Let’s say you find yourself at a dinner party with Philip Roth. It could happen. And let’s also say you’ve avoided the major etiquette pitfalls (i.e. liver jokes), but are still wary of saying the wrong thing to a man who is, after all, a big-time writer. What does one say to a famous writer if one doesn’t want to offend, or—worse—to reemerge as an irritating minor character in his or her next work?
Last week, a Twitter hashtag—#TenThingsNotToSayToAWriter, launched by the accomplished novelist Joanne Harris—sprang up to answer the question. It’s a mostly lighthearted array of complaints from writers across genre and success level about the annoying things people ask them about their work, money included. The overarching theme of the entries was that writing is, in fact, work. While it most certainly is, there are more and less effective ways of conveying this. Pointing out that writing isn’t lounging, and ought to be compensated, helps. Scoffing at those who’d dare imagine that a published writer would have additional sources of income, not so much.
What immediately struck me was that so many of the complaints could be divided into two intertwined categories. First came the humblebrags recalling encounters with people who didn’t realize they were in the presence of one of the handful of people actually paying their bills via their literary output:
Then came other writers’ exasperated accounts of having been asked, one too many times, to work for free:
Each camp has a point, and the existence of both indicates that there’s something deeper at work here, something intrinsic to the value of writing itself. The main reason writing gets contrasted with a “real job” is that writers do very often have outside sources of income, which is not unrelated to the ubiquity of unpaid gigs. It’s led to the assumption that self-proclaimed writers are either nighttime hobbyists, independently wealthy, or unemployed people who’ve landed on a good euphemism. The greater danger comes from the myth that published writers actually are living off their writing—or, more accurately, off the bylined writing you know about. And the first use of that hashtag contributes to the myth: It makes frank discussion of what writing pays (or doesn’t) even more taboo than is already the case. It isn’t a pernicious stereotype that “writer” is rarely a job in the way that “lawyer” or “garbage-collector” are. It’s the truth. And it’s not useful for the handful of writers living entirely off their creative output to pretend as if this is the normal state of affairs.
In a Tumblr post reflecting on the hashtag, Harris muses on the difference between “amateur” and “professional” writers. The post, called “On Amateurs, and Why I Love Them,” reads, as its title suggests, as a mix of generous and patronizing. (“Just because you’re not being paid doesn’t mean you’re any less smart, appreciated or talented.”) She allows that not everyone who writes is even looking to publish, and points out that once you go pro, writing becomes work:
It means accepting the fact that, to the people for whom you work, you will be a commodity, making money for the company, sometimes at the cost of pursuing your own ideas. You will no longer be free to write whatever you like, regardless of its marketability. Your work – your passion - will be at the mercy of bean-counters and market researchers.
Amateurs, she makes clear, aren’t bothered about paychecks or exposure. “To be an amateur is to enjoy the art, or sport, or pastime, in its purest form, without any outside interference.” She makes repeated references to amateur writing as unpaid, but a personal anecdote about when she started to consider herself a professional complicates the picture: “I’d already had three books published by then, but although I’d been paid an advance for them, writing wasn’t my main source of income.”
If this is the standard—if only people living mostly or entirely off their writing get to count as professionals—it’s a fairly high one. (For one, it would turn the novelists from earlier eras that had day jobs or came from money into amateurs.) Harris adds, as an aside, that “even professional writers are generally poorly-paid.” But isn’t this exactly why, despite writing professionally, “writer” may not be their main professional? Unless they’re deeply committed to a garret-starvation mode of existence, authors across the English-speaking world have something else going on financially behind the scenes.
Manjula Martin, editor of Scratch magazine—a recently-shuttered journal that’s become a forthcoming book about the awkward intersection of writing and money—and the woman behind Who Pays Writers, has done more than perhaps anyone else to shed light on the financial nitty-gritty of the writing profession. Via email, Martin offered a glimpse at how professional journalists pay the bills:
I did an informal salary survey of freelance journalists a couple years ago for Who Pays Writers and out of 200 respondents, about 26% said freelance writing was their only income. The rest of the results ran the gamut, from ‘I sometimes write just for kicks’ to ‘99% of my income is freelance writing.’
Given these realities, I’d draw the line between professional and amateur differently than Harris does: If your writing stands to financially benefit an entity outside your own household, it counts as work. Yes, even if work paid zilch, and even if you never thought to ask. And when it comes to what one should and shouldn’t say to a writer, I’m with Martin: “If you're asking me how I get paid, I'm not going to be insulted. But if you're asking me to work for no pay, we're going to have a problem.” The greater the general awareness of what writers earn (or don’t), the better.