“As a middle-aged woman who has had some luck as a writer, I’d like this profession of author to remain a possibility for young writers in the future — and not become an arena solely for the hobbyist or the well-heeled. What will be lost when working writers no longer can support themselves pursuing their ideas, their art? What will be lost to this country, if these most talented can no longer make a living? I am making this an open letter, because I believe we are at a crossroads, and decisions are being made now which will affect our country permanently.”
-Janet Fitch in an open letter to the Los Angeles Times
I was browsing Kickstarter today, checking in on my own campaign, which appears destined to fail. It’s the second time I have tried to find a way to fund primary research using the crowdfunding site. (If you’re interested my current project has seven days to go and could conceivably end in success, but it is unlikely.)
The first page on the site highlighted a favorite staff pick, it looked clever, so I clicked on it. Coffee House Press wants to put out a book on the appeal of cat videos. They have gone to Kickstarter because “we want to pay these people well for their work. We think what they’re doing is cool and important and we respect the time and thought that goes into writing something as compelling as a great cat video. The funds we raise here will make sure that the writers are compensated properly.”
I started to wonder– if authors like me are on Kickstarter trying to get funds to do the research that publishers once funded, and if writers are pitching to publishers in the vain hopes of being paid, and if the publishers meanwhile are on Kickstarter because otherwise they can’t pay writers…. seriously, does anyone make any money with books?
I’m always fascinated to discover long-forgotten celebrities. This is Marie Corelli. My guess is you have not studied her works in your British Lit class, but she was at the turn of the last century one of the most successful writers alive. (She was a Victorian J.K. Rowling or Danielle Steel.) Her book sales were greater than those of contemporaries H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Rudyard Kipling combined.
As with most things popular, her works were often criticized for being too sensational and low-brow and her success annoyed some of her arguably more talented but less successful peers. Oscar Wilde, when in prison, was asked about Corelli and he responded “Now don’t think I’ve anything against her moral character, but from the way she writes she ought to be in here.” (Wilde’s publishing track record was far less successful than Corelli’s. He had only one book that could be said to have achieved best-seller status in his life time. It was not, as you might expect, The Picture of Dorian Gray but The Ballad of Reading Gaol.)
The wonderfully named Lilli Loofbourow wrote about Corelli’s fame in the Los Angeles Times:
It’s difficult to reconcile Corelli’s current near-total obscurity with her once vast literary footprint. Loyal readers named their children after her. Pages of her novels were found in the Boer trenches. Her fan base began with the eccentrics at society’s lower end and went all the way up to Queen Victoria. Corelli was the monarch’s favorite author, and if you think about it this makes perfect sense: her books are high flown, aspirational, unsubtle, workmanlike, idealistic, rich in pseudo-Shakespearean ruminations, pleasurable in an instructive way, siding with the virtuous but fully understanding — and reveling in — the value of a good villain: perfect bedtime reading for English queens.
Struggling writers have traditionally found comfort in the knowledge that the hacks who are celebrated today will be forgotten tomorrow and while an obscure poet like yourself might be the focus of English departments a century from now. Charles Dickens was nearly bankrupted, the thinking goes, and I am nearly bankrupted, so there is hope for my work yet. This is true, so far as it goes. Although there is certainly as much luck in what writers works survive as there is in which strike a chord in the present day. What is more, being appreciated posthumously may be better than not being appreciated at all, it doesn’t do much to improve the writer’s life. You won’t be around to know there is a journal where scholars debate your use of the word “and.” It doesn’t improve your standing with your friends. (“Hey, could you buy me a sandwich? I’m waiting on royalties.”)
It is good for writers to remember as well the wisdom of Bernard Shaw, “The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are ‘not for an age, but for all time’ has his reward in being unreadable in all ages.”
So, sadly, it is not a choice of appreciation in this world or the next. Nothing is guaranteed at all, and you just keep on writing. [I just discovered a book with the title The Honorably Obscure Handbook. I appreciate the title and the sentiment, although the links on this blog page to actually buy the book do not work, so I can't vouch for the text itself.]
I learned something even more interesting from the Los Angeles Times article. Did you know that female authors were more popular in the 19th Century than male authors? I did not.
[As an aside, did you know that historians have estimated that as many as half of all shops in early American cities were owned and operated by women? I learned this fact only recently.]
Female-authored fiction was enormously popular throughout the 19th century (more so than male-authored fiction, in fact), but many more male than female authors have been rescued from obscurity by scholars, usually by being retrospectively credited with founding a subgenre. Tolkien and Haggard fit together roughly into one category (male-authored “high fantasy” adventure), and the gendering of their novels is so strict that it makes recognizing feminine predecessors all but impossible — not because they’re not there, but because the logic of the genre itself renders them unthinkable.
Loofbourow’s article argues that Corelli influenced Tolkien.
The audience for fiction has always been more female than male. Until recently, academia was made up almost entirely of males. To be popular in your own time was to strike a chord with women. To be studied as a serious artist meant to strike a chord with men.
Has this changed and will it change?
I don’t know. I’ll keep writing.
What would you do if money didn’t matter?
I’ve posted this video, based on a speech by Alan Watts, only my (much neglected) sister blog dedicated to my book Broke is Beautiful as well as here. (I’ve been trying for some time to decide whether to merge the two.)
I am fortunate in that I can honestly say I can’t imagine a thing I would change about my career if money didn’t matter. That is one thing I have generally been able to say because I chose my work much as Alan Watts suggests here. What do you want to do?
Watts makes a promise here, and it is one that shows up in most of our self-help literature, that when you are true to yourself financial success inevitably follows. “Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow” was the title of a best-selling book. (So it presumably worked for that author, at least for a while.)
“Somebody is interested in everything,” Watts says, “And anything that you are interested in, you will find others who are.”
In Broke is Beautiful, I made the argument that you should do what you love whether the money follows or not, because it may not. It was Robert Benchley who said, “The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”
Of course, “doing what you love” does not necessarily mean making your money by doing what you love. “Make some sacrifice for your art and you will be repaid but ask of art to sacrifice herself for you and a bitter disappointment may come to you,” wrote Oscar Wilde.
“You should do what you love because you love it” is a much harder argument to make in our culture, it is far to direct and simple.
So let me tell you what I would like to do for love, and how you can help me. I want to test myself and test the waters of the “sharing economy” by making the 40 hour round trip from Detroit to Austin, TX using only lodgings and transportation that I can scare up through “the sharing economy.” (Sites like AirBNB and Couchsurfing.) I want to spend a few days doing primary research in the library in Austin. Is Alan Watts right? Anything you are interested in you will find others who are to? If you do what you love, will the money follow? What if money didn’t matter? Ah, but it does, just a little bit. So I would like to ask you to take a look at my Kickstarter page and back the project. You will see your name in print in the book, you might get personally written post-cards from me, and you will have the satisfaction of knowing that it might really be true that if you do what you love all things are possible.
“Warning: No Helmet Can Protect the Wearer Against All Forseeable Impacts.”-Warning label inside bicycle helmet.
The United States is a nation founded by risk-takers and revolutionaries. The people who crossed the ocean and sailed to a new continent, the men and women who left their settlements behind and set off in wagon trains towards the uncharted west, these founders of a nation could not have put avoiding danger at the top of their list of priorities. Yet, somehow, over the years, America has developed into a risk-averse society. Every night on the news you are likely to hear a story about a terrible new thing to fear, a disease that has arrived from another continent and infected a statistically insignificant number of people, a new type of criminal con game, new stories on how to protect yourself against traffic accidents and muggings.
My 2004 book 100 Most Dangerous Things in Everyday Life and What You Can Do About Them took a humorous look at every day risks, comparing, for example, the number of people injured by teddy bears each year compared to grizzly bears. While working on that book, I came to see how influenced I was by the culture around me. When I discovered that there had been no documented cases of humans contracting rabies from dog bites in years, I still felt compelled to warn readers not to let their guard down around strange dogs. I figured that someone might take this information to heart, decide it was safe to, say, walk up to a strange dog and tease it with a cap gun. Then they would get bitten, contract a nasty infection, lose a limb, and sue me for creating a sense of false security. In our society it seems almost irresponsible NOT to sound the alarm about something, even when the risk is minimal.
Although the book was written in the spirit of entertainment, it did make the point that we are terrible when it comes to assessing relative risk. Our responses to danger are often based more on emotion than fact. Of course if a marketer can persuade you that buying a product will make you safer than not buying a product this will be a factor as well.
Two things that women are told to fear are strangers and traveling alone. It follows then, that staying in hotels and motels should guarantee a better outcome than showing up at the home of someone you have never met before– the model in the “share economy.”
But is this true?
I don’t know, but I’d like to test it out.
I have a lot of experience with hotels of all description, mostly budget properties, as I am on the road five months a year with my ballet project. Most of the time everything is as you would expect. A room might be a bit more run down than you would like, or housekeeping a bit less diligent, a remote control or a lamp might not work, but all in all you tend to know what to expect.
There are times, however, when we have been surprised. Some of the rather unexpected adventures in traditional hotels have included a hypodermic needle on the floor, blood smeared on the walls, underwear from previous guests in the bathroom, heated arguments through the wall all night over whether our neighbor had offended her husband by flirting with another woman. (Hearing “I am not a lesbian, John!” screeched at the top of one’s lungs is not the ring tone I would optimally select for my alarm clock.) We had our car sideswiped in one parking lot and came down to find the side mirror hanging, and in another hotel parking lot our car was broken into and a bag of ballet shoes was stolen (and, thankfully, recovered by police). So the traditional means of travel is not entirely risk-free.
This is why I propose to check out the accommodations in the sharing economy and write a book about my experiences, and part of the experiment is to make it happen through crowd sourcing. I want to travel from Detroit to Austin to do research, and I propose to get there entirely with transportation and lodging I arrange through sharing economy sites. It is a 20 hour drive each way. If you back this project, you will be mentioned in the book and you might even become my pen pal. I’ll be sending out postcards to supporters all along the route. There are less than two weeks to go on my Kickstarter project page. Kickstarter funding is all or nothing, so if the project does not reach its goal, it won’t happen. If it is successful, it will force me out of my comfort zone and hopefully be the basis of a book that is fun. So do take a look, won’t you?
I am sure resting and recuperating were not big things in his day book leading up to this. Things do not always go exactly according to plan, which is why I am so taken with his wings.
When things go along according to plan there is a certain momentum, you tend not to stop and reflect or change course. Whether you’re working hard, or coasting or content or frustrated with your life, you keep on keeping on. So having to deal with the stuff you didn’t want to happen can, it turns out, spur creativity.
For the past several years my partner, Valery Lantratov, and I have been traveling across America presenting master classes to students. We have seen more of the country than almost anyone at this point, and we enjoy it. All of this travel was done in my 1998 Ford Escort. For the past couple of tours I have been keeping my fingers crossed, hoping it would last just one more. Alas, it has toured its last. At about 260,000 miles, it threw a timing belt and bent the rods while we were coasting in heavy traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Having a ballet dancer push a car through New York City area traffic during rush hour is not something I planned, nor is it something I would particularly recommend.
Being without a vehicle 2/3 of the way through a three month tour was not something I relished either. Here’s the thing, though. Having to change my plans has led to a burst of new activity. (The tale of the quest to find a company that would rent us a car for more than a month with a debit card is a drama to relate on another day.) Because one-way car rentals are so expensive, we had to return the vehicle to the city where we got it– New York. (Technically, Newark, NJ actually.) For some time I had been wanting to explore the special collections at the New York Public Library for my current biographical obsession. (You can scroll back through the old posts here if you want to know anything about that.) In lemonade from lemons fashion I decided to use the opportunity to spend a few extra days in the city and do that work before finishing the tour.
The only problem was, I was not sure I could afford it. The repairs to my car before it died, the changes in our travel plans, the rental cars had all sucked up my profits from the tour. (Not that there is usually all that much of that anyway.) I didn’t want to pass up the chance, but how could I do it?
This led me to try a Kickstarter campaign. Ultimately, it was unsuccessful, but it got me excited about trying something new, being a bit more adventurous and less stuck in my ways. My partner and I (I wanted to say “dance partner” because he is my partner in the dance, not the writing side of my business– but that makes us sound a bit like Fred and Ginger) started looking at the site and we started to talk about our original plan, before we launched the master classes, of a performance tour. We have decided that we are going to make that happen for the 2016 season.
Even though my campaign to fund my biographical research fell through, I decided it would be a shame not to take advantage of my stay. (My partner is actually flying back into New York, and for some reason it didn’t occur to me that I could plan a trip then.) Because I didn’t have backing, I would have to do the whole thing on the cheap. This is what led me to Air BNB to find a place to stay in Manhattan. I made my first jump into the sharing economy in the deep end. Showing up at a stranger’s apartment in the upper west side with your bags is not entirely natural. Yet my host was so welcoming that there was absolutely no worry or stress. I had a place to stay, privacy, and I got to experience what it is like to live in the city. (The room was actually larger than I expected.)
I know there are some people who think of me as a bit adventurous, but I have always thought of myself as rather cowardly and risk-averse. I often talk myself out of interesting adventures just because I can’t see the future and don’t know quite how it is all going to go. I have always wanted to be a travel writer, and I have also always enjoyed the idea of the “sharing economy” of sites like Air BNB and Couchsurfing. That is where the idea came to try a new adventure. I propose to make the 20 hour trek from the Detroit area to Austin, TX and back (to do some more primary research) using only these types of accommodations and to write a book called The Kindness of Strangers about my journey. Like any idea that is worth doing, it makes me a bit nervous. It is something I’ve never done before. In the spirit of the “sharing economy” I am going to try to fund it through Kickstarter. With this one, unlike the New York research trip, if I do not reach my goal, I will not be able to make it happen. Everyone who gets behind the project will see his or her name in the book, and I will send post cards along the way to anyone who pledges $25 or more.
My point is, if the car had not thrown that timing belt I would not have thought of any of this. Sometimes, when your plans fall apart you grow wings.
[Maybe David Hallberg will have time to write a book as he recuperates. Who knows?]