Poverty is a barrier

Since I've been unable to do much real work lately, I've been reading around some more about self-publishing. And there's been this unsurprising-yet-irritating conclusion that, if self-publishing becomes dominant, it will be a bad thing, because it will allow more writers to make a living writing what they want to write.

Horrible fate, no? Writers could pay the rent and buy groceries by happily producing goods that people want to buy. Awful, awful. Bad for writers, bad for readers, bad for America.

The idea basically is that by jumping through all those hoops to get published, writers become better writers, and if they didn't, they wouldn't. Once again there is the underlying assumption that commercial success and quality of work are the same thing, which of course is why The DaVinci Code was described by The New York Times as "Dan Brown's best-selling primer on how not to write an English sentence." Frankly, I think that you are either someone who thinks it's important to write well, in which case you'll work at it no matter what, or you're not, in which case you won't.

But the other, more pernicious assumption that is that writers aren't supposed to concern themselves with money. Writers starve in garrets, right?

Does starving sound like fun to you? How about starving while living in substandard housing, which is what a garret is? Nonetheless, many young writers start out thinking that they don't need to worry about money, an attitude that typically lasts until they try to move out of their parents' homes. The other people who share that attitude are the unscrupulous bastards (and there are many) who will have you write for them, SELL your writing FOR MONEY (because they're not supposed to starve to death, you are), and then not pay you for it. If you get upset about being stolen from, well then, you obviously aren't very serious about being a writer, are you? Shame on you!

But while that's annoying, the real issue is that most people aren't naive: They know what poverty is, and they have no interest in experiencing it. They want a house. They want children. They want to eat on a regular basis. So they don't become writers. They become lawyers, or write press releases, or work in advertising. If they are particularly hard-core, they do what I did: They become editors or reporters, accepting a substantially lower income in exchange for doing something that is somewhat closer to the writing they actually want to do. But they don't do creative writing.

And who can blame them? It's a pretty harsh exchange: You can either make a living, or you can write fiction. When I decided to focus on creative writing I: 1. Moved away from New York City (it's expensive to live there), 2. arranged my new life so that my housing expenses would be minimal, and 3. went from working full-time to working part-time. That's what it took, and even so I had to do things like take a year off my writing to do paying work.

The other common way to do this is to work full-time and write on the side. It seems to me like a lot of people who do this work "full-time"--they're paid to work a 40-hour week, but the job is so unchallenging, or they do it so half-assedly, that they knock off their work duties by noon and spend their afternoons writing. I honestly don't see the fabulous benefits of that arrangement: I'm sure the writers would rather not have to show up at some office in the first place, and I'm sure the employers would rather have employees who aren't just doing the bare minimum to keep from getting fired.

And to be blunt, most of the people I know who write on the side don't write as well as they could, especially if they have more-challenging jobs. If you're getting up at 4 am to write because the kids wake up at six, and you don't get to bed until 11 pm--well, I salute you if you can be on that schedule and crank out anything that is even remotely coherent, because I couldn't. And I hate to point it out, but "remotely coherent" isn't the same thing as good. It takes time to produce good writing, especially good novel-length writing--time to write, and lots of time to revise. When you write on the side, it usually shows--but of course for most people it's either write on the side, or don't write at all.

If the economic penalties for focusing on creative writing weren't so severe, I honestly think it would improve the writing out there. More people--educated people who have other career options--would be willing to write, because writing wouldn't be the sure-fire path to destitution. More writers would almost assuredly mean more mediocre books, but more writers and more books would also increase the likelihood that some real gems will turn up. People would have more time to work on their writing: Someone who churns out mediocre crap but has literary ambitions could afford to take the time to improve.

In addition, writers could get more experience, because their failures wouldn't be so catastrophic. If a book flops, it wouldn't mean that the writer's publisher drops them and they never write again--they could learn from that experience and move on in their writing careers, just like people do in most other careers.