Authors’ (Financial) Self-Pity

The Authors Guild has released its report, The Profession of Author in the 21st Century, and therein they play their role as advocates quite well. And though they are arguably on my side, working for my potential, hypothetical benefit, I cannot help but ponder if a similar report was penned by some scriveners’ guild at the advent of the printing press.

We are greeted firstly with the figure that

half (54%) of full-time authors surveyed earned less than the federal
poverty threshold of $12,488 from their writing.

$12,488 divided by 2,080 (full-time hours per year) equals almost exactly $6.00 per hour. So, right off the bat, we’re expected to believe that anyone is writing full-time for less than a fast-food restaurant’s entry wage. Perhaps it is judgemental of me, but it sure seems like these “full-time authors” are either

  • of independent means, in which case the profitability of their writing does not effect their ability to continue writing
  • playing fast and loose with “full-time.”

Quickly on this figure’s heels comes the claim that

An alarming 23% of full-time authors reported earning zero income from books in 2017.

The definition of spending 40 hours a week on a pursuit that doesn’t generate income is a “hobby,” not a “full-time” job. I say this as one hobbyist among many who would love to transition to full-time some day.

Later, we get a little less fast-and-loose with the definition when we are told that

For “full-time authors” who earned any income (excluding those who earned zero
income), the median writing-related income was $20,300, of which book-related income was $11,900. These full-time authors contributed 48% of their household’s total income in 2017.

The U.S.’s median household income in 2017 was $61,372. Multiplied for the other half, this means households with a full-time writer in them achieve a median of $40,600, or 2/3rds that of their non-writer peers. I am not economically-fluent enough to hazard a guess, but I would still pose the question: is 2/3rds really that shocking, when one considers that this is an artistic profession competing against trades and sciences?

Perhaps more interesting is the insight that

The number of self-published books increased 40% between 2017 and 2018 alone, to 1.6 million titles, according to Bowker, the agency that issues ISBN numbers.

Here we have a concrete factor that may harm serious authors (be they hobbyists or working professionals). They are being drowned out and diluted down by everyone-and-their-monkey’s-uncle “publishing.” One suspects that this began with social media itself rather than the availability of self-publishing services; for good or ill we have made everyone with an opinion “a writer,” however informed, original, or vice versa they may be. Who dares try to put the lid back on Pandora’s box?

After a few mandatory lashes of leftwing self-flagellation about inequalities in publishing (including the ‘no duh’ instances of Stephen Kings and JK Rowlings financially kicking our collective behinds), we finally get to the heart of the matter.

In 2017, only about 53% of Americans read a book that wasn’t for work or school, down from about 57% in 2002; only about 42% of Americans read a novel, according to the National Endowment for the Arts.

In a country where only half of people read by choice at all, and where most of them–like any other human–are only going to take a purchasing chance on a name they’ve heard before, shame on us if we’re surprised that writing isn’t a viable profession any more. Jeff Bezos may be the antichrist of the publishing world, but he isn’t the one who made Americans decide to stop reading.

The final and perhaps most cringe-worthy instance within this study is its unironic citation of the essay How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying. To summarize, this is the sadly-true tale of an author who made the transition from hobbyist to professional, only to find that making the financial decisions of a stereotypical 1980’s rockstar was probably a bad move. Numerous repetitions and variations upon, “why didn’t someone tell me?!” ensue. I have a couple thoughts on this.

  • If you have the discipline to read books in order to research your own, you can take an afternoon to read Dave Ramsey.
  • Anyone who could go through the current smarmy hazing ritual of seeking a literary agent, only to then expect that they are going to offer you sage advice at the pyramid’s peak, probably needs to live a little bit longer before they try to impart information to others in book-form.

To summarize: Bukowski was right, and now we know how painters feel.

Artist-Over-Art and Becoming What One Despises

Carlos Greaves’ recent McSweeney’s piece (which satirizes authors writing novels about contemporary communities they do not belong to) is one for the history books. Within it he manages to straddle the very delicate balance of espousing an opinion the political left-wing, particularly the Twitter left-wing, would wholeheartedly agree with, without coming off as a triggered snowflake exposed to right-wing lampooning. He does this with blatant, self-aware strawman-ing (watching Desperate Housewives as sufficient research) and by sharing the satirical ire among the intended authors and their effete publishers and reviewers (Ricky Martin and Antonio Banderas as the sycophantic critics of the dubious novel). While I doubt Mark Twain would endorse Greaves’ message, I suspect he would acknowledge its fine craftsmanship.

Without intending to kill the enjoyable catharsis of comedy by over-analysis, one can’t help but take the piece a bit literally since it comes so close on the heels of the American Dirt debacle, wherein authors have arguably called for the censorship of another author on identity-politic grounds. The offender is a “white Latina” who apparently isn’t Latina enough to write a novel about Mexico. Whether there are actual, factual inaccuracies in the book that add to the validity of these criticisms, I do not know. But I do know that I utterly detest what this phenomenon represents on a grander scale: Artist-Over-Art.

“Blind” submission processes exist for a reason–good art is good art regardless of who made it. If Hitler painted a decent architectural scene, that painting remains decent no matter how indecent the man. This is one of the many ‘unwritten rules’ of Western civilization that postmodernists (or Marxists-about-Starbucks, as I call them) would like to do away with, for it is impossible to enforce equality within any unconstrained–and thus Darwinian–space. Their argument, of course, is that inequality has been enforced by historic socio-cultural racio-religious norms, and thus that they are merely attempting to restore an equitable balance by subverting oppressive tradition. My casual reply to this is basically that I do not consider a Harrison Bergereon reality to be more desirable than a Hunger Games reality–and indeed, it seems to me that a Hunger Games has greater potential to cause unintentionally noble outcomes. And with ever-increasing numbers of presses and literary agents feeling the need to stipulate who they want to publish more-so than what they want to publish, it appears that they are well on the way to dethroning the identity-impartiality of artistic creation. Social justice, it seems, is not blind.

I suspect this outcome will be most pleasing until an ethno-state decides to appropriate it–then will there be much weeping and gnashing of teeth as the ‘antifascists’ realize that they were the ones to renew a core tenant of fascistic speech restriction. In the developed world’s smug self-satisfaction, we have utterly forgotten a crucial realization born of World War 2: whether the man with the gun is wearing the Deathshead and calls you a filthy Jew, or is wearing the Hammer-and-Sickle and calls you a filthy capitalist, he is still going to shoot you. Or, perhaps we have not forgotten it; perhaps we only care which side of the gun we are on.

I also find it odd that many of the masons who are busy paving this road to hell continue to delight in calling others Uncle Tom’s. I am afraid that the historical social-cultural racio-religious origins of that expression are from Harriet Beecher Stowe–a white woman writing about African Americans. So, per your own insistence that persons who are not from a particular community may not write about a particular community, kindly invent your own invective. Mrs Stowe isn’t the only casualty to the feminist authorship cause either: Pearl S Buck’s wonderful The Good Earth has got to go, seeing as she wasn’t Chinese. And we can’t just pick on the ladies, either. Where did that Frenchman get off critiquing Americans, anyway? There goes Democracy in America. In fact, the entire genre of travel literature can be done away with. Cya, Marco Polo. Julius Caesar contribute to our understanding of Gaul? Please! Come to think of it, we better just start burning books to be safe.

Despite these and many more unintended consequences, I don’t think I would be nearly so irked by these social justice fixations if their proselytizers seemed just a tad more genuine. Surely that’s the key to being a successful extremist or fundamentalist; you at least have to come across as consistent and committed. Think Che Guevera. While Fidel hammed it up in the 5-star hotels, he was off to the next jungle. But these callousless hands clutched about Apple products, likely shaking from their ever-burgeoning collection of antidepressants? Why, I wouldn’t follow them into a Chuck E Cheese, much less a battlefield. Unfortunately, it is those very hands that are going to start determining elections in the near future. Voyeurs who breath the air of the real world without ever having dipped a pinky within it are soon to control it. The meek shall inherit the Earth indeed; but unfortunately it seems they are not meek about letting institutions do their dirty work for them.

A Fond Farewell, & Musings on Friendship

Pyramids of cardboard are rising, bubble-wrap roles are unfurling, and contract ink is drying. The ritual of moving has commenced once more, but this time I’m headed back to a familiar place–indeed, the only place I consider truly familiar. I’ve always had a superstition that it is preferable to leave this world in roughly the same vicinity where one entered it, and now that unspoken wish is coming true. I’m headed back to Georgia, and I fully intend never to leave her again.

Moving tests all the pressure points of one’s life, but primarily the one which concerns whether you’re still clinging to too much stuff. In needing to render all my possessions transportable, I’ve found a great incongruity. My ‘personal effects,’ meaning basically everything except my library and PC, are looking desirably lean.

personal effects

The same cannot be said of my books. Unbelievably, this is what my library look like after many stops at Tyler’s Half Price Books to offload the excess. A final immoderate habit to be brought into balance, perhaps:

book boxes

And while I cannot confess any general reticence to leave East Texas for my motherland, the most difficult part of the move by far has been saying goodbye to the Jacksonville Library poetry group. I owe them, and particularly the group’s founder Peter, a great debt of gratitude. While I did not and still do not consider myself to be a talented poet, I found just being immersed among similarly bookish souls not only therapeutic, but evolutionary.

When a writer finds other writers, one experiences a great relief to find that they are not necessarily the eternal Stranger in a Strange Land that they had imagined. Particular friendships may then mature into Iron Sharping Iron–the blessed ability to be told not just what is wrong with one’s work but how to fix it. People today are generally scared to help one another, for one never knows just what they are getting into when they write a blank check of kindness without the safeguard of mutual traditions and proprieties. But writers, it seems to me, have maintained their generosity, by virtue of the fact that each and every one of us is bound by an ambition that is not inherently competitive, and a loathing for linguistic mediocrity. If you do not yet feel comfortable helping the person, you may yet be willing to come to the aid of that person’s writings. Such is the loophole we scribblers have discovered to escape the burgeoning social isolationism of modernity.

Hoheisel Library Farewell

Thus, any ego that is not too delicate for a little bruising–or any ego that is at least willing to concede it is an ego–can still find mentors to sit at the feet of, or masters to apprentice beside. Similar to the meritocracy of late Japanese bushido, wherein even the masterless (ronin) Musashi could become the national sword-saint due to his self-evident superiority over those of greater rank, the meritocracy of writers remains organic and pure.

Some might find that latter paragraph incongruous with the fact that my Sage of Jacksonville was a retired professor of literature and philosophy. But I would counter that there was nothing more culturally unlikely, than for our generational divide to prove absolutely inconsequential compared to the mutual respect we immediately felt for one another as writers. Old souls are dated outside of time.

Thus, due to what began as the simple trading of self-published booklets at a library event that I debated even attending, I am leaving East Texas a far more defined (and refined) intellect than I entered it. And Peter has two officially published books of poetry to show for our collaboration. Perhaps this is miraculous. But I think Peter might agree with me that this is more a case of ‘normal’ life taking on miraculous aspects when we choose to let it.

I will confess, it would have been quite easy for me to conclude five years ago that East Texas held nothing for me–that I was on my own, excepting relatives. Indeed, I tried and failed to make friends several times, and even quit a job, due to a total cultural disconnect. But had I not–through inner stubbornness or divine intervention–continued to seek a friend, I would have missed out on the most important friendship of my life to date, and perhaps the most important I will ever have. Defeats that do not involve death are always optional. I suspect that realization is a cornerstone of many blessings this life has to offer.

A Real Writer?

I just received my first manuscript rejection from a New York literary agent.

I’m relieved to have this mandatory hazing ritual out of the way. Strangely, I feel more like “a real writer” now than any minor successes have ever caused. Perhaps I am consoled by a small sense of pride that this didn’t emotionally phase me. The juvenile phase of self-righteous indignation whenever someone calls “my baby” ugly has come and gone, thank God. (If fact, for a rejection it was quite civil).

I know that I’m happy with what I wrote; I know it can make some money for myself and some press; and I know there isn’t an agent or press on Earth who’s going to tell me “it’s perfect as it is; we’ll print it at once!”

There is an eerie peace to be had in knowing that it is now beyond my strength to alter without the aid of a professional editor. In some metaphysical sense, the process is already over. I just have to keep submitting.

Writing Playlist

The Welsh have an interesting word, hiraeth, which is meant to express homesickness, especially for a home that either cannot be returned to or does not exist. This word best expresses the type of songs that I seek out in order to grow my writing playlist–a collection of songs that (subjectively) amplify, rather than disturb, the creative process. Unsurprisingly, these songs typically gravitate to archetypal or Hero’s Journey themes. Their lyrics are engaging but utterly unsurprising, like the dialogue of dreams. And their melodies are often haunting enough to seem more at home about an ancient campfire or cathedral or battlefield than radio waves. Finally, they frequently follow classical music’s structural penchant for crescendo rather than the rinse-repeat of verse and chorus. Here are a few samples below, hopefully to inspire you in making your own writer’s playlist.

 

Preview of my Upcoming Novel

The first draft began around Christmas 2018, but the idea is much older. It came to me in Calhoun, Georgia around the age of seven or eight. It must have been informed by my mom telling me that the land we lived upon had once belonged to the Cherokee natives. We were, after all, only five minutes’ drive from where the Trail of Tears began. I remember ranking Andrew Jackson as my least-favorite president after I learned the back-stabbing role be played in the Cherokee removal. And I also vaguely recall being awed by Sequoyah–whom the sequoia redwoods were probably named after–an illiterate who made a written language from scratch to preserve what was left of his people’s culture.

The idea, quite simply, was of a sickly medicine man teaching his apprentice everything he knows before he dies. Eventually, a secondary layer was added: how might a powerful medicine man have tried to prevent the Trail of Tears if he had foreknowledge of it?

After a decade and a half of letting this concept simmer in the subconscious, my two main characters eventually let themselves in and began telling me their story. It seems that theirs is a sort of American Divine Comedy or Cherokee 300–romanticizing yet simultaneously reappraising the mythos of the United States in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Understanding them has so-far required two feet-worth of reference books. Cherokee culture is singular and thus challenging to learn; the lingering presence of any inapplicable “Cowboys and Indians” tropes (teepees, horses) is disastrous, especially when the story’s main setting predates Columbus and De Soto. My general ignorance of forestry/ecology has also had to be addressed. The goal, of course, is to notice all that they would have noticed.

IMG_3006

Without such details–simply jotting down the 5 W’s of the plot–their story is novella-length at roughly 15K words. But I will not be content until it’s a seething mass of fever-dream-like attention to detail at least in the neighborhood of novel-length. As far as timing, I am intentionally maintaining a slow-and-steady pace, because if I have one complaint with my previous self-publications, it’s that I was in too much of a hurry and it occasionally shows. Because this one will be pitched to literary agents or at least small third-party publishers, I am taking my sweet time and will continue redrafting until I’ve read something that could at least shiver in the shadow of American Greats like Jack London or John Steinbeck.

That being said, my best guess is that I will finish in 2020, which puts publication into 2021 or 2022. Now that I am well into the third draft, I not only hope but expect that it will be worth the wait.

-CLW