On Who Pays Writers & Being Really Interested In That $50

For a young writer who hopes to produce literature, the greatest difference between now and twenty years ago may be that now she expects to get paid. Twenty years ago, art and commerce appeared to be opposing forces. The more you were paid for your work, the more likely you were to be a hack.

The term of art was “sellout.”

n+1 has published one of their Editorials with that smooth, authoritative voice that gets me every time. It Tells Us About The World like a maestro conducting an orchestra of discriminating tab-openers, who nod in time with the paragraph breaks. That all-knowingness, so calm on the surface but you know his eye is twitching from all the drafts and redrafts. Copy of copy of copy of August 2014.

Anyway what I’m saying is that n+1 could convince me we didn’t land on the moon if I read it in the right mood. Before coffee. Retweeted by the right people. In need of some truth.

My hunch is that this piece was spurred, really by Who Pays Writers, and that and its implications are what it’s really about. What Steve Albini defines as a sellout does provide some nice context in the face of the great decontextualized Twitter feed but it is, arguably, beside the point. Not that I don’t love being told about the world!

I love Who Pays Writers as a writer and am occasionally bristled by it as an editor.

As an editor at “a shoestring publication” it can be plainly embarrassing to have the a Who Pays tweet go out, submitted you’re sure by a writer who cold-submitted to you three years ago and sure you didn’t offer pay but he didn’t ask either and your budget is different now and this piece was unreported and blah blah blah. “Why don’t they fact-check?”

Well they don’t fact-check because who the hell will pay them for that and how will they find the time? And the whole point of the thing is its lack of mediation.

The things that make it imperfect are what enable it to exist and continue and have power. n+1 argues that the conversation should not be about money alone, like a rich person saying it’s ironic because they don’t even CARE about money. Or like a CEO telling his employees that we’re all a family and this is for the greater good so don’t think of it as a job, think of it as a calling. It’s hard to negotiate a pay raise for a calling. Especially difficult when the maestro is implying you’re being mercenary, grubbing for that $50!

If the conversation is reduced to money alone, then all writing is reduced to content, all artists to content producers, and part of our utopia is lost. One did not become a writer in order to starve, but nor did one become a writer in order to get rich. So why did one become a writer? Here Hyde is, in the end, more helpful than Bourdieu. We want our $50, and so much more.

In disclosing information offered anonymously from freelance writers themselves, without mediation by publishers or editors, Who Pays Writers does not “reduce the conversation to money alone,” but starts it there, refuses to obfuscate it; refuses to romanticize it. They do not scatter inspirational quotes from Lewis Hyde into their Twitter feed. If this is what context gives us, then how do we trust it?

Listen, I don’t need that $50, but for reasons of solidarity and in the interest of sustainability, I will not stop wanting it and expecting it, demanding it, even when hypocritically, I as an editor cannot provide it myself.

I am a scab who is able to pursue my life, at least for now, until the money runs out writing “content” only because of money made working as a hack for various internet companies. I read Lewis Hyde’s The Gift when I was 24, too. I gave it to my boss at a party (!!!!) and it got stolen (???). And now I am learning to insert thesis statements and final moments of reflection into my “art” and submitting it to websites wherein I’m paid by the peripheral vision of my audience, in ad impression and in increments of $50. Because I know that like Medium, one day my money will run out.

My utopia is one where yes, I can keep working after my startup money runs out. It’s also one where people who aren’t as lucky as I am and who didn’t get incidentally rich while reading The Gift get to write “content,” too! People who take care of their families on nights and weekends. People who are too bodily tired from their ‘hack job’ to make art at the end of the day. People without internet access. People with second and third jobs who might have written some really great first person content that we all would have tagged as #longreads if only they had the time to write it.

“But we’re the good guys!” n+1 argues. “We believe in your art! Stop talking about the numbers, start a union!”

Why can’t you just shudder at your publication getting busted on Who Pays Writers, but continue to expect more, call for more? Sit with your hypocrisy. Own it. A living wage! Call for more even when you can’t give it. Look to your own Kristin Dombek, actually, and stop selling yourselves, and all of us, short. Or at least in those seductive fucking letters from the editor(s). It’s dangerous!

From Dombek:

But I wish that tonight, at least, you would be my anger, and I could be your peace. That we could practice this together with and for the sake of all our friends, for everyone, to learn to be different than what we are, alone: to be responsible enough not to be lonely about labor, self-defeated in anger, nihilistic in resignation, but rather to be one another’s anger, and one another’s peace. I do not yet know the best way to rob the banks so that more can live well, but I am working on it, and many are working on it. I suspect that it must begin like this: we stop robbing ourselves of life, for them.