Yesterday I came across a post by writer Anabel Smith called On (Not) Making a Living as a Writer. As not making a living as a writer is a major theme of my blog, I passed it along in my Twitter feed. The article focuses on Smith’s struggles to define success in a field that offers little recognition and less pay. There is one part of the article that was still on my mind today.
Smith writes, “I wanted my book to sell more, because I wanted it to reach more readers. And though I don’t expect writing to make me rich, I would like to earn more than $6.20 an hour, mostly because, in the absence of a ‘minimum wage’ for my work, I have to look elsewhere for income.”
What struck me about this is the way the writer feels compelled to explain that she doesn’t write for the money. I have heard many writers and artists make similar statements and I have made them myself. Why do we find ourselves compelled to say that we’re not motivated by money? Plumbers don’t seem to have this compulsion. We don’t ask policemen to proclaim that they work for the love of it, not the money. It is certainly not something you hear bankers saying.
In his book Life: The Movie, Neal Gabler wrote: “…art was directed at a person; entertainment was directed at the largest possible number of people. It followed as a kind of corollary that if artists seemed to create their work assuming that different spectators would have different experiences of it, entertainers created theirs by deploying familiar words, images, symbols, techniques or stories in an attempt to manipulate a spectator not only into having a particular experience but in ensuring that every member of the audience would have the same experience. That is why art is thought of as inventional and entertainment as conventional or formulaic; entertainment is constantly searching for a combination of elements that has predictably aroused a given response in the past on the assumption that the same combination will more than likely arouse the same response again.”
There seems to be a sense in the arts that anything that is done for money is cheap, crass, commercial and of little quality. Therefore, wanting to be paid indicates you are not a serious artist. It is a strange definition of professional. The more dedicated you are to your craft, the less you are supposed to expect a salary. If you create with an expectation of consumer success you are creating “entertainment” not “art.”
I am not sure where this prejudice comes from or how it is perpetuated. As I wrote in my post Do it in the Name of Love last week, William Pannapacker writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education reflected on the idea of working “for love.” The imperative to work “for love” Pannapacker wrote “supports the transfer of resources from one group to another, typically from women to men, from minority to majority. There’s no doubt about it: ‘Love’ is ideological, and it should not be left unquestioned when it is used in relation to work.”
Of course, as with all ideologies, it is not simple enough to say that those in power impose it on the powerless. The powerless do a good job policing themselves. (See Vaclav Havel’s The Power of The Powerless.) In the case of writing for love, artists who are not making a living perpetuate the myth because we need to hold onto the idea that there is meaning in what we do. If we can’t measure it using the tools most people use to measure success– making lots of money– then it helps to use the very fact of not making money as a sign that we are producing something of quality.
Given the history of payment of artists in the world, I’m not terribly optimistic that our status is going to dramatically change. On the other hand, we should probably no apologize for wanting to be paid.
A Few From my archives:
And all the articles in my “failure series.”