I read a few of two months ago, ever seems to concern themselves with, say, saving for retirement or for a house - not even in good times when the apocalypse is *not* upon them. By contrast, Kazuo Ishiguro's Artist of the Floating World, which I read alongside Jemisin in April, is like 300 pages of intense, plotless rumination over one man's waning fortunes - monetary and reputation-wise - and him being stuck in denial about how badly off he is now.

The point this essay makes about having to be independently wealthy or supported by rich spouses in order to have an editing job in NYC is obviously true, though. Underpaid publishing biz workers IS a legit thing - but lit fic characters who never care about money? Nah.
posted by MiraK at 5:49 PM on June 26 [5 favorites]


This thread has me wanting invitations to y'alls book clubs... some of these novels sound really great!
posted by latkes at 6:41 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


Latkes, IDK what book club would have me but FWIW of all the ones I mentioned, the one I am most tempted to buy multiple copies of to give away is Dear Committee Members - hilarious and accessible and deep. (Everything else is also pretty amazing tbf. Elizabeth Strout and Kazuo Ishiguro are brilliant.)
posted by MiraK at 6:56 PM on June 26 [2 favorites]


The 19thC authors in the article all described their characters’ social status on the basis of money: Austen lists the annuities of her characters because those numbers were (are) easy shorthand to describe their outlooks, backgrounds, access to power, access to culture.

That number alone doesn’t make a great deal of sense any longer because our societies are much more complex economically—though class is still bone-simple. Pay attention to how modern novelists describe their characters’ social status and class: it’s largely their access to quality housing and leisure time. Apartments and holidays are described in serious detail.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 7:46 PM on June 26 [4 favorites]


One book where money/earnings features prominently as a plot point is Gone Girl. The couple both have jobs as writers - he's a journalist, she writes personality quizzes for magazines - but they both lose their jobs after the financial crash. She has a trust fund, set up by her parents years ago after the success of a children's book series (an Eloise-type thing) that made her family wealthy - much wealthier than his more blue-collar roots. It's against this background that the plot develops.

The Odd Women by George Gissing is a classic example of a Victorian novel where the characters are bound by their social class and the financial constraints that come with it. Orwell said about it: "In The Odd Women there is not a single major character whose life is not ruined by having too little money, or by getting it too late in life, or by the pressure of social conventions which are obviously absurd but which cannot be questioned … in each case the ultimate reason for disaster lies in obeying the accepted social code, or in not having enough money to circumvent it."
posted by essexjan at 12:09 AM on June 27 [5 favorites]


I have not read TFA. I have not scanned the thread.

I looked at the first sentence of TFA
Nowadays it seems any writer of literary fiction must have some opinion on the economic organization of society under “late-stage capitalism,” and yet it’s rare to see an honest treatment of work or money in their fiction.
and came straight here to say that anybody who talks about modern life and puts "late-stage capitalism" in scare-quotes, as though it's something to be ironic about, is part of the problem.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:25 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


I got a higher paying job and could think about buying a house, I was able to do so in the SF Bay Area because by that time my parents could help with my downpayment.

I'm sorry but you should not generalize your experience growing up in California/SF, which downzoned in the 1960s and then started it's immense homeownership value differential to the entire rest of the US.

So yeah, white people get cash advantages and the jury is still out if boomer parents are going to cause a huge inter-generational wealth transfer, but the most realistic statistics say that 15% of white households get downpayment assistance from their parents with a median value of $2000. The skew of that is really high, so a tiny percentage (maybe 5%?) get an immense amount (immense here means $30k-$100k+). So we aren't talking giant downpayments except for the top few percent and we aren't talking enough to actually provide the downpayment to purchase a home for the majority.

it's only even the past ~15 years that the majority of the US has switched to more California-like policies for existing homeowners and prices have generally risen - before that homes were likely to be declining assets in much of the US for all races. you can't take much equity from a declining asset.

College is a different story - 85% get assistance there. But the value of that is also extremely variable, and close to 70% of college students also get loans.

There are aspects of American life that all (most) white people get and that help, but it's more systemic than straight-cash money.
posted by The_Vegetables at 7:31 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


OK so I did read TFA, though not the thread.

Basically, TFA says "Lit fic is dead. There are objects out there shaped that are shaped like lit fic books but they are fakes. Lit fic cannot exist in today's market: it is substituted for by a kind of fantasy that rubs the sharp corners and deadly edges off of the modern existence of the 99.9%."

Which I can go along with. I have read some lit fic, but I have never loved it as such. In fact I have always thought there was a kind of fakeness about self-consciously "literary" fiction. Fiction is either good or not, whether its brow is high, middle, or low and the goodness or badness of it is only incidentally related to how high its browline is.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 8:23 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


Eh, people have been proclaiming lit fic to be "dead" for a very long time, almost as long as people have been proclaiming lit fic "fake" or in possession of overly elevated facial hair. My own experience has been nothing but a continuous string of pleasant surprises against the expectations built up for me by these people. It was when I read Les Mis as a 14 year old and, holy shit, it wasn't crammed end to end with boring ivory-tower pontifications but rather an action-adventure-melodramatic soap opera of a story - that was the first time lit fic stole my heart. I am currently reading James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room, helplessly and stupidly and happily in love again.

And if lit fic is going to die, I can only be selfishly glad that there is already so much of it banked away that I won't be deprived... and perhaps its "death" will move me to send out my stories and novel to editors again, to resurrect it.
posted by MiraK at 9:29 AM on June 27 [2 favorites]


I really wish she'd done more to support her thesis with examples from the current literary fiction world because the ones she mentions are pretty weak. I haven't read Sally Rooney's books, but I did read one of the few other books she mentioned as supporting her argument, The Interestings. I find that baffling because it's actually about how hard it is to build a creative career when you don't have the kind of family wealth or connections that most of the characters have. We spend a LOT of time with the main character (the non-wealthy, non-connected one) as she navigates her non-creative career as a clinical social worker.

I don't read a lot of literary fiction these days, but the last two books I read that I think would fall into that category, The Vanishing Half and Detransition, Baby, had a lot about their characters' non-academic jobs/careers, and explicitly how they paid bills. I'm sure the author reads a lot more of these books than I do, so I wish she'd provided more examples.
posted by lunasol at 12:47 PM on June 27 [4 favorites]


She also plays rather fast and loose with boundaries. If she means to be writing strictly about the (again, white) American novel, okay, but then why is Sally Rooney, an Irish writer writing about Irish characters, the standard-bearer? If you bring her in, then you have to consider all the UK and Irish authors, and she doesn't.

(Note also that the smash sensation of translated literature of the last decade in the U.S.--Elena Ferrante's novels--are ferociously concerned with money, and economic precarity is a recurring theme.)
posted by praemunire at 2:33 PM on June 27 [4 favorites]


commercial fiction does not shy away from questions of money and occupation.
Well, lots of fiction touches on the struggles of money and working in many and varied ways. But only really at a surface level, just as fiction often glosses over all sorts of boring details that, if they explained it all, would make The Stand look like a short story. Fiction doesn't really have the time to go into details about boring stuff, so it always hand-waves it away - not just books, but movies, TV and everything in between. Why do they do this?
adept256 has the answer:
Does anyone remember that book about a guy who stamps labels on cans for eight hours a day, then drinks beer in front of the TV?
Of course not.


Much of Real LifeTM is boring. That's why we read fiction, watch movies, zone out to mindless TV shows etc - to get away from real life. Fiction doesn't just gloss over the boring realities of life, it has to do so to fulfill its purpose. Literary fiction is just fiction with pretentions, so not exempt from the rules.
posted by dg at 4:58 PM on June 27 [1 favorite]


One of the magic qualities of good writing is describing mundanities with beauty or new insights.
posted by latkes at 5:56 AM on June 28 [3 favorites]


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